Promises

There is nothing uplifting about a downmarket Las Vegas hotel. It’s simple living, hours in a stiff bed comforted by a flickering laptop screen, whatever junk food I could liberate from the giftshop downstairs, and the alarm telling me it’s time to escape again. On good nights, the only smell was the non-stop weed smoke from the rooms up and down the fourth floor hallway. On bad nights, sulphurous gas leaked from the pipes and whatever sewer ran below Flamingo Boulevard. Sometimes smells stick with me longer than the things I see. The sights cans can be written off as hallucinations or bad dreams. The smells present as reality, no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise.

There were two windows. One looked out into a white concrete wall. The other looked out from the end of the shower into an alley. It was like washing in a submarine with a porthole to nowhere. The stain on the carpet might have been rust. Might’ve been blood. It was there long before me and would be there long after I was gone. The room service menu was a stripped down version of the restaurant downstairs, a TGI Fridays staffed many times by a 47-year-old double-shifting bartender who liked to flirt.

I spent two weeks in that hotel, during which time my son learned to ride a bike.

***

My wife used an intensifier in the middle of an adjective. That’s how amazing it was. Somewhere in between the prefix “un” and the word “believable,” my sweet little woman who won’t let me get by with a comma splice inserted an intensifier best left to the imagination. In the time it had taken her to walk the dog around the block, my father-in-law taught my son to ride a bike. At the time this happened, I was 2,100 miles away with an empty bag of Funyuns on the nightstand beside me. Later that night, a friend of mine introduced me to somebody with the words, “His son just learned to ride a bike today. That’s a pretty big deal. So, be nice to him.” The last time I worked the WSOP my dog died. This time, the boy learned to ride a bike. You can miss a lot of things when you’re on the road.

Many, many months ago, I made some promises. The boy wanted a skateboard. I told him I’d buy him one as soon as he learned to ride a bike. My wife wanted me to buy a bike so I could ride with her. I told her as soon as she could ride with the boy, I’d buy one for myself. I had, with no small amount of confidence, figured I’d never need to price bikes for myself.

I’ve been trying to teach the kid to ride a bike off and on for a couple of years. An early-days accident involving a chain link fence and a kid who didn’t know how to use his brakes meant my boy’s interest in taking off the training wheels was in the neighborhood of my interest in shaving with a steak knife. He didn’t have much interest in repeating the accident. And I, a father who is simply terrified of causing my sons anything resembling fear, eventually said, “When you’re ready, I’ll be here.” When he was ready, I was in a $32-a-night hotel room watching the slow-draining sink hold gray whiskers too long to make it down the sulphurous pipes.

I’m still working to come up with the word to describe the incredible pride I experienced in knowing my son learned to ride his bike. My wife shot video with her phone and eventually turned on FaceTime so I could see it happen in real time. I wanted to hold it up to everybody around me and scream, “He did it!” Problem is, it was an extreme pride iced with such sadness that it can’t properly cook down to one word.

One night toward the end of this trip, one of the good guys stood beside me with his notebook. He’s recently a daddy. He looked out across the poker room floor and said, “I don’t know how you do it. I call home, and I can only hear her laugh…” He trailed off. I babbled about how I coped. I was barely listening to myself. It had been a long time since I’d written about life on the road. I stopped because too much honesty makes me look whiny, or it scares the hell out of the people who love me. My job is a job. It’s a good one that’s treated me well. It’s one I don’t want to lose. But there are sacrifices, especially for a spirit that has its thin parts.

At the end of most work trips of any length, I give myself a day or two to ease back into the real world. It’s jarring to move from a world full of degenerates and greed into one of such purity and simple need. I need to find myself in time to stand before my boys. This time, however, my son was scheduled to go visit his grandparents. We were going to miss each other by a day or two.

***

I burned a day’s worth of pay to get on a redeye flight the moment my job was done. My son had gotten off his bike, packed a stuffed animal in his backpack, and sat with his Nanny at gate B2 of the airport. He was leaving for a week.

While he looked down at the video game in his hands, a haggard guy with thinning, messed up hair crept up the jetway and into the terminal. The man held a finger to his lips, a universal “ssshhh” to the woman beside my son. The man crept around behind the boy and looked over his shoulder to the Nintendo DS.

“Are you sure you are supposed to play it that way?”

My boy looked up from the game as if he was getting woken up in the middle of the night. He stared into his old man’s eyes and broke into a wide smile.

“Dad? What are you doing here?”

I pulled him close to me and told him I had to see him before he left. He told me he missed me. We sat on the airport floor and talked for the 15 minutes before he had to get on the plane to leave.

As they called his zone number, he pulled the backpack onto his shoulders and looked at me. “I love you, Daddy.” I told him I loved him. Before he left, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “So, how about that skateboard?”

At last, a promise I can keep.