She walks to the table, tattooed arms and general sag spilling out of a top both sleeveless and shapeless. Her hair belongs in a forgotten 1980s power ballad; failing business at the front, crack party at the back. The cigarette is a natural extension of her mouth; her wrinkles possibly just smoked-out dimples and nicotine stains. And her eyes glare with the uncontrolled danger of a drunken knife-fight.
This isn’t playboy Las Vegas, it’s not whoop-it-up Las Vegas and it’s not cheesy Las Vegas. This is country town meets trailer park Las Vegas. Downtown still brings in the cowboy hats and grunting NASCAR fans. It’s faded seaside glamour gone desert, a timewarp world where jingle-pumping slot machines and neon still hold that certain cachet.
She won’t take a stool. She stands over the table with a nervous energy that borders on the psychotic. She’s tense; poised for that moment of chilling exorcism when the malignant inner demons are unleashed to wreak havoc on the outer world. Five $20 notes are flung on the table. She looks for more, but there’s nothing left. This is the last $100. Of the night, certainly, but probably of the bank account too. This isn’t gambling for fun – it’s gambling through life-sapping need and poisonous desperation.
The chips are greedily snatched, and drawn into the table’s edge. She’s shielding them. Hers. Got that?
Other chips around the arena are less guarded. They’re shuffled across onto wherever the whims of deluded strategy see fit to place them. Some dotted calculatingly on corners that haven’t seen a winner for a few spins, some confidently on the zero, some non-committally on 1-18 as a token gesture of killing time by joining in. As the flying hands relinquish their circular sacrifices, she enters the fray.
She shuffles half of the pile forwards, hand unsteady either through nerves or alcoholism. It rests sloppily on red. And then she goes back for the other half. Black.
Eyes don’t know where to go. We can’t look at her; she’s not the sort of person you look directly at. We can’t look at each other. There’s the danger that someone will laugh. We can’t look at the croupier. He’s probably trying to hold it in just as much.
The wheel embarks on its mesmeric blur, the ball gamely battling against the stronger force. It eventually succumbs, losing its legs with that inevitable plinky clatter. The blur clears, and 35 is occupied. It’s a loss for all but one. The croupier keeps an inscrutably blank faces as he scoops up the ten chips on red, then puts another ten chips as winnings on black.
Next time, there is no wait. She beats the melee of hands. $50 on red. Then $50 on black. Eyes around the table are jabbering. Is this really happening? Well-meaning advice could end in blood, so chips are meekly shunted across as fig leaves. If everyone else stopped, she would want to know why. And no-one has the courage to tell her.
The wheel spins, the wheel slows, the wheel stops. 17. Two come out up this time; she comes out even.
It happens again. $50 on red, $50 on black. 2. Then 12. Then 35. 14, 22, 17, 9. And, eventually, inevitably, zero. No-one dares move. No-one dares look. It’s the click and vacuum-like pause before the bomb explodes.
The croupier sweeps all the chips off the table, studiously avoiding conversation or eye contact. The vanquished stands frozen but juddering. The blast of fear, anger, self-loathing and screaming anarchy is contained within the battle-hardened shell. The silent inferno is far more terrifying than any public catharsis could ever be. She turns, fingernails digging into the side of her head as if milking blood from the skull, and marches towards the door with a tunnel-vision ferocity. The air in the room seems to follow her, sucked away through a cracked cockpit window.
One by one, we exchange our chips. No-one is going to win by staying on this wheel.
All content copyright David Whitley.