Staking Cody Slaton:
A Short Story
by Johnny Hughes
Buddy Hargrove saw Skipper hobbling along tilted forward by a life of cowboy boots. He was searching every face at the Truck Stop. "Over here." Buddy motioned from a booth.
"You sure do look the same." Skipper slid into the booth as if in a world of pain. "I am feeling my age."
"Cody isn't in Santa Fe anymore. He must have done something." Buddy slid a menu across the table.
"He was here. Maybe he's in Austin. He's on the hide. Cody's still all right with me. He never conned me and he doesn't owe me or anything. Some hippies told me he is a Buddhist or something on a spiritual retreat and fasts and moves around. I asked around ever kind of poker game. Nobody's seen him. Ping Pong Don said Cody and James were doing some Internet cons getting rich old ladies and gay guys to mail 'em airline tickets to come visit." Skipper said, finally relaxing some as Buddy laughed. There was this story on the street that Buddy had almost killed a man in prison for stealing his comb.
"Cody laid down all these new age, fortune teller, gypsy screen cons over there in Santa Fe which is really ripe for him and that snake brother of his, James. I saw James at the Golden Nugget in Vegas but I played lucky and he didn't see me. He dropped some quarters on the floor by this slot machine. This real old lady bends over and he boosted a bucket of quarters and hightailed it for Fremont Street. He has this big hat and shades and a dyed beard and fake tattoos to fool those eye in the sky cameras but I could make that snake at half a mile." Buddy said. Now both men were relaxed and laughing.
"I caddied for their Daddy at Meadowbrook when I was just a kid. He was a top boss gambler at ever game. Poker, dice, golf, pool, horseshoes, washers, shooting targets. But they are all thieves. There granddaddy was a famous road hustler back in the twenties and thirties. James was stealing coke bottles all over town when we wuz kids, from dorms, back of grocery stores, from the coke and Dr. Pepper plants. He was running dice games with six-ace flats with that coke bottle money when we wuz twelve or so. James never played anything on the square in his life but Cody was a top player beating all the big Texas games when he was twenty or so. Y'all had a game awhile. Hot score or somethin?" Skipper was light in his question and selected long ago stories to rehash for their safety.
"Get word to Cody . I am personally not hot at a soul in the world and forgive all old things. He owes everyone that ever listened to his stories. I have been back to studying and playing hold em. Cody is the best player that I have ever seen or staked or anything. You playing poker around here?" Buddy asked.
"I still play a little old men's high-low. Same old game. It has been a couple of years since Cody played. He ain't barred but it is pretty slow. No big money on the table. There are games all over West Texas but my back hurts. I can't iron ass some game for eight hours. I get bored and bluff off my chips. They are playing in Amarillo, Abilene, San Angelo. There's young folks can't tell shit from shinola movin around a lot of chips because of watchin T.V." Skipper took all the vegetables off his hamburger and saturated it with catsup. "This is good for the prostate."
"When did you see Cody last?" Buddy was looking all around for the waitress and realized that he had let a third cup of coffee trigger his anger and that was truly small stuff.
"I saw him in a seven eleven on 34th sometime last winter but he said he was just here two days. Before that, he brought this young college age girl over to the game and she run over it. Bet more often that anybody I ever saw. Really aggressive and double lucky. Cody didn't even play, just staked this here tall gal he said was his daughter. She was the only winner up three dimes or so. She dusted out half a mile of players just dominating the game. We usually quit around sundown but I got home during the late news. Cody was gloating and carrying on. I heard they win a lot of money in Amarillo." Skipper said. "If I ain't being too personal, why are you looking for Cody? I have heard he is really broke and on the hide over owing lots of folks on his scams and cons." Skipper had tried to think of a reason to avoid meeting Buddy but now he had warmed up to seeing someone from the old neighborhood since so many were dying.
"Poker is really big. Tournaments and T.V. and all. Cody Slaton, when he isn't consumed by bad habits of drugs or alcohol or his addiction to stealing and cons, is the best all around card player in the world. His Daddy had him playing big money gin rummy with some talent when he was fourteen. . They would hustle right in the Adolphus lobby. I'm gonna stake him. In tournaments, he can't steal. He could play two days if need be. And if there is any way to get an edge or cheat some, he knows it and can do it. He can watch the dealer shuffle and know where a flashed card ends up. I have tried it. Folks say it can't be done. If you can find him, I'd consider it an accommodation. Tell him the past is dead. I hear he has been clean and sober for seven years. Did you hear that?" Buddy asked.
"Yeah, he sounded like a broken record about not drinking. You know, I don't know when it was but many years back, Cody and James told me lots of stories about their family history and showed me this closet full of cheating devices for cards and dice and a penny pitching spread and a crooked roulette wheel. He had this machine that shaved dice they had had for fifty years or so. They had these sunglasses to see card markings and this here pipe that had a mirror in the bottom." Skipper had finished his burger. Buddy left half of everything on his plate as he had planned.
"Their Daddy showed me all of that and how to use everything. I worked for Frosty at the craps and ran some sports bets when I was a teenager. Their Daddy taught them every grift of the road and got hot when they didn't stay in college. Frosty figured Cody had this here trick mind. He was in Mensa. Frosty wanted Cody to be some kind of a professional man. Some relatives of theirs, Uncles I think, specialized in stealing guns and they had boxes and boxes of these old shotguns, and rifles, and pistols that had to be worth something. Their Daddy was a hell of a man, he's kill a man over fifty cents but Cody and James have never been a bit tough. They spend their whole lives running away." Buddy watched the golden sunset and the reflections on the parked row of eighteen wheelers.
"There's these old hippies out by Tech that know Cody real well. I'll go back to them. He's got them conned into believing he is some kind of pup out of Charlie Manson and Mother Teresa. Tells them he only eats veggies from the farmer's market. Said he went on a fifteen day grape juice fast and had these visions a man don't need no money. He is on this laptop all the time writing letters to suckers all over the world. The old gypsy screen. Try lots of folks, trap one big sucker. The world has passed me by, Buddy." Skipper said. "These here hippies talk funny. They believe all of Cody's psychic high karma reasons not to work bullshit."
"If I had your money, I'd throw mine away." Buddy grabbed the check as Skipper expected but neither man made any move to go.
There was an assumed friendship because of all they had shared and the old friends they had in common. They lamented change and restaurants that closed and friends that died and the whole sorry direction of the world as seen by these seen it all skeptics. They agreed that Bush and Kerry and all the legislators in Austin were crooks. Buddy raised an eyebrow when Skipper took off on all Muslims and all Frenchmen and all the government spying he imagined. When a couple of Sheriff's deputies came in and passed their booth, Buddy became silent and felt that old fear. Even though the deputies took a table way across the room, both men remained aware of their presence and leaned in and lowered their voices needlessly.
They talked of some of James's short cons and both knew the stories of "hotel sits" where he would rent a hotel room and sell vending machines from a catalog only to mail out plastic almost useless replicas.
"Cody has a little tiny bit of ethics about him." Skipper said, as his face flushed with anger for the first time. "But James would steal a hot stove or lay down beside it and claim it. He conned churches, Indian casinos, insurance companies, department stores, and bookmakers and horse players all over New Mexico. Lots of folks think James needs killing. I wouldn't stand too close to him. You see him coming, put your money in your shoe. He got these teenagers to steal this here truckload of knockoff T-shirts and hats, Polo and Tommy Hillfinger kind of crap. Regular Fagin type of guy. Two of the teenagers caught time and James moved on down the road."
"I swear the Slaton clan are born with some instincts that tell them when to get on out of town. Now you can laugh but ole Cody does have this mysterious sixth sense or psychic ability or call it table presence but he can put another man on an exact two cards in hold em, just like he was looking at their hand. He was winning bridge tournaments the first year he played. Cody was bringing in more money than that whole den of thieves when he was eighteen or so. Frosty Slaton took him on the road playing all games. He was beating the game in Odessa at Pinkie's Inn of the West with Johnny Moss and Brunson and Slim and all of them when he was under age. Cody never saw a poor day until he named his own self king of the hippies. If he ain't drinking on the square, I will loosen my rubber band and let him play out of my bankroll. I could put him in some big tournaments and the side games have pots a show horse couldn't jump over. In the Vegas poker rooms, the money is knee deep. Help me find him and go out there with us. We'll stay on Binion's good side. There are big games at the Nugget, Binion's, Palms, Bellagio, and the Mirage and poker rooms opening up. Me and you will scout the games and put Cody in the right spots. What do you say?" Buddy appeared much more mellow and far less scary than Skipper had ever imagined possible.
"You'd have to strip search him after every game. Cody would have chips hidden everywhere. James would show up in some costume with an absolutely new and fresh way to steal. James is hungry. He has been in some trouble for little shit. Hot checks and changing price tags at the Mall. They always said they wuz broke but now they are broke. James stiffed me for $500 way back in 1976 and it really never worried him. He ain't honorable." Skipper again showed an old and unresolved anger when the discussion turned to the younger of the Slaton brothers.
"I'd bet you know how much juice he owes right now. Do you still loan?" Buddy didn't care if his very direct question violated some old and unwritten rule.
"I loan but there never is any money much on the street and everybody pays up in one or two weeks. You need to be in AARP or getting Medicare or be retired for me to loan. I don't mess with these young gamblers. Some of them are the kind of folks that give gambling a bad name. You heard that one of the players from the game was trying to rob Iron Drawers and killed him. That was awful. Now everyone is back to carrying barking iron. Vegas ain't so dangerous as these backroom games and there are a bunch of knits and lice snatch games where folks meet up in bars. Ain't none of them real gamblers and none of them had any proper schooling. Nobody turned them out right." Skipper removed his cowboy hat for the first time and Buddy suppressed a laugh at the same flat top he'd seen for over forty years. "I sure don't mean to be smart or nothing but I somehow remember that you and Cody had a hot score 'cause he owed you. My Doctor says that staying mad at people that don't pay is why I take these heart pills and my lawyer says if I get any help from collectors, they'll send me to broke dick farm in Huntsville. Collectors these days ain't got no sense or ethics or restraint. I tell folks I am retired and I nearly am. I go to more garage sales than gambling joints."
"I have forgiven everyone who owed me and Cody did. You tell him there is no hot score. I have forgiven my ex-wife and the snitch that sent me to prison and I am running out of folks to forgive. Cody and me went off on some big numbers in Vegas back in '86. Bill Smith had just won the World Series and every thing looked easy but Cody was coked up which I did not know. He kept trying to run over talent like it was back in the dorm rooms or something. All they had to do was check it to him and he'd break his self. But if he is straight, he is still the best that I have ever played or seen play. Lookee here, Skipper, I have been away from gambling for a lot of years but I sent off for all these books and tapes on poker and got religiously obsessed with it and I can barely make expenses around these side games but Cody would be the stick out. Help me find him and I will call you in a couple of days." Buddy said, grabbing the check and leaving a ten spot tip. "I've got a million dollar bankroll to put Cody Slaton on the World Poker Tour."
This story originally appeared on the PokerForum.com