Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Clifford dresses like he's a broken-down automobile some mechanic fixed up using old parts from three or four dissimilar models. Like the misshaped porkpie hat and Hawaiian print golf shirt, most of his clothes came from thrift stores. Even his khaki trousers and vintage black and grey saddle shoes are preowned. Everything Clifford possesses accompanies him at the pub somewhere between Mesquite and Las Vegas. It's one of several pitstops along the way to a new life in California. He manages to find the cheapest motel every time, a bar, and sometimes a hooker to spend the night with before heading out again. What a shame our traveler never makes it to The Golden State.
Clifford lived with his uncle for as long as he can remember. The old-timer had a morbid sense of humor, but Clifford grew callous to the remarks. He always swore to his nephew that he'd leave him a fortune when the jigs up, and each new year he told Clifford, "This is the year you'll get your money." Of course, he was always wrong, well, until he wasn't. Clifford finally received his inheritance in 1973, and it was not exactly a whopping amount of cash. Maybe one thousand nine hundred and thirty-three dollars was a lot to his uncle, but Clifford knew it would never get him very far. "The old fella had to play one last stupid joke on me," Clifford thought to himself. All of the money sat in a glass Mason jar for six months until it was time to leave that life.
"Hey, bartender. I'll have another rusty nail," Clifford insists with a slight slur.
The barkeep stops drying out glasses long enough to utter, "I have a name, buddy."
"Well, if you'll tell me your name, I'll even say please this time."
"What name did you have in mind, Clifford?"
"Now I'm wondering how you know my name. You are a strange fellow."
"It was a lucky guess, Cliff. Let's see if you can guess mine?"
"Do not call me Cliff. My uncle used to call me that, and he's gone now."
"Sorry Clifford, I always did like your uncle, always full of surprises. I met him once on my way through Clarkstown. So do you want to take a stab at my name?"
"I'm beginning to see why the place is empty. You are crazy."
"Give me a name, and I'll give you a drink, my friend."
Clifford looks around the poorly lit room at the classic Hollywood movie posters covering the walls set in cheap frames. He notices Jimmy Stewart from one of his favorite childhood films. "I've always enjoyed the name Harvey."
"What a coincidence, Clifford. My name happens to be Harvey. You are quite the guesser yourself."
"Yeah, whatever, Harvey, I'll have that drink now, please."
"Sure thing. A little scotch and a little Drambuie, lovely. Here you are," Harvey passes the cocktail to Clifford.
A hush blankets the atmosphere while Clifford takes a couple of sips from his cold glass. A quick stop in Vegas is part of his plan to at least double the money left by his uncle. Half of it's already gone, so things aren't off to a good start. "All the girls were probably a bad idea," flashes through the middle-aged man's mind before a final gulp—memories of his dead relative flow in and out like an angry tide. Wasted years waiting on pennies in hopes of a fresh start torment his heart and taunt him because there's no way back. Clifford abandoned better decisions years before the death and blamed every mistake on his uncle. Our drunken drifter stands to leave, knocking the empty glass from the bar into the floor, shattering it on the concrete.
"No worries, Clifford. I was going to break that glass myself tonight anyway. You should stay a little longer and sober up before you drive. I'd hate to see you get killed before you make it to California,"
"I never told you where I was going," Clifford says, blaming his concern on the alcohol. "Besides, I'm at the motel across the street."
"The last thing I want to see tonight is you getting hit by a bus when you cross the road. Stay put for a bit longer."
Clifford glances through the window to confirm that he hasn't seen a single car pass by in several hours. "Yeah, whatever, I'll stay for a few more minutes."
"Good choice, my inebriated nomad. How about a game of chance while you wait? You might win big before you even make it to Sin City." Harvey grabs playing cards from beneath the bar and places them in two stacks in front of Clifford. "All you have to do is shuffle each deck separately, shake my hand and give me that crumpled-up dollar bill you were probably going to leave as a tip anyway. How about it?"
"Why not," Clifford uses every ounce of concentration he can muster to shuffle both piles and then awaits instruction.
Harvey holds out his hand from across the bar; a firm squeeze completes the gesture. Clifford snatches his hand away, feeling a sharp prick, but not before a single drop of blood lands on the currency. The bartender swipes the bloodstained note and apologizes for the acridity of his ring. "I've been meaning to get that fixed. A tiny cut never hurt anyone." Harvey's words dart around in Clifford's skull like a racquetball shot from a cannon. The entire space shrinks and expands a hundred times within two seconds until Harvey snaps his fingers and makes a comment. "Looks like I lost you for a second there. Ready to play?"
"What am I supposed to do?"
"You've already completed your part. Now it's my turn." Harvey lifts a card from the first deck to reveal the queen of hearts. "Nice, it looks like a little love is around the corner. A card from the second stack will tell us when you'll find the special lady. Hmm, three days from now, Clifford. You may want to purchase a new suit before then."
"Look, pal, this is ridiculous. I thought we were gonna play blackjack or somethin'. I didn't know you were some kind of fortune-teller. I'm good enough to walk across the street now." Clifford attempts to exit, and the room swirls, forcing him to take his seat.
"Wonderful, you changed your mind. I assure you I am no fortune-teller. Clairvoyants don't exist, but I am very much real. I'm unique, a genuine one of a kind, and quite popular in every corner of the world. It looks like your next card is a king. Oh my. I have to say; this one is concerning. It's misfortunate he's holding a sword—the little booger. It looks like we have another three to go with it. It means the third man you see will kill you the third time you see him. Don't worry about that. These things can take years.
"Okay, wait!" I'm confused."
"Stop overthinking the game, Socrates. All you have to do is listen and watch. It looks like we have another king. Oh my. Good for you; there's no sword this time. We dodged that bullet, didn't we, friend? Your final card is a seven! Lucky number seven, Clifford. Concentration is essential now, so look at me." Harvey hands his inpatient guest the final card and speaks, "Do not lose this seven of diamonds. As long as you keep it in the pocket of your chic tropical shirt, you'll have good luck. I'd say that is pretty special for a man headed in your direction. Remember the part about the third fellow who's supposed to kill you the third time you see him? If you tear this card in half on the final encounter, it'll save your life. Of course, there is a downside, gosh, there is always a downside to these things. Once you rip it apart, your luck is gone as quickly as the last prostitute you slept with two days ago. Sound good?"
Clifford gives Harvey a nod and walks toward the exit. On the way out, he bumps into two tired truckers who impolitely tell him to watch where he's going. Clifford ignores the men and heads to his motel to sleep it off. Dropping his keys before entering his room, he reaches for them, stumbles, and knocks his head on the doorknob. Rubbing his noggin, he mumbles, "Yeah, my lucks really turned around. Thanks, Harv." After finally entering the small room, he checks the knot on his forehead in the mirror before passing out on the rickety bed.
Within a couple of hours, unwelcome sunshine invades through the inadequately hung blinds waking Clifford from his nap. He splashes water on his face, grabs the stick of jerky he picked up in Colorado, and steps outside. While placing his snack into his shirt pocket, he notices the card and carelessly throws it on the ground. "That's littering, you know," he hears from behind before entering the office to check out. A leathery complected potbellied little bald man offers to return the seven of diamonds; Clifford takes it from him then places it back into his pocket with the jerky.
"Haven't you seen that commercial with the sad American Indian? I'm guessing you don't care. Where are you headed? I'll be in Vegas by tonight. Where can a man get a drink around here?" The stranger says without taking a breath.
Forgetting the first two, Clifford answers the man's final question. "I doubt it's open this early, but I had a couple of drinks across the street last night at that pub."
"Sounds like you had more than a couple. I don't see a damn thing over there." The tiny overweight man chuckles and introduces himself. "My name is Bob; it's the same spelled backward too. B-o-b that's called a palindrome, ever heard of a palindrome? It's pretty obvious with my name, but most folks don't realize the words ' racecar, ' ' radar, ' or ' Hannah ' are all palindromes. Weird huh? Where did you say you were headed?
After looking across the road, Clifford realizes Bob is correct when he sees a rundown billboard in place of the tavern. "I gotta go, Bob, um Vegas, yeah I'm going to Vegas too." Clifford realizes the bald chap is the third man since running into the pair of truck drivers last night. He opens the office door, throws the keys on the counter, and passes Bob before getting in his car. "Have a safe trip. Maybe I'll see you there," Bob yells and waves as Clifford slams his car door and peels out. He speeds down the interstate for several hours, attempting to laugh off the previous events. Out of curiosity, he pulls into the first hotel he sees outside of his destination to try out his luck. After inhaling the beef jerky, Clifford double checks his pocket for the card and strolls into the establishment.
A solitary quarter slot sits in the lobby of the outdated hotel. Clifford pats the card through his pocket against his chest, slides one quarter in, and pulls the handle. Numbers and shapes spin around for a moment, the machine shakes, and bells chime before twenty or so coins drop into the deep metal tray. Delighted by the outcome, our gambler places four more quarters into the one-armed bandit at once, and more coines than he can count drop. After the third go-around, change overflows into the floor of the not-so-grand hotel. Before Clifford has time to try his luck for the fourth time, he feels a hand on his shoulder.
"Look, pal; I don't know what your game is, but you'll have to find another place to swindle. That slot hasn't seen a winner in over a month, and you just won three times in a row."
"Okay, okay, no problem. How much are the rooms here? I'm going to stay the night."
"Twenty-five bucks and you can stay the night, but you ain't goin' nowhere close to this machine. Got it?"
"Yes, I got it. Hey buddy, do me a quick favor." Clifford flips a coin into the air and asks the gentleman to call it. The manager says heads, and it lands on tails. The two try nine more times, and Clifford wins each toss before the cranky supervisor tells him to take his tricks up to his room before he gets kicked out. A cleaning lady passes the two with a cart of fresh linens; Clifford borrows a sheet from the employee, lays it on the floor, rakes his winnings onto it, and folds the material, making a bag. The manager huffs and storms off, shaking his head.
Stacks of silver take up the entire round wooden table in Clifford's room. After counting the money three times for fun, he's content and jumps on the bed. "Within five minutes of walking into this dump, I won almost eight hundred dollars," He says out loud. "Tomorrow, I'll pay a visit to the Flamingo, win a few hands of blackjack, play some slots, maybe some roulette and I bet they offer to let me stay for free." Clifford picks up his lucky seven and thinks, "As long as I hang on to this, I can't lose." Looking upward, he laughs at his reflection in the mirror on the ceiling, points at himself, winks, and turns his lamp off.
Clifford strolls through the front door of the Flamingo, a bit dazzled by the sounds and lights that blink throughout the smoke-filled lobby. It's easy to get excited with the noise of laughter, the jangle of coins dropping, and groups cheering. Clifford isn't here to get distracted, though. He's on a mission and doesn't plan to leave until he has a million bucks in his pocket. After scoping out the atmosphere, the confident gambler joins a crowd at the blackjack table. It's the only game his uncle ever played with him, so he knows the rules as well as anyone. After several winning hands, Clifford has no intention of stopping until he's reached his goal. He doesn't even notice security circling him like a school of sharks ready to bite down. He does, however, detect a familiar figure who takes a seat to his right.
"Well, if it isn't my old pal! Remember me? It's been a couple of days, and you were pretty out of it."
Clifford chokes as if he'd been saved from a swimming pool and given mouth to mouth and spits out his drink. Bob is concerned and pats him on the back. "How could I forget. You're Bob."
"Nope, it's Bob; you said it backward," Bob releases an annoying laugh and continues. "I thought you were a goner there for a sec." Instantly the tiny bald man gets serious and offers some advice. "About four big ugly meatheads are watching you right now, so I advise you to cash out and walk away from the table unless you want to get kicked outta here. If you are going to keep winning like this, you have to space things out, lay low, ya know?"
Clifford now understands everything Harvey had told him was the truth and is visibly nervous. "You're right, Bob; I should probably get to my room for a while. Maybe call it a day."
"Now you're being smart. The Flamingo is nothing but bad news for me, so I'll be trying my luck elsewhere. I have to head out tonight anyway. My wife will leave me again if I come home broke like last time." Bob belts out another irritating chuckle, gives his friend a handshake, and tells him that he'll see him around. Clifford doesn't take his eye off Bob until he sees him exit the casino. The relieved wagerer cashes out and withdraws to his room for the day.
The new strategy is to lay low until tomorrow. With Bob out of the way, he should be able to move freely around Vegas without any worry. Tonight it'll be room service and a few drinks before bed to ensure there won't be another visit before his undesirable friend leaves town. All Clifford has to do now is make his capital and vanish. He'll find a secluded location in the middle of nowhere and live comfortably. It will be the perfect site where he never has to agonize over bumping into Bob again. "It'll work. It has to work." are his final thoughts before drifting away in the faint glow of his television.
By four, Clifford visits every big casino on the strip. He plays his favorite card game and wins. Clifford plays poker and wins. He tries his luck at games he's never heard of and wins. Finally, he revisits the Flamingo and decides on a rusty nail before the definitive big move. He ponders how he'll throw everything on double zero at the roulette table and walk out a millionaire. Afterward, a new car purchase will be the last deal before saying goodbye to the town that never sleeps. Dread punches Clifford, accompanied by a stranger's shoulder, slightly brushing him as the previously empty spot is taken. Terrified to look up and see bald-headed Bob, he gapes at his beverage.
"I'm Hannah," Clifford hears instead of the aggravating laughter he'd predicted. The three syllables hovered around his noggin like a velvety cloud filled with reinvigorated air unclogging his polluted mind for the first time in his life. She articulates again before he looks up to see the fair-complected slender redhead. "I'm guessing you're the silent sort. My mother always told me I talk enough to carry on a conversation with myself for days. You could probably take a nap and wake up to hear the end of the story I started before you fell asleep." She giggles as Clifford begins to make eye contact before getting diverted by the next sentence. "Hannah is the same spelled backward. There is a name for that, but I always forget it."
Shaken into reality, years of hollowness pour back into Clifford's mind and attach to his cranium like a hawk snapping up its prey from a field of dead daisies. The previous wink of newfound tranquility expires without a flicker as if it never existed at all. Sliding a few bills across the bar, he excuses himself without saying a word or even looking at the stunning woman. Left alone, she wonders if she did something wrong while Clifford walks away without even a glance to see what he's lost. Each step in the direction of his final round of chance cement his fate. It'll be over soon, and he doesn't even realize his sacrifice. Losing is all the broken man has ever known, so it's only logical to return to the habit.
Without hesitation, Clifford places every dime he owns at the roulette table and gives his host a nod to confirm he's serious about the bet on double zero. After a brief pause, a supervisor shows up to spectate before the spin. Clifford isn't enthusiastic about a big win; he doesn't envision a new life; he isn't anything at all. The instant the croupier gives the wheel a whirl, you'd think the whole place plunged into a giant tub of molasses. A second twisted into a minute as Clifford spotted a short bald potbellied man only a few feet away. Instinctively he reaches in his pocket, pulls out his lucky seven, rips it in half, and lets it drop to the paisley print carpet below.
"Clifford! I've been looking all over for you. I was down to my last hundred and thought I'd ride on your coattails for a few games. I can't show my face at home without any money. The wife won't like that, and honestly, I'd be better off dead. I'll throw a bet down on your next spin if you don't mind?"
"You didn't come here to kill me?"
"Kill you? No. Like I said before, you might consider drinking a little less, Cliff."
Clifford's attention pivots back to the wheel, revealing bad news. "You lost everything, sir," is all he hears before stepping away from the table. "Oh, that's too bad, buddy," says Bob like he's a hundred miles away. Stunned, Clifford escapes the excitement in hopes of finishing off his last bottle isolated in his room. The doors slide shut in the crowded elevator, but it's empty in his mind, similar to every other day of existence. Clifford is the only man who matters; Clifford is the only man on earth; he'd be by himself in a packed stadium at a baseball game because it's all he knows. Nothing to show for a life of nothing. Waiting to benefit from the adversity of others is how he's squandered away without a second thought.
Clifford flees the elevator and isn't the least surprised Harvey is there to welcome him. The two walk shoulder to shoulder to Clifford's chamber.
"I guess you're here to commandeer my soul or something. I don't even care anymore. I believed you were some sort of whack job. It's not the first time I was wrong. Are you gonna speak, or is this it? What happens next?" Harvey remains silent as Clifford unlocks his door. "I should've never stopped in that town in the first place. I could have walked out after my drink, and everything would have been fine." Clifford kicks back in his La-Z-Boy and waits for the dark stranger to say something. No one makes a sound for several minutes until Harvey breaks the quiet, " Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. You are an idiot."
Harvey smashes the dresser mirror, grabs a large piece of jagged glass, and grasps it tightly enough for his hand to bleed. He advances quickly toward Clifford in the recliner and compels him to look at his reflection. Harvey thrusts the broken object into Clifford's face and speaks. "About the only nice thing I can say about you is that you certainly are not arrogant. Do you realize you only looked at yourself twice since you met me a few days ago? Who. Does that? Well, until now, and I have to force you to look." Harvey pulls the broken mirror from Clifford's face long enough for him to see his reflection and then rams it against his face again, almost hard enough to break his nose. After a few intense moments, the malicious barkeep throws the sharp glass across the room, and it shatters it.
Harvey takes a seat on the edge of the bed, laughs for several seconds, and faces Clifford. Visibly frustrated, he looks at his frightened companion and offers a few words while Clifford sits speechless. "You don't like to look at yourself. If I'd taken the time to peek deep enough, I would have never bothered. But now here we are, Cliff. I know you don't like it when people call you Cliff, but it's okay, Cliff. You'll just have to get over that. You see, this usually is when I'd show someone their reflection for the third time and explain to them that the killer was, in fact, you all along. Most regular folks look in the mirror multiple times a day. Hell Cliff, ninety-nine percent of them never make it out of the pub before looking at their own face in the giant mirror behind me. It's so much simpler that way. You were supposed to see that spectacular puss of yours six times right there in the saloon, and we could have wrapped everything up. You were so intoxicated you'd of never thought once to rip the seven. I woulda said that you're better off dead and blah, blah, blah! Easy peasy."
Harvey bites his lip and takes a moment to breathe before continuing, "Normally, I'd convince you that your life sucks at this point, offer you a gun, some pills, a razor, or whatever! And I'd collect. But you, you little rascal, beat me to it a long time ago, didn't you? You see, Cliff, humans, can't stand to acknowledge things that make them uneasy. You despise yourself so much that you refuse to see that ugly mug of yours. What I'm attempting to say is that you were dead long before you ever appeared on my radar. You're empty, Cliff; there's nothing in there. Suicides are uncomplicated to detect and typically easy for me to accumulate. You showed all the manifestations, but I'm at fault for not exploring. Blunders are not my favorite thing to acknowledge, so I'm a tad bit perplexed, Cliff. The current standing leaves our contract null and void. I'll be collecting ultimately, but it'll take time, and I'm intolerant." Harvey paces.
"The satire here is that you would have had me beat if you'd only talked to the girl. She was the one pal. That adorable redhead would have altered your life. You. Are. Pathetic. If you'd just stopped for a moment and glimpsed into her eyes, it would have been unmistakable. You two could have ridden off into the sunset with a satchel full of money and lived merrily ever after. Instead, you kept thrusting because dead people can't love, I suppose. You are so valueless you don't belong in Heaven or Hell, you moron. I'm out." The lights flit, and the room vibrates aggressively enough to force open the two drawers on the nightstand, and the lamp tumbles over. Harvey is gone.
During the departure, Clifford dropped from his seat and didn't bother moving for almost an hour. Ultimately, he ge