THE SCENTS OF STALE perfume and beer with the perpetual background burble of slot machines was not how I had imagined a casino, not from the ways that Daddy talked about them, so what I found behind the big doors of the the Copper River Lounge was a surprise.
I don’t know exactly what I had expected. Tall, wide rooms and people in evening dress, elegantly poised around huge roulette wheels, maybe. What it was, it was like a cross between a hotel lobby the size of a football field and a low-lit mall with no glass walls and where the neon was all inside.
Most of all I think I expected an atmosphere of excitement. Danger even. Most of the people that I saw in were in work clothes or sweat pants and tee-shirts, stood in clumps around tables or sat in lines and hunkered over slot machines.
From what I heard betweenDaddy and his buddies about casinos, I expected some kind of a low-light glamor. The kind of thing that you’d see in a James Bond movie. If not that then at least something like the glimmer and golden glow of a gangster movie.
The lights were too bright, too ordinary. A buzz rose in the pit of my stomach, but it could have been the rising empty zing in my stomach, a mixture of anticipation and fear at what I had come to do.
The warren of tables meandered like an indoor market. Small, semi-circular blue tables of blackjack and long roulette tables with LED readouts on poles were surrounded by lines of slots and video poker screens. Players hunched blank-faced over the flashing screens and prodded the big buttons like it was a minimum-wage job.
Players around the roulette table were more animated. A tall man in a business suit, maybe in his thirties, checked me out as I walked by, making me feel conspicuous and even more out of place. I felt his eyes on me, appraising her. I realized that he was liking what he saw.
A pair of eyes on the far side of the bar, way off to one side watched me over a pair of shades and under a mop of black hair. The man in a black leather coat watched me walk across the floor like I was an unknown species. Like he found me out.
His brown eyes melted my insides as his head shook so slightly I could almost believe I hadn’t seen it. I lifted my chin and tried to act like nothing had happened. The way he looked at me, like he saw all the way inside me almost stopped me in my tracks.
Then he threw back his drink, bourbon or a brandy it looked like. He looked at me a moment, then he rose, turned and headed for the back where, I guessed, the private games rooms were.
My heart pounded as I tried to focus. I had come here, come into a casino when all my life I swore it was one thing that I would never do. Here I was, out of options and about to attempt the most desperate thing I had ever considered in my life. Something I had to do.
The fifteen bucks in my purse didn’t seem like it would ever be enough to achieve what I needed. The rising swirl of panic boiled and chilled inside me. It was too important. I couldn’t fail, but how could I possibly succeed?
Daddy said, over and over as far back as I could remember, ‘Protect your bankroll. Got to protect your bankroll. That way it doesn’t matter how slow you roll, as long as you’re rolling it your way.’ It was like a motto. When the money rolls to your side of the table, detain it.’
If he’d listened to any of his own advice, I wouldn’t be alone in a room that clattered with money and smelled of desperation. I wouldn’t be here with clammy palms and a banging in my chest. With a bankroll so small it was almost invisible.
I picked my way through to the farthest part of the room where the noisy craps table was. Men, all of them were men, jostled around the sunken table. A tall, rangy man glistened in a sheen of sweat at the far end of the table. He rolled the dice around in his loose right hand.
Some heads turned and some male eyes roamed over my tight, thin shirt and my short denim skirt. “Hey, baby,” a cute, short-haired jock called across the well of the table, “Come bet with me.” I just returned his look. I gave him no smile, no expression. He tried again, “C’mon. We can both get lucky.”
From the edge of the sunken table, I carried on looking at him while I lifted my fingers to say ‘enough,’ still not smiling. He was cute, though. Then I looked away.
My attention was for the shooter. Tall and lean with a shy look in his dark eyes, he wore a loose blue work shirt open over a tight black tee-shirt. There was a body moving under there, muscle rolling. On his slim, cocked hips, his jeans had a thick black leather belt with a big metal Harley Davidson logo for a buckle.
Bright eyed with a smart look on his pretty face, all I wanted to know was, would he do it, would he make the next roll? Then the next. Then the next.
Before he threw, he held the dice in a deliberate clamp between his fingers and thumb. His movements were slow and careful. The thrill in the pit of my stomach buzzed at a higher pitch. I had come at a good time.
This shooter wasn’t grey and ordinary. He wasn’t someone who would just roll with no idea what he was doing. When the dice hit the inside wall at my end of the table then bounced back, the result wasn’t going to be a mystery to him.
It could be a total shock, or it might be exactly what he’d have thrown for, but he wasn’t going to shrug and say, “Yuk! Who knew?”
Either this kid knew what he was doing and I could make a few bets with him and win, or he was fooling himself. Then I could collect by betting against him.
As long as I could keep a clear head in the noise and remember all the odds, this was good timing for me. ‘There’s just one thing to know at the craps table,’ Daddy had said, more than once in my hearing, ‘and that’s when to leave.’ Another thing he said often, but never often enough that he’d hear it himself.
The shooter prepared to throw and the men all clustered tight around the table. A sturdy male body pressed tight from behind against me. His hard hips pushed into my soft ass cheeks. The heat of testosterone rose. My teeth pulled at the inside of my cheek and I was feeling energized.
At the far end of the table the gangly, slightly geeky thrower was getting ready to roll. Shouts of numbers, “Ten the hard way!” “Two twos. Come on!” went up.
His mop of light brown hair bobbed and he kept his face low. His dark brown eyes were steady. I knew to watch at least one roll before I made a bet, but my urge to bet with him was strong.
The croupier’s stick waved over the huddle like an orchestra conductor’s baton. The ‘ON’ button was on the table, and it was on the ten. If the shooter hit a ten before he rolled a seven, ‘Pass’ bets would win. More calls and shouts crossed the table.
“Kid ain’t going to make it.”
“Sure he is. Snake eyes! This roll, I guarantee it.”
“Go on, shooter. Roll ’em. Get it out there.”
His throw was low, slow and controlled. Before the red and blue dice left his hand Belle wished she had bet on him. When the dice sprung off my end of the table, they dropped lazily back without a bounce. Textbook. A three and a one. Shouts exploded all around the table. It was hard to see who had lost and who won. Men leaned over the edge of the pit to slide little stacks of chips in every direction.
He picked the dice up for the next throw and his eyes flicked swiftly up at me as he blew across the top sides. A low, muffled thud shook me deep in my core. The urge to bet now was tense and strong. How long would his luck hold before the inevitable seven slew him? Three rolls? Five? It could just as easily have been this one, thought as the dice fell with two threes.
I had to take the shot while it was there. If I was going to stand any chance of getting what I needed, I wouldn’t do it by watching with my tiny amount of money stashed in my purse. I caught the croupier’s fast eye and asked him for fifteen dollars in chips. My whole stake for the night.
My heart was in my mouth as I put two five-dollar chips on ‘Pass,’ for my first ever bet. As I laid the two chips down, the shooter’s sparkling hazel eyes locked on mine and my breath caught. My ‘Pass’ bet would win and pay even money if he didn’t hit a seven before he made his point by rolling a ten.
Players all around shoved and moved chips in fast sweeps around the table. Before I took my hand off my chips on ‘Pass,’ I looked back up to the croupier. He made a minute nod to say that he registered the bet. I felt like I was getting my feet on the ground here.
The shooter’s brown eyes peered at me over his hand as he blew on the dice again for the roll. The little shiver of thrill trickled down to my crotch.
“Ten to make the point,” the croupier called, and waved his stick. My bet was fixed. Carefully and slowly he threw. The shouts began as soon his pointed fingers spread to release the dice and they curved gracefully towards the wall at the back of the table. I bobbed my head to peer through the waving arms and see where the dice had fallen.
The rising musk of testosterone in the thick air misted up my head. His throw made a four and a five. My bet won and when I looked back he caught my eye with a fiery sparkle.
I bet with him for three more throws, rolling my win over. Each time he rolled the shouts grew louder and more urgent. Feet stamped and the noise rose to a roar. The dice bounced off the end of the pit and halted on the dull baize. The shouts exploded again.
Each time, he flashed a look to me. I felt my face color up. The men disputed noisily as they leaned over to move their bets or replace their losses.
The kid’s luck held, and my heart banged in my chest as my stake worked up to eighty dollars. My head swam as I tried to keep the odds straight. The even payout on the bets was easy enough, the odds for him making the next roll and not hitting a seven were what I needed to stay on top of.
If he makes the next roll, she thought, I’ll take off half of the winnings. That would be forty dollars. That way, I definitely come away with a win.
I thought it was time that I took a break, before I got carried away and lost it all, but as I leaned over to wave to the croupier, the kid with the dice flashed his smile.
For the briefest instant I felt the swell of a ridiculous fantasy where his luck and mine were somehow connected. If I stayed betting with him, we’d both win. I knew it was idiotic, but the feeling was hard to ignore.
Bet with your head, never with your heart, was another of Daddy’s golden rules. My teeth clenched as I thought, If your rules were any damn good, Daddy, I wouldn’t be here taking risks to bail you out, and I bet again.
The kid’s throw was like a slow dance. He held the dice at the end of his fingers and his straight thumb, like the long beak of a bird. From the wrist, his hand swung back, then swept up again as his arm straightened.
In a flow, his fingers sprang open, the red and blue dice arced through the air and time stood still. I should have taken my money out. I should have hedged. At least half of my stack should have been protected.
Tiny shots of liquid electricity marbled through me in cold pulses. This is why he does it, I realized, This is why Daddy comes back again and again. I could see it. I felt it. The charge was heady and strong like a metallic spark. It was dizzying and delicious. I licked my lips to moisten them but my tongue was dry and tasted metallic.
I understood then what it meant when people said, Hold your nerve. I gripped my fists and dug my nails into my palms to keep cool and to stay light, to keep my mind clear. To resist the pull of the charm. The ready explosion of a win was only half of it. The lure of the loss, the yawning, unbroken plunge was a thrill too.
The vivid red and blue of the dice rolled in the air, a slow ballet. They hit the table just over the pass line and bounced up to the back wall in two soft, rolling glides.
The shiny cubes stopped at the same time right in front of me and my breath stopped. High fives and shouts went all around the table. I watched the croupier’s smile in a daze as he shoved the pile of chips to me.
I looked down at two threes. He made it. I shook. A hundred and sixty dollars. It was nowhere near what I needed, but it was more than ten times what I brought in less than ten minutes ago.
I didn’t protect the winnings, I let them all ride on ‘Pass.’ For three more rolls I was in a calm, detached space. I watched unmoved as the kid rolled an eight, then eleven. My stack on the table doubled after each roll.
One more, I told myself. My heart stopped as the dice hit the table in a blur, bounced up to curve off the table’s back wall and then slid across the baize. Five white dots showed on the red dice. Two on the blue.
It felt as though the room itself groaned. My knees sagged. Seven. A light buzz of dizzying panic flooded me. In slo-mo the five stopped its slide. The dice showing two slowed as it slid right in front of me and my heart pounded. Seven. I blew it.
Sound faded away from my hearing and I felt disconnected from my body, like it didn’t belong to me, like I was operating it through a screen. I watched the die with the two as it slid to a stop. Slowly, like it was moving through sand it fell, flopped over. Another five.
I stood, open mouthed and mute as the croupier slid the chips towards me. There was noise all around me but I didn’t hear a thing. The shooter punched the air and he was beaming at me but I was somewhere else. I scooped up the stack of chips and I tossed two blue ones back to the croupier like I did this all the time.
I turned and began to walk away in a daze. As I turned, the shouts faded away completely. My mind was still calculating the win. Recounting. The chips I took away from the pit were worth just south of twelve hundred bucks. And now I saw the glamor. The thick, acrid air seemed to curl and part ahead of me.
“Hey,” in the distance I heard him, “Wait!” coming nearer. Behind him the sounds of the players, the bettors as they called him back. The boy. I had forgotten about the boy.