Algebra

Tramway

Issue 1

The Croupier

by Aaron Hicklin

The Croupier

I couldn't tell you my father's birthday, or even what sign he was. I think it was Sagittarius. Is that a lobster? Is there a lobster? My mother is Cancer, the crab. Home-maker, nurturer, reader of bedtime stories, maker of sandwiches and filler of Tupperware. Queen of the goodnight kiss. My father, on the other hand, was the home-wrecker, king of the come-hither, knight of the international order of the Bunny. Part of me found it attractive. Part of me found it repulsive. He was a croupier in the Bahamas, bow-tied and tuxedoed, gold cufflinks, the works. At night I watched in awe as he shaved in the mirror, slapping the aftershave on his cheeks. Rich women adored him, I imagined. I see him at the craps table, flirting with a perfumed high roller, sneaking off to her yacht as my mother washed the lipstick from his shirts at home. Slowly he unclasps her necklace, kissing the down on her neck? Slowly he unzips her dress, letting it slide to the floor, cupping her tits from behind, releasing her bra with a tug. In this movie that plays in my head, he was Sean Connery, minus the martini. He didn't drink—the vice that got away from him mum used to say. He gambled, he womanized, but he never drank. His sister, my aunt, was the drinker, always arriving off a transatlantic flight clutching a bottle of Chivas and a hundred Dunhill, exuding movie-star glamour in her zip-up leather boots and luxuriant fur coat that we'd hang, absurdly, in the cloakroom among our anoraks and satchels.

My father's attitude to women was enthusiastic. He loved them unambiguously. He loved to watch them walk, loved to hear them laugh. He loved to flirt and tease, loved to dip his finger in the pot and see if it was to his liking. I know he loved my mum, too, but he couldn't help himself when he ran into a sexy woman. I had to get older before I understood. Guys can do that to me. Sometimes I think if my father was alive we would talk about it, but the year he came to find me on the kibbutz—the year I turned 18—I was not capable of kind thoughts and empathy. It was a day in early January, bursts of rain, spells of sun. I remember the way the steam rose up from the roads, the moist quality to the air, and feeling—all of a sudden—that I needed to file away the particular memory of that moment, like those people who bury things in the ground for future generations to find, except in this case the future generation was me, or the older me who would need help to navigate his past.

It was a surprise visit, and the first time I'd seen him since I was 16 and went to Israel for a belated barmitvah at the Western Wall. He'd arrived for that momentous event wearing a Playboy T-shirt. My aunt brought trays of borekas—cheese filled triangles of filo pastry—and orange soda. A photographer hired for the occasion snapped me reading from the Torah, a prayer shawl around my shoulders, the tefillin strapped to my forehead. I felt self-conscious. I felt like an impostor. Afterwards we sat a short distance away drinking the orange soda and eating the dry borekas. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was with the wrong family. I watched the tourists putting on the cardboard yarmulkes and going up to the Wall to push folded notes and prayers into the cracks of the stones. Some barely lingered, others stood for a while in private reverie. I remembered a photograph of my mother and father standing in front of the Wall in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War ended. They looked happy. She was 18, and pregnant. I was born seven months later.

The idea was to spend my 18th birthday in Eilat. My father arrived at the kibbutz in an old beige Suburu, long past its prime. It belched smoke, and had no air conditioning. He brought my grandfather, who sat in the passenger seat, while I took the back, the three of us on a rare trip together. I loved my grandfather more than I loved my father. We played backgammon together, and drank strong Turkish coffee, and in the mornings he'd pour me shots of Arak, which they'd drunk as Jews in Iraq. He always put great store in strength and sex. As a young man he would buy a dozen eggs and swallow them raw for breakfast, a ritual he liked to mime for my entertainment, using a single hand to crack the invisible eggs into his upturned mouth, and patting his biceps to illustrate the point. He would challenge me to arm wrestling matches which he always won. His English was weak, but he knew the universal symbol for sex. He would make a circle with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and run the forefinger of his left rapidly through it. Like my father he would had a way of raising his eyes at any woman who met with his approval, which was most of them. “You like fuck her?” he would whisper over loudly.

On the way to Eilat my dad starts talking about my mum. He tells me she was a good cook. He smiles his private smile, and for a moment I am happy that he's nostalgic for the past. I think we might start talking, and that maybe I'll understand why he gambled and screwed around, and generally fucked things up for all of us. But then he starts berating my mother instead, lamenting the way she snuck off one day, while he was at work, waiting until she was back in England to file for divorce. He berates her for taking his children, for refusing to let him visit us, for claiming that he hit her when it was the other way around. I am silent now, while my grandfather moans disconsolately under his breath. We hit a pothole and the car bucks like a horse trying to throw its rider. I press my face against the window, staring at the brown yellow earth, looking across the Dead Sea to Jordan. I wonder if there are scorpions in the desert. My father furiously flicks on the radio, and a mournful Israeli folk song fills the air. I think about the vinyl LPs in my mother's collection, how I worked through them in the school holidays, playing them on the complicated TEAC stereo player that my stepfather had rigged in the living room. Gyrating to Donna Summer as she gasped her way through “Love to Love You Baby.” The Israeli folk singer has a deep, husky voice. He is singing about love. I close my eyes and think about home, the way the blanket is folded back on my bed, the slender silver birch trees in the front garden that seem, visibly, to grow taller each year.

When I wake the rocks are getting red as the sun goes down. My grandfather is leaning his head back, his eyes closed. Every now and then he starts like he's in a bad dream. I have no idea what he dreams about, or even what he thinks. I feel deflated. In the distance the lights of the hotels grow from tiny pinpricks to yellow postage stamps. They get bigger, until finally we are among them. Eilat is an oasis of noise and color, and we move through the streets feeling momentarily revived. My father lets out a whoop of joy. My grandfather opens his eyes and nods approvingly. For one brief moment we are all united in the same thrill of anticipation. And then it's gone, and we're just three people stuck in a car.

We slow to a crawl as we get close to the center, and I realize that my father is checking out the women. “See anything you like?” he asks, head rotating from side to side. I don't reply. He presses the horn and startles a woman crossing just ahead of us. “How ya doin' honey,” he shouts, leaning his head out of the window (this is a favorite phrase, it turns out). Amazingly she returns his smile before swaying theatrically down the street. We crawl after her, my father keeping his gaze on her backside. My grandfather chuckles. “You like fuck her,” he says to me, and for one awful moment I imagine the three of us with this woman in some bizarre three-generational orgy.

And then we are at the hotel, and I stumble out of the car like a shipwrecked sailor miraculously swept to shore. I cannot wait to get to my room. The hotel is called King Solomon's Palace, and like my aunt's fur coats and bottles of Chivas, it's a lot of flash and splash designed to summon Biblical splendor. It reminds me of a shopping mall. My father is trying to impress me, but not enough to book separate rooms. My heart sinks. “Which side of the bed do you want,” he asks when we get to the room. I shrug. “Right, I suppose.”

I have never seen a man wear a thong swimsuit. I imagine I would snigger if it were anyone else, but on my father the effect is mortifying. Sitting on the beach the next day he looks naked. I am 18, but my body is adolescent, awkward. My legs are pale and skinny, my torso is flat and hairless. His pot belly sags below the waistband. I think of my handsome father straightening his tie, slapping on aftershave, and I pine to have him restored to me, the way he was. I feel betrayed. He lies on his front, and asks me to rub Coppertan on his back, and I do so gingerly, confused by the touch of our skin, of the feeling of my hands as they describe circles on his back. I watch the oil trickle down his spine towards his ass, its progress slowed by little black hairs that fan out from his tailbone. I say, “Is that enough?” His assent comes in a short, quiet grunt, and I know he is falling asleep. The sun is almost directly above us, so I lay a towel over his head, and run into the water. Thrilled by the shock of cold, I dive in, propelling myself against the bottom of the ocean until I can hold my breath no longer. I surface, gasping, and orient myself to the shore. There are shrieks as two tanned and muscular men haul a slim girl into the water. Scanning the beach I see my father, looking much smaller now, engulfed by the line of hotels, and barely discernible against the sand.

Aaron Hicklin

Aaron Hicklin has edited three US magazines, including Gear (1998-2003), BlackBook (2003-2006) and Out (2006-present). Prior to launching Gear, in 1998, he worked in Scotland as a reporter for Scotland on Sunday. Among other things, he covered the war in Bosnia for The Scotsman, and was runner up in the Foreign Press Awards in 1996 for his coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In 2002 he was among the team of journalists to win the Scottish Press Award for coverage of September 11. After moving to New York in 1998 he wrote a weekly column for three years for the Sunday Herald.