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The Gambler

                                    Julie Babcock

I’m leaving to stay in my friend’s barn with her horse for awhile, just till I can get something better. I’ve been taking one day at a time, and today I heard the Kenny Rogers song of my childhood.

It was “The Gambler.” You know the tune. The one about the old poker player giving away advice for whiskey. I learned all the words in second grade and sang it to my classmates on a field trip.

I don’t remember where we went. I never remember things like that. Instead, I try to focus on moments. Even this past year when I was the teacher I forgot where we went. I remember counting kids and brown bag lunches and the bus. I remember sitting until my legs stuck to the green vinyl and the bubble gum melting across the row.

My dad was a truck driver two weeks on, two weeks off, and Mom said I was like him. They’re not together any more, but I remember the house. I liked the burnt toast and the margarine. I liked hiding behind the curtains and digging through the gravel in the plant stand. My mom made bubbles and finger paint, and I had my own room and record player.

My own kid is sixteen and doesn’t like me much. Maybe he’ll live in the horse barn with me, but probably not. He can stay with his friend Dan till he graduates, Dan’s parents say. They say come visit him any time. They say it stinks I got the pink slip at school and lost the house. I say, Yeah, but shake off the tears and tell them about the horse. It’s been too long since I rode one. Up so high with all that strength under me. Gina and I used to ride all the way to Centerville. She taught me how to jump a fence.

Her dad died and now she has a Palomino, the kind with a gold coat and white tail. The kind we dreamt about in elementary school. “You win some, you lose some,” Gina said at the viewing after we sat through three organ renditions of “Amazing Grace.” That made us both laugh.

I started singing “The Gambler” on that second grade field trip because her dad had whipped her and she was still feeling it. She was staring at her legs and trying not to cry. I wanted to tell her something useful, and Kenny’s words began to flow through. “On a warm summer’s eve. On a train bound for nowhere . . .” My dad had just come home with the ‘45 and we had played it over and over the night before. I loved the nights he came home. He smelled like cherry tobacco and called me his tumbleweed. Mom would ask him a million questions that he laughed off. “They’ll be time enough for that,” he’d say. “Now let me take a good look at the both of yous.”

I didn’t know if Gina would like the song, but I hoped so. It had a lot of good advice. And if Gina didn’t like it I could have just stopped at any time and said, “Hey, that’s what the Gambler says; I’m just the singer.”

Gina liked it, though. She started looking at me instead of her legs and hummed along. “You got to know what to throw away, and know what to keep.” Everyone must have liked it. Other people turned around in their sticky seats and joined in, too. Even Benjamin, the cutest boy in the class, changed places with Tom so he could sit next to us.

The Gambler never counts his money. There’s either stacks around him or there’s not. He holds the slippery cards he’s dealt and tries to play them right. Gina says it’s lucky I got the pink slip because teaching at your old school’s too weird. All those little people not you anymore with those little toilets and drinking fountains. She says put down the cards and wait for the next hand. The Palomino’s waiting.

It’ll be doing her a favor, really. The stable’s a long way out of town and Gina mostly lives with her boyfriend above the bar. I can comb that horse’s mane and clean its hooves. I can put on a wool blanket when it gets cold. We’ll ride until we’ve lost ourselves in wind. Something will turn up.

Does The Gambler die at the end? Yeah, but not the singer. The singer keeps traveling into that nowhere just like I do now and last year and in second grade when we all had this song and our lunches and each other. Gina and I exchanged horse stickers. Someone swapped his juice box for a bag of Doritos and someone shared a Hostess cupcake twin pack. We took turns gluing the pages of our teacher’s math book together. Then, because it was a hot day, we turned to the windows and pushed in the little metal clips. We slid each pane down as far as it would go.

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