One of twenty-one chapter-stories from the novel "21 ½ Casino-Stories". Translated by Henry Perypatetik
“The first” croupier, aka the dealer, is the one who directly runs the game, i.e. deals the cards, starts the ball on the roulette wheel, takes away the money, hands out the winnings and patiently listens to all the nonsense the players talk. “The second” croupier, aka the game table inspector, sits or stands, watches idly and monitors, or pretends to monitor whether “the first” is doing everything right and whether a player is cheating.
I picked up a magazine featuring a busty blonde with my sharp heel and tossed it mercilessly off the chair in one fell swoop. This is Leshka’s contribution, supplying our guys with fresh erotic literature. My poor feet, crammed in my shoes, stretched out into the vacated space. Legs sighed in relief. They are not accustomed to heels – they tolerate them only for the croupier dress code, and for Edik, of course. He likes his girlup high, so to speak, and not on the soft platform of sneakers. Well, at my one hundred and sixty-five centimeters, it was hard for me, even in heels, to reach Edik’s high standards.
Thank goodness the croupier’s break room, glamorously referred to in casino slang as the “hangout,” was empty. Everyone was working in the main hall – a frenetic “blow your wad”vibe was in full swing there. It was possible to relax for a while in paradisiacal silence without doing anything. I even did not want to switch on the TV, as local channels did not broadcast anything good at such an early hour anyway, and to tune my tired brain into the English-speaking programs is subtle masochism. I’ve already watched all the movies on my old iPad, and more than once. Edik has been promising to upload something new for a month, but... I’ve got no movie and no Edik, sadly. And we don’t have Wi-Fi – the bosses say it’s not allowed, although that’s all their mumbo jumbo. They invented some kind of security system with a long list of rules for it to torture their employees. Mobile internet cannot reach us through the thick walls of the old building that houses our casino, with even calls and texts creeping in slowly and intermittently. The building was about two hundred years old, the mansion of some rich manufacturer – they didn’t skimp on bricks back then. So we’re working in the stone age.
I picked up a magazine sadly strewn on the couch – a rather shabby one with brown traces of coffee cups and a blonde girl, though not busty like the one in Leshka’s Playboy, but skinny and unisex. Junk either for housewives or socialites. I flipped through it lazily, indifferently running through pictures of freshly glowing female faces – wrinkle cream, hair dye, perfume for men... hmm, diamonds for gorillas... anyway, gorillas and earrings hung together on some kind of vines.
I can’t afford diamonds, so I don’t have to worry about carats and purity. I’ve had the same perfume for five years now – the eternal Chanel No. 5. My dad likes it, so he gives it to me; I don’t care, but he enjoys it. I’m not really interested in cosmetics in life either. If it weren’t for the requirements of the casino bosses forcing me to lure patrons to the game with red lipstick and a fluttering of cow eyelashes, I could easily do without a toiletry case. The timeless Nivea cream has so far done a great job of handling all the needs of my twenty-five year old skin and soul.
My tired gaze rested on the spread of the magazine – “Horoscope for September 30.” I had no strength to read anything more serious. “Gemini. A day full of surprises awaits you: a message from a loved one, an unexpected meeting and a romantic date.” It was not exactly a horoscope, but more like a Brazilian soap opera, except that the clock hanging on the wall in front of me was showing six, six in the morning. Only a little longer, two hours, and then home to sleep, and then back here again in the evening. So any meeting or date scheduled outside the casino and my pillow flies by at the speed of the ball rushing down the roulette wheel. These horoscopes are asinine!
I leaned back tiredly on the worn leather sofa and rested my head on someone else’s sweater. The soft lump hit the back of my head at just the right time – it would be a pillow, its owner wouldn’t be here any time soon anyway. I looked sadly at the screen of the sleeping phone, without hope – at six in the morning all hope dies. There were no messages, no unanswered calls either; just in case, I scrolled through old messages to see if a new one got lost amongst them. None got lost.
Like a whack job, I had rolled up to my shift in 12-centimeter heels for nought. You could limit yourself to the standard eight centimeters, the minimum required for female croupiers in our elite house. I was still not able to call Edik. «Although, maybe he’ll wake up in an hour and call me, and my heels will come in handy,» I wondered to myself. «It’s unlikely,» – my drowsy sane reason whispered, «if he hasn’t called in almost a week...» So my horoscope is lying about the news from my dear one; news has been mute for five days now. I wish the astrologer had just told me I was going to make it through this crazy shift today.
Our good Ai-Petri kept me as the “first” croupier at the roulette wheel for two hours without a break, on these damned heels, worn for Edik’s sake! Fatigued, I didn’t want to think, drink, or eat. A plate full of dried cheese sandwiches told me that either everyone, like me, was not interested in food, which was unlikely because the guys were gluttonous, especially fat Romka, or I was the first lucky girl who had been allowed to rest in the last few hours.
I was already reaching for my headphones to sink into musical nirvana for at least twenty minutes of well-deserved rest, when the door swung open, and the calm in the room was crashed by:
“Oh, come on, come on, gorgeous! I need a seven!”
“Thank you, no more bets! No!” – Lenka’s sonorous voice rose over the players and the music. She hd graduated from pedagogical school for a reason; she’ll have to yell so much in her life. So she’s training her voice at the roulette wheel for her future profession.
At the door appeared his majesty, our slave driver owner, Ai-Petri, Petya according to his passport – our pit-boss, as his semi-official position is called. Semi-official, because the HR department was going crazy not knowing what to call us according to the Labor Code. The Labor Code for the gambling industry had not yet been agreed upon.
“Selezneva. To blackjack. VIP room. The first croupier. That was fast.”
My paradise ended before it began.
“Ai-Pe...” – I was about to give myself away, because after “Ai-Petri” you reckoned with almost the guillotine in the form of a fine, but I rectified the situation in time: “Petya, I just got off the roulette wheel!”
My indignation had no limits, though to argue with a slave-driver is senseless, and even dangerous. You can run up against uncontrollable rage, but at six in the morning my instinct for self-preservation was dead to the world, and the dead tired body tried to win its legitimate right to a twenty-minute rest on the couch.
Ai-Petri jolted sharply and took two broad leaps in my direction. I jumped up like a scalded chicken, forgetting about my cast-iron legs and high heels, abruptly tossing the crumpled sweater away from me – maybe it was his. But Ai-Petri flew by, without paying attention either to me or the sweater, kicked the busty blonde on the way, or rather the magazine with the busty blonde, making it fly right under the couch – Leshka will again curse and say that someone stole the new issue – and grabbed a dried sandwich from the plate, swallowed it without chewing and barked in my direction:
“Selezneva, quickly dart over to the blackjack room. Rose came in.”
“Petya, she took away thirty grand last time! She’s a professional cheat,” – I do not know why I rebelled, because determining who is a cheat or an honest player in the walls of the casino is left to the pit bosses, administrators, security guards, security camera operators, but not simple croupier minions.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Selezneva. She left almost a hundred two weeks ago. Come on, to hell with the roulette wheel, scamper over to the blackjack room. Hurry, damn your roulette wheel,” – an enraged Ai-Petri tossed in my direction and stormed out of the room and into the gambling hall, chewing on his second dried-up sandwich as he went.
I sighed and looked at myself in the mirror, sending both Rose and the croupier’s hard luck at six in the morning to casino hell. Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me, oh no, you’d better be quiet! From under my black bangs, red eyes looked at me with flawlessly adorned lashes – the super-strength mascara didn’t even come off in the morning. I imagined that I was a movie star and had to walk out under the spotlights of the flashing cameras on the red carpet. My parched lips were pursed into a bow and sent an air kiss to imaginary fans. In the dim light of the casino, flaws dissipate and everything seems prettier, younger, richer, and life is simpler. You can imagine yourself as the real Uma Thurman. All the more so since many people in the casino noticed my resemblance to her, probably because of the gray eyes, or because of the black bob cut, which was almost the same, a little longer, to the shoulders, when she danced with Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” I made a wry face at my reflection, straightened the strands of my bob cut, moved my eyelids with my fingers, patted my cheeks with my hands – kind of for freshness, put on bright red Loreal lipstick – kind of for beauty, straightened my shoulders – kind of like I was not tired at all, and opened the door to hell.
“No more bets! No more!” our timid Kirill was yelling over the roulette wheel.
You look and the four-eyed nerd, pencil-necked geek, is quietly playing chess during the breaks with himself, sometimes with Ai-Petri; you won’t hear a word from him in the “hangout,” but he knows how to yell at the roulette wheel. Although our players can force the mute to scream with a piercing voice.
“Well, come on, come on, ace me, ace me!” a stately man with a smoking cigar bounced on the stool behind the blackjack table.
“One kiss! He’s my lucky one!” shouted the voluptuous blonde at the roulette wheel, kissing the chip with her silicone lips and leaning low over the table to reach the first column.
Romchik’s thick neck stretched and arched like a boiled macaroni, toward the beauty, and his eyes, instead of following the game, drowned in the girl’s sumptuous cleavage.
The hall was humming, laughing, cursing, indignant, singing, yelling... The hall was playing. Players of different breeds, states and moods clung to all sides of the roulette wheels, card tables and bar.
“Selezneva! Move, damn it! Quickly!” – Ai-Petri growled right in my ear.
My turtle slowness always pissed him off. I quickly slipped through the ajar door and into the VIP room. The door noiselessly, as if by magic, and in fact with the help of our guard Uncle Stepa, closed behind my back. Uncle Stepa’s passport name was Stepan Ivanovich, but with a height of a little less than two meters this nickname was the most harmless and kindest from the arsenal of possibilities such as “Paul Bunyan,” “giraffe,” “beanpole,” and it corresponded to the passport data, not a nickname, but a legal interpretation. Generally, we croupiers don’t give mean nicknames to colleagues or clients. But people got offended anyway. Ai-Petri, if he hears that someone calls him not Pyotr Ivanovich but “Ai-Petri,” he dismisses them from the shift without warning and without the right to redress the wrong. But it sounds nice to me. He’s not short either, almost the height of Uncle Stepa, and he sort of looms over us all like Mount Ai-Petri. What’s there to be offended about?
The door closed, and I was submerged in an almost graveyard silence. There was quiet music in the room, but it was not even perceptible to the auditory receptors after the insane noise in the main hall. My “second,” aka table inspector, aka monitor, was already sitting at the blackjack table, staring at the gorgeous Rose.
Ai-Petri made Leshka my monitor. He’s a good-looking guy, tall, but he’s kind of awkward, slouching all the time. He has been working with us for half a year already, but he keeps to himself, does not go to discos with us, comes to picnics once in a while, sometimes goes fishing with the guys and, I think, studies somewhere else during the day – either at the university or the polytechnical institute. You hear only reasonable things from him, and for the male half of the “hangout,” he brings a fresh “Playboy” every month to page through for free. When Leshka saw me, he tore his gaze away from Rose’s cleavage, grinned – a Cheshire cat for me too – and sputtered softly:
“Alka, where have you been lurking?
But in the morning, all the more so with a broken heart, I don’t respond to smiles, don’t answer stupid questions..
Rose sat majestically on a stool at the card table and smoked her famous pipe. Next to it, on the cloth, lay a case covered with jewels and gold, , a real treasure chest from Aladdin’s cave. Although according to the casino rules the gaming table is not a shelf for keeping personal belongings, the VIP room has its own rules, or rather lack thereof. Everyone in the casino knew Rose and her case, which served its owner as both a purse for money and a holder for her pipe.
Rose was a nickname – we didn’t know her real name. She left her two guards, who looked like clumsy, deaf-mute bears, at the reception desk; she always entered the hall alone, without a beau or girlfriends, so no one ever addressed her by name in front of us. Rose often paid us a visit to smoke a pipe and play cards, on a grand scale, but not hurriedly, without excitement and shouting, as they say, “without song and dance,” not as a gypsy, although her black as pitch, large almond-shaped eyes, dark skin and heavy silky raven-winged hair gave her away as a pure-blooded gypsy. And her clothes, quite European, from the most expensive boutiques of Milan, revealed hints of gypsy motifs: either large too bright red roses over a black fluffy skirt from some kind of Dolce Gabbana, or the sleeves of her blouse were wide and winged. And her cleavage made all our guys, including Leshka, stutter, even though Rose was old enough to be their mother. That’s why Ai-Petri never made a guy the “first” croupier. And all the girls in the casino were angry and envious of this cleavage, buttoning their narrow white blouses up to the throat, tightening them with striped vests in the style of 1920s Chicago and, in addition, clipping the collars to the point of suffocation with the same striped bow tie as on the vests, since that was required by our casino dress code.
Rose silently tossed the bill strap of dollars on the table, continuing to puff on the pipe. The acrid smoke crept over the table and did not hurry to dissipate under the pressure of the powerful, but not all-powerful air extraction system. My red eyes almost popped out of their orbits.
“Ten thousand,” I announced, spreading the bills out in a croupier staircase and glancing at Leshka.
He nodded, as if to say that everything was all right, although he could hardly do arithmetic with the gypsy’s breasts rising above clouds of smoke.
Twenty chips of five hundred each went to Rose. She always played for five hundred dollars, never raised or lowered the stakes. I suspected that she only perceived numbers with zeros – two or more – in general.
“Place your bets,” – I opened the game and passed my hand over the table, inviting her to lay her chips in the boxes.
Rose placed two bets of five hundred each. It was good that she was not talkative, sat quietly, puffed her pipe, and only tapped her middle finger on the felt when she needed a card. My weary mind was not ready to entertain and amuse players right now.
With the light movement of my tired hand, quick as the wind, so to speak, I dealt the cards, almost unable to see them because of the smoke that was eating out my eyes – any air conditioning was powerless against Rose’s pipe. Nevertheless, we can deal cards with our eyes closed, and this is not bragging, but one of the tests in croupier school.
Standing on my heels was getting harder and harder by the minute. I’m sure that gravitational forces increase exponentially toward the morning, it’s just that physicists are sound asleep at that time and don’t know about it. I’d love to switch places with Leshka right now. His wooden inspector’s stool seemed like the most comfortable chair in the entire universe. I wiggled my toes pressed together in the vice grip of my narrow shoes. Damn them to hell! It didn’t get any easier. I had sneakers lying around in the “hangout,” so comfy, so soft, so loved, to change into them when I went home, but wearing them to the gaming table was like putting on a ski outfit for the reception of the Queen of England. I smiled, picturing myself in sneakers at the blackjack table and Ai-Petri’s face at the same time.
It was a sad smile, but in the nick of time, since Rose had twenty in each box, and I had gone bust, so the regal gypsy got the first thousand dollars. We croupiers are obliged to genuinely rejoice at our patrons’ winnings, even if the patron has promised beforehand to embed you in concrete, drown you, strangle you, etc. if they lose.
Maybe Edik really was busy, a drowsy hope flashed in my sleeping brain. I don’t seem to have any luck at cards, so in love...
“Don’t be so sad,” Rose said in a low, slightly husky voice, with the characteristic melodious gypsy accent, and let out a ball of smoke at me. “It doesn’t matter...”
I jerked in surprise. I don’t remember ever hearing her voice. The imperious movements of the gypsy spoke more eloquently than any words, and everyone in the casino understood them right away. In two years – which is how long I had served here, namely served, not worked, because the casino reminds you more of the army than a business office – even a parrot at the gaming table becomes a clairvoyant psychologist. So I can guess from their eyes, without words, what the client wants – to exchange money, raise the bet, or stop the game to run to the bathroom out of necessity, or just to snort up a line of white powder – that happens here as well.
“It doesn’t matter,” Rose repeated and took her winnings, leaving five hundred dollars each in the boxes for the next round.
Black eyes stared at and studied me. Not eyes, but X-rays:
“I’m not talking about the cards, honey. I mean you.”
My soul sunk into my heels. I glanced at Leshka to see if he could hear all this, but Leshka was concentrating on his face in the mirrored column across from him. He seemed to be studying the length of the morning stubble and not following me or the game. All our guys have the same problem – no matter how smoothly shaven their face was in the evening at the beginning of the shift, by sunrise prickly stubble treacherously showed up on their faces. And nothing can be done about it. “Young, green apples, with testosterone” – summed up our chef in the restaurant, Mademoiselle Masha, albeit Mary de Sue according to her French passport. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach – I should have eaten at least one sandwich.
“Sixteen. Hit?” – my hand hovered over the gypsy’s first box, waiting for her decision.
“It doesn’t matter,” Rose said again, not paying attention to the cards, and after a short pause she added, “whether or not he calls. He’s not in your life. He’s not family.”
Her left hand twitched faintly, showing me that she refused to take a hit. The pipe lit up again.
“But maybe he was also family,” – I found the courage to object in an offended voice. “Do you read that in the cards?”
Rose let out a puff of smoke, slightly exposing her pearly teeth, and shook her head, giving me a scornful look:
“Cards can’t tell you anything about a person, honey. They’re just paper. Open yours. What have you got there?”
I was bust, and Rose got the next thousand. The cards, unlike the gypsy, said that I should be insanely lucky in love, if I was so unlucky at the game.
“I thought you were reading cards, fortune telling,” – I commented politely, trying not to give away my sarcasm and without disrespectfully hinting at the traditions of her relatives and inner circle.
I didn’t believe in horoscopes, UFOs or coffee grounds. Why in the world would I be taken in by some gypsy at six in the morning, telling me who was family in my life and who wasn’t? And you could easily tell that my date had gone down the drain without any fortune telling. What else could make a twenty-five-year-old girl’s eyes look sad?
Rose leaned against the table and put her pipe to the side, right next to the betting box. Good thing the felt was nonflammable, otherwise you wouldn’t need to go to a fortune teller to know that it would have burned the whole casino down in five minutes.
“We see people, honey; the cards are just cheap marketing,” – the corner of her juicy bright red mouth twitched dismissively.
I swept my hand over the table, inviting more bets, but Rose was in no hurry.
“You don’t need him, and he doesn’t need you...”
She looked at Leshka – who was still not interested in our conversation and continued to admire his unshaven face – smiled enigmatically and nodded in his direction:
“With him you could, honey, take a couple of months off from passion, calm your heart. He’s nice, and he likes you. Although he’s also not your... not for you.”
Well, here I could agree with her – he’s definitely not for me, and I don’t even agree to a couple of months, and it doesn’t matter who he secretly likes. Judging by Leshka’s magazines lying around the “hangout,” his taste preferences fall in the category of Pamela Anderson. I am far from those sizes, especially the first, top one.
I passed my hand over the table again, inviting bets. Rose lit up her extinguished pipe, dousing me and Leshka in new puffs of acrid smoke, and slowly continued her game. Leshka woke up either from the smoke or had already finished looking at his stubble in the mirror and was now watching the game intently, monitoring me and Rose’s cleavage at the same time. The gypsy spoke no more, indifferently losing thousands and thousands. And with each five-hundred-dollar chip taken from her, my mood worsened – my good fortune at cards was killing my hope for luck in love. When I had all Rose’s chips, she carefully put the pipe in the cover, the cover in the treasure chest, stood silently, threw her silk hair back, and, without saying good-bye, walked toward the exit. The massive oak door immediately opened as if by magic. The gypsy took hold of the bronze handle and looked back:
“You will find happiness, honey, you will... You will sense it with your nose,” – she added with a smile. “There’s an unanswered call waiting for you... Family.”
I could only run into the break room an hour later, when the new shift arrived and Ai-Petri deigned to release us from his bondage. I threw off my hated heels, swapping them for my beloved sneakers, barely found my bag on the couch, under a pile of clothes, pulled my phone out from under a plate of half-eaten sandwiches, threw it in my bag and bolted out of the “hangout.” Hurry home, sleep, sleep, sleep...
“Bitch sprawled out on my sweater,” – I heard Romka exclaim angrily behind my back before the door slammed behind me.
Outside, by the main entrance, Leshka was smoking. Hadn’t Rose’s pipe been enough for him?! My throat was still scratchy and my eyes were watery.
“I have the car today. Picked it up from the shop yesterday. Let me give you a ride,” he offered casually, as if in passing, tossing his cigarette butt into the trash.
I was somehow confused by the unexpected suggestion and shrugged uncertainly, which could have meant either “yes” or “I don’t know.”
“You can plop down in the back seat, since I’ve got a box in the front,” – Leshka commanded in a businesslike manner, without hearing a clear “no” from me.
I obediently slid into his old car, tossed my bag beside me and stretched my tired legs under the front seat. A wave of supreme bliss ran through my body, like I’d hit the jackpot. My bag slid to the floor and, unzipped, my phone slipped out and fell to my feet. The screen lit up. Unanswered text message: “Alice, will you come over on the weekend?” Only my dad didn’t call me Alya, but Alice, Alice in Wonderland. He’sfunny. Andnice.