Updated: Nov 2, 2022
“The one in the middle, Billy? He was also one for the high life. In his case, it was gambling,” Maria said, shaking her head in sorrow.
“I suppose, when you grow up wealthy, it is easy to start gambling. I couldn’t afford to even if I wanted to,” I ventured tentatively. “Which I don’t.”
“Good for you, Veronica. I wish Billy had had your good sense. In his early 20s, he began to spend more and more time up in Vegas, with friends of his who were bad characters. They would drink and gamble, drink and gamble, for days on end. Sometimes, Billy would win. Then he would be on cloud nine, treating his parents — and even me, sometimes — to expensive dinners and concerts. Once, he flew all of us to New York City to see the Cardinals play the Giants! I don’t even care for football, but it was wonderful to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and Times Square! He was always sweet with us, even me. He was always generous when he was winning.
“Then there were the times he was losing. Those were very bad times in this house. He would arrive back from the casinos and one look at him, anyone could see he had lost. He would start to beg his papa for money. They would scream at each other, Mr. Smith saying he was a no-good drunk, Billy calling his papa a “tightwad.” That man was so generous with those children, Billy had no right to say that. In the end, Mr. Smith always gave in, swearing it would be the last time he would fund his son’s vices. But it never was. By all the saints in heaven, I wish he had said no to Billy that last time.” Maria looked off into the distance and I saw a tear roll down her cheek. She brushed it away with a white handkerchief she quickly took from her pocket.
After a moment, I prompted, “The last time?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear about it, though. Was this my father’s story? Was my father Billy, the gambling drunk?
“The last time he went to Vegas with those friends of his, someone brought a pistol. Maybe it was Billy. There were plenty of guns in this house back in those days and Billy often stayed here for weeks. He said Vegas burned him out and he needed to recover somewhere with more kindness. He would always kiss me on the cheek after he said that. What a handsome young man he was! Oh, I loved that boy, despite what he became, despite what happened.
“There was an old-fashioned pistol in the room at Billy’s suite at the Bellagio, where these fine friends of his and Billy were playing poker. These were all idle, wealthy young men, Veronica, all of them. They thought they had done everything already even though they were only 25 or so. They were tired of betting mere money on poker. That’s what one of them said afterwards. And they were drunk, very drunk, another one admitted. They decided to “up the ante” as they called it. No more chips, no more money would they bet. In this new poker, the loser — I’m not sure how they decided who lost the worst — but that person would have to put a gun to his head. Only one bullet would be in the chamber, they said. The loser would spin the chamber, then put the gun to his head and pull the trigger. One in six, they said. Pretty good odds that nothing would happen. Well, that was the case for the first two men who lost the card game. They spun the chamber. They put the gun to their own head. They pulled the trigger. And then everyone laughed when nothing happened but a click. Just a game, they said, a real man’s game, with real stakes, they told us.
“You can guess the rest.” Maria shook her head, her mind’s eye, like mine, imagining the scene. “Billy was only lucky some of the time. This night, he was out of luck.”
“He played Russian Roulette over a lost poker hand? They were all just sitting there at the table, watching him do it?” It was hard to believe even rich guys could be that stupid, get that drunk. But then, what did I know about the children of the wealthy?
“Yes. We got a call from Jason, a boy he’d grown up with. Madam and I flew up there right away, of course. Mr. Smith was too ill at that time to travel. He was on dialysis for his kidneys. Madam was too upset to identify the body, so she asked me to do it. They tried to clean him up before showing me, but when a man blows his brains out at close range …” Maria let out a sob and muffled it with her handkerchief. “I will never forget what I saw. My boy! My Billy!”
I leaned forward and grasped Maria’s hand awkwardly. I was still supposed to be icing my twisted ankle. “I’m so sorry to hear about this, Maria. What a sad story.”
“Mr. Smith sold all the guns in the house after Billy died. We have never had one here since, I am happy to say.
“At least he never married, never left any children behind. That was the only mercy in this sad tale.” Maria replied, giving me the answer, to whether Billy, the gambling drunk idiot was my father. Hopefully, he was merely my departed uncle. Of course, there was always the possibility of a child Maria didn’t know about …
“Unlike his baby brother, Michael,” Maria continued. “His is the story that has to do with love, not money.
The pit of my stomach dropped. Here it comes. Am I ready to hear it?
“Michael’s story is the saddest of all,” she said. And then she told me a story I recognized.