Nothing Like a Doll

It’s more years back now than I care to remember. More years back than the marriage, the war, the lousy job at the A&P I wished was just a joke. Before the crash, even. We was just kids, really, in the grand scheme of things. Well, he was a kid. I wasn’t that much older, but I sure felt it at the time. Five years is everything with a kid who’d just quit high school.

I met Sky the same week I met Adelaide. It even made sense in a sick sort of way that we got married at the same time, even if it was in that runty little Save a Soul Mission. He was a kid. Sixteen, I think. His first crap game with the big boys. He always had Lady Luck on his side - that doll weren’t never fair, but all dolls loved Sky. It was my crap game. Had been for a coupla years. Oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. Until the war, that is. The Italians came on stronger and stronger, got city backing, and while the Thirties weren’t bad for Nathan Detroit, after the war, there weren’t nothing for a guy called Nathan Dershowitz. As for Sky, well, who knows what Obadiah Masterson would have made of it? He wasn’t there to see it. Obadiah. Fourteen years I’d known the guy, and I had to learn from the mission doll that his name was Obadiah. Of course, he never knew I was Nathan Dershowitz, so fair’s fair, I guess.

I’d known him for a while before we ever got started. Was hot and heavy with Adelaide, who wasn’t much older than Sky. Anyways, this kid showed up at my crap game one night. Won more than he lost, but not by the numbers we’d see later. Good looking boy, too. Asked Benny Southstreet after. Now, Benny ain’t never been the sharpest tool in the shed, but you ask him to chat up a guy, he’ll remember well enough. Comes back to me a coupla days later. Tells me the kid’s name is Masterson, won’t give a first name, come down from some hole of a town like Scarsdale but not. One of those runaways, had a fight with his old man, wanted to see the city. He’d learned to shoot crap from a truck driver, found himself my game from a different one. I didn’t take him for anything at the time. But after a few months, his share of the pot kept getting bigger and mine kept getting smaller. I can’t run a crap game when my share keeps shrinking. There’s only so much I can do, you know? Then, like that, he was gone.

Had me worried. He was a kid. I sent Benny to find him. Turns out he’d switched his act on us. Used my money to finance a series of scams. That kid could scam you like no one’s business. He didn’t see them as scams, but really, who bets on shit like he was getting guys to bet on? Later he was infamous for that time he had eight guys betting he couldn’t force a fever higher than 101. But that was later. Not much later, but later. Instead of the horses, like Benny and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, he bet on human weakness. He’d get some kids to bet him something stupid and dangerous he couldn’t do. They’d think it was an easy five bucks. Then he’d take all their money after standing on one leg for an hour or something else just as stupid. He claimed he didn’t know for sure when he took those bets if he could do it, but fifty dollars is a mighty incentive for a man. I wasn’t going to bother with a two-bit scam artist. I had problems of my own keeping Benny and Nicely-Nicely in line and fending off Adelaide’s questions of when we was going to get married. Besides, he was a kid. I’d been running a crap game since I was his age. I’d known Broadway in and out since long before he fell off his turnip truck. Masterson wasn’t worth bothering about.

Until he showed up at the crap game again. Years later, but not many. Not long before the crash it must have been. Adelaide was chorus at the Hot Box by then but hadn’t been for long. He wasn’t a kid no more, he had a doll on his arm, nicer suit than any of my guys. And he won big. There was a style in his roll he didn’t have before. Nicely-Nicely didn’t know him at first. I knew him straight off, though. Looked king of the town, he did. “No dolls”, I told him.

“Nathan, you know a man rolls better with a doll on his arm.” He sounded so broad and classy you couldn’t take it for a complaint.

“And I run a fair game here. No dolls.”

So the doll left. And he cleaned up. I ain’t seen legit throws like that since. Except when Sky would come back, that is. He didn’t cheat. He was just golden. A born craps man. I shuffled along compared to him. That’s how I knew it’d all be right when he broke up that dust up with Big Jule. But that was much later. That was when he betrayed me with the mission doll. Anyways, he left with the rest at the end of the night, but came to me, without the doll, at Mindy’s about three in the morning. I was in a mood because of Adelaide, so I was stuffing my face with cheesecake like a doll or Nicely-Nicely.

“Hey, Nathan. Why have you got it in for me?”

“I ain’t got it in for nobody. But I don’t like cheats at my game.”

“I’m no cheat. Never have been.”

“What’s your game now, Masterson? The crap, the scams, something new? You finally make it over to horses like the rest of the world?”

“Why do you say a thing like that? Scams? I’ve never scammed anyone.”

“Stand on your leg for an hour? That’s a freak show scam.”

“Do you think I came out of a freak show?” Drove me nuts how we was all Bronx or Brooklyn or Lower East Side, and listening to him, you woulda thought him Park Avenue.

“I don’t know what you came outta, but you better go back in it.”

“It’s not a scam. Just simple curiosity. You bet on horses - that’s not based entirely on chance like craps. Same with me.”

“Chance is for fun; odds are for making money.”

“How does a guy get a doll without some green?”

“Hell if I know. I ain’t got none and I got a hell of a doll hanging round my neck.”

“You’ve got attractions. Oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York, and you can’t be more than thirty. That’s a sign of mighty strong ambition in a man.”

“It’s a sign that everyone else turns tail when the cops come around. It’s not ambition. It’s just balls.”

He looked at me eagerly. “You want a fair bet on chance?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Hey, Louie!” he called to the short order cook. “You talked to me today?”

He shook his head. “What you want, Sky?”

“Sky?” I asked Masterson. “When did you get yourself a name?”

He shrugged. “It happened. What do you want to bet on? Grease in the traps? Eggs in the fridge?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Let’s bet. Pure chance. You don’t know what’s back there and neither do I. Hundred smackers. Closest to right wins.”

“You’re fucking nuts.”

“Maybe. I’m trying to be friendly with you, Nathan. I don’t like to think you hate me. Fair bet. You pick it.”

I thought it was because he was still a kid. Didn’t realize at the time that this was precisely where his money had come from or that he’d live like this for another ten years doing far better than I ever did with my shitty crap game. So I bet. “Fine. Number of apples in the back. Write your number - I won’t be scammed with you picking a number one bigger than mine.”

So we wrote down our numbers and made Louie count. It was three in the morning - what else did he have to do? While he counted, we chatted about dolls. And it was easier, knowing there was a bet going that Masterson couldn’t have scammed.

It took him less than twenty minutes. “I got eighty-six back here. So, you win, Sky?”

“Let’s check our figures.”

He won. Hundred bucks down the drain. Two fucking apples more and I’d have had it. But it was fair.

“So why are they calling you Sky?” I asked him as I counted out his winnings.

“Because I bet sky-high on shit like this. What kind of odds can you lay on the absolute number of apples on any given day at Mindy’s? None. Gets a man a reputation.”

“So that’s what you’re after. A reputation.”

“I’m after a lot of things. Do you read, Nathan? Books, I mean, not the sheets from the track.” What could I say? I ain’t cracked a book since I left school. “There’s a man called Fitzgerald, and he wrote a book about a man called Gatsby. Gatsby wasn’t born Gatsby. He created himself. Money, influence, prestige - all created by his own hand. Born to nothing. I want to be Gatsby - only I don’t intend to get myself killed over a doll.”

“So that’s why you came to New York? A book?”

“Hell no. Came to get the fuck away from my father.”

Good a reason as any - better than some dumb book. But I thought it best to leave. “I’ll see you around, won’t I?”

“Of course, Nathan, of course.”

And I did. Quite a bit. When I think back, it must have been Christmas of ’28 when it started. Twenty-nine was pretty subdued as a city, what with all the suicides. He came to the crap game again, but he didn’t leave with the others. We was having it in a garage, and there was a gorgeous cream and brown Nash that couldn’t have been a year old, but the windshield was totally busted. Leaning against that car, if you ignored the windshield, he looked a dream.

“Nathan, can we talk?”

“Sure, sure.” I was confused. “What you wanna talk about?”

“I like you. And I think we understand each other better than we pretend. I think you understand me better than any of your mooks if you really think about it.”

“That may be the case. But what’s it to you?” I found myself going ever closer to him. He was blond - you don’t hear that said much. Was a perfect match to that car with his blond hair and brown suit. He’d gotten taller than me, stupid kid.

“This.” He leaned in and kissed me. Now, you’d think a coupla guys like us never woulda even thought about it. You’d think I woulda pushed him off and punched his face in. I did no such thing. I grabbed him round the neck and pulled him even closer. Oh, sure, I had Adelaide at home, but all I could think about then was Sky’s tongue in my mouth and his leg against my dick.

Before I knew it, we was in the car, his hand inside my pants, him pumping me like a pro and barely giving me a chance to breathe through his kisses. He had lips like a doll, full and heavy, but he used them with all the force of a man. He knew too much for a kid with a religious father. He knew too much for a kid, period. But christ, was it beautiful.

And that wasn’t the only time. For a year or so, if we found ourselves alone, he’d push me up against a wall or a car and kiss me until I couldn’t breathe no more. He shot more crap in that year than he had in the previous three combined. I lost more in that year in than in the previous three combined. But there was something not right about the kid, and maybe that explains why he won so often on the dumbest shit known to man. We was alone the night before the crash. I always let him come to me - I didn’t know why he did it, but I figured it was for him to know and for him to do as he pleased. I was glad to just take whatever he’d give me - his tongue or his lips or his hand. I might actually have let him put it up my ass if he’d ever pulled my pants off. He was Sky, and heaven and earth would move for Sky, so why not me? But that night, he didn’t come. He hung around, but he didn’t come close, and he chatted about his new doll, and then he said the damnedest thing.

“Nathan, the world is going to change tomorrow. As sure as Mindy’s sells more strudel than cheesecake, the world is going to change. Gatsby’s era is done. Yours might just be beginning. So we can’t keep on like this. I’ll see you around.”

I did see him around. Saw him plenty, until that mission doll came into the picture. I still don’t know what he meant. Never did figure out anything about this Gatsby. My era never came, so I don’t know what the second half meant, either. Sky started to really rake it in after the crash with his stupid bets. You think I ever saw Havana? All I knew was that Sky was a better kisser than Adelaide, but Adelaide actually gave blow jobs - until we were married. Sure made a man miss Sky’s kisses, though. Especially when that mission doll took him off and made sure I never saw him again.

I don’t know why we did it. Forty years later, and I still don’t know why. I never knew why. I don’t think he really knew why. But the two of us, in the year before the crash, well, crashed. Sparks. Lightning. I don’t know. Maybe that was love. Killed me not that we stopped, but that he married the mission doll and went away. Killed me to see his name on a list of war dead. If one of us had to die in Sicily, it should have been me. The boy should have stayed golden. But he couldn’t, because he grew into a man. Christ, I miss him. Nothing like a doll, that kid. And there’s nothing left like him in the world.


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