I put a Jackson on the blackjack table. It is a $3 table, but I play $5 hands so as not to be completely declasse. There’s only one other player at the table – a guy to my right. He’s polishing down Corona Number 12 and he is quick to announce this to me, although his speech is very slurred. His large meaty hands paw a tower of $25 coins. He wears a baseball cap and the brim covers the top third of his head. It appears that the cap has been set at the tightest possible notch in the back. And since his eyebrows are very dark and bushy, and since he is very inebriated and he seems to be undulating, the man looks like an extreme closeup of Robin Williams wearing a pith helmet.
The dealer is letting loose terrible coughs – like some archetype out of a Doestoevsky novel. She’s about 40, with shoulder length dirty blonde hair. Her name tag indicates that she’s from California. She’s clearly in some serious kind of pain. Her hands shake as she deals the cards (or, rather, as she throws them to some close proximity, which is often dangerously close to the cards firing off over the table’s edge). Her eyes grow quite large when she talks with ardor and when she gets the sense that someone is actively listening to her. But otherwise, from what I can tell, between the coughs and the people who’ve treated her like dirt, she’s in a difficult spot. Every hand, there’s at least several hard hacks of phlegm from the dealer. It sounds as if no amount of internal bellowing can loosen these suckers.
The other player takes no notice of this. But he does check out a cocktail waitress’s ass.
“That’s some cough you have there,” I say. “Is it because you’re subjected to all the second-hand smoke?”
“I don’t know what it is exactly. Every time I come in, there’s something hot, dry. Don’t know what it is.”
The other player fires up a Winston. I catch the dealer’s face momentarily drop. I wonder why they haven’t put her on a nonsmoking table. But then pit bosses are hardly the world’s most sympathetic figures.
“It’s also the desert air,” she says. “This is the second major thing I’ve had since I moved up here.”
“How many hours do you work?”
“Forty, fifty this week.”
“Eight hour shifts?”
“Do you ever see the outside during an eight hour shift?”
“No. But maybe I’ll go into the spa room. That might help.”
“Maybe you should try resting. Breathing oxygen instead of taking in this contained atmosphere. If it’s bothering you. Don’t they pump in oxygen into casinos?”
“That’s only in the movies. If they pumped oxygen into the casino, then you’d have the cabin effect.”
The other player asks where the restroom is. The dealer tells him. He leaves the table and never returns, leaving about $500 in chips. I wonder if the casino will confiscate this.
The dealer at the adjacent table, who has no immediate customers (it’s a $10 table and the clientele right now is thin and ass-poor) and who has been listening to this conversation, asks, “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m following you.”
“I don’t know how,” she giggles. And it’s the kind of giggle you hear from someone when they are not in the greatest of existential spots. The kind of giggle that is a person’s last attempt at joy, an effort to play down a miserable situation of colossal proportions. I hear many of the vagrants in my neighborhood giggle like this.
“Everybody would be too happy,” she says. “You’d have dealers laughing.”
“But if everyone were happy, they’d be more inclined to gamble. And this would be good for the casino and good for the dealers.”
“One lady said that I shouldn’t show up.” Giggle. “But of course that was a joke.”
I’m amazed that the $20 has lasted this long. I know that I’ll eventually lose it. But for the moment, I score a blackjack and tip the dealer my winnings.
“You know, I used to live in Sacramento. And during the summer, the pollen in the air sometimes made it difficult for me to breathe. But when I moved to San Francisco, the ocean air really helped me. And I breathe a lot better.”
The dealer tells me that she grew up in coastal California towns too. But she says that she spent most of the time partying.
“My friend tells me that you can die of this. Coughing and breathing.”
The pit boss, resembling a former football player in an ill-designed suit during a halftime show, approaches with a martinet-eyed woman with a clipboard. The dealer coughs and coughs. And when the hacking has abated, she then apologizes to the pit boss for not placing a silver dollar between a certain increment of chips. They don’t say anything or look at the dealer. Their eyes are fixed only upon the casino’s booty. They leave. But a beefy security guard in a short-sleeved white shirt crosses his arms and looks at me. I wonder if any of the surveillance has picked up our conversation. It doesn’t help that I’ve won the last five hands.
I don’t want to get the dealer in trouble. So I stop talking with her and deliberately blow a hand where the two cards add up only to 12 and the dealer’s face card is a King.
The guard leaves, satisfied after the dealer has confiscated my $5 chip.
She coughs again. It sounds very close to bronchitis.
“Have you seen a doctor?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. Just the other day. And he said that there are these great yellow goo trapped in my lungs.”
“Can you feel the phlegm when you breathe?”
“Oh yeah. And it just won’t come out.”
I’m wondering if she even did see a doctor. Surely, he would have prescribed an inhaler or suggested that the harmful casino environment should be avoided until the phlegm clears up. Or perhaps she’s overlooking telling me a detail like this because she really needs the cash.
“I’ve been thinking about a plan,” says the dealer in a quieter voice. “Saving up cash, getting away from this town.”
My last five dollar chip is swallowed up.
“Well, that’s it for me, I’m afraid. Please take care of yourself.”
Just as I’m about to get up from my chair, she puts her arm down on the table to get my eye contact.
“Thank you for being a nice person.”