chasing the river
they told lucky he was special, and he was. he could leap higher and run farther than other dogs. he learned to fetch. he carried in the newspaper. he sat up and rolled over and played dead when someone pointed their finger at him and said Bang! he could open doors and turn on lights, and he could play cards.
at first it was only war, and he only won by cheating, but everyone forgave him because he was young and cute, and war was a game mostly of persistence and chance, and lucky was nothing if not persistent.
he stayed up late when the uncles came over and learned to play rummy and blackjack. he learned to play whist and bridge and hearts from grandma and an auntie who chain-smoked Pall Malls. he learned egyptian rat screw and slap and go fish and crazy eights. he learned to play bullshit and he was so good at it no one would play it with him anymore.
in fact he became so good at cards and was so intense and annoying an opponent, always bluffing and yet somehow always perfectly in earnest, and not above clearing the room with devastating farts he blamed on the cat if he felt his luck had turned. soon, he found that all the decks of cards in the house had gone missing.
everything leaves its river of scent, and the cards had their particular perfume of the oil and sweat of many fingertips, the cheesy odor of bad snacks and beer and poor sportsmanship. he followed this river to find them stashed in a cupboard near the takeout menus and snuck off to his doghouse with them to play solitaire and concentration.
it was not long after this that a series of tragedies befell lucky s family. grandpa died and the uncles left for their beach trailer in mexico. the older sister shaved off all her hair, got in a pickup truck, and drove west, saying she might be able to remain on the edge of nightfall forever if she could just drive fast enough. father, who had left a long time before, continued his haunting by omission- only now his ghost seemed to take up more space since everyone had cleared out. mother’s light, always the moon and the sun around which everyone orbited, had been eclipsed by the exhaustion of loss, and working three jobs, and there was still never enough money.
this was not the way things were supposed to work out, and none of it made sense to lucky, who could no longer create laughter and good feelings by fetching and opening doors and turning on lights and chasing the miniscule red-eyed fruit flies that ambled directionlessly around the kitchen. left alone while mother was on the night shift, he went on long walks, wandering parts of town he hadn’t known existed, chasing the scent of cards.
it was easy, really- he found the games of hold ‘em on stoops and in kitchens and in bars. he won a hand, and then another. at first, the delight at seeing a dog play at all, and then play so well, made the players generous about losing. but as lucky won again and again, things got serious. again and again his cards surfaced on the river, and they called him a fish and a donkey. he think-bluffed, and sandbagged and hollywooded, and won the pot until there was nothing left, but when he tried to gather up his winnings they laughed and threw him out and said it didn’t count because he was a dog. but lucky was nothing if not persistent.
on the long walk home, he saw the future becoming golden. he would come home with stacks of money clenched in his jaws and lay them on mother’s pillow. there would be no more cheap toilet paper. there would be artisan toast with irish butter for mother, and there would be cat food for him- as much as he wanted. he would tell father’s ghost to become accustomed to the sensation of the temporary, as the light of the house would soon be restored, and she would call in all the wanderers, and fill the house again so that there would be no room anymore for what-ifs or could-have-beens.
one day at the end of the summer, a man knocked at the front door. lucky knew why the man was there, but made a show of barking, scattering the pile of unopened mail on the floor in front of the mail slot. mother was upstairs in bed- but he knew she wouldn’t come down. her light had burned very low, but all that was about to change. the man at the door carried the scent of the river. lucky opened the door. the man hung a golden horseshoe charm on his collar. we’ve heard about you, the man said. he invited him to play in a tournament. he would have backers. it would be televised. he would have a chance to make a name for himself. I already have a name, lucky thought, but it didn’t matter.
under the hot lights at the tournament, he saw that he was not alone. there were other dogs at the table, in fact, they were all dogs. he could feel mother’s eyes on him through the camera. knowing she was watching, he gave it all he had.
when he began to lose, he lost absolutely. he lost like he ate. he lost like he breathed, he lost like he won. he lost like a dog. he threw himself again and again into the river, but came up again and again with the bottom end. he busted until he was buried, while all around him the other dogs flopped and cardracked and checked the dark. none of this mattered to the backers, who had bet canines, which was a winning hand no matter what.
still, lucky pursued the scent of empty potential, which never grew cold: he chased after the red and the black, the high and the low- the pull of the river that was everywhere and nowhere. if he could speak, he would explain that the river is like the light. you can bask in it, and you can drown in it, but you cannot hold onto it.
but lucky was nothing if not persistent.