Art and Amelia cruised the Strip to burn off the weight of dinner. They stopped at the Bellagio to watch the fountain show and see its Chihuly glass and flower displays, walked through Caesar’s under the cloud-and-sky ceiling of its shopping center, and made it as far north as the gondola-filled canals of Venice. Every inch of the Strip was put on, spun sugar, like the perfect gingerbread house with a witch lurking within ready to eat you. But there’s a divine comfort going along with the show, accepting Vegas’s whole ludicrous act, that gets you out of your own skin.
They settled on Bally’s as their casino du nuit on their way back south. The tables were less expensive than the Bellagio or Caesar’s, but it was less grimy and run down than O’Shea’s and not as depressingly empty as the Trop. They circled the floor like sharks, waiting for the right moment to strike. They dropped small bills in slot machines at random, winning a few dollars here, losing a few dollars there before cashing out.
Then their wanderings and a touch of fate brought them before a $5 blackjack table. It was removed from the long bank of table games in the main pit, off to the side and alone next to a craps table and a roulette table. Unlike every other blackjack table, the dealer wasn’t an aging attractive woman or slick-haired wannabe Mafioso type. He was an old, clean shaven black man with a name tag that said Ivory. Remarkably, there were three open seats. Anyone who has ever been to the Strip knows exactly how remarkable it is to stumble upon even one open seat at a $5 blackjack table at any hour, much less as the peak shift was coming on.
Recognizing Lady Luck when she stared them in the face, Art and Amelia sat down quickly.
“I was hoping y’all would sit down and play,” Ivory said. “We’ve got a nice little game here. Where you folks from?”
“Well, sort of nowhere and everywhere right now,” Art said.
“Oh, we got a lot of folks from there in this town,” Ivory said. He was everything a Strip blackjack dealer was not supposed to be. He wore a big smile full of pearly teeth, he chatted, he invited you to be his friend. He was slower than sin, feeling the edge of each card on his fingertips before drawing it from the automatic card shuffler. He’d slide a card out, give it a little shake up and down as if he was testing the weight – or the luck – of each one, then drop it with a dramatic flourish in front of the next player. He’d examine each turned card with a little “hmm” or “ooh” before moving on to the next.
Art and Amelia adored him immediately. “How long you been dealing, Ivory?” Art said. Amelia smirked and nudged him under the table.
Ivory didn’t know or just didn’t care Art was having a little fun with him. “Oh, I been here at Bally’s about 15 years now. I used to be across the street at the Flamingo. I reckon I was there for about 20 years.”
“Don’t listen to him. I play at this table every week for 20 year and I never see him until 10 year ago.” It was the Asian lady playing to Art’s left, holding down third base. She had broader features that looked Chinese, but her face was painted like a geisha – a thick coating of white face powder caking up in the deep cracks in her face, cherry red lipstick, thick eye liner. Her black hair was molded into the shape of a Connie Chung circa 1980 do. The long painted fingernails on her right hand clicked and clacked on her mountain of chips With her left, she managed to smoke a Virginia Slim despite the curling claws. She smelled like a dead pepper plant.
“Oh, I wouldn’t argue with you, Madame Chang. You remember everything. I’d bet you remember every hand I ever dealt you. But I didn’t always deal blackjack here. You must have missed me on the three card poker tables when I first come to Bally’s.”
Madame Chang appraised Ivory. Her eyes narrowed and her heavily lipsticked mouth pursed into a little frown. She tapped the table with the long fingernail of her right index finger. “Hit me, Ivory. Make it good.”
He threw her an eight. “Twenty-one,” Ivory exclaimed.
Ivory flipped over his hole card and showed 15. He threw himself a six. “And that’s twenty-one.”
“Ah, you motha fucka sometimes Ivory. You lucky Madame Chang like you so much.”
“Plucky little peacock,” Amelia whispered in Art’s ear.
Art traded in five $100 bills for $5 and $1 chips and placed his customary first bet of $10 with $1 pushed forward to tip the dealer $2 on a winning hand. Then he did the same thing in front of Amelia. No matter how much Art encouraged her, she never had the confidence to play at a live table. She knew most of the right decisions to make, but she clung to the irrational fear that she’d accidentally hit and throw off the whole table, then become the hated villain. Or even more embarrassing, watch everyone walk away to escape the novice. But she did very much like sitting at the table where she could route for Art and get a steady supply of free booze since it looked like she was playing.
Ivory dealt the first hand like an artist reading poetry. Art had to stay on 16 and 15, but Ivory busted with the slowly unpacked tension of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Art exhaled when the final card fell and the group at the table let out a cheer.
“It about goddamn time, Ivory.” Madame Chang looked at Art. “You come to straighten Ivory out, huh? You good luck for table. Very handsome, too. Don’t worry, honey. Madame Chang see you married.”
The cheer caught the attention of a passerby. A particularly haggard passerby. The man limped up to the table and asked if the table was hot. The deep canyons running up and down his ragged face made Madame Chang’s wrinkles look like ant trails in the dust. His face was a lattice work of leathery grooves. His eyes were a dull grey. Hair grew out of his nose and he had the longest, floppiest earlobes Art had ever seen.
“It not so good Henry. Ivory take all our money.”
“Oh, I know all your tells, Madame Chang.” Henry sat down quickly in the last open spot, just to Amelia’s right. “If you say go away, it means you’re raking in all the money. Howdy Ivory. Deal me in. I want a taste.”
Art wasn’t sure if the man could taste. Up close, he looked even older. He might have been 100. He had some sort of small crater on the left side of his forehead, like a skin cancer or something had been removed. Liver spots covered the rest of his forehead and all along the back of his hands. He wore a World War II Veteran trucker hat.
“I’m Art. Pleased to meet you.”
“Howdy son. We’ll be good friends so long as you don’t take the dealer’s bust card.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir. Can I ask, are you a World War II veteran?”
“Yessiree. Proud veteran of the United States Navy. I fought the Japs at Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz shook my hand personally after the battle.”
Art was stunned. That would put the man at 90 years old, or close enough it made no matter. Madame Chang rolled her eyes.
“You tell same story to every new blood who sit down? If I hear about Yanks saving China one more time, I going to shit brick. You sure your money not better on craps table tonight?”
“Hell, he asked, honey. I’m just being friendly.” Henry slammed the edge of the table as Ivory slowly flipped the fifth card to the dealer’s hand. A five.
“Twenty-two,” Ivory said. “Dealer busts.”
“Hell yeah,” Henry cheered. “I ain’t going anywhere, Madame Chang. I’m parking my little fanny right here tonight. This table’s hot. I knew it.”
Art didn’t mind the banter. Madame Chang, Ivory and old Henry were exactly the queer brand of off-kilter Vegas entertainment he and Amelia were hoping for. And he was now up $40 in two hands. He dialed back to two $5 bets to let the winnings settle for a minute. He ordered a Red Bull and vodka from a cocktail waitress. A little boost to gear up for a big night.
Ivory was a master of dramatics on every hand, throwing the players fakes by looking at their cards before he dealt them, making painfully twisted expressions to dash their hopes before dropping the exact card they wanted. He’d wave his free hand over his hole card and chant for it to be a bust card before flipping it. When dealer showed ace, he’d draw in a deep breath to make the table’s collective pulse race while checking for blackjack, only to slide the cards back into place with a sly grin on his face.
There were more ups than downs and the whole table was in good spirits. Plenty of dealer busts to keep everyone in the black. Madame Chang hit a string of blackjacks and was making a killing on the side bet besides. It was Lucky Ladies – any unsuited 20 paid 4-to-1 and suited 20s paid 9-to-1, but every sucker playing the bet was really chasing lightning in the form of two queens of hearts at a 125-to-1 payout.
An hour passed like a few moments. Unlike in the main pit, it seemed no other dealers were around to rotate with Ivory. He was a pleasant mainstay. As winning tables are want to do, the players got friendly. Art and Amelia, Madame Chang and Henry, in particular. The couple leading off the table mostly kept to themselves, whispering some Eastern European language no one recognized.
“You ain’t Italian, are you?” Henry asked them.
“Italian? No,” the man said. He looked Mediterranean, but sounded Russian. Maybe Croatian or Serbian, Art thought. The man wasn’t volunteering any clues. Henry turned his attention back to his left.
“I can’t stand them Italians,” he said. “Snake bastards. Fight with Hitler one day and the next act like it’s all red wine and spaghetti. Come visit Italy, they say. Have a great time. You’ll have to take me to hell in a hand basket before fascists get a dime of my money.”
“Well, it’s been almost 70 years,” Art said. “Things have changed a lot. They’re a very tolerant country now.”
“Snakes hiding in the grass, that’s all. Seventy years ain’t nothing. Mind that lesson, young man.”
Ivory listened to the conversation attentively as he dealt. One. Card. At. A. Time. Art and Henry gestured with their hands to hit or stay as the game carried on, one deal after another, prattling on uninterrupted.
“Ask me, ’Murica’s getting too much like Europe. Germans. Italians. The damn French. Can’t tell a difference between us and them anymore. That’s the problem with us today. We won the war, had it all going for us, then we started acting like the losers. You kids took everything we give you and messed it all up. No offense. Don’t mean you personally.”
Art didn’t mean to, but he closed his eyes and sighed. It was all he could do not to get started with a nonagenarian.
“Hey now, you don’t have to look defeated. Like you’re ashamed, or something. That’s another problem with you kids. You give up too easy. You can’t never commit to nothing because you expect everything to be handed you with a pat on your candy asses telling you how great you are. Sometimes, I think we gave you too much. Made life too easy for you.”
Art hesitated, then gave in. “Well, I don’t know about what you gave us.” Amelia gave him a curious sideways glance. “Look Henry, I’m grateful for what you and all the veterans have done for this country, but I don’t know if your generation accomplished anything other than listening to your parents. Same as most any generation.”
“How’s that? I don’t reckon I follow, son.”
“Well, I’m just saying I think the name Greatest Generation was given one generation too late. Your parents said fight here, fight there, do this, do that, build this, build that. So what’d you guys really accomplish? Everything great was done because your parents had the idea for it.”
Ivory stopped for a long moment and looked at Art, then remembered to keep dealing. Madame Chang emitted a surreptitious little giggle and lit another cigarette. She was never without one for more than a minute or two.
“Now I know I must have heard you wrong, son. Forgive my old ears. But you’re going to have to speak up.” Henry’s voice rose steadily, making it clear he heard Art just fine.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to offend, Henry. Let’s just play the game.” Art waved over his cards to stay. Amelia rubbed the small of his back and smiled at him in approval of his restraint.
“No. No. No.” Henry was insistent. “Say what you mean, son. I want to know what the hell your generation done to give you the right to speak like that.”
“Well, that’s just it. My generation’s barely adults now and we haven’t really done anything yet. Well, we’ve fought in a couple wars, but I’ll admit it’s different than the two yours fought in. We’re still just trying to figure out who we are. We’re just doing what our parents have told us to do. And the message they gave us is don’t be fooled into believing in a myth like they were. So I think we’re trying to live life the best way we can figure out how. That makes us just like you. Your parents told you to build a bunch of shit, so you did it. The difference is my generation hasn’t fucked up their kids with a bunch of bad advice and phony American Dream bullshit like yours.”
“That’s it, son. I’ve about had it with your smart lip. I ain’t going to be talked about like that by some young punk.”
Ivory glanced up at the Eye in the Sky and signaled with discreet sleight of hand. Henry kicked his stool back and stood up. The Eastern Europeans looked on with a succulent newfound interest in their neighbors. Amelia ducked down in her chair.
“You son of a bitch,” Henry said as he uncorked a right cross. The old coot filled up with spit and vinegar from some hidden reserve tank. There was a little fire in his half-dead grey eyes. Art was too stunned to move. He saw the fist coming in slow motion – fairly close to actual speed in this instance – but it still connected square with the orbital bone over his left eye.
“Ow,” Art shouted. “You old fucker.”
Henry was on his way over Amelia’s stool to jump on Art when two massive men in suits appeared from nowhere, grabbed him under each arm, and dragged him through a nearby door leading to the bowels of the casino before he had a chance to disturb any of the other tables.
“Poor Henry. That his last strike. Guess we won’t be seeing him anymore, huh, Ivory?”
“No, Madame Chang, it doesn’t seem so,” Ivory said.
Amelia fussed over Art’s eye with a wet napkin. “You’re going to have a shiner in the morning.”
“I can’t believe I got attacked by a World War II vet. Sensitive old bastard.”
“Oh, he not really World War II vet,” Madame Chang said. “He just look that old. Drink too much. Bad liver. He really a Vietnam War veteran, but he embarrassed about his war so he steal good war he can brag about.”
“How do you know that?”
“I sleep with him about 15 years ago. I see his Veteran I.D. card. He only like 65 years old.”
Art and Amelia’s mouths hung open.
“What?” Madame Chang looked offended. “Henry very charming then. He have all his teeth then, too.”
Ivory chuckled and started to deal a new hand.
“Well, I guess I feel a little better then. Henry packs a punch.” Art had taken the wet napkin from Amelia and was holding it to his forehead.
Ivory held his hand up and signaled a cocktail waitress. “Darlene,” he said. “This man’s going to need a whiskey. Top shelf, please. Let the boss know who it’s for. He’ll understand.”
Darlene returned a minute later with a tumbler filled with three fingers of beautiful deep amber whiskey. “What is it?” Art asked as he handed her a $1 chip.
“Johnnie Walker,” she said.
Art took a sip. It wasn’t like any Johnnie Walker he had tasted. Neither Red nor Black. Darlene was already gone. He whipped his head around to Ivory. The old man let out a deep, soulful laugh.
“Taste a little Blue?”
“Seriously?” Art said.
“You feeling better, sir?”
“Hell yeah. Let’s play.”
Ivory resumed dealing, his measured hands acting out a story with every game. Ivory was giving as good as he got, but somehow Madame Chang’s chips continued to stack higher. Even after trading in $5 chips for $25 ones and a few $25s for $100s.
“You know how much money you lost tonight?” she said, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth away from the table.
“We’re up about a hundred, actually,” Art said.
“No,” Madame Chang insisted. “You are losing money. You play side bet, you be up $300 right now. Side bet good to us tonight. You play Lucky Ladies.”
“I’m not a big fan of side bets. Those are sucker bets. No offense.”
Madame Chang gave Art an ornery look. It wasn’t much different than her standard resting face.
“You know, it’s none of my business, sir,” Ivory said. “But Madame Chang don’t dole out advice very often. She must like you. I’d consider listening to her.”
“You like me?”
Her jowls and pouty lips ratcheted down another degree, making her stare that much more ornery. “Madame Chang like anyone who get rid of Henry. Besides, you tell him right. Old Americans all full of their own bullshit. Now, you going to play side bet or not? Ivory slow enough already. Don’t waste my time.”
“I’ll play.” Art put down $5 chips on the Lucky Ladies circle at his base and the one in front of Amelia. Ivory promptly dealt a 19 and an 11. Ivory scooped up the $10. Art doubled down on the 11 and got stuck with a 16. Ivory then flipped an ace against the nine showing. The quickest $40 Art had lost all night.
“See, side bets just aren’t for me.”
“Play again.” Madame Chang’s scowl deepened.
Art played again. No dice. Another $10 gone. “I think that’s it for me,” he said.
“I don’t know, Madame Chang. I can’t keep bleeding chips.”
“I’ve never seen Madame Chang be wrong before about something like this,” Ivory said. “But it’s up to you, sir. I know what I’d do.”
“Alright then. Here we go, Lucky Ladies.”
Ivory dealt the first round of cards. He paused for a long moment over the card that was headed for Amelia’s base. “Hmm,” he said, and slapped down a queen of hearts.
“Lucky Lady. Lucky Lady,” Madame Chang said. She latched on to Art’s left arm with both hands. He felt her claw-like nails dig in. Ivory then threw down a jack of clubs in front of Art. “Ooh, Ivory treat you good now. See?”
Ivory felt the moment and dealt the next four cards with almost the speed of a normal dealer, until he came back to the spot in front of Amelia. He ran his fingers along the edge of the next card in the shoe and carefully extracted it. He didn’t lift it to look at it, but held it down against the table.
“Let’s look at it together,” he said. Even the Eastern Europeans were rapt. They leaned in over the table. Ivory closed his eyes and lifted the card up over his head, then slapped it down in front of Amelia.
“Lucky Ladies! Lucky Ladies,” Madame Chang shouted. The Eastern European couple threw their arms in the air and shouted in triumph before regaining their previous state of surly composure. Amelia jumped out of her seat and kissed Art on the crown of his balding head. Art himself grinned from ear to ear and gave high fives to Madame Chang and the Eastern Europeans.
For good measure, Ivory then threw down the 10 of clubs on top of the jack of clubs in front of Art. That’s $45 for the suited 20 and $625 for the Lucky Ladies. It won’t pay the mortgage, but it sure feels good.
“See. I tell you. Lucky Ladies were ready to pay.” She cracked a smile for the first time all night. It was a tortured thing.
“Madame Chang, I don’t understand how you’re even allowed in the casino. You’re amazing. You must rob them blind.”
“Oh, no. I down $20,000 this year. I not so lucky. But it’s my husband’s money. Who cares?”
I’ve been taking advice to gamble on a stupid side bet from a degenerate, Art thought. Luck, who says it’s not real?
Over Madame Chang’s protest – she insisted the Lucky Ladies were still paying – Art and Amelia bowed out, shook everyone’s hands at the table and tipped Ivory with a $25 chip.
“Enjoy your life,” Ivory said. He let out a quiet old man’s chuckle as he set his eyes back down at the table to dawdle his way through the next hand.