The Tax

“Welcome to Biloxi, Playground o’ the South!” the convenience store manager said in drawl as thick as Mississippi mud. The night manager’s name was Dewey Crubbs. He was fifty; dressed in a flannel shirt, suspenders, and jeans; and had tobacco-stained teeth, sand-colored sideburns, and a head shaped like a honeydew. His store was the first thing motorist driving south to Biloxi saw when they crossed the county line on Interstate 110. The Dixie Quickie: a concrete pillbox sitting off the highway with a neon Budweiser sign in the window.

The couple who came into Dewey’s store looked young, but beat; two tired kids, likely just out of high school, driving an almost ten-year-old Pacer with Illinois license plates. The girl had blonde, permed hair pulled into a side ponytail by a fluorescent-blue scrunchie that matched her eyes. She wore an oversized sweatshirt, lime leggings, and Keds. The guy, a black kid with a fade top, wore a nylon athletic jacket, stone-washed jeans, and high tops. He made a beeline for the cold beverages, leaving the girl at the counter.

“Good evenin’,” Dewey said, “what can I do fer y’all tonight?” He recited his lines with a wide smile on his wider face. It was the way he addressed every customer that came into his store. It always put them at ease.

“This is our first visiting Biloxi.. or the South,” she said sheepishly. She nodded to her boyfriend at the back of the store, then almost whispered, “Kevin just got a chunk of change as a graduation gift from his dad, a bigshot on Wall Street. He wants Kevin to invest it in stocks, but Kevin, well, he wants to try his luck at the casinos.”

Dewey nodded. He’d been running his shop ever since Kennedy won, and had heard a lot of stories. Most were hard luck. This one wasn’t. Only the girl seemed afraid, like she sensed they were about to get taken. A pair of virgins in the Southlands’ Sin City.

“Ever gambled a-fore?” Dewey asked.

She nodded, then said, “We taught ourselves after picking up a couple zines from some college buddies. It was fun, but…” her voice trailed off, and she lowered her eyes and stared at the faded countertop.

Dewey picked up an open can of Dr. Pepper and took a sip. He left his tomato sandwich untouched and out of sight. He set the can down and said, “But?”

“We weren’t playing with real money.” She once again lowered her voice. “Kevin’s afraid of getting cheated at a real casino. You know, like once he starts to win?”

“Casinos don’t have to cheat, miss,” Dewey said.

The girl started to protest, but got caught off by her boyfriend yelling, “Yo, Joanie, what do you want to drink? They’ve got Jolt.”

She turned and made a face. “Grody, that stuff makes me ralph. Get me a Slice if they have it.” She then returned her attention to Dewey and asked, “What do you mean?”

“The house has an edge at every game. That’s how they pay their bills.”

“An edge? Like a percentage?”

“That’s right, miss. Locals call it the Tax.” He scratches his chin. “I hear folks call it the Sunshine Tax in Vegas and the Seabreeze Tax in Atlantic City. I don’t right know if that’s true, mind, but seein’ as Biloxi’s got plenty o’ sun and sea, maybe our’s is the original ‘Tax’.”

“But do people ever win?” Joanie asked with obvious anxiety.

“Well sure,” Dewey said comfortingly, “people right win all the time!”

Joanie leaned her thin frame across the counter, and asked with another almost-whisper, “People, you know, like… Troy?”

Dewey smiled, understanding her meaning. “People jus’ like Troy, miss. Why jus’ last week a man came in who won a million dollars on a slot machine at the Isle of Capri. Looked jus’ Troy.”

“The what?”

“The Isle of Capri. It’s a casino on the strip, right along the water. Can’t miss it. Jus’ look fer the giant neon parrot and steamboat.”

“Did he tell you which machine?”

Dewey held back a chuckle and took another sip of his ‘coke.’ Troy came to the front. He placed two drinks and some food on the counter.

Joanie said, “This man says the games aren’t rigged!”

“I told you that last night, baby, so be chill,” Troy said, taking his wallet out. Throwing a twenty down, he said, “We just need to know which casinos to play. They all don’t have the same rules. Guys at the dojo told me that.”

Joanie looked at Dewey. “That true? Are some places better?”

Dewey rang up the items, nodding. “Several casinos have more liberal rules fer blackjack and looser slot machines. They’re definitely better places to gamble.”

“Rad. Which ones?” Troy said.

Dewey lifted his eyes and met the youth’s gaze. “The Isle of Capri, Grand Casino, and don’t forget the slot lobbies of the grand hotels, like Broadwater and Tivoli.”

“What are loose slot machines?” the girl asked.

Dewey tore the receipt from the register and handed it to Troy along with his change.

“The management sets them to pay out better. Sometimes they have signs outside that say, ’98 percent payoff on slots.’ Go to those places.”

“What’s the payout at the other casinos?” Joanie said.

“About 94 to 95 percent,” Dewey answered.

“That much less? Why, that’s cheating!”

“That’s the Tax, miss.”

Troy put his change into his pocket and handed Joanie the receipt. Then he scooped his things off the counter.

Dewey saw the girl’s eyes wander. “I’ll tell y’all one other lil’ secret about the slot machines.”

She looked up at him expectantly.

“The looser machines are usually by the doors or places where folks congregate inside the casino,” Dewey said. “The management does that to create excitement and entice other folks to play. Play those machines.”

“Near the doors?” said the girl.

“That’s right.”

“Cool,” Troy said with a parting nod. As the couple started to leave, Dewey said, “Oh one more thing.” They came back to the counter immediately.

“This is really important,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning in conspiratorially. “Always bet the maximum number o’ coins the machine will take. That’s the only way y’all can win the jackpot.”

Troy looked at Joanie. “You remembering all this?”

Joanie recited the names of the recommended casinos and the tip about the slots, saying it like it was the most important thing like she’d ever been told.

“Yo, thanks, man,” Troy said as they parted.

“Good luck!” Dewey replied heartedly. Through the curly-cues of the Budweiser sign, Dewey watched as the couple got into their road-crusted Pacer. The car started up, then went about twenty feet. Then it stopped, and the girl got out and marched into the store.

“Forget something, miss?” Dewey asked as she approached the counter.

She was holding the receipt and pointing at it.

“What’s this?” she asked.

Dewey stared at a charge for 75 cents. He scratched his chin. His eyes drifted to the packet of Razzles on the counter, next to the cigarette lighters and copies of Nintendo Power. Picking it up, he said, “Yer boyfriend didn’t take his candy.”

She shook her head emphatically. “Troy doesn’t eat candy. He’s on that karate diet.”

“My mistake, miss,” Dewey said differentially, putting the candy packet on a shelf behind him. He then hit the ‘no sale’ button on the register, popping open the cash drawer, and fished out three quarters and laid them on her palm. She left the store without saying a word. The Pacer left a cloud of dirty in the parking lot.

When it settled, another car had taken its place: a metallic red Toyota MR2, supercharged and sharp-angled with a T-bar roof, rear spoiler, and sleek hood painted with a fire-haloed cobra. The car blared ‘music’ from the glam-metal band Lazerdeath before the engine cut off and three men piled out. Dewey took the candy packet off the shelf and placed it back on the counter in the spot it had occupied since he had opened his store. Then the young men came in, and he smiled at them.

“Welcome to Biloxi, Playground of the South!”

Two of the men went to the junk food aisle. One had a fascia-dyed mohawk, 3-D glasses, large Walkman headphones, and a faded Army jacket. The other had a sandy mullet, ripped-sleeve jean jacket, and a necklace hung with a VHS cassette. Both men began ripping open bags of Twinkies, MoonPies, and Ding Dongs, shoving them into their mouths.

“Hey there!,” Dewey began to protest, his customer service smile dying on his face.

“S-settle down, old timer,” said the third man, approaching the counter. He wore a black velour tracksuit that seemed to slither on his skin. His head was shaved, revealing a tattoo of a bright-scaled serpent that traveled the length of his scalp, neck, and throat. The man smiled. It was a hideous smile, the edges of his lips slashed and crudely stitched back together, creating a sinister lisp. The smile widened, revealing cold, glinting teeth between the mutilated scar tissue.

“My boys-s, they’re jus-s hungry. It’ss me you need to be fixin’. Ss-see, I’m right thirs-ssty, and the boss-s s-said you’d be happy to be of s-sservice.”

Dewey backed away, his face blanching. “B-but I already paid him this month! And—and I’ve been directin’ all my customers to his casinos and steerin’ them away from his competitors! That was t-the deal!”

The black-clad man slithered up to the counter’s edge, and still smiling, replied:

“Then jus-sst cons-sider this-s the tax.”

He lunged at Dewey, impossibly swift, his hideous smile widening to reveal a pair of fangs.

The Tax

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