The rich and homeless

In the 80’s a middle aged man came to the bar and asked me who he should talk to about US military support, noting freely that he had two million dollars available. I replied that I’d never seen someone look so sober and yet speak so high, and told him not to take anymore of whatever he had.  The man shook his head, introduced himself as Oscar Mielniczuk, said he was from the Falkland Islands, represented a small group of interested parties which wanted to avert the conflict about to happen there. I told him that his name didn’t sound very Spanish. Those were my last words to him, before Jerry swooped in.

You had to feel sorry for the old Argentine. He was from a different world: somewhere where you talked to people with promises and cash and things would get done. He’d honestly thought he could meet some general, or even the Secretary of State. It was easy for Jerry. He just had to tell Oscar the truth: No one was going to give a damn. Then Oscar would talk about how little time there was, how the island would be bombed –nothing would be left of it. He thought the money would get him heard. Nope, that money wouldn’t attract one ounce of attention here, except  from swindlers and crooks.

Jerry was a professional downer, as in he was actually employed by the local casino to get guests drunk and depressed, so much so that they’d throw their money onto a roulette table with three zeros.  I wasn’t in a place to judge, or to do anything about it; so I largely ignored him. He moved blurring fast that day. I guess not even his ears often heard “two million’ said before the word “dollars”. Ditching his earlier, half-baked target, Jerry crushed every hope and dream poor Oscar had ever had, starting with a chain of Long Island Ice Teas.

Just before it was time to announce last drinks, Jerry picked what was left of Oscar out of his seat and trotted him off towards the tables. I heard later what had happened, how the casino night manager –Jerry’s boss- had to push for Oscar’s ID to work with his bank book. But sure enough, Oscar got his chips. Normally even that table had a maximum bet, but the manager and Jerry gave the nod. And so Oscar had two million dollars, every penny his homeland could muster, sitting on number 24.

“Why’d you choose number 24?” jerry asked, trying to distract the Argentine before he changed his mind.

“It is the birthdate of my mother.”

The croupier swung his hands horizontally, looking Oscar in the eye as he announced that betting was closed. He spun the wheel. The manager began laughing, congratulating Jerry on his achievement. Jerry smiled, looking forward to his ten-percent cut and not working for the rest of the year, but even he had the sense to be quiet while the wheel was still spinning. Unabated, the manager turned to Oscar, telling the Argentine that he’d made the right choice: The US would make far more selling bombs to the Brits than his island could ever pay. Oscar sighed, turned from the table drunkenly, and watched one of the TV’s that hung from the ceiling. Even the TV in America was not what he had expected.

Then the drunk Argentine heard something. Actually: It was that he couldn’t hear something that got his attention. For everyone at the table and everyone in the small -but rapidly building- crowd around it had stopped breathing. All they could hear was the last clicks of the roulette wheel. The manager jumped over the table and tried to stop it, but there is something sacred about the last moments of spinning and the moment the wheel comes to rest on a number like 24.

Still the manager tried his best to get out of it, highlighting that the bank book hadn’t been properly checked. However the commotion, uncharacteristic past midnight on a Tuesday, had raised an old detective from his favourite machine. The cop saw that Oscar got his money, and in return Oscar gave him ten thousand dollars. That had all cycled back into the casino by the end of the year.

Two nights later, Oscar came back into the bar looking exhausted. He said it had been a hell of a process to get the money into his accounts, and repeated his question about who he could see about US military support, noting he now had a bit over fifty-nine million dollars.  I lowered my head, unable to say anything to the man, unable to believe how he hadn’t heard. I poured him a drink, saying it was on the house and paying for it myself. Then I turned on the TV. The news was still cycling: UK forces had just bombed the Falkland Islands.

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