We don’t get much business in our bar. I’ve tended here for over two years now, and I’ll bet we never got over ten people in here at one time. Of course, that was before the gambler visited us. Tankard’s Alehouse is on Fourth Street, just off Market, near the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego. We’re the last of the “real bars” left in this city. We used to cater to sailors, marines and an odd assortment of working stiffs and alkies who ended up in our place running from a woman, the law or the government. It was Stan Burger, the gambler, who brought us back to the center of life again.
We had degenerated into a lowlife bar where hookers hid from their pimps and where men in the last stages of alcoholism drank their last foamy brews in the smoky darkness. Stan strolled into our place on a Saturday morning, and he was smiling, as was his way. “Wake up! The action starts in five minutes. Bring out your little white board and felt tip marker. We’re taking action on the first bet of the day.”
I thought maybe this guy Stan had escaped from County Mental Health, as we got a few of these folks from time to time, babbling some Bible prophesies or telling us the Aliens had landed. But, no, this guy was suited, tall, and John Wayneish. He even had himself a swagger when he walked, and you couldn’t help but do his bidding. I got the white board and marker, and Stan began writing.
“First person to find a citizen wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap will win whatever’s in the kitty inside this bar! Come one, come all,” Stan wrote on the board. Then, he slapped a one hundred dollar bill down on my bar and grinned. “Only rule is, nobody can leave this bar until all bets are down. Then, we set loose the betters to find their winning cap. The cap must be on a citizen, however, and this person must be a tourist. Got it?”
Stan instructed me to put the sign where everybody passing by could see it, and I did, with some reluctance, afraid that some cop would nab us for gambling without a license.
People came into the bar in droves. All told, there were five thousand dollars in the fishing hat I dragged from the bar’s owner—old man Bronstein, age 85—who lived in the back. He was getting Alzheimer’s and thought Stan was a baseball scout. There were some 55 people who ran out of our bar that afternoon, scouring the city for somebody wearing a Cardinal’s cap. Some didn’t even know what a baseball cap looked like, much less a St. Louis Cardinal’s cap, with its red bird perched on the bat on the front. As a result, people wearing a wide assortment of different hats and caps were dragged back into the bar, only to be told they had the wrong hat. Finally, Mickey Arthur, who had been a loser drunk before that day, came back with a young kid who sported an official Cardinal’s baseball cap. “I got ‘em, I got ‘em!” Mickey yelled, and when Stan declared him the winner, Mickey just stared down at the thousands of dollars and began to bawl. I tried to offer him a drink, but he shook his head resolutely. “No way, Hank, I ain’t never drinking that stuff again! This is a new beginning for me.” And, with a firm jaw, Mickey walked out of our bar, and we never saw him again. Some said he got a job, stayed off the booze, and became an official citizen of San Diego.
And, it continued in that way, for over a month. Each person who won the bet that Stan Burger rigged up, seemed to get a new lease on life, so to speak. They moved out of the bad section of the city and into a new era of their lives.
I was even starting to think this Stan Burger was some kind of angel sent by what old man Bronstein called “Hashem,” the big fellow up above the clouds in charge of us all. The biggest bet of all came on another Saturday. Stan said he was contributing a five thousand dollar bill to the pot on this particular bet. “This is kind of a personal bet,” he said, sheepishly, and pulled out a 4 x 5 photo of the prettiest little woman I have ever laid my eyes on. “This here is my wife, Angie,” said Stan. “We broke up awhile back, when I told her I was going to serve another tour of duty in Iraq. My brother, see, died in the Twin Towers. I had a personal score to settle, and Angie could never understand that. Now, I want folks to find her for me. That’s the bet.”
With the five thousand, over two hundred other folks pitched in another five, and we had almost ten thousand five hundred stuffed inside the old man’s fishing hat. Stan kept the photo, but he showed it to all the betters. They took notes and fixed a hard stare at her image, so as to remember her as they searched the city. That kind of money was the biggest stake ever, and we had ourselves a full house! When Stan set them loose, we all believed Stan would be able to see his wife again pretty darn soon. “It’s been over two years, Hank,” he told me, sitting back down at a stool in front of the bar. “I hope they do find her.”
It took three days, but on the evening of the third day, Wally Chambers, the gimpy old vet in the wheel chair, came into the bar with Angie in tow. “This is the lady, ain’t it?” he yelled, and Stan came out of the shadows to greet her. Angie kind of wrinkled up her nose and then began to tear up. “You were behind this?” she asked. “I thought you were dead! Nobody said you got back. I called the Marines, and they said you left no word about where you would be. Why, Stan? Why?”
“I just needed to see you once more, Ang. Honest. I never wanted to leave. It was just personal. You know. Men stuff.” With that, they walked out of the bar, hand in hand, and I thought it was a happy ending once more.
However, six months later, Angie came into the bar. Her eyes were all red and swollen, as if she had been crying for days. She was also pregnant. I took her into the back next to old man Bronstein’s room, at a table he had left over from his days in Hungary. It was antique rosewood. Just classy enough for the likes of a woman like Angie.
“What happened?” I asked. “Where’s Stan?” I reached over and took her two hands into my own. The tears ran down her arms and onto mine.
“Stan is dead. He didn’t tell me then, but he had an inoperable tumor on his brain. That’s why the V.A. wouldn’t let me know where he was. He wanted to see me once more before he went back into the hospital for good.”
“Oh, and it looks like he left you something to remember him by,” I said, looking down at her waist.
“That’s not all, Hank. Stan made one last bet at the V. A. I think he got the entire Marine Corps to wager when this kid will be born. They each bet five bucks. I got over . . .” she sobbed . . . “eighty thousand dollars.”
“Why, that’s super! Isn’t it?” I asked. “But, they gave you the money? I don’t get it. What does the winner get?”
“He or she gets to be my child’s namesake. They said being Stan Burger’s kid was the best honor they could receive. Stan saved his entire squad in Iraq. He got the Silver Star. His name is in the record books. All I have to do is give the child the name of the winner.”
“Yeah, your Stan was a winner, I’d say,” I told her, handing her the white handkerchief I kept in my pocket. See, I’m still one of these old-fashioned guys who keeps handkerchiefs on him for moments like these. These moments are what old man Bronstein calls “beshert.” They were just meant to be.