Tipping his wool cap to the dealer, he stepped up to the wheel. Eight hundred dollars wiggled in his pocket, looking for action. He laid down a stiff fifty dollar bill over the red. With anticipation, he listened for click, click, click.
Last time at the Golden Eagle, Carl over spent. With nothing in his pockets and a shiner on his left cheek, he vowed to his wife Maggie he would never return.
Today was a new day. In fact it was December 1st. Anytime Carl won big money here, it was the first of the month…or maybe that was the 10th last summer. Either way, Carl raked in the first win of the night.
Up fifty, he walked away and sipped a nerve-numbing Budweiser. Carl stopped the young waitress who saw he still had a beer in progress.
“We can’t serve one person two beers. Do ya think I was born yesterday?” Her gum chewing and bright red lip stick was alluring.
“As long as you were born after 1980, we are good, darlin’. Couldn’t you make an exception just this once?” Carl removed his cap while addressing the young lady and raised his well-defined eyebrows as he spoke. There was a time in his marriage when he preferred other women to his wife. He was just toying, though, playing this waitress like a fiddle to get another beer.
The young woman looked both ways and then toward the ceiling. “They got cameras all over this place,” she said, snapping her gum. She put one hand on her healthy hip and told Carl to take the beer off her tray.
Hmmm. Maybe he should stick with gambling tonight. He does have to drive. Carl’s stomach churned. He had to win tonight. He did not have to worry about double-fisting too. “That’s okay, sugar. Check back with me a little later. I might have a bigger tip then.” Carl watched as she swayed her hips, saving the image for later.
A strong finger tapped him on the back. Carl spun around ready for a fight.
With surprise on his face, Carl said, “Hank? What are you doing here?” Carl grabbed him close as if he would hug him but then gave him a forceful shove backward. Carl knew the night was over, before he even got to roll the figurative dice.
Smoothing back his gray hair and adjusting his belt, Hank straightened himself. “Carl, we told you what would happen if you came back here. Last time we agreed not to get the cops and call it even. And now you have the gumption to waltz back in here like you own the joint?”
Smoke hung in the air. Click, click, click…Bing! Bing! Bing! Carl could barely hear Hank’s raspy voice over all the casino buzz. His mind was working overtime to earn his keep, not to lose any money, not to owe anymore. There were winners everywhere around him. A big one over at the slots, and someone from the Roulette table just walked away with one thousand dollars. Carl’s mouth filled with wanting saliva. Could he be the next winner?
Mellowed by the pot he inhaled an hour ago, Hank spoke up louder. This time he told Carl to leave the premises, or he was going to call security. Hank was not a threat, but Carl knew the bosses at Golden Eagle would get rid of him either way.
“Oh all right. No fun and no money for me. I am leaving a winner ton-“ Carl fell straight to his back with blood dripping out of his nose.
He squeezed his eyes shut while he writhed in pain. There’s no way Hank packed that punch, he thought.
“How much did you win? Mr. Lumke wants his money returned.”
“Who are you?”
“Doesn’t matter. Give me cash, or I sling another fist.”
Nice place, thought Carl. I had been a loyal customer until Maggie caught on. But nobody around here cares that I got knocked to the ground?
Carl scrambled to his feet. Looking up at the football type guy, he was sure he just got pummeled by two hundred pounds of muscle.
“All I won was fifty. Give me a second.”
“Then make it four hundred. You left here last time owing more than that.”
Carl imagined a chalkboard and a math teacher writing the problem out. $800 in his pocket-$400 to the thug, and $300 to his ex for the kids…and $100 to Maggie. She will be as hot as a coal iron when he gets home.
“Do I have a choice?” Carl tried the same look on the bouncer as he did on the waitress. He felt desperate to be something better than a gambler. Why did he even go to the casino tonight? Did he think he could lay low? Handing over four crisp hundred dollar bills Carl sunk his head into his arm.
“This ain’t no hotel. Get going now.” Pounded by the rejection, Carl began to drag his feet toward the exit. Passing the flashing lights and coin cascades, he thought about trying to multiply his money. He could do it for Maggie. That would be a good reason. The throbbing in his face warned him: Better keep walking, Loser.
Waiting for the elevator, he blotted his nose with his flannel shirt. At least he was wearing red. “Down on your luck?” a familiar voice asked.
“Oh the beer girl. No I don’t need another Budweiser. I don’t need a fling. I just need a life. A life that does not include gambling or drinking. Maggie is going to be so mad at me. I have to give most of what’s left to my ex.”
If Zelda wasn’t mistaken, there was a tear rolling down Carl’s cheek. “Look, sir, its okay. I am not trying to sell you a beer or my body. You just looked down. I saw you in the fight. You looked like you took it pretty good. Do you need a wet cloth or something?”
Kindness without an agenda. What is that, Carl thought? Who is this girl?
“That would be great, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“My name is Zelda, I know I am young, but the name is not. It was my grandmother’s name. Here is the rag, it’s just damp.”
Just then the elevator arrived. Carl looked at Zelda and mumbled a quiet “thank you.” He couldn’t remember the last time he felt cared about. Maggie was done with his vices, just like his ex was years before.
“Are you going to the parking lot, too?” Carl wondered if she was following him. He pressed the basement button and waited.
Zelda stood right beside him, watching the status of Carl’s nose. “Actually, I am in college studying to be a nurse. Do you mind if I just look at that a second?”
Before Carl realized what was happening, Zelda was standing face-to-face with him while the elevator descended. Strangely arousing, more so than the earlier gum and lipstick, were her gentle mannerisms.
“Looks like it’s not broken. You may not be rich, but I think you are pretty lucky. That bouncer guy does not mess around. You must have ducked by instinct.” Her face was bright. Carl did not understand because the elevator lights were dim.
“It all happened so fast. I am not sure I even saw it coming. Thank you for everything, Zelda. Sorry if I came on too strong earlier, with the flirting.”
“I’m used to it. How do you think I make my money? I mean…that came out wrong. If I flirt a little, usually I get bigger tips.”
Carl chuckled out loud. “That makes sense. I guess I never really talked with one of the casino staff, well not counting the time I didn’t have enough money to pay…well and tonight.” Wrought with shame, he looked down at the concrete floor.
Zelda checked to make sure her necklace was still there. She rearranged the cross so it laid on her neck right under her chin. As she was checking to see if she had hand sanitizer, Carl noticed her silky hair. He drifted a bit, wondering what shampoo she used in the shower…
“Carl, I know you will be okay. Do you know how I know?”
Thud. The elevator landed, and Carl wanted to say so many things. He was overcome with thankfulness for this young but mature woman.
“Well I will tell you. I prayed for you when I saw you go down. Go home to your wife, Carl. Hug her, and tell you are very sorry for making this trouble. Ask her to call you at the end of each day with some good news that will bring you right home to her. Think of taking her to dinner when you can save a little each pay by not coming to the casino.”
Looking at his hands, Carl was embarrassed seeing the dirt under his nails. His job was dirty, but that’s no excuse. He should care how he looks…for Maggie, like Zelda said. “That’s wisdom I needed years ago, young lady.”
Opening the car door, Carl muttered thanks to God for Zelda. Still unsure about his marriage, he planned to greet Maggie with a kiss. He figured at the very least, it would surprise her. With his crusty nose and wool cap, Carl braced himself for driving. He couldn’t believe this whole day, but felt better at the end than at the beginning. Carl pushed his thoughts away from dread. Trying to leave the tempting picture of cash sticking out of his pockets, he wanted to focus on his wife. Maggie may be angry, but she is still there.