I hadn't seen Jake since I was twenty-one, over forty years ago. Back then he carried a case of whiskey in the trunk of his maroon '59 Olds hardtop, you know, the one with those killer taillights that made it look like a rocket ship. The churches had a stranglehold on the legislature back then and you couldn't buy liquor by the drink, so Jake stayed prepared.
Not that he was any kind of Boy Scout. No, he was just big and ornery and liked to scrap—well known in Amarillo's rowdier circles as a fucker, a fighter, and a wild horse rider. Cruising around town one afternoon, he chased one old boy up into his own driveway and broke the guy's finger for cutting us off and flipping us the bird when Jake honked.
It was always one damn thing after another. Like the night he got me drunk in a bowling alley and slapped me silly for insulting his cute little barmaid girlfriend. My jaw swole up and I couldn't chew right for a week.
Another night he knocked a cop under a car for butting into an argument in a honkytonk parking lot out on Northeast 8th. It could have been about anything, but it was likely over a woman or a gambling debt. The cop crawled out waving his gun and took him straight to jail.
But what Jake really loved was gambling—poker, football, horses, you name it. During the racing season, he and his buddies would pile into the Olds for the 430-mile round trip to Raton and get there in time to bet every race. I'd go along if there was room, but being just a kid, I always had to sit in the middle of the front seat, the radio blaring country music in my face as we raced across the high plains at a hundred miles an hour. About halfway there we'd stop for gas and ice-cold cokes, which came in little glass bottles embossed on the bottom with the name of the town where they'd been made. We'd bet on whose bottle had traveled the furthest and I won once with one from Detroit.
Good times and easy money, that was Jake, always looking for some kind of angle. Years after I left town, I heard he fell in with a bunch of professional gamblers and got into bookmaking: bet $110 and if your team beat the point spread, you got back $210. Three-team parleys paid five to one. Jake finally ended up in federal prison when one of his customers wore a wire.
You'd think he'd learn, but easy money still seduced him, and within a year of his parole, Jake was back in the pen again for the exact same crime. I thought he was smart, but maybe not.
One of his drinking buddies later said that last trip inside about broke him, said he never was the same afterwards and pretty much toed the line from then on, running a quiet little vending machine trotline and a bail bond business out of a tiny office downtown.
But I wasn't there for any of it, so I can't say if what I heard was the actual truth or not. I do know, if you can believe Google, that Jake is gone now. I would bet, though, that he didn't leave this world without a fight.
Barry Basden lives in the Texas Hill Country and edits Camroc Press Review.
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