The Winter Casino 

I pour the last of the dolcetto into my glass and take a long sip. I feel pretty good, but not drunk, though I've yet to stand up. Keeping my hands in my lap, I count out my lucre again. Seven crisp C-notes, three twenties. I'm ready. According to my map, I'm less than ten Venetian "blocks" from the casino, about the perfect length of stroll to walk off this meal. I page through my Knopf guide and sip.

The thin, dark-eyed waiter takes away the bottle, asks me in English if I want to see the menu for dolci.

"No grazie," I tell him. "Just il conto."

According to the guide, Venetians invented statistics, the ghetto, the lottery, income tax, municipal bonds, and casinos. So two cheers for Venice. The first semiofficial gaming place was called the Ridotto, ten luxurious rooms that opened in 1638 on the second floor of the Palazzo Dandolo. Players were expected to wear a black silk hood and lace cape, a white half mask covering the face from nostrils to forehead, and above that a black three-cornered hat. So disguised, they were able to gamble, have trysts, and move about the city incognito. The only problem was that since their vision was impaired by the masks, especially at night, they had to hire lantern bearers to walk two paces ahead of them. Makes you wonder how they were able to see their amours, or their hands...

Not too well, apparently. By 1774 the Grand Council had officially closed down the Ridotto, mainly because too many Grand Council members had lost their entire family fortunes there playing basseta and faraone. But their still-solvent colleagues simply moved the games to their casini, the small apartments surrounding Saint Mark's Square that they maintained for music, wine and coffee, affairs...

When the various French and Austrian governments during the 18th and 19th centuries realized they couldn't eradicate gambling, they decided to regulate and tax it by licensing a select few of the San Marco casini and closing the others. It wasn't until 1946 that the city, now a part of Italy, bought the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi and turned it into the winter quarters of the single municipal casino. The summer quarters, open from May through September, is out on the Lido next to the Hotel des Bains.

When the check comes I pay it with Visa. Only 20,000, with tip. La toeletta is back past the massive red-brick oven. The short woman constructing the pizzas doesn't look up as I pass. A pink Basso bicycle cap keeps her glossy black hair from drifting down onto the toppings. Since my peripheral vision is distorted by my new progressive lenses, I have to face her squarely to see what she's doing--spreading tomato sauce around an oval of dough, as it happens. I'm half expecting her to look up and catch me and, worse, to misunderstand my motive for watching. She turns around and slides a long-handled tray halfway out of the oven. Peering inside, past her shoulder, all I can see is a pale yellow glow, not the furious blast I expected.

When I'm home by myself and I pee, I don't always flush the toilet. When it's dark I turn lights on then off as I move from one part of our house to another. I make sure the faucet handle is pointed toward cold before rinsing out a glass, this to avoid taxing the hot water heater; otherwise I might use up an extra 112th of a cent's worth of natural gas. When the squeeze bottle of dish soap is empty, I let the hot water run over the cap to rinse off the residue that has built up around the aperture, then fill the bottle with hot water and pour the suds over the dishes. And when the gallon container of laundry detergent is empty I hold it upside down over the clothes, letting the last few droplets run out before I'll open a new jug. My wife, Ellen, clips coupons before she goes to Dominick's, then shops accordingly. We go to four-dollar matinees, or wait till the movie comes out on video, and our three-year-old son Sam wears his share of hand-me-down clothes from his cousins. Yet seldom do I hesitate to bet a $100 chip on a hand of blackjack, and I wouldn't waste my time playing for less than $25. With an efficient dealer at an uncrowded table, the rate can be four hands a minute. Sometimes I'll do this for six or eight hours in a row, only getting up between shoes every couple of hours to pee.

I apparently need to take risks. I'm sometimes embarrassed by this behavior, but I'm not gonna stop playing blackjack any more than I'd stop writing poems, a habit that's much more expensive. Ellen probably hates casinos and gambling as much as any person alive, and when it comes to my gambling, her hostility spikes off the charts. What's more important, she wants to know, my impulses or our son? (As though it's a mutually exclusive disjunction.) Shouldn't this money be saved for his college education? (No, because his grandfather's trust fund will cover it handsomely, thank you.) Her more general complaint is that gamblers risk resources they have no right to risk because they want something for nothing. Hello? Of course we want something for nothing. Who doesn't? Gamblers and nongamblers alike get screwed out of cherished, indispensable things all the time and get zip in return, so it seems only reasonable to want to balance the equation a little. Fortunately for me, Ellen implies, hers is a "quiet" or a "passive" hostility, i.e., she abstains from bludgeoning--or, worse, igniting--me in my sleep, or from letting slip about my habit in front of her father. She is willing to tolerate my gambling if and only if I restrict my gambling funds to what I earn as a poet (honoraria, prizes, etc.) and from writing reviews, and if it is understood that I am never to skim from either of our household accounts. To help ensure this, my paychecks are deposited electronically into our checking account, and I've agreed not to carry credit cards or a checkbook into a casino. (I lock them in the trunk of the car.) I don't even know the PIN number that persuades concrete brick walls to spit out our money. I will never go gambling more than three times per calendar month...

The Grand Victoria Casino out on the Fox River in Elgin serves as a kind of club for me, but certainly not a gentleman's club. During the day, which is when I usually go, at least 80 percent of the players are female. Whatever the sex of the players, my first choice is always to play the dealer head-to-head, sometimes two or three hands at a time. This increases my odds of getting blackjack or hands I can attack with: double-downs, splits, and redoubles. Playing by myself also eliminates the luck-changing, nerve-shattering effects of moronic fellow players, though I'm the first to admit that having some farmer foul the shoe by refusing to hit his 14 against the dealer's face card often causes my own luck to change for the better. Playing basic blackjack gives you by far the best odds in the long run, no matter how counterintuitive it may feel when you have $400 riding on 16, the dealer is showing a seven, and you're already down a few thousand. Because the rule remains clear: take your hit. Other aspects of strategy are less mathematical and therefore less clear as to exactly when they should be implemented. Bet small when the dealer is hot, bump it up after the dealer has won five or six in a row--or else walk, cut your losses. Raise when you're hot or the dealer is busting--or stand up and walk with their money.

One morning last spring I walked out with almost $8,000 of it. I wound up giving six of it back within the next few weeks, but the streak while it lasted gladdened my heart as much as any poem or fuck or drug or 20-year-old first-growth Saint Emilion--as much as any three of those things. The dealer for most of that morning was Helen, Helen of the glinting brown eyes, of the bronze hair pulled back into a crooked chignon, of the face that launched a thousand chips. I actually called her that once, though nobody else at the table got it. Did Helen? She glanced at me sideways, not knowing how to respond. She could tell I was flirting with her but wasn't exactly sure how. She's the kind of dealer who openly roots for the players, who moans "Oh, shoot!" when she taps her 15 with a 6 after we've all doubled down. But on that particular morning those kinds of things weren't happening. She was giving me two or three blackjacks per shoe, plenty of 19s and 20s, and, best of all, painting my double-downs. It went on like this for three hours. If I'd been better bankrolled or was wagering more aggressively I could have won $100,000. As it was, I had (for a time) a sweet, clammy stack of 22 purple chips to shuffle and rotate and bounce against the felt. It was good.

But sooner or later the house will get even--and then some. Your lust to win even more inevitably jumps up and bites you. Like everyone who plays as often as I do, 52.5 percent of the time I lose money. And when I get down to the bottom of my stash, I have to go home and scare up more book reviews and pray even harder that some poem I wrote wins a prize.

I arrive at the entrance of the Casino' Municipale Venezia still not having figured out what the apostrophe signifies. Only after showing my passport am I allowed to pay 18,000 lire for a tessera di ingresso. Not only annoyed, I'm surprised, since I'm used to American casinos, which practically pay you to come in and play. This transaction feels more like a border crossing: name and passport number printed out on my ticket, handing over money before I even sit at a table. On the back of the ticket the rules have been translated into German, French, English: The card can be retracted by any time at unobjectionable advice of the Direction. The person who transfers his card cannot enter any more and in future the Gambling Rooms. If they say so.

The dress code seems to be pretty much anything goes for the women, but every last guy has on a jacket and tie. A few of them even sport tuxes. If I'd worn what I usually do to play blackjack--shirt, khakis, Hush Puppies--the Direction would have retracted by my entry any more, or in future.

The place is like an American casino in at least this respect: I'm smoking now simply by breathing. I gasp as I jog up the stairs. On the second floor I have to detour around several crowded roulette tables to get to the cambio. The dollar tonight buys 1,590 lire, almost 5 percent more than at American Express or the banks. And no service charge--they'll see to that once I sit down. For seven Ben Franklins I get 1.113 million lire, doled out, along with a receipt and my change, as 11 silver chips, their centers flecked with gold. The stack is almost too much to hold in one hand. I've never felt richer or readier.

The third floor features more high-stakes roulette, plus baccarat, blackjack, and a pair of chemin de fer tables overlooking the jet black canal. But the main action here, as it was on the two floors below, is roulette. The players and gawkers crowding the tables are more flashily dressed than the people downstairs. An African woman (I assume, though for all I know she's from Paris or Denver) has tidily fitted herself into a black satin sheath, with a double string of pearls framing her elegant neck. Her D-shaped head is shaved high on the sides and in back, accented by single-pearl earrings and creamy purple lipstick. Nor is she the only woman so gotten up. Most of the men have on suits, so I'm glad to be wearing one. I squint as a short Arab's polished scalp flashes into my eyes, even from ten feet away. All this flesh on display is very much part of the action.

For a lark I buy 20 of the little orange 5,000-lire chips and play one apiece on five, three, and zero--squares I can reach, numbers I can pronounce. I especially like saying cinque. Chin-kway. Chink-way. Tday. Zaydo. If one of them hits I'll clear a hundred bucks and some change. With no 00, my odds are 1/37 better than on American wheels.

Only when the little white ball lands in slot 27 twice in a row, then in 2, then in 4, then in 27 again, then in 1, do I remember why I've always hated roulette: it's preposterously stupid and passive! Sure, it may have been Dostoyevsky's game of choice, but it still sucks. The literary world likes to believe that his pathological gambling habit proves he was masochistic, self-destructive, had a level-three bipolar disorder, or was just plain crazy. My theory is that he was crazy for playing roulette. Yet it hasn't kept me from unashamedly noting to Ellen that he kicked his gambling habit only after his true-blue wife, Anna Grigoryevna, the woman who literally saved his life in half a dozen ways, let him splurge, let him get it all out of his system, hint hint, even to the point where they had to pawn their wedding rings (on their honeymoon, no less!) and winter coats, something I'd never ask my wife to do. My nature requires this, Fyodor Mikhaylovich pleaded to Anna Grigoryevna. This is how I'm made! They'd become engaged only after he hired her to take down in shorthand his frenzied dictation of The Gambler in 27 days to meet a deadline and by succeeding earned 3,000 rubles. Had they failed, he would have forfeited the royalties on all his future works to his viciously opportunistic publisher. Talk about a gamble! But old Fyodor Mikhaylovich lived for contests like these. For him, gambling and genius and Russianness and love were ineluctably interconnected. To take risks, challenge fate, was an act of high poetry. Once I hear the chink of the chips, I almost go into convulsions. Hear, hear!

On the next spin the ball ricochets and hops through the 5 slot and comes to rest in 22, and the woman in the pearl earrings whoops. After raking in the dozens of losers' bets, the croupier pushes three tall stacks of green chips across the darker green felt. She tips him two orange. "Per ragazzi," she says, and he thanks her.

"Keep playing Russian roulette!" yells a skinny guy up near the wheel. He tugs on his sparse gray goatee, demented, I gather, from losing his bankroll, his manhood...

The woman in pearls points the tip of her index finger against her glossy brown temple, using her other hand to pile up her chips.

"You show him!" yells someone behind me.

She grins, pulls the trigger, continues to straighten her stacks.

The blackjack room has a 20-foot ceiling, cream velour wallpaper, a brown marble fireplace with terra-cotta flowerpots in the grate between twin 15-foot-high windows. But only four tables, facing one another in a square beneath the lone chandelier. Even odder, only one table is in play at a time. One table! One guy deals a few shoes then retires in favor of another dealer, who slowly begins to shuffle at the next table over. When in Venice, I guess. A sign says Vieto Fumare, yet people still smoke in the corners and doorway, and there are butts stamped out on the marble floor. Two other dealers stand by in their tuxes, one of them smoking a cigarette. What else would he do in this seedy-glam den of iniquity in the heart of this city of smokers?

The edge of the too-high table would come to the middle of my chest if I were sitting on one of the six stools. At this point of the game I am standing, wedged sideways between a young gondolier-type and a tuxedoed Milanese. Most of the men in this room have on tweed over denim, conforming only perfunctorily to the dress code. But serious funds are in play at this table, and boggling orders of magnitude. The larger the denominations, the larger the chips. The red plastic rectangular slabs are worth a million lire, and fist-high stacks of them sit in front of three of the players. The rest of the chips are round, crosses between a coin and a discus. The five-hundred-thousands are cerulean blue with amber centers, the two-hundred-thousands mustard yellow with gray centers, the fifty-thousands pink with blue centers. No one really messes with the smaller ones, except to pay off blackjack or tip. Fifteen minutes ago I thought I saw the man with the purple burn scar. I only caught a glimpse of him in the throng behind the table, and I saw only one side of his face. When I leaned to my left to try to see the other side, he'd melted back into the crowd--assuming it was him in the first place. And since then my luck has been hideous.

The guy to my left--a Russian, I think, in a canary blazer, this to go with platinum chains and ID bracelet--plays two or three blue every hand, yet seems to have not the foggiest clue as to how. For this entire shoe I've been more or less surrounded by gangster-types speaking what sounds to be Russian. Italian suits on burly torsos, with blond molls playing yellow on two or three squares at a time. I wonder what the ruble's exchange rate is, though it couldn't matter less to these jokers.

All I can do is exhale to show my unhappiness, then push forward another pink chip. (I'm afraid to tally up what I've lost, but I'm down to a very short stack.) The dealer turns himself an ace but offers no insurance. Them's the rules. Nor is doubling permitted, unless you have ten or eleven. Not that I'd want to at this point, even with ten or eleven. Not with these players. In the last half hour I've seen a Japanese woman split sixes against ten but fail to split eights against five. One of the gangsters has hit seventeen but wouldn't split nines against six. Yet the really big bettors are horrified if you hit fifteen or sixteen--especially if the dealer gives you the ten they need to paint their eleven. "Fortuna merda!" I heard, followed by a lisping lecture in Italian to explain my strategical error.

But the most unnerving aspect is that up to seven people are playing each of the seven hands on the table. All you have to do is slide a chip onto one of the corners of one of the boxes and you've purchased the right not only to lose your money but to express your opinion. Pick your language, pick your preposterous strategy...The action is too fast and rowdy for me to follow even my own hand with much confidence, especially with the cards I've been getting, like three motherfucking 14s in a row now. Whereas the guy at third base starts with 19 or 20 each hand. Plus the dealer seems to prefer that the house win three-fourths of the hands, since he smirks when he gets a good card.

During the shuffle I order another glass of wine, an excuse, at least, not to go home. I slide a pink chip--30 bucks--into the middle of the second box, then watch it get slowly surrounded by much larger bets in the corners. The tuxedoed dealer sits on his stool, in control. He buries five cards, deals seven face-up two-card hands--two red sixes for me and my sullen but unsilent partners--but only deals one to himself. Nine of clubs.

I'm afraid.

After their customary polemic, first base stays with 14. But of course. When I whisper "Un' carta," the dealer turns over a seven. My finger never even touched the table. Was he reading my lips or just anxious to move things along? In any event, the congratulations and the kvetching just about cancel each other out, but only until the dealer gives himself a jack and collects everyone's money but ours. The vibe around the table says it's clearly my fault: he would've had a 16 if I'd stayed, then busted with the jack. No other table to play at, wine on the way. I figure I have to stay put. And despite every trend, every reason, I suddenly have a good feeling: the motherfucking house is going down. I can't explain why, I just know it. I quadruple my bet and get 20.

The dealer stays stuck at 18.

I leave it all out there, winning again when he breaks. Venticinque!

Playing three yellows, my next hand is blackjack. Other players scramble to place bets on my rectangle, but the limit is six, plus my own. Two dozen players in all now, plus their partners, stand three or four deep in a semicircle around the beige felt, delicately elbowing past one another. The dealer blithely flips the winners' chips toward their boxes. They usually land inside the box, often coming to rest on top of the original bet.

As soon as I switch to blue chips, I lose with two queens of clubs when the dealer gets blackjack. Oh good. But at least my vocabulary is expanding: the Italian for blackjack is blackjack. The thing is, I already knew that.

I push out my only two blue, and get dealt 17. My lungs refuse to function until the dealer gives himself ventidue, my new favorite number. This room, as a matter of fact, this beige table, the center of this overcrowded rectangle is my new favorite place on the planet. But I'm forced to remember my deal with myself: If you double your money, go home. But why should I slink back to the Ala with a thick wad of lire in my pocket just to watch CNN? There are worse things to do, I suppose, leaving two of my blues in the box. Only not on this night. Not this moment.

Within 20 minutes I have three five-inch stacks of translucent blue chips with sweet amber centers, plus a single red slab, even money, stashed deep in my inside coat pocket. Me and my six latest partners, including the woman in pearls, couldn't really be too much hotter. We've had six consecutive winners, including a blackjack and two painted doubles, and counting. But the string is about to be broken. Though the dealer shows ten, only two of my partners favor hitting our shitty fifteen. The don't-hit-me's kibitz in gravelly, lisping Italian.

"Questo lista..."

"No! No! Va bene!"

"No no no! Basta!"

The dealer stares down at me, waiting.

"Parla inglese?" asks one of the Russians. Of me?

I tell him I do, just in case.

"No parla inglese! Parla italiano!"

"Si si si..."

Sounds like trouble.

"What are they saying?" I ask the dealer, hoping he'll use his sullen authority to get them to cool out a little.

He smirks. "Many things, my-a friend. Many things..."

When I finally tap the beige felt, he flips up a jack, inciting extravagant gestures and groans. Fortuna merde! O-o-oh no-o-o-o-o! Piacere! As though we have an inalienable right to win seven hands in a row.

"Basta! Madonna!"

"Peace to you too," I tell them, then put up two blues. "Action talks and bullshit walks."

"Bulls?"

"Yeah, the Bullies!"

"Michael Shore-dun!"

"You've created a hostile environment, so I'm gonna have to sue you, you droolers!"

One of the Russians barks fiercely, then gives me a firm neck massage. Whatever I've said, he agrees. Anyone who doesn't, he'll whack. Moreover, he finds me amusing. "Funny guy, you. Funny guy."

Pearly Girl puts her elegant hand directly in front of my face, makes a fist. "You zee main." She switched from roulette to blackjack less than 15 minutes ago and is already up a few million.

"Yeah, well, we'll see."

We touch fists. Touching fists, in this case, seems to mean we agree that I'm a high-status male who'll be able to provide goods and services for whatever offspring we might wind up conceiving together. Either that or she likes winning money by letting me help her play blackjack.

By 9:17 I'm up almost five million lire. My suit pocket bulges with chips and my shoulders have been slapped and massaged many times. But I understand clearly that this streak will not last, stimulating though it has been. It is way way past due to swing hard in the other direction. Plus Pearly Girl walked half an hour ago. One smart cookie.

I have firmly resolved to go home, and have said so, much to the chagrin of my fair-weather comrades, but so far I've only made it as far as the men's room. What I really should do is go to the restaurant, eat something, have some mineral water or coffee, call home, maybe see if I spot the black sheath...

The man on my right gnaws on toothpicks while playing the 32-33-35-36 corner one silver chip at a time, and he seems to be doing all right. He spits the splinters down between his legs, though some of them land on the knees of his pants. We may be the only two people in Venice not smoking, yet both of us sit here and hack. My own oral requirements are imperfectly met by licking my lips or the rim of my nearly empty grappa glass, and by tapping the rim with my teeth. And by tapping my teeth with the rim.

I've decided to play one blue chip each on 17, 1, 26--Sam's birthday, Ellen's, and mine. And for three spins and counting, I've lost. Dostoyevsky and calendric congruence aside, roulette's big payouts and absurdly long odds don't match up very well with my cadence of want--probably for much the same reason that I prefer the seesaw rhythms of blackjack and basketball to, oh, say, soccer's once-in-a-blue-moon scoring tempo, or to the poetry market's appetite for a new Vincent McQuethy title about once every 37 years. Even so, here I am. So is the woman in pearls, as it happens. She's over by the wheel, on the opposite side of the table.

"Tredici," announces the blond croupier. The one with the mustache says, "Nero."

I understand clearly that I should be betting black versus red, but 18/37 as odds paying off one-for-one doesn't tempt me. I want to win big and go home.

On the next spin, the ball comes up zero.

Sipping bad grappa, I resolve to make the same bet till I run out of money, with the proviso that I can change my mind if the losses start to get out of hand. What I also can't decide is whether I'm heroically maintaining my equilibrium in the throes of a strength-sapping fever, I'm a sneaky and sniveling weakling, or I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Maybe I'm farther along, toward the middle. Tail end of fever, middle of breakdown, sleazy and sniffling weakling. And it's altogether typical of the perversity of my gambling urge to forgo the game I won so much money at 15 minutes ago in favor of a game (of a "game") I not only despise but which I probably couldn't win at if my life depended on it, and which has the longest odds in the house. Yet I understand that I will win.

Sipping more grappa, I play our three numbers again. The intensity of the gazes on the back of my neck reminds me I'm the only one playing blue on the inside, though a few blues are riding on color. Angular females and shlumpier, better-fed males gawk down at the action, with envy and badly feigned boredom.

I cough again into my fist, seeing stars, as the croupier whips the ball into orbit again. We all want to be dominant predators, I guess, though we understand that some of us will wind up as prey. Most will continue to watch.

To a bushy-haired character in a euroblue suit who speaks across the table to me in Italian--I think he is talking to me, and I think I remember him from the terrace of the Gritti--I manage to hoarsely reply, "Just wanna cash in in this beautimous city of yours."

I get nods of approval from some of our tablemates, but the man I've addressed stares fervidly into my eyes. He's aghast. Was it something I said? Or he'd said beforehand, to which I have inappropriately responded? I blink. The man standing behind him has a birthmark or bruise on his cheek. The two of them kibitz and frown.

"Diciasette," says the blond croupier.

Diciasette? I locate my chips on the board. My improving grasp of Italian numbers, at least of the first 36, is confirmed when another croupier pushes 3.5 million in chips across the felt, stopping them neatly in front of me. Whoa. I hear a few whistles and claps, but I'm finding it hard to react. Giacometti gets up from the table. I tip il ragazzi one blue, restack the new piles of chips. In my daze, I almost neglect to rebet. I'm already thinking copper All-Clad for Ellen, Bulls tickets, no-holds-barred evening with some cortigiani onesti...

"Ventisei."

Oh my God.

Gawkers and players murmur and buzz as the losers' assortment of chips get raked in, leaving only my blue on the field, with the lucite marker on top of it. Pearly Girl shoots me a grin, raising her penciled-on eyebrows, and a hand slaps my shoulder, but the general nonlightness of mood has to do with the fact that no one else covered the square. I tip the boys one more big blue, but none of them seem too impressed. The man with the bruise is no longer in my field of vision. I presume he and his partner have circled behind me, to watch. Detectives hired by Ellen, I decide, then remind myself not to be paranoid. Then remind myself that sometimes paranoia is simply a higher form of awareness.

A waiter arrives with more grappa, plus a vodka and tonic for the petite, expensively cashmered Asian woman on my left. I pay for both drinks and tip him for both of us. My beneficiary's smile is wan and a little off-kilter. Like she's hiding bad teeth or a secret. After nodding severely to thank me, she places green chips onto 1, 17, 26, and a blue onto nero. Pearly Girl also bets blue on 17, covering her regular squares with green.

"Air we oat a gain to naught?" she asks me, sounding both African and French--in any event, not from Denver.

"Seems we are, though I don't--"

"Venticinque."

"Merde. We wear."

"And we will be again, signorina. Just hold on."

"'Signorina'? Oh dear. My name eez Bony, mah friend."

We'd both have to stand to shake hands, but we accomplish more or less the same thing with our eyes. Hers are oval and light brown and bonny. They also go well with the pearls.

"Pleased to meet you, Bonnie--or Bony. I'm Vince."

"Hoza, Vince. Ouias. Bring us luke." When she turns to exhale two lungfuls of smoke, I note that her chin is recessive, which would make her less likely to hold mine against me, I hope.

"I'll try to," I tell her. "You too," I say, to the woman who bet on me first.

Who sips from her vodka and tonic. Flirt away, she seems to be saying. All I wanna do here is win.

The next ball comes up 29, oh so close. Bonnie tsks sharply, and the woman on my left exhales through her nose. I hear both sounds simultaneously, and each in its own way destroys me. I've failed them.

Most players wince, groan, or curse when they lose, and Bony's still shaking her half-shaven head. The woman on my left stoically opens her shiny gold purse and pulls out another four chips, advancing three of them onto my squares with short, varnished fingernails. She's been playing like this since I got here, betting blue on the outside, following the lead on the inside of the most recent winners. I don't think she speaks either Italian or English, but she must have some faith in eternal return--or, at least for the moment, in me. I'm guessing she's a very well preserved 39. The skin on her face is moist and taut, though a few crinkles emanate faintly from the hinges of her eyes. Her black hair is bluntly cut, exposing two-thirds of her neck.

As the ball revolves again, she begins fishing around in her purse rather early--not too many more chips in there, it looks like--then hands me an off-silver coin.

It's slightly too big to be a nickel, too small and dull for a quarter.

A circular trio of flowers--chrysanthemums?--are surrounded by Japanese ideographs. Turning it over, I see that it's 100 yen.

"Goo ruck."

"Grazie. Thank you." I wish I spoke some Japanese, or could be more elaborate in Italian. (To be making her way around Venice, she must speak a little herself.) The next next best thing is to bow.

Keeping her narrow eyes closed, she nods her head on a diagonal, then opens them, smiles. Lowers indeed slightly crooked, but white. And nice gums. She surprises me again by patting my knuckles. Her palm is damp and cool, and our hands--

"Ventisei."

She jumps halfway out of her chair, moaning something that sounds like yee-haw! Sitting back down, she holds up her palm to be slapped. I slap it, quite hard, even though her arm--not to mention her wrist and her hand--looks rather delicate. She replaces her palm on my knuckles as her chips are paid out, soothing and thanking me by moving it round in a circle. Her aura helps mute the unfriendly gasps from the rest of the crowd as more booty is raked in my direction. Only when she removes her beige hand do I straighten my chips, place my bet. I drop the coin into my pocket.

Everyone suddenly rotates their heads toward the doorway. A man at the other end of the room, near the door, has just called out "Fuoco." He didn't quite shout it, but he now has almost everyone's attention. I originally thought he'd said fucko. Fuoco means fire, I think, but that isn't how the crowd is reacting. No one runs, no one panics, though Bonnie stands up from the table, exhaling a long plume of smoke. The man who said fuoco is gone from the doorway. Sitting up straighter, I listen.

"Un fuoco..."

"Non qui..."

Other folks stand up as well, collecting their purses and matches and chips. A few who were already standing begin to drift toward the exit. Most of the players stay put.

"There is no fire in the casino," at least not according to the English gent near the foot of the table, who looks like he knows what he's talking about. "No fire. They said..."

Someone shouts something in Russian, and a tall woman up near the wheel starts to whoop. She presses both hands to her cheeks.

"Trentuno."

"Fortuna merde!"

"He said there wasn't a fire..."

"Trentuno trentuno trentuno!"

"You go, girl!"

I gather up handfuls of chips, scoop them into my pockets. It's time. When I try to stand up, a tendon in my thigh yanks me forward. I give it some time to relax. I don't see or smell any smoke, at least no more smoke than a few thousand cigarettes would produce. No fire alarm has gone off.

"Signore?" The croupier wants to know if I'd like to place a bet. I cough, shake my head, removing myself from the action. My diminutive partner stands too, and begins speaking to me in what must be Japanese. She apparently wants me to stay.

"Buona notte," I say. "Gotta go."

I have to go because my sense is that someone has planted a bomb and the bumbling Italian police have informed only half the patrons. Yet running won't do any good, I decide, as I march from the table--the luckiest table I've ever stood up from, or for that matter ever sat down to. By the time I hustle down the hallway and across the next room to reach the top of the stairs, a cordial slow-motion stampede is well under way. Something's up. In the next 30 seconds the terrorists' bomb will go off. It was planted in the Winter Casino by a splinter group of Albanian paramilitaries who want to pressure the Italian government into accepting more refugees by targeting affluent tourists. (It will backfire politically, of course, but that's not my concern at the moment.) All the talk about fuoco has been merely a decoy.

The logjam at the second floor opens up after a minute or two. Down we go. A gang of loud American women behind me are shrieking and giggling, advertently bumping the backs of my legs in their haste to get out of the building, or simply to have a "fun" time.

One of them hollers, "You bitch!"

"No fire. Hey! Where's the fire?"

"You mean, you're not havin' fun?"

I turn. "Are you saying there is no fire?"

"Are yaw saying there is naw fire?" says one. Another one says, "There is no fire here, buddy boy. Where's the fire?"

They're drunk. Beautiful, young, extravagantly pleased with themselves, obnoxiously, flagrantly ignorant. When I tell them as much, they just cackle.

I reach the first floor and turn right, away from the main exit at the rear of the building, where most other people are headed, including the morons behind me. I shoulder and excuse my way through a dense throng of milling turisti. Plenty of BO and cigarette smoke, but no sign whatever of fuoco. That most of these people are trying to get up the stairs I take as another good sign. And no one is yelling or shoving. Most people here in the lobby look rather solemn, in fact.

I finally run into a tuxedoed Italian who seems to be vaguely in charge. "Un acqua taxi por...for hire? To Santa Maria di--"

"No, no, signore. Not any more taxis. All the taxis are-- Eh!" He turns and starts yelling in Italian at a man who is trying to push through the door. I manage to gather that no more water taxis are running, that none will be available for the rest of the evening. Mine is not to ask the reason why, but as soon as he's done with his tirade, I do.

"Sir, you will 'ave to walk," he replies. "I am sorry."

"Is there a fire?"

"No, sir, no fire. The fire not 'ere. You must right away exit or return up the stairs--"

"But where is the fire?"

He points out the door. I don't get it. The woman who gave me the coin rushes up in a panic. I feel her small hand on my elbow. "Pdease not go," she insists. Shaking her head, she points in the direction of the staircase. "Pdease, sto giocando."

I turn her dainty shoulders so we're facing each other. After covertly appreciating her for almost an hour in profile, I see that she looks even better straight on--except for her misaligned teeth, which I'm over in less than a second. She's gazing back up at me with what seems to be genuine desperation--and dare I say lust? In any case, the winning streak she's been counting on to get her back to even has been rudely interrupted, and I want to explain that I sympathize. "I'm sorry," I begin, not knowing what to say next. "If I--"

"Pdease, Vince, mo pday." She tugs on my arm for a moment, then stops. When did I tell her my name? "Yes?"

"Okay." I feel at this moment like I've finally caught all the way up to Venice time. It's ten o'clock at night and I'm totally wide awake, ready for just about anything. "But I have to find out...What's your name?"

"Mo pday, okay?"

"Lemme think...."

We stare at each other. I want her. And she wants me back, it appears. The set of her jaw makes her look both willful and afraid. The same difference? Either way, I am tempted to kiss her right here, if she'd let me. Or let her kiss me...

When I turn away from her face, look around, I can see that the crowd in the lobby has begun to calm down. The flow on the stairs has reversed. Whatever the problem is, the casino is not burning down. Yet if a bomb were about to explode, we'd be better off outside the building. My streak upstairs is over, whatever this woman may think. And I very much want to have sex with her, on this, my last evening at large.

"Come with me," I politely insist, and she does.

"I must go," I enunciate carefully, as we're hit by delicious night air, "back to my hotel." From somewhere above, in the clouds, ardent sirens. A couple of raindrops as well. But what a relief it is not to be breathing in smoke!

When my new friend looks up, I'm afraid she is changing her mind. I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. She's a middle- or upper-class woman abroad by herself in the ancient and notorious stronghold of--what is the word? Libertinage? We met 15 minutes ago, and she doesn't know what to expect. I probably don't look all that scary, but I let go of her hand to make sure she feels free to decide not to come.

"The Ala. Not far. We can walk, if you'd like. What is your name?"

"Cana wok?"

"My name is Vince?..."

"Nama Vince..."

"What is your name?"

"Nama Akira."

"Akira."

We smile and half bow.

Then we walk. She slings her purse over her right shoulder, hooks her left arm round my waist. If she began the night wearing a coat, she has left it inside the casino. I pointedly gestured toward the mobbed coat-check window as we made our way out, but she shook her head no with conviction. Her small fingers clutch at my flab.

It's brisk but not cold, like early April-late March in Chicago. And we're both a bit drunk. I keep my arm around her shoulders, warming her as much as I can without coming off as a groper. In this crabwise and tentative manner we navigate the Calle Larga Vendramin, heading north unless I'm mistaken. We'll need to bear east as soon as we reach the first corner, then stay parallel to the backward S of the canal. Is it backward from both sides, I wonder, and while moving in either direction? Wouldn't that make it a cosine? I'm also unclear as to how you can follow an S-curve on calli that run perpendicular.

We approach the patio of the pizzeria near the end of the block, where a husky young woman wrapped in a sauce-spattered apron is speaking into a cell phone. Another young woman is making the sign of the cross. Both of them stare at the sky. As I look up too, another big raindrop splats against my forehead--at least I hope it's a raindrop, in this city of too many pigeons. Counterpointing the sirens, two church bells dong in the distance.

If weather circles the globe west to east approximately twice a month, the clouds overhead passed over Chicago last Tuesday or Monday. I also can see several stars as I breathe in the sumptuous oxygen. Le stelle stay put, more or less, as opposed to the cumulonimbus, and there's nothing like breathing at sea level. I'd like to say something like this to Akira in Italian, something to make her like me besides my good luck at roulette, but I can't even manage Let's fuck.

My suit jacket is bulging with chips. Even though they're cut from plastic, their accumulated mass is considerable--like carrying a baseball in each pocket. What also is good is that Akira has insinuated her torso against my rib cage and armpit. Her hair smells of perfume and cigarettes. I have about half an erection, so all my other problems seem smaller. Even when I dampen down the left pocket with my hand, the right pocket distinctly clatters each time we take a new step. The gold fabric strap of Akira's purse is maybe a quarter inch wide. What a target we must make! If muggers accost us, I'll have to surrender some chips to protect her. May have to surrender them all.

Is it possible she's a prostitute? She agreed to accompany me off the premises awfully quick, and her roulette strategy was to glom on to winners. Plus I'm old and shlumpy enough to be taken for a john. If she is a professional, she looks pretty classy and clean, and I'll bet she takes payment in chips. I wonder how much flex there will be in her fee and in what she'll be willing to do for it.

We turn right at the corner onto the Calle Nuova, a crowded main thoroughfare I remember from walking here. Right now people seem to be racewalking, and more than a few folks are shouting. I should probably go back to the casino before it's too late to cash out--or go back and keep playing. I leave for the airport at 6 AM, so there wouldn't be time in the morning even if the casino were open. I often take chips home from the riverboat, since it saves time in line at the cashier's cage and eliminates the temptation to spend what I've won, but this is a little different. I'm afraid I'd be tempted to give back too many of them. I've never been up this much money, and my goal has always been to walk while the walking was good, as close as possible to the "market high" of a winning streak, which is right where I am at this moment. Although maybe the streak would keep going...

I look up and see a volcano erupting. In the huge damp black sky, a triangular crucible of flame licks the bottom. Akira hasn't seen it yet, but when she follows my gaze I feel the adrenaline buzz through the top of her spine. She inhales. It's not a volcano, of course, but a spiral of fire half a mile ahead of us, at about two o'clock. I assume that it must be the Ala.

We start walking faster--not easy, enmeshed as we are--if only to keep up with our fellow pedestrians. Akira's stockinged legs aren't long, so it takes her a fair number of petite, slightly pigeon-toed steps to maintain my pace. Young men whip past us, zigzagging ahead through the crowd. One of them barely avoids a collision with a willowy blond all in leather, who cringes. Akira huddles closer for a moment, then lets go of my waist, pulls away. I feel abandoned, but it does make it easier to walk. Not having her hand on my flab is good, too.

As we pass a long row of empty wooden stalls leading to the steps of a bridge, the fire is still at two o'clock. I imagine my stuff burning up: clothes, the bottle of Biondi-Santi, my notebooks, all my new poems and revisions. On the other side of the bridge, the street widens out. We move faster. Akira is practically running--breathing hard, softly moaning, her muscular hips and flat butt working with furious energy. A man in a gray leather coat slips between us, but we swing back together, keep going.

Fifty feet over our heads, a helicopter thwoks past a campanile before swinging back out toward the fire. Akira is shivering, gasping. I slow down to help her keep up, and she smiles.

"Hedicopto."

"Si. Hedicopto."

"To Adda Hoter?"

"Yes. No. I hope not."

"No hopa not?"

"We'll see, Akira. We'll see."

We cross a wide bridge with white marble obelisks marking both ends. On a step near the top a young, dark-haired woman and her daughter are begging for coins with a styrofoam cup, the first time I've seen this in Venice. To be using a child at this hour, even if it is her own daughter, which would be all the more reason...The poor little girl is too sleepy to make eye contact with, but she's clean, she looks healthy, and her parka and thick knitted cap both seem adequate. I stop and let go of Akira, reaching inside my right pocket. Three blues. As I'm dropping them into the cup, I tell the woman, "From il casino."

Her face is a blank. "Grazie mille, signore."

"Il Casino L'Inverno?..."

"Si, si." She nods, but her eyes remain glazed. Her daughter still hasn't reacted.

I'm afraid the mother won't understand how the chips work, or assume that I'm yanking her chain and just toss them. "Casino Municipale?" I point.

"Si si si..."

Akira nudges me, shuddering--from pity or the cold, I can't tell. At least it's not raining, on us or this mother and daughter, though a downpour would help douse the fire.

Along the next block of the Strada Nuova--a grocery, two T-shirt emporiums, a 400-year-old cathedral--some of the signs say Per San Marco, though the one I just passed said Per Rialto. In a sense, signs with arrows don't matter, since for now we're all headed in the same direction, but I'd like it if one said This Way for Ala. I do understand that if we continue to hustle, we'll get there.

After crossing another bridge, we stream past a card shop with a sculpture in the window of a melting Dali clock. The clock is so brightly backlit that it casts a distinct shadow across the shoulders of the people ahead of me. Nobody else seems to notice. I pause for a moment before we step through, feeling the warped silhouette billow across my left cheek. I've been scanned.

By the time we reach the Via 2 Aprile, almost as many folks are headed away from the fire as toward it, so the going begins to get slow. If this were any place but Venice, I'd be tempted to try a shortcut. Not here. I stay on the most traveled path, straight and narrow though it may be.

In America there'd be gunplay by now, and what's on sale in these shops--SALDI! SALDI!--would be flying off the shelves at deep discounts. Baton blows would rain down on miscreants, skulls crushed on purpose with cinder blocks. The general vibe of this crowd is the opposite of festive or violent, even if some of the teenagers are more than a little bit jubilant. But the last thing these people would do is resort to the taking of booty.

The fire looks ten times as large as when we first spotted it. Akira seems dazed, catatonic, but she doesn't give up or slow down. We're closer now, of course, but my sense is that it's finding new fuel, burning more out of control. And several more church bells are donging. And now yet another trio of firemen dashes past, on my right--then a fourth, then a fifth--their bobbing black helmets trimmed with yellow reflective strips, short orange coats trimmed with white. I wish them Godspeed and good luck.

After gently curving to the right for a hundred more yards, the Strada Nuova peters out into side streets and alleys--so much for following the S-curve of the Canalazzo. We zigzag instead left-right-left down three narrow, poorly lit streets, politely bumping and elbowing each other as we're funneled together, then finally emerge in a campo where we circle past a pigeon-stained statue of a man with his right hand thrust heroically inside the front of his overcoat. Checking my own inside pocket, I finger my passport and ticket. A man with a handlebar mustache stands off to one side of the statue, having hoist a five-year-old boy onto his shoulder. The father annotates the unfolding spectacle for his son. The fire's orange light on their round, upturned heads makes me miss my own Sam all the more.

It's now a straight shot over to Campo Sant'Angelo, where I begin to get my bearings. The wellhead features a sculpture of two naked women disporting with rusty winged lions. While the palazzi along here are all rather elegant, the flagstones are aligned just as crookedly as in less posh sestieri, though I seem to be the only pedestrian catching a heel or a toe every few dozen steps. I'm also the only one clattering.

The fire is now on our left, very close. Unless I'm mistaken, the Ala is directly ahead of me, or even a bit to the right, so my drafts are not going to burn. Every street leading toward the fire has been barricaded. Most are patrolled by uncheerful policemen with white belts and holsters over their black leather jackets. They are not in the mood to be questioned.

Watching my step, suppressing a strong need to pee, I hurry us along with the fire-bound stream down the Calle di Frati and into the Campo San Stefano. I now know exactly where I am. If we turned right we'd wind up at the Academmia Bridge, and here on our left is the Haagen-Dazs place. As we pass under the green neon cross of the farmacia, I can already picture the Ponte San Maurizio a few yards ahead.

The fire is blazing above us, no more than two buildings over. Its pulse warms my forehead, my temple. When we finally jog between the row of empty stalls--one with a torn, flapping awning that at first glance seemed to be burning--and the plain marble stepless facade of the church in Campo San Maurizio then through the too-narrow passageway lined with shoe stores and lingerie shops and panificia to reach the last little sideways half bridge that leads to the back of the Ala, the humbucking roar of the fire and the clamor of gawkers and policemen and firemen and yowling tomcats and the waves of bright heat and the yellow orange flames slashed by black smoke are filling two-thirds of the sky.

Heat from the towering flames keeps us back on our heels as we watch from the Ala's rooftop patio. We're 150 yards from what's left of Fenice, directly at eye level with the heart of the fire, with a moist, chilly breeze in our faces interrupted by hot, acrid gusts. The tops of the flames dance and snap horizontally then jump back up straight, while the central inferno remains a white yellow tantrum. No sign whatsoever of it burning out anytime soon. The terra-cotta tiles of the roofs on either side of it glow red and black in the glare. A Union Jack billows, unsinged, from a pole on the flat roof to the left. On a roof to the right, silhouettes of antennae and firemen. Smoke billows out toward San Marco before getting turned by the breeze, sailing back across the rooftops and into our faces, our eyes. Spiraling faggots and chunks of flaming debris explode on the stones of our campo. Hoses snake back through the crowd, wending their way toward the Gritti, as water sprays out from what must be tears or imperfect connections. The only helicopter in action--it looks like the one we saw earlier--dangles a barrel that suddenly tips, pouring water onto the rooftop next door. My first thought was that it missed its target, but I now see the pilot's intention is to douse the adjacent houses, only spending his payload on what still can be saved. Not Fenice. The facade is a scorched Halloween pumpkin with yellow light blasting through the eyeholes. Policemen are doing their best to keep onlookers off the hoses and away from flaming debris, but people keep pouring into the campo from the direction of San Marco as well as from over by the Gritti traghetto. The sirens and bells don't let up.

Our own terrace seems dangerously overcrowded with guests, guests of guests, pyrophiles, staff, and mourners of the building on fire. Most of us stand shivering and mesmerized, with coats on and collars turned up. Many are perched on the summery deck furniture, like Cub fans on rooftops along Sheffield peering down the first-base line as a ball rockets off Sosa's bat. Using the patio telephone, a Frenchwoman orders more cocktails. More than a few folks are shooting photos or video as gusts blow the smoke from their subject directly back into their lenses. After one round of snapshots, a pair of Nordic-looking couples trade cameras and pose, one after the other, with the fire as background. At least they don't smile or say "cheese." Any conversation that does happen is made even more awkward by the grief and confusion of the staff who is serving us. I didn't even know there was such a terrace--the altana, they call it--until I saw a waiter carrying a tray of drinks through a door leading up to the roof as I walked down the hall toward my room. A woman I recognize as a waitress from the breakfast room is silently weeping, while an older guy in a herringbone overcoat fingers his rosary and groans.

According to the more talkative gapers, most of whom speak in clear English, La Fenice has been burning for almost two hours. The main reason the firefighters have made so little progress is that the two canals nearest the theater were being dredged, so the fireboats can't get close enough to the target. Water has to be pumped from the Grand Canal, 300 yards away, which doesn't produce much pressure at the business end of the hoses. Firemen were also forced to use explosive charges to open the cast-iron doors, a strategy that apparently "backfired." I tend to believe what people are saying, especially since the fire seems to be getting more immense by the minute. Even from this far away, you can hear the bang and clank of interior structures crashing down onto the floor.

Akira seems bored. She probably has to go to the bathroom, as I do. I let myself drift toward the doorway. My watch says 11:14, so the fire must have started around 9. It's time to go downstairs and pee, change my clothes. I still have to pack for the morning.

Down in my bathroom, after waiting my turn, I pee long and violently. Bliss!

While Akira pretends not to watch, I scoop handfuls of chips from my pockets, dump them in a pile on the bed. I'll have to go back, once I've packed, to cash in. As soon as the fire is over.

I open the bottle of brunello I was planning to keep in my cellar, half fill two tumblers. It needs time to breathe we don't have. The moment Akira takes her first sip, the phone rings. Gently putting my index finger against her lips, I smooth off a droplet of wine.

"Hello?"

"Hey. It's me."

"Hey, listen, you couldn't have heard this yet, but..."

Akira drifts away, toward the window, leaving wine on the side of my finger.

"But what, Vince? Heard what?"

"There's a fire. La Fenice's on fire."

"Oh my god. Are you kidding me? When did this happen?"

"Happening right now, as we speak."

"That must be why it took me so long to get through."

"Wouldn't doubt it. There's a crowd of gapers up on the roof, some of them even down here in the rooms."

"In your room?"

"We're the only hotel you can see anything from. The whole sestiere's a mob scene."

"Can you see it?"

"Not at the moment. I watched it for almost an hour. They don't have enough water to--"

"And you're sure you're all right? Because if you're really that close to the--"

"Believe me, there's no reason at all to--no danger. Just a little crazy right now."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. I'm two blocks away from the fire."

"It's all so bizarre, and so horrible."

"Yeah. I was packing when all this went down. How is Sam?"

"He's good. He's right here, but I won't put him on. We'll see you tomorrow at four. Honey, what--"

"I can't wait to see you, believe me. I miss you guys big-time."

"Yeah. He's dying to see you tomorrow."

Akira says my name, then remarks on the fire in brisk Japanese, either to me or herself.

"Tell him I love him, and I'll see you tomorrow at four."

"Okay, Mick. Be careful. I still can't believe there's a fire..."

"Me neither. But I'll see you at four. The new Jahn terminal's pretty terrific."

"But what's going on over there? It sounds like--"

"It's starting to get kind of crazy. Some reporters are using my window. They claim it's an 'official emergency.' It's okay!" I shout, with my mouth turned away from the phone, "Si, si, si si," then tell Ellen I have to go. "But we'll all see each other tomorrow. Don't worry."

"You sure? Because it seems like--"

"El, really. Don't worry. I love you."

"I love you."

I hang up and go to the window. Akira stands in front of me, waiting. We kiss. When she opens her mouth, her tongue tastes like cigarettes, girl, and brunello. And then she is reaching behind her back to unzip the dress. Stepping out of it. The straps of her brassiere trisect her shoulders, with the delicate length of her collarbones backlit by the glow from the bathroom. The brassiere is the color of dried, lacy blood. She lets me look for another few seconds, then steps up and kisses me. Hard.

"Akira..." I finally say.

She finishes the wine in her glass, puts the glass down on the dresser. Me too. Undoing the top buttons of my shirt, she smells unimaginably tasty--then a prickling jolt as her fingers, her nails, find my nipple. She twists it then moves to the other one while I kiss her again, groaning against her wet lips. She hangs on. Wincing, I turn her around, ease her down onto the bed. Respectfully clutching her thighs, I rub my nose, then my chin, then my mouth up and down--lightly, then harder, then sideways--against the dark satin patch of her panties. Also maroon, also lacy. A thousand miles north of her velvety belly, her head makes the chips squeak and rattle.

Pulling the panties aside, I kiss her all over, then nibble and lick, go to town. And the smell! Dank but approachable, then fishy and juicy and sweet. And the sound that her throat makes, exhaling! I run my front teeth down her thigh, make her wait, then stand up and take off my jacket. If only I was packing a condom!

"Vince?"

"Mm-hmm?"

"Where you go?"

"Never goin' nowhere but here, don't you worry."

The half-mast erection I find myself sporting will just have to do. It was harder three minutes ago, of course, before there was pressure. But of greater concern is my gut. I'd rather not divulge either it or my hip flab, but leaving on my shirt doesn't feel like a viable option.

Akira is already up on one elbow as I kneel down again between her short legs. She sits on the end of the bed and yanks off her misaligned panties. Suddenly we're both on our knees, face to face. She seems to like tasting herself in my mouth, on my ears, but I wish my erection was springier. Her hand hasn't wandered there yet.

She pushes me onto my back and sits on my ribcage. My chest. Slides forward, sits on my neck. For a moment or two I can't breathe, but I notice she's left on her bra. Which I love. She shifts her weight, choking me harder. I put up my hands, grab her hips. Couldn't budge this bad girl if I wanted to. My fingers reach in toward her spine, to the fine little hairs, the small hollow...Can't breathe. Still can't breathe. But don't really need to or want to.

Reaching behind herself to tug on my nipples again, she finally slides off my throat and shimmies up onto my face. Up to my eyebrows, my forehead, then back. I even can breathe for a moment, till she saddles herself on my mouth...

I gasp and inhale through my nose. Inhale her. She shifts her dead weight, bearing down, clamping my mouth even harder, and rocking.

"Okay, Vince? You do me."

I nod.

Once I've ejaculated onto my stomach and thigh, the whole Venetian enterprise becomes exponentially less urgent. Even before the orgasm was half over, the roar of the guilt was drowning out what minuscule pleasure was left. What was left wasn't worth one percent of the downside of deceiving my Ellen.

I'm twitchy, still tingling, pooped. I need to be home now with Ellen and Sam, not getting ready to hire a lawyer to negotiate visiting rights. Once things get that far, it's too easy to imagine myself as Kay Corleone trying to stand up to her husband's child-custody threat. At the same time, having up-close-and-personally helped cause this Akira person to have a few (one? a couple of?) orgasms is by far and away the most electrifying experience I've ever...experienced. Ever. Words fail me. And with Akira snuggled up with me under this blanket, chips scattered over the carpet and cutting up into us, breathing not quite in unison but with what feels like affection exchanged between elbows and shoulders and skin, I want her even more than I did 20 minutes ago. And before we've said even word one to each other, somehow we're at it again. First slowly, then...slowly. I think this whole time will be slow, but who knows. And the clatter! Maybe this time she'll take off the bra, or let me...

I go to the window, can't think. All I know is that in a minute or two I will pour myself wine, gulp it down. But first I could use some cold water. Akira has gone into the bathroom again, and I hear the mellifluous rush. Suddenly burning with thirst, I look up and squint at the huge jet black sky, licked near the bottom by two tongues of flame. I blink and the fire jumps up from the top of the blackened triangular shell.

I find my new glasses lying under my shirt, put them on. Outlined in firelight, a boy and girl embrace in the campo below. Surrounded by 300 gapers and cops, they seem to imagine they're wrapped in a single invisible pouch, the eye of this tornado of chaos. Either that or they simply don't care who is watching. His hand glides over the back of her fringed buckskin jacket and settles on the seat of her jeans. She stands on the toes of his hiking boots, tilting her hips up that way. Rosy light plays off the windows and walls, the faces of gapers, the sides of the heads of the lovers.

As Akira's lengthy stream modulates to a gentler trickle, more gapers teem into the campo: parents with very small children, old married couples, what looks like a pair of transvestites. The crowd oohs and ahs as the flames pop and flare, or when one of the firemen makes a bold move. A painter is sketching the fire, using what looks to be watercolors. Booms, crashes, heat, sirens, church bells--how do you get this on paper, with colors or words?

I don't know.

When the telephone rings I understand that it's Ellen again, double-checking. The toilet implodes with a wet rush of suction, and everything seems to make sense. There was also a fire of sorts the night Sam was conceived--or, maybe more accurately, willed. The TV was on with the sound off, the most romantic light Ellen and I could muster for yet another ovulatory evening circled two weeks before on the calendar. And maybe the sound was still on. Either way, out of the corner of my eye, very briefly, I caught videotape of a fireball. When I turned my head to look, it was gone. But Ellen had seen it too. The next time we were paying attention, a reporter had her microphone in the face of an avid eyewitness. A 727 had crashed in northwest Indiana, and there was amateur video of the fuselage bursting into flame on some highway. By then it was on every station, being replayed in slow motion. Ellen or I still bring it up from time to time, when we want to remember that night--plane crash as mnemonic nexus for the inception of our son...

As Akira comes out of the bathroom, I wonder if there will be one tomorrow on the flight I'll be taking back home. And maybe Akira is pregnant. I look out the window again, and the telephone rings one more time. Something explodes, falls apart, then drifts down over the city catching the bright orange glimmer, like snowflakes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Fitzpatrick.

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