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gambler’s edge :: cp chang

I was only a kid that year, living in Chicago’s Chinatown with my parents and my lao ye, my grandpa. Grandpa was the one who took care of me; my mom was a nurse at Mercy Hospital, my dad a student at IIT by day and a parking attendant in the Loop by night. I pretty much only saw my parents at dinner time, when my dad would shout at me to turn the TV down and my mom would practically fall asleep in her rice bowl. I wouldn’t exactly have called Grandpa my only friend, but he was the one who woke and fed me in the mornings and met me after school for the five-block walk home.

The fall that I turned eight, my grandpa taught me how to calculate percentages. Not because math is something Asians do, and not because he was a math teacher, even though he had been one. No, he taught me percentages by telling me about the vig. The vig is the cut that a bookie takes off the top of a wager: Fifteen percent is what my grandpa took, and I did the math when tagging along with him. It was September, and Grandpa would pick me up from school and take me on a walk down Wentworth Avenue, where we’d drop by every shop, restaurant, and bakery.

What gave me the most joy about that walk was the smells: the buttery scent of almond cookies, the crisp savory whiff of roasting duck, and that gentle tickle of incense that makes you want to sneeze even though you can’t. Grandpa would chat with every shop owner and waiter and busboy, in more dialects of Chinese than I knew existed. Mandarin and Cantonese I recognized, but there were some that might as well have been Russian for all I knew. He would shake hands, tell jokes, and take bets. (He was always popular at church, and it made my mom happy to see her father with so many friends. She never knew that he was just being a salesman.)

I would stare into the cases of baked treats, or maybe walk the aisles of jade Buddhas and ivory chopsticks, while my lao ye would talk football with the skinny, greasy men—they were always men, and they were always too lanky and too oily. But before any money changed hands, Grandpa would wave me over and say, “Chan Su-Su here—” Su-Su meant “Uncle;” when times were good, everyone was supposedly my uncle—“Chan Su-Su wants to win 20 dollars on Bears.” (You always talked to the customer about what they could win, not that there was luck involved, and NEVER that they might lose.) “How much he must give us?”

“To win 20?” I’d scrunch my mouth and ponder Grandpa’s flip-flops. “He has to bet 23?”

Grandpa and Chan Su-Su, the chief waiter at Eight Dragons restaurant, would grin at each other, Grandpa would ruffle my hair with his coarse-skinned hand, and the waiter would hand me a twenty and three ones.

I would put the money neatly in my Thundercats lunchbox, and we’d go to the next restaurant or store down the street. Thursdays through Sunday mornings, we’d collect bets. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we paid the winners. Grandpa never touched the money until we got home nor when we left home with the payout. I knew instinctively that it had nothing to do with trusting me; Grandpa wasn’t like that. He didn’t want to hold the money on the street, but his hand on my shoulder would always get a little tighter whenever we passed one of the blue-shirted cops who walked the streets of Chinatown. I can’t imagine that the police ever suspected that a small, limping, old Chinese man and his scrawny, gap-toothed grandson were the bookies of Chinatown.

Once I asked him, “That waiter only wins 20 dollars if the Bears win, right?”

Grandpa smiled through crooked teeth. “Only if Bears winning more than 7 points. Must beat point spread.”

I nodded. “But you keep his $3, right?” He frowned at me, and I thought I was going to get spanked, but he didn’t say anything. He just looked in the shop windows we passed, at the colorful fans and porcelain figurines. Grandpa seemed like everyone’s friend, but I suspected he was just pretending. We collected ten to fifteen bets on a school day, and easily double that on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. Three or four thousand dollars passed through my hands each week, and Grandpa kept 15% of everything. Except for the twenty dollars a week he gave me. It wasn’t exactly a bribe to keep me quiet, more like my fair share (fair, according to Grandpa) but I did know that I wasn’t supposed to tell my parents. I kept my money behind a loose piece of plywood in my bedroom. I didn’t have anything to spend my money on; I was okay just to watch TV.

I didn’t know how Grandpa spent his money. Mondays I spent the afternoons at home by myself, and he went out, always coming home before my parents did, never saying anything about where he went.

When he didn’t answer my question, I asked him instead, “Why do people gamble?”

At that, he finally smiled at me again. “Gamblers think they know better than everyone. In China, everyone believes in luck, even though we are very unlucky people.” He sighed at this. “But in America, everyone believes in smart.” He slapped his thigh then and laughed, a high-pitched warble that sounded like a morning bird. “You think you are smart? That’s how you know you are dumb!”

That year was 1985, and every sports bettor thought he was a genius. The whole city was crazy about the Bears: Walter Payton and Jim McMahon and the 46 defense and Refrigerator Perry. By November, business was better than ever for Grandpa, and you’d think he’d be happy about that. But the trick about being a bookie is that you need to keep the bets even on both sides. If it’s even, the winning bets cancel out the losing bets, and you always have enough cash to pay your customers who won. But the Bears were 10-0, and everyone was taking the Bears, and winning. Grandpa was shelling out cash, and while he never stopped smiling to his customers, his face turned into a scowl of papery skin and white stubble as soon as we got home. I’d sit on the carpet in front of the TV, and he’d sit on the flowered couch behind me, counting the money in the lunchbox and making notes in the little purple notebook he always carried around with him.

The day after the Bears beat the Lions by three touchdowns, Grandpa picked me up from school, and we took the bus over to Bridgeport, a neighborhood we’d never been to before. We went to a bar, a place called Posto Nostra, and I stood by the jukebox as he talked to some white men with dark hair who smoked fat cigars. Grandpa laid a bet himself, a thousand dollars on the over—a bet that the total score of the game would be higher than 42 points.

“Grandpa,” I asked when we left, “why are you betting?”

His shoulders slumped, and he looked beaten, like the way he did when my father would berate him at the dinner table in Chinese, for what reason I had no idea. “No one is betting Dallas,” he said. “If Chicago covers again…” He trailed off, biting on his fingernails as we rode the bus back to Chinatown. “Everyone think that score will be low because Chicago defense so good,” he said. “But Chicago offense is good, too!”

The Bears won that game 44-0 and Grandpa won his bet. But his win didn’t even cover his losses to his customers. Even I knew that Grandpa should have been following his customers’ bets, placing the same kind of wager with the Italians, but he wouldn’t do it; it was bad luck for a bookie to chase his customers’ bets with his own money.

The coming week, not a single person would bet against the Bears, no matter how high Grandpa pushed the point spread, no matter how much Grandpa talked about the Bears’ luck running out. By the end of the week, we had four thousand dollars, in tens and twenties, stashed away in small white burlap sacks that used to hold rice. We hid the sacks throughout the apartment so my parents wouldn’t find them. In the crawl space, in our linen closet, even under my bed. The money always smelled like the places it came from, and our linen closet smelled suspiciously like roast pork. Every single dollar was on the Bears to cover. If the Bears won by more than13 points, Grandpa would owe eight grand to his customers. I worried, but only because Grandpa worried. I didn’t have any idea of what would happen if the Bears won. But Grandpa sweated even while the trees around us shed all their leaves and the weather turned cold enough for me to wear my big green coat.

On Sunday morning before the game, we went back to the Bridgeport bar. Before we left home, he tried to take one of the burlap sacks with us, but my mother kept bustling through the hallways doing housework, and Grandpa got spooked. We arrived at the bar without any money on us, but it was okay; the Italian men said they would front Grandpa the money. They smiled big shiny smiles when they said this, but Grandpa seemed to shrink a little bit. He bet five thousand dollars on the over again, telling the Italians that it was a sure thing over and over again. They just nodded and smiled.

We rode the bus home holding hands. Grandpa’s hands were cold.

The Bears beat Atlanta, 36-0, covering the spread, but not the over. All Grandpa needed was another touchdown. Grandpa lost five thousand to the Italians and owed eight thousand to his customers. But he didn’t have enough cash to pay everyone. I knew this because the Monday after school, I watched him count the money over and over again, like it would somehow grow if he just kept counting it.

So he stole the money from my parents. My parents didn’t trust the banks; they kept their savings in a large cookie tin, twenties and fifties wrapped in rubber bands that used to bind stalks of Chinese vegetables. They had been saving money for as long as I was alive, saving up to buy a car, a Mercury Sable, I think. The cookie tin was on the top shelf of the kitchen pantry; there was no reason to hide it from anyone else in the family.

I never saw Grandpa take the money, but Tuesday morning, he left the apartment right after waking me up, letting me walk to school by myself. He left the cookie tin on the kitchen counter, not even bothering to hide it. I thought about putting the tin back on the shelf, covering for Grandpa, I really did, but it suddenly didn’t make any sense anymore. What would stop Grandpa? If he took my parents’ money, what was to stop him from taking mine? No, when my parents got home, I would tell them that Grandpa took it. And I would tell them why.

But I knew that there wasn’t enough money in the tin to pay everyone off. There was at most a couple thousand, which meant Grandpa had to short someone. It turns out he decided to pay the Chinese customers instead of the Italians. Maybe it was out of a sense of loyalty to his customers, because they trusted him, but mostly I think he stiffed the Italians purely because they weren’t Chinese.

There were any number of ways things could have happened after that. Maybe the Italians would have threatened Grandpa. Maybe Grandpa could have talked them into giving him another week to pay up. And if he had, maybe the next week would have been the perfect game for Grandpa; after all, it was the very next week that the Bears lost on Monday Night Football. But none of that happened. None of that happened because my lao ye, a friend to everyone in Chinatown, knew he had stolen from his own daughter and son-in-law, knew he had angered some mobsters who were in a much bigger league than his own, and he ran away from it all by hanging himself.

I waited at school that Tuesday just long enough to be sure he wasn’t picking me up. When I got home, I nearly walked into his feet. He had hanged himself from the light fixture just inside our front door. His face was an angry blue, and his tongue jutted out of his mouth. There was pee on the floor, and his flip-flops were still miraculously on his feet. I was stunned for a long time. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I only went to call my mother’s emergency phone number at the hospital when my hand started cramping; my hands had been balled into fists for too long.

At the funeral, I wore a white starched shirt that was too small—it was borrowed from our next door neighbors—and my corduroy pants itched so much that I was constantly scratching my butt. The pastor talked about how brave my lao ye was, to come all the way from Guangdong, where he had been an English teacher at the university, to be with his daughter and son-in-law and grandson. To come halfway around the world, to a new country, a new culture, and a new life, just to be with your family, that took great courage, said the pastor. But I knew better. My Grandpa was no hero. He was a coward.

My mother wept for days. My father was furious that our life savings were gone. He cursed my mother for having a thief for a father. Even with her already crying, he hit her across the face, as if it were her fault what Grandpa did, as if it were her fault we were broke again. We stopped going to church; we were ashamed to show our faces in public. Grandpa was right; we Chinese were unlucky.

I never told anybody what I knew, and the gamblers of Chinatown, the waiters and busboys and shop clerks who all knew who I was, who all knew why Grandpa killed himself, they kept their silence, too. In the end, the so-called “uncles” protected me after all. I could walk into any pastry shop or any restaurant in Chinatown and get a free mini-mooncake, or a free pork bun, or a free pack of White Rabbit candy. My mother just thought it was out of pity, and the gamblers of Chinatown never let her believe otherwise. For something like this, guilt was a community thing.

When the Bears played the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, my mother, who had never been a sports fan herself, watched the game out of respect for her father. My father watched the game because it was the American thing to do. I watched the game for the action. I had asked Chan Su-Su to place some bets for me: the Bears giving 10, over 38 points, and even a prop bet on whether Refrigerator Perry would score a touchdown. When the Bears won the game in a rout, the whole city celebrated. We could hear gunfire from our kitchen window. My mother wept. My father turned off the TV with a satisfied snap of the knob. I went upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, pried off the secret piece of plywood from the wall, and counted my money.


CP Chang’s writing has appeared in Upstairs At Duroc, Artisan, Nerve, and WordRiot, among others. He lives in Chicago with his wife.