|Apr/May 2008 Fiction Special|
Charlene checked her watch. Eleven. Too much pressure. She had yet to find a game. Across the room, she spotted a new face, a Chinese girl sitting alone at a backgammon table.
She made her way through the crowds of mostly men, their deep voices and laughter a steady din in the smoky club. Cheap fluorescents illuminated the tables. Backgammon in the center, chess, gin rummy, and bridge groups scattered in corners and on the periphery. Somebody patted her ass, but she ignored it.
"Hi, looking for a game?" She slipped into the chair facing this girl. "I'm Charlene."
"Mei Li," the girl said. "How you do?"
Charlene smiled and raised the dice cup like a cocktail shaker. "I do fine. Want to play a chouette at the five-dollar table?"
The harsh light made Mei Li's skin glow saffron. Asian skin wasn't really yellow, Charlene thought. More like sallow. But this girl would be beautiful in any color.
Mei Li looked out from under a silky curtain of black hair, pursing her lips. "Fah dollars? Too much," she said, watching Charlene clatter the dice against the leather cup.
"First time here?" Charlene asked. Pigeons were her specialty among the women. The ten-dollar players looked for men in the Rodeo Drive suits with fat wallets, but Charlene did nicely with visiting Persian housewives, bored girls who stood around waiting for their boyfriends, and oddballs like this Chinese chick. In a five-dollar game, she could go home with as much as $500 on a good night. If the dice behaved. If she didn't do too much blow.
"Yes," Mei Li said. "You like it here?"
Charlene nodded and looked around the room. Did she like it? There were no accidents, right? It had come to be her life. She could feel the girl staring at her. It made her squirm. What did she see? That same shiny hunger that was in the eyes of the other regulars? All looking for a payoff that couldn't be found in a day job. The club was a fix. Addictive.
"How'd you get in? Are you a member?"
Mei Li shook her head. "I know people."
Yeah, people. That's how it begins. Charlene leaned across the table and said in a low voice, "I could teach you to play. You'd like it. "
"I don' like to gamble," Mei Li said.
Charlene wasn't surprised. This smooth-faced girl in her demure silk dress looked like she belonged in white robes, presenting peonies to a Buddha. There was something spiritual, ethereal about her beauty. It made Charlene feel bad about herself—the bleached hair, too much makeup. Skimpy skirt, too much leg. She sighed. She would like to go to the alley and take a little hit; it would make her feel better. She pinched her nose and spilled the dice softly for practice. Double sixes.
"So why are you here?" Charlene asked.
"Mei Li look for beautiful womans to work." She paused. "You need job?" Mei Li tapped her long pink nails on the backgammon board. "You like Asian men?"
Charlene flinched under the direct stare of the dark eyes. Was she getting hustled? A small smile formed on Mei Li's lips.
"Asian man loves blond womans like you. Pay good money."
Charlene felt a little light-headed. She really needed to get outside now and settle her head. The pressure was too much. The pigeons weren't as gullible as they used to be. And in order to stay in the game, you had to play better players and keep learning. The ten-dollar boys loved to clean her out on off nights. They wanted to get laid, too, so the terrain got trickier, the longer she hung around. Did she look like a whore? Had it come to that? How many of these high-rollers had she bedded down? She looked around, feeling like a bird was caught in her chest.
"More money, I bet, than you make here," Mei Li said.
Charlene tossed her hair and put the cup down. She badly needed that hit. But she didn't move. The pressure in her head felt like it would explode. The damned bright lights. Her eyes felt heavy. She could almost envision a large, golden Buddha before her, kind face, big soft hands. She pictured herself kneeling down.
"How much more?" she asked.