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Sucked down a gambling drain

'Double Down'
By Frederick and Steven Barthelme

December 2, 1999
Web posted at: 5:27 p.m. EST (2227 GMT)

(CNN) -- In "Double Down," two brothers tell a grim story of their descent into the world of compulsive gambling and personal disaster, squandering a family inheritance and ending up indicted on felony charges brought against them by a casino they frequented.


Read the interview with the authors of 'Double Down.'



We arrived in Hattiesburg almost ten years apart. We'd held plenty of other jobs -- cab driver, construction worker, advertising writer, journalist, art installer, architectural draftsman -- and we'd each done stints at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for graduate degrees, and now we were ready to settle down and teach.

Rick arrived first, in the mid-seventies, terrified because Mississippi had that reputation, that myth the prominent aspect of which wasn't the lovely Old South with its high manners and splendid architecture, but ignorance, burning, lynching. Being from Houston, having lived five years in New York City, and just out of graduate school, he figured he was profoundly enlightened and Mississippi wasn't. Indeed, his introduction to Hattiesburg was at an all-night gas station on Highway 49 where a lone teenager-slash-halfwit was capturing "pinching" bugs attracted by the bright lights and corralling them in a five-gallon bucket of sand he kept inside his little glass booth, a diversion he favored because, as he said, he liked to watch the bugs kill each other.

This was two in the morning, and Rick and his girlfriend had been driving all day from Baltimore, where the morning before they'd had brunch with the British literary critic Tony Tanner in the polished-mahogany restaurant on the first floor of a hundred-year-old hotel. Now instead of talking about postmodernism they were facing it, and it didn't seem to know their names.

So Rick spent the first six weeks of his employment at the University of Southern Mississippi commuting from Houston, a safe four hundred and fifty miles away. In time he discovered that Mississippi was as civilized as anywhere else. The gas jockey notwithstanding, things had apparently changed, and at least in Hattiesburg and around the university, the myth was a phony. In fact, taken as a whole, the people he met in Mississippi began to seem gentler and more humane than many he'd run into in ostensibly finer settings. Probably there were remnants of the "old" Mississippi elsewhere in the New South of the seventies, but those remnants weren't on public view, did not seem dominant. In spite of the benighted reputation, Mississippi seemed more than its share enlightened.

Steve arrived nine years later, and if some of his impressions were different, maybe that was because when he arrived in Hattiesburg he had already spent the previous two years teaching at a university in Monroe, a dim, depressed, trash-strewn Louisiana town where even the snakes hung their heads. If the races seemed to him stiffer with each other in Mississippi than they had been in Louisiana, Hattiesburg itself was clean and bright, and the people were friendly. There was more money apparent, and the roads were mostly paved. During his first weeks in town he noticed two, maybe three Volkswagen beetles. You wouldn't have found them in Monroe.

So there we were, college professors and fiction writers. We were middle-aged, born in Texas, raised in a family of mostly fallen Catholics, with a father who was a successful and innovative architect and teacher, and a mother who was an English teacher and a reader, an actress in college who had wanted to pursue the stage but didn't quite escape the conventionality of her time. One older brother, Don, was a leading literary figure. Two other older siblings made their livings writing: Joan as a public relations vice president for Pennzoil Corporation, Pete as a Houston advertising executive and an author of mystery novels.

Growing up, we were trained in restlessness and doubt. Conformity wasn't prized. The house our father designed in 1939 -- a large, low, flat-roofed box with a single small square room standing up on top -- was an anomaly in a neighborhood of ranch-style and Tudoresque homes. Our house looked like a large, rectilinear Merrimac. On the empty grasslands west of Houston, it startled passersby.

The house had been made of wood alone, but later the exterior was covered in copper. Our father had this idea about copper. He had read that when sprayed with a certain acid compound, copper would discolor in a particularly attractive way, so he hired a contractor and several workmen and had the vertical siding covered in sheet copper. Then he bought a sprayer, a two-foot tank with a manual pump, and he mixed up a batch of the acid that was going to make the copper come alive in an exquisite turquoise. Well, it didn't happen. The copper asserted itself, and from that time forward the house was -- exquisitely -- brown.

Inside, it was a hotbed of modern furniture: elegant Saarinen chairs, the bent birch of Aalto dining tables and chairs, almost every piece of furniture or fabric that Charles and Ray Eames ever designed, from the little wire-frame footstools all the way up to, much later, the big rosewood and black leather chair, now ubiquitous. The rest of the furniture Father built himself, or had us build under his supervision. Things were always being redone, reconstructed, redesigned in accordance with some new idea he had.

We went to Catholic schools, and there, along with the conventional subjects, we were schooled in guilt. This was before traditional Catholicism lost its purchase, before "mea culpa" became "my bad," or however it's now translated.

The Catholics were good at their jobs. You're eight, maybe, and you go into your older sister's room and take a new yellow pencil away from her desk and erase some drawing you have been working on, and suddenly you think: This is a sin. I'm stealing. What you're stealing is eraser. But that's not the best part. The best part comes next, when the eight-year-old thinks: No, this is prideful worry. Worrying too much about sins is a sin. It's "scrupulousness."

For our purposes, the complaint that this indoctrination is barbarous is secondary to the idea that a Catholic education can accustom a soul to a high level of stimulation, and if you get too comfortable later in life, you miss it.

After high school, we each left our parents' house and the Catholic schools, Rick to Tulane, back to Houston, then New York; Steve to Boston, Austin, and California. We ran through three or four colleges apiece, worked different jobs, were rarely in the same city for more than a couple of months at a time, but over that period, in different ways we were doing the same thing: in fits and starts, we learned to write. Significantly, we learned the skill of editing -- what our father was always doing with the house -- which is in itself a school of dissatisfaction.

Years passed. We got older, more tired, less strident. We tried, not too successfully, to learn to lighten up. We went to Mississippi, where our lives were all aesthetics, literature, art, music, film, narrative, character, culture -- teaching school. Books and movies in a pleasant town, handsome beyond what we had imagined, lush and green year-round, sixty thousand beings at the intersection of two highways. Originally a lumber and rail town, crossroads in a pine forest, Hattiesburg was a suburb attached to no city, distantly resembling some suburb of Houston twenty years before. Perfectly congenial, if a little short on excitement.

After teaching a few years, we had lost some connection with the world outside the academy, the ordinary world pictured in USA Today. We didn't drink very much, didn't smoke, took only sanctioned meds. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll was a joke. We became, through no fault of our own, adults. Kids came to the writing program from all over the country, often from much better schools, and we helped them find things to write about, find their talents. We knew it was awfully sweet work, in our awfully sweet lives.

As college professors we were automatically in an out-of-harm's-way subculture, but we watched TV and read newspapers, so we had some idea of what the rest of the world was like. We just weren't in it exactly. In fact, maybe nobody of the middle class was much in it -- that was the point of being middle class, yes? Buy your way out of the threatening and the immediate. The downside being that you lose some edge. In the worlds of kids or poor people or maniacs, there's always a lot of stuff happening, people doing crazy things, acting up, risking life, being desperately in love or terribly angry -- a lot of stimulation.

So we nodded, and folded our hands, and thought. There inside our comfortable, well-maintained apartments. We lived in pleasant circumstances with work that was agreeable, but after all was said and done there was still this old furniture piled up in the garage -- curiosity, recklessness, guilt. By training we were dissatisfied, by temperament restless.

Enter the boats. Sometime in 1992 casinos moved in on the coast and, observing a legal nicety requiring that casinos be waterborne -- which was part of the bargain struck between the gaming lobby and the legislature to legalize gambling in Mississippi -- they appeared as paddle wheelers that were docked against the beaches. They were cramped, crowded, intimidating. Long lines of customers waited just to get in, and inside the players were dead serious and going at full speed. The pit people were gruff and the atmosphere was sweaty and sleazy. If you sat down in front of a dealer, you'd better know what you were doing. But the boats were right there, and eventually we went to see what they were about.

The beaches had never been much good. The sand had been sucked out of Mississippi Sound and spread alongside Highway 90 like something in the bottom of an aquarium. It looked wrong, like a bad hairpiece. The water was the color of pot roast; locals said people loved Florida's emerald water, but fish, shrimp, and crabs preferred Mississippi's brown, where they were an industry. The towns strung along the coast had some of the dumpy charm of Galveston, where our father was born, where we'd visited our grandparents as children, and where we'd played on the winningly disheveled Stewart's Beach.

From Biloxi to Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the coast towns were similarly distressed places, down at the heels, beat-up, and ugly, but now, with the advent of gaming (they love to call it gaming), the towns were tarting up in a new, too wholesome way. The cheesy glitz of miniature golf and bright pink seashell emporia gave way to paddleboat quaint: cheap tux shirts, black bow ties, red cartoon suspenders. Gaming interests wanted casino gambling to seem harmless, fun for the whole family, so the newer developments worked along those lines. The architecture quickly turned Disneyesque: pirate ships and mock cowboy saloons slathered in happy neon (splashy pots of gold) instead of the tiny, furtive neon ("Nudes! Nudes! Nudes!") of the old beachfront strip. Mimicking Las Vegas, corporations were building twenty- and thirty-story hotels, huge parking lots, restaurants, and stores to attach to the casinos. They had day care if you needed it.

Biloxi had a great old restaurant called Fisherman's Wharf, a shoddy wood-frame thing built on telephone-pole pilings right on the sound. It had been serving seafood for more than forty years. Family-owned, dilapidated, but the food was marvelous in the way that only coastal dives can manage -- fresh fish, fried chicken, big glasses of sweet tea. Gerald Ford had eaten there, and the restaurant had pictures of him arriving in a big limousine. Ford's plate was preserved behind glass, along with the silverware he'd used, his napkin, the menu he'd looked at.

After 1992, an Oriental-motif casino called Lady Luck appeared next door -- a barge decked out like a Chinese restaurant, complete with dragons and lanterns and fans. One Saturday when Rick and his girlfriend, Rie, were eating at Fisherman's Wharf, they spent the meal eyeing this new casino. Afterward, they decided to give it a try.

Lady Luck was larger than the paddleboats -- higher ceilings, more room. It was garish and silly inside, but it had charm. The Oriental decor was oddly coupled with loud pop music, waves of colored lights, and women in startlingly short skirts and tight tops. It was chilly in the casino, even in August.

Rick and Rie walked around, looked over the shoulders of the table-games players, tried their hands at video poker and the slot machines. They started with quarters and won a little, then moved up to half dollars and dollars. At a bank of dollar machines, one of them hit a small jackpot, and then the other hit one. Two sevens and a wild cherry. A minute later, Rick hit a five-hundred-dollar jackpot. Pretty soon they were carrying around buckets of dollar tokens, and gambling didn't seem so bad. They walked out with eleven hundred dollars of the casino's money, feeling as though they'd won the lottery. Eleven hundred dollars that wasn't theirs.

Later, a similar thing would happen to Steve and Melanie, his wife. We learned that this was typical, that it happened just this way for a lot of people who went to casinos. You win something sizable, and thereafter gambling takes up residence in your imagination. You remember the visit. It's a key to the business -- the first time you walk away with the casino's money. When we compared notes about these first trips, we indulged a light euphoria. Casinos were garish and grotesque and the people might be seedy, but the money was swell. We talked about buying books on slot machines, finding out which ones to play, what the odds were, how to maximize advantage and minimize risk. We were serious and excited; something new had come into our otherwise quiet lives. Neither of us had any idea how much those first jackpots would eventually cost.

Copyright 2000 by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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