Jerry needed $10,000 and he needed it by the end of the week, or else he was going to lose his business. He explained to his wife Karen about creditors and the money he had to borrow to make the renovations on his store, but she honestly couldn't understand how he could have been so wrong. Karen had always loved and trusted Jerry, but she had known that borrowing that money would be a mistake right from the start.
Jerry emptied the savings account he shared with his wife and found a total of $2,000. Not enough to make the payment, but enough to get started. In one night, Jerry thought he could turn that $2,000 into $10,000. Karen wanted to know exactly how he planned to do that.
"The casino, Karen," Jerry said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. As if the only reasonable way to get money was by gambling.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Karen asked. These were the same words she had used when he had borrowed the money in the first place.
Jerry explained that back when he was younger, he had been a real hot shot in the casinos. He went three times with his college buddies and cleaned up at the blackjack tables. Of course, as he got older he moved on to more sensible things, like a business and marriage, but he never forgot his luck on the blackjack tables. And wasn't he still the same guy he had been ten years ago? If he was lucky then, he was lucky now.
Karen wasn't so sure.
But she was still a good, faithful wife, so she agreed to go down to Atlantic City with Jerry for the weekend. Atlantic City didn't have the same ring as Las Vegas, but they were only two hours drive away from Atlantic City, so the ride would be nearly free. They'd get a hotel for one night then drive back the next day, $8,000 richer. That was the plan.
Karen had never been to Atlantic City before, and she found herself dazzled by it. After Jerry and Karen unloaded their light luggage at the cheap hotel Jerry had made reservations in, they went straight to the famous boardwalk where the fanciest hotels and casinos were located. Even though it was the evening, the sheer magnitude of people on the boardwalk startled Karen. Signs advertised cheap souvenirs, saltwater taffy, and rides across the boardwalk in carts pushed by young men.
Jerry took Karen's hand and led her to the Trump Taj Mahal. It was set up to look like a cartoon version of its Indian namesake and Karen was charmed. The first thing she laid eyes on were rows and rows of slot machines. People were inserting coins into the machines as if they were machines themselves and lights blinked and alarms went off. Karen thought she might have had an epileptic seizure if she were prone to such things.
"This is amazing," Karen remarked.
"You ain't seen nothing yet, babe," Jerry said, flinging his arm around her shoulder and winking furtively. He led her in the direction of the machines.
A cloud of smoke rose up above the jingling of coins and clung stubbornly to Karen's clothes. She now had a chance to study the people around her. Many of them were elderly folks, come in to have a little excitement on the weekend. Karen noticed that the women who weren't elderly appeared somewhat gaudy. They wore too much make-up and their hair was too teased. Karen self-consciously wondered if she herself appeared gaudy in the dim light of the casino. After all, she hadn't known how to dress for a casino, so she had put on a little more make-up than usual, and spent some extra time with her hair.
Karen caught a glimpse of herself in one of the casino mirrors, and firmly decided that she didn't look gaudy. She was only thirty and looked like she was in her early twenties. Her black dress was short, but not cheap. Tight, but not ridiculous. She looked good.
Karen began to wonder where Jerry was leading her. He was gripping her hand and moving at a rapid pace so that Karen began to bump into people passing by. After her tenth muttered sorry, Jerry came to a halt in front of a short staircase. Jerry hadn't spoken during their entire trip through the casino, but now he became truly silent. Karen sensed a sort of reverence. She ascended the staircase with him and her eyes went wide when she noticed the sign declaring the minimum betting limit to be a hundred dollars.
"Here," Jerry whispered in her ear, "is where it all happens."
They sat down at one of the blackjack tables. The table was nicer than the ones in the rest of the casino, cleaner somehow. The seats had armrests and were firmly built. The dealer, a slick-looking gentleman, was better dressed than the dealers downstairs. Karen felt intimidated.
There was only one other person at their table. It was a man in his early thirties, dressed in a shirt and casual suit-jacket that couldn't hide a great chest. His features were finely chiseled, and Karen thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen in her life. He had a drink in his left hand, which he took occasional swigs from. He smiled at Karen when she sat down, and she felt her hands tremble. He was the sort of man she had always dreamed about, but they had never approached her and she never had the nerve to approach them.
The mystery man was in the middle of finishing a hand when Karen and Jerry sat down. Even though the minimum was a hundred dollars, the man had five hundred sitting on the table. He had fifteen showing in his blackjack hand and the dealer was asking if he wanted to hit.
The man smiled again and Karen got the distinct feeling that the smile was aimed at her. He tapped on the table, indicating he wanted another hit. He didn't hesitate and didn't seem the slightest bit worried.
The dealer gave him another card, which was a queen-he was over, and had lost the hand. As the dealer scooped away the five hundred dollars in chips on the table, the man seemed completely unperturbed. "That's the way it goes," he said with a shrug. Karen thought there would never be a day when she would have enough money that she could lose five hundred dollars in fifteen seconds and not care a drop.
Jerry laid the two thousand dollars on the blackjack table and the dealer converted it into twenty hundred-dollar chips. Karen saw the tremor in her husband's hand as he laid one of those chips on the table to bet.
Jerry and the stranger had picture cards as their first cards, and the dealer got a seven. Jerry gripped the table so hard that his knuckles turned white. The stranger got a two as his second card and it seemed that the dealer was hesitating before he turned over Jerry's card.
It was an ace. "Blackjack," the dealer declared.
Jerry cried out. He hugged Karen and kissed her full on the lips. "You're my lucky charm, babe," he said to her.
The dealer smiled as he paid off Jerry, then he turned to the good-looking stranger. "Hit, sir?"
The stranger nodded. The dealer dealt another card, which turned out to be yet another queen. He scooped away another five hundred dollars of the stranger's money.
Karen was amazed. This man had just lost a thousand dollars in a matter of minutes, but seemed completely undisturbed by this. He shrugged again and smiled at Karen so that her clitoris throbbed delightfully. "I guess I need a lucky charm too," he said.
Jerry's luck turned for the worse after that. He didn't lose every hand, but in an hour, every penny of the $2,000 he had started with was gone. When he lost his last chip, he stared at the table dumbly, rubbing his hands together. Karen didn't know what to say. She touched Jerry's shoulder. "Honey, it'll be okay." She didn't have any confidence in her words.
"Fuck off," Jerry said, jerking away from her. His eyes stared wildly. "I'm a good blackjack player. Tonight, you messed me up. The only difference between now and all the times I won a lot of money was you. You're bad luck."
"Jerry…" Karen said, tears welling up in her eyes.
"No, fuck off," Jerry said. "I mean it. We're fucked and it's your fault."
He stood up and Karen stood up too, meaning to follow him and talk. "I'm sorry, Jerry…"
"I need some time alone," he declared. "Just…leave me alone, okay?"
Jerry stormed off and Karen sat back down, staring at the blackjack table numbly. The sight of the tragedy.
"Karen, is it?" the stranger asked her.
Karen looked up, blinking back tears. She nodded.
"Come sit with me," the stranger said. "I think you'll be good luck for me."
Karen nearly laughed. "No, I don't think so. Unless you want to lose all your money."
"Karen," the stranger said, staring at her with the most beautiful brown eyes she had ever seen. "I'll be very hurt if you don't sit next to me. Please."
Karen couldn't say no to those eyes. She stood up as if in a trance and took the seat closest to the stranger. It was funny-when he was so close, she could almost feel his presence touching her. The lovely scent of his cologne filled her nostrils.
"Thank you," the stranger said. "And since I know your name, I think it's only fair you know mine. I'm Conrad."
"Nice to meet you, Conrad," Karen said. For some reason, she stuck out her hand. He picked it up gently and kissed it. She had never had her hand kissed before as a greeting and it struck her as oddly magical. She must have appeared shocked because he grinned mischievously at her.
Conrad received two picture cards, and the dealer went bust with twenty-three. When Conrad won, Karen let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
"See?" Conrad said. "I told you that you were good luck."
"You better stop while you're ahead," she advised.
"Who said I'm ahead?"
Karen nodded at the pile of chips in front of him. "You nearly doubled that stack while I've been here."
"Yeah," Conrad agreed. "But I halved it before you got here. For the whole weekend, I'm down about six thou."
"Wow," Karen breathed.
Conrad shrugged. "Money I don't worry about. Money can always be replaced."
"You don't worry because you have it," Karen pointed out.
"Maybe," Conrad admitted. "But maybe it's only when you have a lot of money that you realize how unimportant money is. Your boyfriend…he may have lost a couple of thousand dollars, but he has you, and that's what matters."
Karen didn't bother to tell Conrad that Jerry was her husband, not her boyfriend.
"I need to get out of this place," Karen said. "Just the sight of this table is making me sick."
"You won't stay for a few more hands?" Conrad asked, disappointment clear on his face.
Karen shook her head. "I can't bear the tension, really. But…if you'd like to join me on the boardwalk…"
She couldn't believe she was saying this. Here she was, a married woman, and she was hitting on a guy in a casino. But this wasn't just any guy. This was Conrad, the most attractive guy she had ever seen. Even sitting with him in a café would be like a dream.
Conrad looked conflicted. He looked toward Karen and then back at something in the corner of the room. He frowned and sighed. He tossed a hundred dollars on the table as a tip for the dealer. "Okay, let's go," he said.
Karen smiled. She hopped off her seat, expecting Conrad to follow. Instead, he raised his hand into the air and waved a little. A few seconds later, a muscular, barrel-chested man appeared, rolling over a wheelchair. The man helped Conrad pull the seat he was in away from the table, and then lifted him into the wheelchair. Conrad's legs dangled lifelessly as he was lifted into the chair, and they appeared very thin underneath his pants legs. He adjusted them in the metal footrests, then sat up to face Karen. He smiled a little awkwardly. "So, uh…you still want to go?"
Karen swallowed. She thought that all the blood must have drained out of her face. What had happened to this seemingly virile young man? She wanted to ran away right then, but something stopped her. "Okay," she said. "Let's go."
"You look a little upset," Conrad commented.
"No," Karen said hesitantly. She tried not to stare at Conrad's thin, motionless legs. "I told you, let's go."
Conrad smiled. He wheeled his chair down the ramp and Karen followed close behind. "Atlantic City is completely wheelchair accessible," he explained. "There are lots of people around in chairs. It's very easy to get around."
"Do you…come here often?" Karen asked.
"Every few months," Conrad said. "Take a break from the office, you know? I can blow some money, have a few drinks. It's a good time."
"By the way," Conrad said. "This is Dennis." He took his hand off one wheel to gesture at his muscle-bound acquaintance. "He helps me out whenever I need it."
Karen found her imagination running wild. She wondered if this handsome young man had been in a wheelchair his whole life. He seemed very comfortable with it, as he maneuvered his way through the crowd. She pictured him as the son of a rich businessman, somehow born disabled by some freak of nature, but still expected to follow in his father's footsteps.
They got outside and Karen was grateful for the fresh air. She thought she probably reeked of cigarette smoke. Conrad's wheelchair bumped along on the boardwalk. "Dennis," Conrad said to the other man. "Would you get a carriage for us?"
"A carriage?" Karen asked.
"You seem a little uncomfortable with the chair, if you don't mind my saying so," Conrad said. "We'll take a carriage ride and you can forget about the chair for a little while."
Dennis stopped one of the man-pushed carriages and Conrad rolled alongside it. Conrad looked at the carriage carefully, put his hand on the seat, and tried to hoist himself inside. But the seat was too high and he was unsuccessful. "I may need a little help here," he said, smiling charmingly.
Dennis lifted Conrad out of his chair, into the carriage. Karen was aware of the way Conrad's legs twisted together. He definitely couldn't move them at all. Probably paralysis. Once he was inside the carriage, he adjusted his feet so that they looked almost normal. Karen climbed into the carriage after him.
"This is better, isn't it?" Conrad asked her. He was very close to her, and she could feel his breath when he spoke. It made her tingle delightfully.
"Can I ask you something?" Karen said.
"Have you…" she hesitated. "Have you been in a wheelchair your whole life?"
"No, it's been a little over two years," he told her.
She raised an eyebrow. "Wow, you're…very well adjusted."
"Thanks." Conrad smiled. "I was on some mountain climbing expedition and my rope came undone. My spine was severed in the fall and I was paralyzed from the waist down. I could have been upset about never being able to walk again, but the truth is, I'm just grateful for being alive. I could have died out there."
"That's a good attitude," Karen commented.
"It's taken some adjusting," Conrad admitted. "But I'm happy with my life the way it is now."
Karen looked down at his legs. "You can't feel anything?"
Conrad shook his head. "It's like my legs aren't even there." He looked up at her with his beautiful brown eyes. "You could touch them…if you want."
"Oh, that's okay," Karen said quickly. But she did want to touch them. She felt strangely aroused and suddenly wanted to run her hands all over those thin, paralyzed legs.
His face flushed. "I mean, I thought it might make you more comfortable with the whole thing. I wasn't trying to come on to you."
Karen felt her own face turning red. She felt a little disappointed, in a way. She had hoped he was coming on to her. But she could see that he lacked the self-confidence. "I'm married," Karen blurted out.
Conrad raised an eyebrow. "So that guy in the casino was your husband?"
"I guess I'm not that surprised," Conrad said. "Maybe a little relieved too. To be honest, I've felt a lot of pressure with women since my accident. You see…there haven't…been any."
"Any what?" Karen asked dumbly.
"Women," Conrad told her. "I haven't had any relationships since my accident."
"Oh," Karen said.
"I'm sorry," Conrad said quickly. "I didn't mean to start dumping my personal problems on you."
"It's okay," Karen said. She enjoyed the sound of his voice and the gentle breeze of his breath on her neck. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Conrad hesitated. "It's just that…women don't want a man who can't walk. They just don't. It doesn't matter how I act, how I look, how much money I have…all they can see is the wheelchair."
"That's not true…"
"It is true," Conrad insisted. "Women won't even talk to me anymore. Don't lie, Karen. I saw the look on your face when you saw the wheelchair. You wanted to run away."
"But I don't anymore," Karen said quietly.
Conrad flashed her a grateful smile. "You're nice," he said. "Your husband is so lucky."
The carriage came to a halt. Dennis had been following close behind with Conrad's wheelchair. He pulled up alongside the carriage and lifted his boss inside. Now that Karen had spoken to Conrad, she was very aware of his discomfort. He was an independent sort of person and hated the fact that he had to rely on somebody else for anything.
There was an outdoor café near where the carriage stopped, and Conrad suggested they have some coffee. "You mind if I stay in the chair?" he asked her, upon considering the seats. "I like knowing I can be mobile if I want."
Karen nodded. She wondered what it must be like to be paralyzed, sitting in a chair and knowing that you can't get up.
They ordered coffees and Dennis went to take a walk. "I'm sure you'll find the right woman," Karen said. "It may take some time, but I know you will."
"Thanks for saying so," Conrad said. "But even if I did…"
Karen frowned. "What?"
"Ever since my accident," he said in a low voice, "I've had some trouble with…erections."
"Oh," Karen murmured.
"I mean, I get them," Conrad said quickly. "But…they don't last as long. As the feeling isn't as intense as it used to be. I worry that…I wouldn't be able to please a woman in bed anymore. I used to be great in bed."
"I'll bet," Karen commented. She remembered her instinct when she had first met him-to jump right into bed with him. "But you do still get hard, right?"
"I'm hard now," Conrad told her, his face a little flushed.
Karen ventured a look under the table. She saw Conrad's penis straining against his pants. She felt her clitoris start to throb until the feeling was almost painful. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and touched his hard penis.
Conrad's eyes widened. He hadn't expected her to do this. He smiled at her, at once happy and grateful. He reached out and touched her hand as she continued to massage his penis, which was growing thicker by the second.
"Karen!" a furious voice yelled.
Karen jerked her hand away from Conrad. She looked up and saw Jerry standing in front of their table, his face blood-red. "Jerry," she murmured.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he cried. He cast a furious glance in Conrad's direction. "Buddy, I'm gonna kick the shit out of you for touching my wife."
Conrad stared up at Jerry's face. He backed his chair away from the table. "Yeah? I'd like to see you try."
Jerry apparently hadn't noticed the wheelchair before, and his jaw dropped open in shock. "Oh, shit," he said. He shook his head. "Okay, listen, I'm sorry. Never mind." He turned to Karen. "Let's go, honey."
"Hang on a minute!" Conrad was rounding the side of the table in his chair and approaching Jerry. "You don't think I can kick your ass just because I'm in a wheelchair? I work out, shithead. I can take you."
"No," Jerry said firmly, backing away. "Listen, I'm not going to beat up a guy in a wheelchair."
Conrad took a swing at Jerry's belly. Jerry caught his arm and gave it a good yank. Already off balance from the punch, Conrad toppled out of his wheelchair and fell face first onto the ground. His face turned very red and he didn't say anything.
"Listen, I'm sorry," Jerry said quickly. He looked at Karen. "Karen, let's go now. Let's go."
Dennis heard the commotion and came running over. He looked down at his boss on the floor and red-faced Jerry, who was backing away. Dennis seemed unsure of what to do. "Con…" Dennis said. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Conrad muttered. "Just…Karen, get out of here. Go home with your husband. I'm fine."
Karen rose from her seat. Conrad was refusing Dennis's help and pulled himself toward his wheelchair with his hands. He grasped the arms of the chair and awkwardly hoisted himself into the seat. Once again, his legs were twisted and he had to adjust them.
"Jesus," Jerry said, linking his arm into Karen's. "Poor guy. He's pretty messed up."
As Jerry led Karen away, she couldn't help sneaking wistful glances in Conrad's direction.
to be continued...