One of twenty-one chapter-stories from the novel "21 ½ Casino-Stories". Translated by Henry Perypatetik
Blackjack is a card game widely known as “21.” The game is easy and lively when the players are in a good mood. If you have an ace and any card from a ten to a king, then order the champagne – that’s the long-awaited blackjack. Place your bets, gentlemen, and most importantly, stop before you go bust.
My tightly closed lips trembled. I tried with all my might to suppress the laughter that was welling up inside me. My eyes were traitorously moist, and I couldn’t even wipe away the tear that had slid off my eyelash and was now tickling my cheek. We croupiers aren’t allowed to wave our hands around unless we have to. So there I stand, blinking my wet eyelashes like Barbie after a shower. It’s not for nothing that in my life, even though I’m not quite young, twenty-five, I don’t like to use makeup. Yet in the casino, female croupiers have not only their own dress code, but also a “face code” – without red lips and dolly eyelashes, you won’t be allowed to deal cards or spin the roulette wheel. Good thing my mascara is resistant to tears and other liquids, or else I would have faced the wrath of Ai-Petri.
“Thirteen... Hit?... Do you want a hit?” – I offered the players, as I held my breath to keep from bursting out laughing.
“That is the kind of erotic fiasco that happened to me in Thailand,” – Volodyka finished describing his mis-adventure.
That’s how he introduced himself – not as Vladimir or Volodya, but Volodyka. He was a regular at nightclubs and bars, tan, tall, with deadly blue eyes whose murderous power was accentuated by a navy polo shirt. It seems that Lenka, who was sitting to my right and was supposed to make sure that the game proceeded without any mistakes and cheating, had already been engulfed from head to foot by a seductive wave. Anyway, for the last ten minutes she had been watching Volodyka, not the cards, with an idiotic expression on her face.
“I told you! Every other hottie there with a D cup turns out to have the same size in their pants,” – Serzh knocked back his third round of Absolut on the rocks and poked his friend’s shoulder with the glass.
Serzh is also tan, with a three-day stubble, the typical embodiment of golden youth, dressed like Volodyka is – fashionably, clubby, dazzling, in expensive brand names. My hundred-dollar white blouse, drawn in under a striped vest a la a gangster, looked like a starched hospital gown against the Milanese “outfits” of these high rollers.
“How do you know?” – Volodyka laughed and pushed Serzh’s glass away. – “Huh?.. Come on, cough it up!”
From the cabaret came the rousing sounds of a cancan. The guys threw down their chips* and turned to the stage, leaving me bored with the cards. It’s good that they didn’t get up from the table – the longer they sit, the more they lose; and the less they can play blackjack, the more you can fool around. Truth be told, in this unpretentious game, the casino’s advantage over the patron is small, one and a half percent, of course, unless the player’s IQ is lower than a chicken’s. This isn’t the state lottery, where the odds of winning are one in a million. But my high rollers’ chances of taking home at least a dollar from the casino drifted towards zero because their low IQs were already drowned in a liter of vodka. Although... it’s a game, anything can happen here, even fairy tale miracles.
From the gambling hall, the cabaret stage was clearly visible through the huge archway. There used to be a big 200-year-old oak door, but our forward-thinking management decided that players should be entertained without being drawn away from the game, so it was even possible to take away their money even while music played. I just stand for a little and wait until the cancan finishes. It’s not hard work to wait for other people’s “money” while music plays, especially since I have both the strength after the weekend and am in a good mood.
It’s great that we have long weekends, unlike mere mortals with Saturday-Sunday, and that’s it: hello, Monday, hello, work. It is true that to survive until the legally earned four days of freedom, I have to stand in the gambling hall for eight shifts of twelve hours each on hated heels, smiling at all these high rollers. Although it’s not hard to smile at people like that. Fun guys, not greedy, not mean, love cancan... And I loved them, my players, and cancan, and my crazy “casino” job.
The casino hall was drowned in the music and the whooping of the dancers. The croupiers spun the roulette wheel and dealt cards faster, unwittingly trying to move to the rhythm of the crazy tune. The players placed their bets deftly. The waiters swiftly filled their glasses with liquor. Only I waited patiently for my players.
Volodyka and Serzh, quite buoyed by alcohol, voiced their enthusiasm louder than everyone else – clapped for the girls on the stage, whistled and tried to outdo each other with shouts of:
“Oh, my God! More, more! Come on, bunny!”
“Oh wow, higher, baby! Whoa!”
The dancers, dressed in modest dark brown dresses with white collars and cuffs, boldly kicked their shapely legs above their heads as they showed their white underskirts and lace undies-panties to the casino patrons. Their heels soared over the stage, and their wide skirts rose during the dancing and covered their faces, letting the patron’s imagination run wild.
“Look,” – Volodyka prodded his friend’s elbow. “That one in the middle! The blondie. Oh, she’s a 10!”
“Which one? They’re all blonds,” – Serzh waved toward the dancers and took a big gulp of vodka. Ice cubes crackled under his porcelain teeth.
“That one right in the middle,” – Volodyka pointed his finger in the direction of the dancers whooping to the cancan rhythm, and added with slurred speech: “Oh, sweet naughty girl! I’m an intele... le... lectual aesthete. I love humble nuns! They a-are such sluts in bed!” – and he looked back at me and winked. “Are you sure they’re, you know, girls, without surprises in their pants?”
“One hundred percent. I swear on my mother’s grave,” – I nodded affirmatively, letting the obscenities pass in one ear and out the other. “Only they’re not nuns, but more like schoolgirls.”
…Volodyka waved his hand in response, as if to say, what difference does it make what you call someone, and turned to the stage:
“Bravo! Bunny! Come on. Come on. Higher!”
The sounds of the cancan filled the hall ever faster, ever more rousingly. The nuns-schoolgirls, waving their skirts, disappeared under the shouts and hooting of the audience, and, half a minute later, whooping dancers in erotic red lingerie and black fishnet stockings ran onto the stage. Their long legs in 15-centimeter heels also soared to the ceiling in a dashing dance.
“I like the little black one in the middle,” – Serzh leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the procession of girls in their black wigs and bob cuts. – “I’m not an intel... le... oh... in short, I’m a lecherous aesthete.”
“I love audacious and beautiful ones,” – Serzh prodded his friend under the elbow while outlining his tastes. – “And you can see right away that nothing is hidden in their panties.”
The high rollers laughed together, drank to the “beautiful ones without surprises in their panties” and finally turned back to me.
“Thirteen. Hit?” I repeated insistently, shouting over the music and the whooping of the dancers.
Some have fun, some have work. The players and I have different interests.
“Alechka, baby, hit me with if you want. But it’d be better for you to say, can I call the girls over to the table to treat them?” – Serzh opened his black wallet made of the soft leather of some overseas reptile, and looked in it to see if there was enough cash for both the game and the cocktails for the dancers. For a game – you can, in principle, take the money from a credit card, but you can’t stick a plastic card in the panties of a dancer.
“Two hundred dollars for a half hour and a cocktail for the girl,” – I announced the price list to my friends and put the diamond king on a ten and a three in Serzh’s box:
The losing cards flew into the discard tray, and the chips moved to me. The high rollers didn’t even notice it.
“Agreed! Call her over!” – Serzh exclaimed gleefully. “I’ll take the stripteaser, the black one, in stockings, who was bounding about in the middle, and Volodyka will have his blonde nun.” Then he narrowed his eyes and asked conspiratorially: “But my stripteaser is better than Volodyka’s nun, right, Alechka? Wouldn’t you say?”
Lenka couldn’t stand it and giggled loudly. She couldn’t talk to the players, she wasn’t allowed to. An inspector opens their mouth only in case of force majeure – or if a croupier messed up in the game, or a player cheats, or there is a scandal, fight, murder, tsunami. I glanced at Lenka and smiled meaningfully, while just dealing cards to the high rollers for a new game. According to the casino rules, I’m not allowed to support arguments. I’m like a Swiss bank – I maintain complete neutrality and love everyone who brings in money.
“Twenty. Stand?” – I pointed at the queen with the ten and pressed my lips together to keep from laughing. The players were very funny. Ai-Petri will definitely fine me today for unprofessional game management. His interpretation usually sounds very specific: “Don’t get snarky when the money needs to be taken away.”
Volodyka looked at his friend with a challenge, forgetting about the cards in his box:
“I bet mine’s better?!”
“No way!” – Serzh lit up and squared his shoulders, ready to rush into battle. “Alechka, baby, you’re our judge!”
“And how much will you pay the judge of the beauty pageant?” I joked, trying to dodge the competition between two drunken high rollers.
“A hundred bucks is yours, bunny,” Volodyka’s blue eyes sparkled.
Such a commercial proposal fundamentally changed my attitude towards disputes and internal casino rules.
“All right, gentlemen!” – I took it upon myself to professionally earn the fat tip. – “Your stakes in the beauty pageant?”
“A thousand dollars that my stripteaser is prettier than Volodyka’s nun!” – Serzh tapped his glass on the felt, confirming the bet.
Before the glass even landed on the table, I bolted to move the cards from the high roller’s box a little closer to me, thus saving them from the spilled vodka. The felt instantly absorbed the moisture without leaving even a wet spot – geez, what high technology. The game could not be stopped.
“It’s on!” said Volodyka immediately.
“The characteristics for assessment, gentlemen?” – I took up the high rollers’ game and cast a sidelong glance into the hall.
Ai-Petri, our slave driver owner, aka the boss of all the croupiers on the shift, aka the pit boss*,stood, according to the organizational chart for casino staff, at the roulette table, with his back to the blackjack area, leaning with both hands on the table. He wasn’t concerned with us; he was doing arithmetic. An obese fellow at the roulette table loudly disagreed on the amount of the winnings. Oh, that will take at least five minutes, if not longer! It doesn’t depend on the croupier’s mathematical skills – we’re all geniuses here in that regard. It’s not the correct multiplication that counts, it’s how receptive the fellow is to the staff’s arguments. Judging by his outcries of “what are you talking about” and “are you trying to bend me over, you assholes” – he was not very receptive. I might have seven minutes for this. Lenka won’t rat me out – a croupier covers your back – especially when she gets some of the tip, and we’re friends, after all.
“The size of their boobs,” – Volodyka distracted me from watching Ai-Petri. “Mine definitely has bigger ones!”
And he rounded his hands, showing the size he’d considered on stage, while his nun-schoolgirl waved her legs. His friend grinned skeptically in response.
“Accepted,” I slammed my hand on the table, “Serzh, your characteristic now?!”
“Let’s go with height!” – his hand shot up and hit the lampshade above the table. “The one who is taller is the winner!”
The lampshade rocked, and a yellow dot glided from right to left across the green felt of the table. The tanned faces of the high rollers were momentarily caught in the bright light and lost their expensive sheen – pale, puffy, downtrodden, with reddened eyes. They’ve probably been on a bender for a week. They are still celebrating their return from Thailand. Hmm, you’d think they worked here, they’re so tired. They knock back glasses of vodka all day, hard workers! I discreetly twisted my ankles under the table to stretch my tired legs a bit. The lampshade froze over the cards, and the guys were back in the soft semidarkness and regained their bon vivant luster.
“Accepted! We’re comparing breast and height,” – I slammed my hand dashingly on the table, confirming the bet.
Lenka glanced at me – a tip is a tip, but it’s easy to get fined if the bosses notice what we’re doing here instead of blackjack. And we will definitely lose more than a hundred dollars. You could get a week’s suspension for that. I winked at Lenka, as if to say that everything will be fine, I will not make any more sudden movements, so as not to attract the angry bosses’ unnecessary attention to us. Fortunately, the video surveillance cameras do not record voice very well, the music interferes, and the recording is only listened to if there is a conflict. So the screen in the CCTV room now shows patrons sprawled out at the table, pondering over a glass of vodka for a long time before picking up another card. It was the typical picture of a blackjack game not arousing any suspicion.
“There has to be one more characteristic to make sure there’s a winner,” – I teased my friends, barely withholding my laughter.
“Alechka, bunny, why don’t you specify the characteristic. That would be quite fair: two characteristics from us and one from our adar... adora... beautiful judge,” – suggested Volodyka, struggling to manage his own words.
«Hmm, seems like a trashed drunk, but he thinks logically. Clever high roller, it turns out. His dad probably made him go to some kind of Harvard.»
“Lips! Whoever has bigger ones wins!” – That’s the first thing that came to mind. I was ready to burst out laughing as I watched the hilarious, heavily intoxicated men. They had no idea what surprise awaited them.
“Accepted!” the guys shouted together and laughed.
“And if we still get a draw? One has bigger breasts, the other has bigger lips, and their heights are the same?” – I decided to clarify, as a judge, all the nuances of the drunken contest beforehand.
“Well, then, my dear, a thousand dollars is yours,” – blue-eyed Volodyka looked at me slyly. “And maybe after your work, we can have a cocktail somewhere in a nice bar, not far from here? I can blow my wad. The sky’s the limit, bunny.”
Lenka and I looked at each other conspiratorially.
“A thousand dollars, accepted!” – I said, and then imitated a deep disappointment, scornfully looking right into Volodyka’s blue eyes: “But the cocktail won’t fly. You know we croupiers aren’t allowed to meet patrons.”
The high roller threw up his hands in chagrin:
“Bummer... s-sorry... s-sorry... bunny.”
Without ceasing to smile or losing sight of the cards spread out before them, I turned slightly to Lenka and quietly said the word-password:
Lenka reached for the bell and rang it. From the middle of nowhere immediately appeared Lera – our waitress. In my opinion, she hadn’t gotten far away from us and was already quickly moving to bring the high rollers glasses of vodka from the bar. If she could have had her way, she’d have brought them a crate right away so they would have enough to last them till the morning. Lenka leaned over to petite Lera, whom we called Thumbelina because of her petite features, and whispered the players’ request to spend half an hour in the company of dancers. Thumbelina smiled and nodded, showing five fingers.
Lenka turned to the high rollers and stated smugly:
“Gentlemen, you need to wait five minutes. The girls are changing now.”
“Shall we finish the game? Twenty. Stand?” – I decided to take advantage of the five-minute pause.
“Stand,” – Volodyka waved his hand indifferently, keeping his eyes on me. He had the narcissistic smile on his face that all the girls in nightclubs seem to fall for and was supposed to make me fall to the feet of his expensive shoes right at the card table.
“S-sorry... s-sorry...” – he repeated again, and, after knocking back another round of vodka, he added: “You’ll be sor-sorry... my dad is no joke! Your whole casino... he’ll buy it... and you,” Volodyka intoned.
As I understood it, the song was dedicated to me. Volodyka’s impudent brashness did not embarrass me one bit, although two years ago, at the dawn of my life as a croupier, I would have been offended, and even cried, not at the table, of course, but somewhere in the bathroom, away from the cameras and Ai-Petri. Now the situation amused me. I shrugged my shoulders, theatrically emphasizing and showing him that I was also sorry, extremely sorry, well, just deathly sorry, torpedoed by how sorry... And my sweet smile teased him, falsely promising heavenly pleasures, maybe one day, later, sometime, not in this life. Here, in the casino, we all play, some with cards, some with souls...
“Blackjack,” I announced coldly, putting the ace of diamonds to my queen of spades, “Your bets are lost, gentlemen.”
“Pro. I give up,” – Volodyka raised his hands obediently and sighed. – “My, bunny...”
I was clearly lucky – the high rollers were not the first patrons from whom I boldly took money that night…
“Here’s your favorite, Yulechka,” I announced cheerfully as I noticed the dancer approaching us.
The guys looked over together, with Serzh tilting back so far that he almost fell off the stool, and their drunk eyes unapologetically scanned the figure of the dancer, inspecting and evaluating her characteristics, even though Yulechka was already almost undressed – in a gold mini-dress, more like an elongated T-shirt, to which decent people also wear jeans or a skirt, but Yulechka just had on pink panties embroidered with sequins. 15-centimeter lacquer heels added to the fragility of the dancer’s slim figure. Slender athletic tanned legs seemed to grow straight from Yulechka’s inflated lips.
“Well, guys, let’s start with the champagne, French?” fragile Yulechka was tenacious like a bulldog and had an alcohol-resistant body, which my high rollers, seasoned from their night club life, in principle, guessed.
Lenka and I exchanged glances. Our smiles would make even the Nutcracker jealous.
“No question about it, sweetheart. Champagne! Let’s get what you have there... ‘Veuve Clicquot’,” – Serzh blurted out in the direction of the waitress, setting Yulechka next to him on the stool.
“Where’s the other bunny? There’s no one to compare her with,” – Volodyka was a bit confused, “and I don’t understand, whose is this one?”
Without the wig and stage costume, it was indeed hard to tell who had come to them – a nun, aka a schoolgirl, or a stripper in red lingerie.
I slowly shifted my gaze to blue-eyed Volodyka, who was staring at me inquiringly, then to unshaven Serzh, who was already looking at Yulechka’s cleavage – he did not care whether she was a nun or a stripper – and finally to Yulechka, languidly rocking on the stool, waiting for the champagne, which cost as much in our indiscreet casino house as a plane ticket to Paris, where it had been brought to us.
“But there’s actually nothing to compare. We’ve got a talented girl in Yulechka – she dances both in a nun’s costume and a stripper’s clothes,” I said, stretching out each word, “You gentlemen aesthetes liked the same dancer. Just in different outfits. So it’s a clean draw!”
A sepulchral silence hung over the table. Lenka and I, holding our breath, looked at the high rollers; the high rollers looked at Yulechka in disbelief; Yulechka examined her pearlescent manicure – she did not care; she has an hourly rate.
Volodyka banged his hand on the table and exclaimed:
“You fooled us, bunny!”
“Yeah...a pro! Excellent work, baby!” added Serzh admiringly, and pressed Yulechka against him.
The high rollers laughed loudly. Ai-Petri abruptly looked over at the laughing, but noting with his trained eye the number of chips in my hands, which informed him: “we had brought home the bacon; the money is all ours,” he calmly continued going about his business at the roulette wheel.
A thousand dollars went in the tip box.