It was nine p.m., and the casino was still a riot of iniquity—laughing, tinkling, groaning, drinking, and then the zings of slots machines and the riffling of cards. At the poker table blessed with light and the shine of a perky dealer, three men were hard and dim over their pair of cards. The pot stood at four thousand dollars.
The dealer turned the fourth street on the community cards. In the first seat anticlockwise to the dealer, a player did not seem disturbed by the fourth street card, instead twirled a chip against the table. A triangular patch of chest hair peeked from the opening of his Hawaiian shirt. Between the silvery-blue shades hiding his eyes and the tumbler touching his lips, no expression was evident on his face.
As his fingers moved a few chips towards the dealer, the first player clockwise from the dealer spoke up, “Sorry, I never got your name.”
The fingers slackened over the green felt of the table. “Chris,” he put down his tumbler, “you, Alex right?”
“You remember mine—impressive.”
Chris shrugged. “I’m just good with names and faces.” Stalagmite teeth hinted from behind the slight smile.
“Man, I still feel bad …. When I win the pot, I’ll be sure to thank you with a blowjob.”
Chris’ lips collapsed into a frown.
“I raise,” Chris said, words and actions like ice blocks.
Alex smiled but ended with an irrepressible yawn. He stretched out his arms up into the air, bone layered over bone; exhaustion would seem to thread upwards to the coffered ceiling. His smooth cheeks were flushed with some color, and his eyes livened with the polished whiteness of dolomites.
Alex, lips holding back a smile, motioned to the silent player. “After eight hours, I still didn’t catch your name.”
“Because you’re an idiot, that’s why,” Chris interrupted.
Alex popped back, not fazed by the affront, while the second player matched the bet without comment. The long hours had yet to mark him. His mouth was just as firm, his cheeks just as rough with stubble and pockmarks and the eyes, pointed and hoary.
A school of women shambled across the floor like a school of strutting geese. Amid their squawking and squealing about how not amazing the fondue had been, the second player deigned to return Alex’s amiable stare.
He replied, with an accent thick and gunky, “Dimov, Dimov Krym.”
Alex nodded to himself approvingly. “Russian, I like it.”
“Blowhards think like that all the time.”
Tense but intrigued, Alex bit his lower lip. “I’m just a stupid American. Africa is one giant country. Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and whatever-the fuck-istan are all Mother Russia.”
“Idiot, speak for yourself.” Chris’ face was a desert map of red and pink.
The dealer cautioned, “Gentlemen…”
Alex played with a chip and grimaced over the community cards. “I prefer being an idiot. It’s better than being a blowhard—slightly better. What do you think, Dimov?
Dimov turned modestly toward the black and glittery dealer and chuckled.
“There!” Alex said in wonderment, “It must be his lucky night.”
“Are you going to play or something?” Chris demanded.
“The idiot needs to think first. Luck doesn’t seem to be on my side today.”
“That remains to be seen,” replied Dimov.
“Ooh, you too are looking forward to my blowjob. I should think harder.”
“I might, but my wife won’t like it.”
“So you find another. Some women like to watch,” Alex said.
“Why would I marry her, then?”
“Can we get on with this?” Chris pleaded.
“I think I’m entitled to negotiate with the kind and polite Mr. Krym from … Russia,” Alex said.
Dimov glared fully and furiously at Alex, who was licking his lips in an evident anticipation of something. A sure win? A childish dare? A befuddled prattle of a boy on the brink of a loss? No one had answers and answers could not be divined and the minutes built up a tense cage of locked stares.
Alex broke away, and with a twinkle in his eyes, tossed and played with his chip. “I call.”
“All your yammering for calling?” Chris guzzled from his tumbler, slammed the glass with a sandy exhale from his mouth. “We’ll see what you’re made off, Kiddo, I raise.”
Dimov called. Alex called as well. The dealer turned the fifth street. Chris glanced at the ace of diamonds and raised. Dimov raised. Alex called.
It was back to Chris looking blearily over his dwindling ledge of chips. “Let’s get this baby into orbit. I raise.”
Dimov raised. Alex leaned back in his chair, moped over his modest mountain of chips, then with a resigned nod of the head, said, “I raise.”
Chris’ face had sagged to a pale mush. The amount he would need to match Alex’s bet was more or less equal to the number of chips he had. He drank again, this time slowly. His little finger trembled against the table imperceptibly.
“Fold,” Chris announced manfully, and without pausing for the considerate faces of sympathy, huffed away towards a glimmering green fountain.
“Just you and me, now Mr. Russia,” Alex said. “For your wife’s sake, I hope I don’t win.”
Dimov said, “You seem more interested in … than winning …” he visually estimated the chips in the pot. “Winning seven thousand dollars.”
“Seven thousand five hundred dollars.”
Dimov mimed to himself in concession to his superior estimating skills. Alex added, more sultry than before, “Money can’t buy everything. You need to bargain for everything else.”
Dimov popped up at him, his lips tightening and bunching to the left. He turned to the dealer, then it was show down.
Alex’s fingers tightened over his thin cards before revealing them. Dimov exhaled an exhausted breath and said, “You win,” then flipped over his cards. The dealer concurred.
Dimov extended his arm across to the table to shake Alex’s. “Congratulations.” Dimov’s tone managed to be warm and cordial; Alex managed to leave behind his bravado with a quivering smile.
“I’ll be enjoying this alone?” Alex asked, searching.
Dimov’s hand was firm, and the handshake seemed to last longer than it should. But both men measured each other, and it would seem that the scales, wherever they might be, were found wanting, inadequate, amidst the gathering din of the hall.
With a dismissive eye-roll, Dimov pulled back first and smoothed over his ear like he was trying to recover something. “Enjoy.” And without haste, he arose, the table and chair rumbling. His shoulders spanned wide like long horns and looked packed tight. Momentarily, a thick shadow loomed vertically over the table, like a bright palm tree.
Alex, his fingers caressing the corrugated surface of a chip, watched Dimov nod again, amiable, reluctant, then turned away towards the horizontal gleam of the lobby. Alex gripped the chip. A shudder worked through his sternum; quavering began apace. It was like watching a sun eclipse and seeing ahead the dark closing in.
New players were hovering over the table, giving Alex steely looks so that he would pack up his chips and vamoose. But Alex took his time opening his bag pack, dropping one chip after another, glancing over the irate faces to the suited back of Dimov, who was slithering around the poker tables. Alex clucked and shoved all his chips into his bag and tramped away to the popping line of slot machines. A drink might do him good; perhaps roll him of the edge of anticipation. Did he have time for it? Alex checked his phone for the time: nine thirty. With a crick in his neck, he realized all the free alcohol he refused during his eight hours at the table. Maybe he should join a table just for a free drink? But the time—he really ought to pack up or he would not make it back home before dawn.
A victorious yell of “Yess!” alerted him to the squat man at a slot machine pumping a fat arm into the air. Even with the gleeful clinks of coins streaming out of the machine, he could not suppress the pebble of disgust forming in his belly. He conceded the luck of the idiot winning perhaps enough for a better-looking toupee. But he prided himself a careful gambler ever watchful of the odds, not another zoned-out monkey who thought pulling levers was equivalent to skill. And these odds he felt shifting in his favor as he looked over to the mosaic of poker tables, the dull spectators sipping from tumblers, and the lone man without a glass—Dimov tall and grave. And where the odds blew, Alex followed.
Another man, shaved balding head, rose ears and rose cheeks, hailed down Dimov, who at first grunted tiredly and then slid to a prim smile. Dimov’s effortless amity impelled Alex to pause.
“Dimi,” the man swooned. “Are you done now?” Dimov neighed affirmation. He reached over Dimov’s neck and fixed his collar then pointed him to a trio of smiling men by an iron glob of a statue. “Time to go dancing with those Argentinians over there. Gracious me, sexy Spanish, sexy pecs. Two for me, one for you. ”
Dimov flustered but did nothing as the man unbuttoned his collar. “Make that three for you and zero for me. I’m tired, Charley.” He slammed his palms over his eyes and heaved a breath.
Charles dimmed. “When are we all going to have fun? You can’t spend all weekend playing poker!”
Dimov flew red on the cheeks. “I got carried away.” Charles rolled his eyes. Dimov scrambled to regain the high ground. “I lost the game, but I’m up for the day. More money for you and Glenda to spend…”
“Ugh. Remind me never to come along with you to Vegas again.”
“I didn’t ask you to come along,” Dimov muttered, but Charles was making irreverent faces at the Latin trio. Dimov shifted abruptly. “Where’s Glenda?”
“Stalking Hello Handsome.”
Dimov’s eyes widened, as he expected nothing less from Glenda. He yawned again. “I’ll go back to the room then rejoin you and your friends back here.”
Charles’ brow zoomed inward and creased in the middle of his forehead. “Good and good.” Before Dimov could walk away, Charley held back him by the arm and said, like a naughty child, “What’s the room number?”
“Where’s your key card?”
“Somewhere in the lockers or the bottom of the pool”
“You—If they charge us for that, you’re paying.” Dimov leaned his hand on Charles’ shoulder for a moment, and moaned, “443—don’t bring your friends into the room.”
Charles smirked mischievously. “What about our long planned three-way … four-way?”
The words took their slow effect on Dimov staring carefully into the glassy hazel of Charles’ eyes. “Maybe when you’re less bald.”
“You’re getting bald too.”
Dimov glared at him. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, Dimi,” Charley stroking Dimov's widow’s peak, “there, you getting bald. A shame losing hair before you’re thirty,” he ended victoriously. “Pedro doesn’t mind bald. I asked him for you—”
Dimov took control of the hands and brushed them aside. “This isn’t funny.”
“I agree getting bald isn’t funny.”
“Joking about n-ways with you isn’t funny.”
The moment between the two friends was suddenly fraught with perilous crags. Charles stepped back, brushing the imaginary lint off his striped polo shirt.
“You should rest tonight. Tomorrow, we’re absolutely doing something together.”
“I’m not—Just tell her to be absolutely sober when she gets back.”
Dimov plodded to the glittering row of elevators, Charles danced up to Latin Trio, Bossa Nova or Tango on his mind. Alex, however, had been watching the conversation with the amusement one gets when you discover that your five-year-old parrot can swear. The last eight hours had him sit melting beside Dimov’s etched presence, his no-nonsense demeanor, and then this unexpected boon of a gentle Dimov.
Smirking, Alex swayed lazily to where he could cash his chips. The darling fruits of luck was on his mind, not the squiggly trail woven into the carpet, a fibrous maze of design, less artistic and more blindingly psychedelic.
He thought it would be now or never, but before he could dream up a slick plan, his phone rang.
He grimaced at its hot-white screen and answered hurriedly as he marched to the elevators. “Frank, I almost done here. I just need to cash my chips, and we’re good to go.” He tsk-ed about Dimov.
“I’m fuck-all tired. I don’t think we should leave tonight.”
Alex looked around the diarrheic glimmer spiraling over the elevator doors. “I only agreed to come with you to Vegas if I could get back before Sunday Morning. I have the Monday interview to prepare for.” His senses narrowed as he imagined his mother sitting alone in the scouring dark of the living room. “I need to get home early.”
A depressing sigh came over the phone. “How did you do?”
“Up. Everyone else?”
“I and Tom are up. Janet doubled her bankroll. She announced she’s quitting poker. Too much testosterone bullshit, she said.”
Alex clenched a fist into the air. “You two should make up already and getting fucking. I like her around. I can't handle you and Tom alone.”
“Don’t blame me. I did nothing. I said nothing while she was grinding a greaseball. Go shake Tom."
“But you—how did the retard do?”
“Pete’s drunk off his ass. Lost three-quarters of his bankroll.”
Alex gritted his teeth. “Next time, your friend doesn’t get to come along.”
“Roger that. But Tom wants to buy hookers and Pete is real stoked. I think L.A. might have to wait till the morning.”
“What the hell I am supposed to do when you guys are paying too much for fake titties?”
“Talk to Janet about shoes, Darling.”
“Fuck you too.” Alex rubbed his sore eyes and glimpsed Dimov disappearing in the elevators. “And you wonder why Janet doesn’t want to play anymore. I veto this idea.”
“I’m not so keen either. I get better pussy spending ten bucks on cheap vodka." Alex sneered, Frank blustered on, “You’re welcome to look at my limp dick, while Janet talks to you about shoes.”
“Don’t you fucking wish.” There was vague guffawing over the phone. Alex groaned. “We can’t get legal hookers in Vegas anyway.”
“Roger … She shouldn’t mind us three playing with fireworks.”
“No shit, fireworks?” Alex could not help smiling. “That sounds like a fucking plan.”
The plan was tentative, and Alex felt grateful that the world was not crashing down on him yet as he cashed his chips. Money heavy in his bag pack, he installed himself in the corner of an elevator, glazing over the LCD glow of floor numbers ticking to the flow of his thoughts. The money meant nothing. It was a game, a serious game of risk management. The money was evidence of a job well done, and now it would go back into his gambling bank account to be played away later.
The doors opened to the swirly rose of the faux granite hallway, and Alex's mind flashed with Dimov, his big wide face, the wide big shoulders, and the goose-pimpled neck and the hefty Adam’s apple. Alex stepped back into the elevator and pressed the button for the fourth floor.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish