The Adventures of The Latchkey Kid — Episode 23: High Roller
By Richie Zaborowske -
There was a static click and then principal Flemming’s voice blared across the intercom, “This is a warning that school may be cancelled tomorrow. Please plan accordingly.” A snow storm was barreling across Wisconsin. A big fluffy miracle heading right toward our little town. I could see the kids in the hallway celebrating; Steven skipped by, pumping his Trapper Keeper above his head. Courtney cartwheeled past, her pigtails akimbo. A kid had tossed an armful of homework high and the pages were slowly cascading down. Hell yes, I thought as I made my way toward the fray.
I was a few feet from the door when Mrs. Johnson reached out and grabbed my collar. She was a small petite woman, only a head taller than me. She was far too polite to show actual anger, but I could see a strained fury behind her Mother Goose smile.
“Tomorrow’s the test Billy,” she said with her arms crossed.
“I know, I know,” I said, trying to scoot out the door.
“When you get home, you better study.”
I’d love to tell you that I went home and studied. Came back and aced the test. But the truth is I didn’t. In sixth grade, I went through this period of almost clinical laziness. There was a lull, a grace period, between the time when school let out, and the time that my parents came home from work. I had all these hours and I wished I would have cherished it. In a typical author’s memoir, this would be the part where I tell you that my routine consisted of deep dives into Moby Dick, and plunking around on an old typewriter I had found in the attic.
But my childhood wasn’t like that. I came home to an empty house and I grabbed some Doritos or Cheetos and hit the couch. I would sit and watch that crass capitalists crap that Mattel was pushing on the youth back then. I especially enjoyed He-Man and GI Joe; half hour long toy commercials masquerading as cartoons.
So, that evening, when I came home I found some PB Max snacks and plopped down in front of the couch. The local weatherman kept interrupting my cartoons to give updates on the storm. I looked out the front window and saw the big wet flakes falling. Let that shit come down, I thought, nodding my head. I made a sort of promise to myself, I would enjoy this day, and half of the next, and then study for the math test tomorrow around noon. It only seemed reasonable.
I was making these false promises, reassuring myself that I would be more responsible given a day's time, when the doorbell rang. I looked out the front window. There, standing on my porch was Andrew. I could barely believe my eyes. Andrew lived across the street and a few houses down. He was two years older than me and probably the coolest kid I knew. I heard that suave bastard had even given Heather a half heart pendant from Spencers.
I opened the door a crack. “Hey what’s up?”
“Powers out,” Andrew nodded toward his house.
I looked behind Andrew, all the houses were dark on his side of the street. I wasn't a religious person then, and admittingly I am not now. But I did look briefly at the snowy sky and offer a sort of thanks. This would be my chance to show Andrew how cool I was. My life would be different after this.
“Come on in.” I opened the door. “Alright, alright, alright. Here let me get your coat.” I had seen about ten minutes of Dazed and Confused on VHS. It had a profound impact on me.
“Shoes off?” Andrew asked.
“Nah man, it’s cool. Leave them on.” My mother should consider herself lucky to have Andrew’s Air Jordans grace her carpeting.
“Well Andrew, what do you want to do?” I almost said hey that rhymes. Thank God I didn’t, because I would have died.
“It’s Drew. Not Andrew.”
“OK. What should we do?”
Drew didn’t offer any suggestions.
“I think ThunderCats is coming on. Want to watch that?” I knew that was a mistake as soon as I said it. Drew did not want to watch ThunderCats. I pretended that I never said anything, and he did too.
I could feel a mild panic welling up inside me. I wanted to impress him. My first thought was to offer him a snack. But I had polished off anything worth eating earlier. I didn’t want to give him an apple or something healthy. Then I expanded my search. There must be something in the house that would impress Drew. I cursed my Dad for not owning firearms. Then it came to me. My grandma had given me a poker set last Christmas. One with ceramic chips and everything. Gambling was like one step down from smoking. Sure to impress Drew.
“Wanna play poker?”
Drew shrugged his shoulders. “OK.” What a cool bastard.
“Alright, grab a seat in the kitchen and I’ll be right back.” I ran upstairs. My room was a mess. Toys and wrappers were strewn everywhere. My mother’s words, “Someday you’ll need something in all that junk, and you won’t be able to find it,” echoed in my head. I searched all over and then just when I was about to give up I found the poker set under my bed. It was a miracle that all the pieces were there. I grabbed my sunglasses from my desk on my way out.
I snagged a couple of Cokes from the fridge and joined Drew at the table. “Mind if I wear these?” I said as I put on the sunglasses. They were the big aviator ones. I wondered if I looked a bit like Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
“So you can’t tell when I’m bluffing.”
I put on the sunglasses and immediately realized my mistake. The glasses were far too dark. I couldn’t see shit. He would think I was weird if I took them back off. I tried to make do by looking through the sides and bottom of the lenses. I kept moving my head back and forth to get a look at my cards.
We divvied out the chips and I shuffled the cards.The first few hands went fine, but it wasn’t fun. It felt like something was missing.
After the fourth round I said, “Hey, I know. We should up the stakes a bit.”
“Yeah. How’s that?”
I went to the junk drawer and grabbed some index cards. I found a couple pens. “It’ll be more fun, if we play for something real. Write down some of the things you own on these cards. I will do the same. These can be our chips. At the end of the game, we will trade in our cards and whoever wins, gets the other guy’s stuff. That’s real gambling.”
Drew eyed me for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders, “OK.”
I started excitedly writing on the index cards. It was hard through the glasses.
“Alright, let’s go.” Drew threw in his ante. It took me a moment to read his clunky writing; Super Nintendo! My hand was shaking as I tossed in my ante.
“What’s a Beanie Baby?” he asked.
“They're actually neat. I mean they’re cool. Some are worth money. I didn’t play with it or anything. It even has a tag protector.” Oh God, kill me now.
I shuffled and dealt. My hole cards were a 2 and a 5, off suit. Not good. Maybe I could bluff. I needed that Super Nintendo.
“I got a hot hand here. I’ll raise you a couple more.” I threw in two index cards: my pair of Moon Shoes and a Furby. For a moment, I thought Drew was going to back out. But he yawned and threw in a No Fear shirt and a Super Soaker. Damn.
We flipped the first river card. A Queen of Spades. That wasn’t going to help me. But I pressed on. “Alright, alright. This is getting good.” I threw in three more index cards. Drew did the same.
The next card was a King of Spades. Shit!
“Arlight, alright, alright,” my voice squeaked on the last alright. I was down to my last index card, Crossfire. I hesitated. I would hate to lose Crossfire, I loved that game. But I really, really wanted that Super Nintendo.
“All in!” We both threw down our index cards. I flipped the last draw card, a Jack of Spades. Drew plopped his cards nonchalantly on the table. He had a royal flush. I could feel my eyes stinging and I hoped the dark glasses would hide my tears. I had lost it all.
My parents came home soon after. And it wasn’t long until the lights across the street turned back on. If they wondered why Drew left carrying two pillowcases stuffed full of toys, they didn’t ask.
That night as I lay in bed, I had a hard time falling asleep. I kept worrying about the test. I tried to reassure myself that I had all of tomorrow to study. I tossed and turned. Without a pillowcase, I could feel the feathers poking out of my pillow. I kept thinking about the Super Nintendo that had slipped through my fingers. I was so close.
I opened the curtains and looked out the window. It had stopped snowing. The clouds were all gone and I could see the bright stars in the sky. That damn storm must have veered off, I thought. Looks like I would be having school in the morning. I had this flash of inspiration to kick off the covers, turn on the light, and study for math. But I was able to ignore it and pulled my blankets up. I was soon fast asleep.
Join us next time for Episode 24: Booyah!
Richie Zaborowske is a dad, DJ, and librarian from the Midwest. His writing is forthcoming or appears in Cowboy Jamboree, Sledgehammer, The Los Angeles Review, Barstow and Grand, and others.