A proud, scrawny papa balanced his three-year-old son on his shoulders. The boy held onto his dad’s forehead as they bounced down the eroding stairway of the favela. Chunks of old crates, fiberglass panels, and other repurposed debris spared the locals’ feet from crevices and rivulets of dingy water. The pungent odor of sewage and rotting fruit rinds permeated the humid afternoon. Fabiano hummed a medley of half-forgotten tunes. His boy hummed along with him, alternating between two notes, keeping time with his father’s steps. Fabiano smiled, an ivory moon upon his dark face, punctured by the black hole of a missing incisor.
He carried no weapons; the guards at the casino would confiscate them anyway. He usually played with neighbors or junk yard skimmers. This would be his first casino game. Not a big-city casino. Just an old building the South Siders had converted. But they ran it like the real thing. One of the card room attendants who lived a few shanties downhill had put in a good word with Guaso, the floor manager. Fabiano was no longer a full-time loser. Lady Luck had favored him recently. This made him a wild card contender, known to the local players, not respected, but of interest. Guaso agreed to let him in at the starter table, for low stakes amateurs.
With luck—well, there was no luck about it—they would win enough to buy a meal at the bar. Then maybe Guaso would invite him to play another round with the real patrons, the evening crowd. He had spiked Alaban’s milk with rum in the morning so the boy had napped an extra couple of hours. He might stay alert until midnight. That’s when they could win some real money. Maybe enough for a new set of clothes, or if the pot was big enough, a pair of shoes for Mama.
The men at the casino made disparaging comments about Fabiano bringing the kid, but everyone in the favela knew they were inseparable. Mama worked two jobs in town. Fabiano recycled scrap metal. Alaban was good for picking up the little pieces. Kids started running in filthy herds at about his age, but Fabiano had no intention of letting his treasure go awry. He never let on about the boy’s mental abilities, not even to his wife. Certainly not to the South Siders. As far as they knew, Alaban was his baby, his companion, his pet.
In a dim room that smelled of hard liquor, cologne, and other cheap attempts to conceal human imperfections, Guaso pointed Fabiano to a wooden bench at the nearest table. He let Alaban stand on the bench next to him. The boy leaned on his shoulder, barefoot and shirtless, threadbare briefs protruding from the top of hand-me-down shorts. Men heavier and grittier than Fabiano filled the better seats around the table. He smiled warmly at them, told a couple of dirty jokes to lighten the mood. They chuckled genuinely enough. He had a reputation for entertaining bullshit.
Near the end of the first round, Fabiano folded, lost half his money. In the second round he threw in his remaining cash and bluffed his way to a win. The third round, he raised the bet to win twice the amount he’d arrived with. At the fourth round, Guaso capped the bet. Fabiano took a chance and won again. He bought each man a drink, a hearty bowl of beans and rice flavored with a little sausage for himself and the boy, and still had enough left over to bet the ante in the next game.
Guaso said they’d have to leave before the night crowd came in. It would look bad for the casino. Fabiano was dressed well enough: white collared shirt with pants whose poor condition didn’t show in the dark room, but the half-naked slum urchin had to go. This was men’s business, no place for a kid. Fabiano thanked him excessively. Guaso dismissed him with a sneer.
Alaban asked Fabiano if after this game they could buy some more sausages for Mama so she could cook for them and save some for tomorrow. Fabiano beamed, gave the boy a gentle shake.
“Now you are thinking like a man with a big stomach,” he said.
Alaban thrust out his stomach and patted it like a drum, his hearty grin the mirror image of his father’s. Fabiano tickled the boy briefly.
He said quietly, “Remember we have to lose a little to win big.”
Alaban giggled, nodding jerkily.
They returned to the table. This time the ante was twice as much as in the first game. Fabiano called more often than he bet, folded twice, came close to bowing out of the game altogether. Then a reckless bluff in the third round. A win. Fabiano laughed and kissed his son’s pudgy cheek.
During the fourth round, he deliberated a long while. Men’s chairs creaked.
The man with short dreadlocks, chewing a toothpick drawled softly, “Make your move and lose so we can get on with it, man.”
Fabiano grinned, picked at the corner of one of his cards, waited.
Alaban bobbed up and down. “Go,” he said.
Fabiano set down his cards and tossed in an extra chip.
A thin-lipped man with facial tattoos said, “You take advice from a toddler?”
Fabiano tensed fleetingly. The grin reappeared. “He’s my lucky charm.”
All eyes went to the boy, narrowed at him, focused on his fist and index finger which had been tapping Fabiano’s shoulder periodically during the game.
Chairs creaked louder as the men shifted, the man with facial tattoos leaning toward them.
In unison, father and son beamed their friendliest smiles, worthy of billboard advertisements.
A breeze of curses wafted over the table.
“Hey, boy,” the toothpick man said, “You help your old man win that last game?”