Apr/May 2010 Nonfiction


by R.A. Costello

He was dead by the time he hit the floor.

I'll call him John, although names are not vital information here in the casino. Especially not last names. We strive to keep your true identity concealed from your fellow punters, lest your patronage be revealed to the disapproval of wives, employers, priests, and all the others who define your limits outside these walls. Limits are for stiffs. That's why we only go by first names here, and so I knew him as John, and John alone.

One thing to know about John is that he rarely tipped. Kind of a cheap fuck, actually. In casino parlance, his kind are known as fleas. Pussy bets. Whiners for comps. Tight with tokes. They keep the seats warm for the whales who come in on swing shift and splash around the kind of cash that really sweats out the contemptible Ahabs who run the joint.

He was not particularly old either. Early sixties, perhaps. He seemed fit enough for a retired accountant who spent every goddamn afternoon blowing his pension checks at my Pai Gow table. He sat here six to eight hours a day, nearly every day I worked this table. It occurs to me that I've spent more time with John this past year than any member of my family or friends, and I don't even know his last name.

And now he's spread out cold as Hades on the carpet in front of me.

There's a faint but distinct tang of feces wafting up from the floor. This was my first clue that he was really gone. I read somewhere once that as a person dies, the neurons in the brain detonate in a series of final, erratic bursts, triggering, among other things, the spastic evacuation of the bowels. For John, it happened quite fast. One minute he was up, guffawing at my pit boss's dirty joke, and then his head hit his chips, he shit himself out, and tumbled to the floor. I couldn't get up to help him, of course. I can't leave my rack. I must guard these chips with my life, or so I have been instructed.

So, instead of doing the human thing, I sat here and watched as he fell, and then I called to my floor supervisor and pit boss to get help. They're down on the floor beside him now, patting his cheeks and shouting his name, more and more frantically with each breath.

"John! John!"

Someone has called for the paramedics. In the distance I see them approaching with a rolling gurney. The house thoughtfully pays to keep a local ambulance company stationed outside at all times for events such as this. Most of our patrons are elderly. Waiting for God, so they say. The bosses get paid to lay odds, even on these suckers' mortality. They have to. They lose money each minute my table is down. The quicker they whisk John off the gaming floor, the quicker we get back to earning. Yet, the paramedics aren't rushing. I suspect someone has whispered to them that they should take their time, lest they arouse too much attention. Perhaps they've already been informed that John will only require their undertaking services.

Someone speaks low into my ear and instructs me to count down John's checks and stack them aside in my rack. I imagine them being thoughtfully divvied up to his heirs, maybe to the wife I've never met, but of whom he's spoken occasionally. She's a vet tech who works for a local farm veterinarian. Apparently, she's an expert on dairy cattle. I wonder if she'll come in some night after a hard day groping at udders and gamble away his last checks.

She should just cash them in. I mean, they're probably cursed, anyway. Jesus, they were hard luck for him, right? For a moment, I'm too spooked to even touch them. These are the kinds of ridiculous delusions that come to pollute your mind in this superstitious environment. But I overcome my paranoia and count down his stash with pained deliberation, so that the cameras above can clearly mark my every movement. I don't want any questions later on.

$270 bucks. He was doing well. He bought into my game with $150.

As the paramedics begin to work on him, the small audience that had surrounded the table begins to thin. I guess they know the show is over. Nobody bothers to lay bets on whether he'll pull through. There are other games around, other ways to lose money. They didn't come here to be brought down by this guy's bad luck. Of course, I have to stay and serve witness. Guard the rack.

My other players migrate to the table behind me. I listen to their murmured conversation. Someone recounts how he's seen this happen before, one time in Vegas. There's always some asshole around to tell you a story about what happened one time in Vegas. It seems nothing has ever happened here or in any other corner of the frigging planet that didn't first happen in Vegas, and with greater joi de vivre to boot. Even death, apparently. The comps in Vegas are always more generous. The tables run hotter. The food is tastier. Even the drink servers have bigger tits, or so I have been promised. Vegas has jaded the world. I've never even been to the place, and yet I loathe it.

I'm getting the impression that the paramedics know they are wasting their time on John. It's clear to all of us that he is a hopeless case, but I guess with so many spectators around, they feel compelled to put on a good show of it. Nobody wants a lawsuit later on. They have to be convincing when they insist they did all that they could for him. Still, CPR is already a rote procedure, no matter how hard they try to spice it up on ER, and these guys are clearly not giving it their gusto.

As I'm lulled into their half-hearted rhythm, my own heartbeat becomes subsumed into the savage clamor of the casino. The slots keen with the shrill jangle of temptation. Curses bark from the craps pit like the mewls of slavering hyenas. The card shufflers hiss at the bleary-eyed drunks riffling their last checks in fitful desperation. A Muzak rendition of Air Supply wails aimlessly from the speakers embedded in the ceiling above me. I'm all out of love... I'm so lost without you... I wonder if John whispered something poignant to me as he fell, some urgent final wish for me to convey to his wife or family. If he did, I couldn't hear him. The undying rattle of this place overwhelmed the sound of his last words.

"You open?"

The voice breaks me free of my morbidity. A pair of well-heeled Vietnamese men stand before me, each with thick stacks of black and purple bruising their palms. I watched them clean up on Baccarat earlier. Now I suspect they're looking to kill the few hours before dinner on Pai Gow Poker. It's considered a safe game. With lots of pushes, it's hard to win real money, but even harder, unless you're a total idiot, to lose real money. That's why there are only two tables in the entire casino, and my former players have filled the other one behind me to capacity.

The guy who spoke leans over and repeats his question to me more slowly, as if he thinks I'm unable to understand his accent. Or perhaps I'm just deaf.

I don't know what to say. I just stare in disbelief. They would literally have to step over John's corpse in order to sit down.

"Give us a minute, ok guys?" my pit boss says helpfully and nods to John and the paramedics. They smirk impatiently in return. The quiet one wanders over to watch the action behind me, while the talker just stares disinterestedly at me. He's seen it all before, apparently. No doubt, in Vegas.

My stomach begins to roil, and I suppress the urge to vomit, because there is nobody standing behind me to hand me a garbage pail, and I can't get up from the table to get one for myself. I must guard the chips. With my life.

The Vietnamese guy is trying to psyche me out by staring me down. Hardcore gamblers do that sometimes, thinking it will improve their odds of winning. It's all just a mind-fuck to them. He can tell I'm distraught and thinks it will get him some easy advantage over me, that I'll make mistakes that will be to his benefit. If nothing else, he clearly wants to get this show on the road. With every minute they waste on John goes another hand he might have won.

My pit boss takes the hint. He leans over one of the paramedics and whispers something into his ear. The man nods and then tells his partner that they should take John to the ambulance. In an instant, he is hoisted up onto the gurney. They drape a white sheet over his body but don't cover his face. I guess they want to maintain the illusion that he might still make it. I recall what a player, a travel agent, once told me: how, technically, no one has ever died at Disney World. Apparently, the Disney people struck a deal long ago with the Orange County coroner, so that no bodies can ever officially be declared dead on Disney property. A guy's head may be spinning atop the shoulders of an animatronic Dutch boy in It's a Small World, while the rest of him bobs neck down in the lagoon of The Pirates of the Caribbean, but he still shows "official" signs of life until the ambulance hits the Orlando pavement.

Only then is it too late.

As the paramedics collect their equipment and deliberately, but unhurriedly, wheel John toward the service entrance, my floor supervisor shakes his head and makes a brief sign of the cross. Then he steps in front of my table and sweeps it clear of imaginary debris with a small hand broom. One of the custodial staff appears and dutifully removes the chair that John's bowels soaked as he fell. He also takes away John's plastic cup of Diet Coke and tosses it into a nearby trash can. My pit boss tells the Vietnamese men that my table is now open for business, but he raises the limit to $50. I don't know if he is punishing them for their heartlessness or trying to get back some of those blacks and purples they took from the Baccarat table. They carp bitterly in their own language, but they still sit down.

I take a slow, deep breath and try to contain the panic bursting inside me. I know that if I deal this next hand, my soul will perish. I want to flee this glittering underworld of the shambling dead, but I know that I can't. I am trapped here, just as surely as all the other breathing corpses around me. Just like them, I have bills to pay. Rent. Food. A car loan. This is the best and only gig in town, and I need the money. We all do.

I feel the cameras watching me. Waiting. The eye in the sky. The pulse of the casino never stops beating. It pounds in my ears like the phantom drums of some hell-bound warrior. My hands quaver like a fearful old man's, but I still manage to deal the cards.

I give myself a pair of jacks and a straight. Mercifully, this spooks the Vietnamese and they clear the table.

Maybe John's checks are lucky, after all.


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