I approach the exit ramp. Cue Hype music.

Eminem’s Lose Yourself blasts on my speakers. Apart from my Hype playlist, I have either a Win or Loss playlist for the drive home. The Win playlist naturally starts off with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now while the Loss solemnly begins The Sound of Silence, a Simon & Garfunkel classic. As I drive below the large arched sign of Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort, I take a beat to ponder which playlist I’ll need when I leave.

Snap back to reality. Oh, there goes gravity –

I shut off the ignition. Fuck – I’m shaking. I chug the dregs of my can of Monster Energy, hop out of my Chevy Cruze, and arch my back for a stretch. The sun’s barely up and a chill is in the air, but it’s not why I’m shaking.

Keys, wallet, cash, phone. It’s showtime! Wait – Keys, wallet, cash, phone. Okay… showtime.

Every Sunday session is the same ritual. First, I relieve my bladder at the quiet bathroom near the hotel check-in counter. Then I grab a coffee from the beverage station. After two sugars and a quick sip, I light a Marlboro Light and head towards the front pit where two tables are open. The rear pits won’t open for another hour but I prefer to be here before they do.

“Mornin’, Mary.” She ain’t the best pen in the house, but better than waiting around. At least I have it heads-up. I toss two Benjamin bills on the felt. “Gimme a hundred in red and the rest in green, please.”

I rub my hands and grip my coffee as if the warmth could stop me from shaking. A pit in my stomach growls. Food can wait. Earn first, then country-fried steak.

Mary tosses the cut-card toward me like a fucking shuriken. I’m amazed I actually catch it. I move the plastic card across the six decks before me like it’s an Ouija board and stab into where my premonitions signal. A card counter’s only gamble.

My second cigarette sits on an ashtray burning out into the filtered air. It smells like home. I visualize the aces towards two-thirds of the shoe, just ahead of the cut-offs. Mary burns a card and away we go.

0… 0… 0… M-1… M-2… M-1… 0… 1…

An hour goes by. Nothing significant yet. Up maybe a hundred bucks from neutral counts. I make a point to move tables at True-neg-two. They shuffle up when I leave so it’s a double-edged tactic to take a break and check the rear pits. The move pays off. Five more tables have opened. Now the day’s begun.

Within the first two rounds, the count tanks to M-6. I’d wait til an M-12 under normal circumstances, but with four tables sitting idle… “Yeah, I’m not feeling it here. Thanks, but I’m gonna try my luck over there.”

The next one shows some promise, but tanks halfway through. Not the shoe I’m looking for. Come on you motherfucker…

Boom! Here we go, I already feel it. Running Eleven half a deck in. Come on, baby. Two decks in and it’s a Running Twenty. We got a hot one! Come on you fucking motherfucker. Don’t you fuck me. I waited all morning for this. Come on… give me something to double. No, fuck that shit. Surrender! Now ace me, bitch. Damn it, give me a…

Twenty… good, now six…six…SIX!

The dealer flips a six up. I hold up a finger to signal him to wait. Three decks in with a Running Fifteen. No question about it.

“Hold on”

I lean back, reach into my jacket, and pull out my last cigarette. I light the tip and take a drag, savoring this moment. From the moment I cut the cards, my fate was sealed. I didn’t choose this life. I didn’t choose the cards that were dealt. But now they’re dealt and for the first time in my life, I know exactly what I’m doing.

I suck in the sweet smoke, place the cigarette on the ashtray and put two finger on the felt.

“Split ’em”

I wait in anticipation.

It’s tough keeping track of time without windows to the outside world, but before I know it, it’s time to go home. I’ll be back in the office tomorrow, drafting my design for a wire harness protective shield on the next Ford F-150.

They say you have to play the hands you’re dealt. My entire life I followed the flow, damning the fates for dealing shit hands. With no foresight, I lived off hope. But now I see my naivety. The past determines the future and our present choices determine our fate. The cards are shuffled and the shoe is loaded. All that remains is how I choose to play. One round. One shoe. One session at a time.

Today is a good day. Today is a day closer to a reality of my own design . I start the car and pull out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. It’s a long drive home.