I knew as soon as the kid sat down to the table that he'd crack me out with some donkey-ass hand. A suited Dolly Parton or Jackson Five, maybe even a ten-two off if he was bad enough. He just had that fresh-fucked look that all the babies brought to the felt nowadays: a wiry little nut-tickler hugging his bottom lip, the cheap wrap-around Oakleys, the fitted cap with the brim swung off to one side, and more than anything that new hungry look, a look that had nothing to do with the money as far as I could tell.
It was this look that had been getting to me the past couple of years, eating away at me from across the table, ten, twelve hours a day, putting me on tilt hard. It was a look I just didn't understand at all, that I hadn't seen coming up around the backroom stud all-nighters, the nickel and dime grinders. Us stool-top fixtures, left to dangle from the short rope we'd cut ourselves, we called that look The Pit. Getting busted by one of these infants was to be sucked into The Pit, to be left hanging over the open mouth while the dealer played the absent agent of evolution. Because, let's not fool ourselves here, we were seeing a sea change in the gene pool weren't we? Soon the old order would be extinct and good riddance. All the same I had a sinking feeling that these kids would miss the old relics tucked off in the nine or ten seat, sucking on our comped mint lozenges, steady as stone pillars with our reasonable play and our surefire celebration of the odds.
For these kids it was all a damn video game, though. They were in it for high scores and shiny bracelets, two minutes of cable fame, while the rest of us played for groceries and whatever our Medicaid didn't pick up; if the house would let us cash our social security checks at the cage we would.
I wasn't thinking about any of this when the kid sat down that day though. Evolution and extinction, these were the thoughts I had alone at night, once I'd left the poker room and run the gauntlet of jangling slots; when I watched the late night sitcom reruns fade to infomercials. No, what I had been thinking about, when I should have been watching the little prick while he got ready to make a move, was Anne, my ex-wife of ten years now. We still talked from time to time on account of her being a pit boss over at The Oasis. She'd remarried shortly after we'd gotten divorced, which stung more than I'd ever admit. Not because of the quick rebound, but because as far as I could see, neither of us had changed all that much in the interim, and if we weren't planning on growing as people then I didn't see why we couldn't keep not growing together. But Anne saw it differently. "I can't look at you anymore," she said. "I'm sorry." And that was that. So it was already a shit start to the day when she was running the seating desk for the tables that morning and had to take down my name, her old name, for a three to six no limit seat.
"Morning, Tom," she said, when I walked up and propped my elbows on the fake marble counter. I grinned.
"Morning, Anne, my dear. How are we today?"
"Same old shit, different day. Frank and Red are back there on the two four. You want me to get you in there?"
"How they makin' out?" I asked.
"In that case, put me somewhere else." I rapped the countertop with my knuckles. "Looking for some new blood today."
She smiled and I almost got a laugh out of her but not quite. Even if she would tell me what it was that was bothering her these days, I didn't want to hear it. That wasn't my job anymore and that much I was thankful for. I knew I was never any good at hearing her right in the first place. I had to sit there for ten minutes before she could get me in at a table. It was crowded for a Sunday; all the shit-heel sinners come to pray to the pot.
I watched Anne as she talked to some of the players that strolled in after me. She still looked pretty good for a sixty-one year old pit boss. Vegas good, I mean, which is dolled up just enough for a decent tip but not looking for any action. I wished she'd go a little easier with the eye-liner, maybe buy a bra that lifted a bit more, but she kept herself in shape, which was the important thing. She'd started dying her hair a darker shade of red so I figured she was starting to go gray, but the new color clashed against her house uniform and made her look like an angry stewardess. I remembered back when we were still together I used to make her wear that uniform at night. I don't know why, but I got a kick out of it. She'd shimmy the stiff black skirt down around her hips just enough so I could see the tops of her black tights, a little bit of skin showing between the waist of the stockings and the maroon blazer, and I would just put the side of my face right on that little strip of warm flesh and listen to what went on beneath the house getup. I told her it was better than sex.
I was dredging up all of this shit while I sat there watching Anne and didn't even realize that I was smiling at her like a dope, I mean seriously grinning it up, though I knew I wasn't really smiling at her; I was smiling at some dumbed-down memory of her that probably never even existed in the first place, but before I could catch myself, Anne had locked eyes with me from across the seating lounge and I could tell she didn't like it, which made me feel like a creep. I was relieved when one of the younger Chinese runners called my name (Mr. Rangry, they called me, not able to pronounce their l's for shit) and escorted me out of the lounge, past where Anne was half-listening to some fat ass by the desk, but really watching me go from the corner of her eye.
I didn't know anyone at the table that night when I sat down except the dealer, Sol, a cute little brown girl with big hoop earrings. I sat down with my rack and stacked my three hundred in red chips on the wood outside the felt. Sol noticed me joining the table in mid-deal and she smiled.
"What's the saga here tonight, Sol?" I said, "You got my deck or what?"
Sol giggled. She had big apple cheeks that glowed when you made her laugh and those fake painted lashes, the kind that shimmy a little with every blink.
"I don't know, Mr. Tom. We'll see, no?"
"Yes we will, Sol. Yes we will."
I picked up a fistful of checks and shuffled them with my right hand and then with my left. I liked to do this when I was at a table with wild cards, unknowns. Put it right out in the open that I knew my way around a table, muck up some respect in case I'd need it making a play later on. I knew most guys trying to hustle would never give that away right off the bat, but I thought that was all bullshit. If you were the better player then you were going to end up with the checks nine times out of ten anyway.
I could feel the other players' eyes as I restacked my chips, sizing me up. Next to me a whale in a floral patterned button down was eating a greasy Ruben out of a Styrofoam to-go box. He hadn't even bothered to request one of the wheeled drink carts. He tore off chunks of the sandwich, popped a couple fries in his mouth, and washed it all down with gulps of beer. I couldn't stand players who ate at the table. What was next? Would they wheel out a john for the guy to shit in so he wouldn't miss a hand? When a seat opened up on the other side of the table I asked for a switch and eyed the guy between hands like the piece of garbage he was. I'm sure he was getting grease on the cards; I could feel his slicked prints on some of my hands.
The kid didn't sit down until two hours in, around noon. I pegged him for what he was right off the bat—namely an online hustler, trying his luck in the real world. This was the new wave, the kids trying to mouse-click the chips into the pot. They win a few online tournaments and move to Vegas. It was a shame to think of them spending the better part of their youth inside a stale casino for nineteen hours out of each day, but they wouldn't see that until much later, if they ever did at all. This was the thing about the poker circuit; it became an isolated world within the world. There were only two reasons you had to acknowledge that larger outside shell: when you ran out of money or when you fell in love. Even these two things you could find in-house if you knew where to look.
He was nervous. That I could see immediately. His hands shook slightly when he was fumbling with his checks. He knocked his stack over three times in a half hour. But he was playing conservatively, nothing outside of wired pairs and ace paint, and so he was making a little bit of money. I actually watched his confidence pick up after the first hour. He went from tipping Sol a buck from each pot that he took down to two or three chips, which he'd flip out onto the automatic shuffler. I could tell it was bothering Sol, who had been rotated in and out as our dealer twice already. She knew the hands she was dealing weren't worth more than the buck.
"Kid, keep your tips off the shuffler," I finally said, after he'd taken down his fourth or fifth pot.
I don't know why I said anything. I rarely spoke at the table unless I found myself with a bunch of the regulars, but there was something about this kid that was bothering me on this particular day. His pale, bony face. The way he flipped on his sunglasses every time he decided to play a hand, like he was going into battle.
"What's that?" he said, without looking up. He was still stacking the chips he'd raked in.
"When you tip her," I said, taking a chip off one of my stacks, "just slide it out in front of her. You're sitting right next to her. She gets it." I slid the chip over the play line toward Sol and she dropped it into the little slot by her elbow. It hit the other checks at the bottom of the box with a shallow clink. She smiled at me and shook her head.
"Oh, okay," the kid said. His face flushed up and I almost felt bad for him for a minute. "Sorry," he added.
"Not a problem," I said. "Just letting you know."
He smiled and nodded.
Two hands later I took away half of the kid's stack by slow-playing a set that I'd hit on the flop against his aces up. This shook him. His cell phone rang while I was stacking the chips and Sol yelled at him when he answered it at the table, obviously talking to one of his buddies somewhere else in the casino. I thought that he might just up and leave at this point, but instead he reached into his pocket and pulled out two crisp hundred dollar bills and laid them out on the table in front of him.
"Cashing two hundred," Sol shouted, over her shoulder. She pushed the cash down into the slot by her other elbow and counted out two hundred in red fives. I figured it was a good time for a break and asked Sol for a marker to hold my seat.
In front of the deli window by the Sports Book a young couple argued over money. I didn't hear their exact words as I waited in line for my BLT but I knew it was about money just the same. The woman, a girl really, was pretty and dark haired. She wore a cashmere cardigan over what could have been a prom dress and cheap-looking pumps. She looked like a Zapatista bride. She wore a tight line of worry across her forehead as she nodded and shook her head at whatever the man was saying.
"Bastante. Bastante," she muttered. "Bastante!" and she stormed off toward the restaurants and shops at the far end of the casino lobby. The man watched her as she left and then schlepped his fistful of checks over to the cage. I sat alone and watched the cocktail waitresses sling their free drinks while I ate my sandwich at the bar.
At the time, Anne and I had never even talked about kids. They just weren't a part of the picture as far as I was concerned. She was working her twelve to fifteen hour shifts in the pit while I put in at least as much time at the tables each day. We had been married seven comfortable years on our own terms before someone had to come along and rattle our padded cage. It was a good seven years too. We had both been married before and so there were no delusions in the wedded bliss department. Though we'd never said so explicitly we'd enjoyed our independence as divorcees and planned to continue along those parallel paths together, growing old together without the hassle of a complicated family life.
We would often leave the casino together late at night or in the early hours of the morning and Anne would smoke her Nat Sherman while we waited for the valet to bring my car around. This was my favorite part of the day back then, after spending hours scrutinizing even the smallest facial movements of strangers, most of whom I would never see again, I loved to watch Anne smoke without wondering what was going on inside her head, without having to worry about the various ways she might take whatever I put out in front of me. I loved draping my arm across the back of her seat while we drove north on the 15, the windows cracked and the cool desert air lifting shocks of her hair as we came closer and closer to home. These were silent drives, even before things turned on us, and I thought of that quiet as something like real life. But this all changed when Anne found out about the kid.
"It's too chilly," Anne would say, usually ten minutes into the drive and make me roll up the windows.
She hadn't been feeling well for a couple weeks before we decided to make the trip out to the clinic, just south of the strip. In the mornings she would complain that the breakfasts I cooked—usually elaborate spreads since we rarely ate full meals for the rest of the day, pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, bacon and sausage—were making her dizzy. It got to where she could barely hold anything down at all.
"I'm beginning to think you're poisoning me," she said, one morning as she came out the bathroom. She wiped at her mouth with the back of her wrist when she said this and I couldn't tell if she was serious or not. She had an unpleasant greenish tinge to her skin, especially around her eyes and mouth, and it made her nose and cheeks sharper looking than they actually were. I told her we'd stop at the clinic on the way into work.
When we got there I remember thinking how strange it was that almost everyone in the waiting room was wearing a uniform similar to Anne's. It felt like an army barracks. Tiny women in their dealer's jackets wheezed and coughed. An old man wore a stained undershirt and a crucifix around his neck but was dressed like a bellhop from the waist down. He wheeled two green cylinders back and forth behind him in a cart as he paced the lounge, the plastic tubes dangling from his nostrils. Anne leaned on me over the armrest of our conjoined seats.
"You're going to be late," she said.
"The tables aren't going anywhere," I said.
She rested her cheek on my shoulder and sighed, watched the old bellhop pace the room.
"What do you think about going to visit my sister in Hawaii over Christmas?" she said.
She sat up straight and fumbled with the buttons on her blazer.
"I don't see why that seems like such a big thing," she said. "People go and visit their family all the time, Tom. It's what people do."
I watched a heavy-set woman in a cocktailing getup fill out some insurance forms across from us.
"Two of the only states in this entire country that don't have a casino within pissing distance and your sister has to live in one of them," I said. I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth. It would have been better to call her sister a pain in the ass than to admit that I just didn't want to miss a day at the tables.
"Jesus Christ," she said. "Would it kill you to not be earning for a day?" She shook her head. "Go to work," she said. "I'll be fine."
I tried to put my hand on the back of her neck and she squirmed out from under it.
"Seriously, Tom, just go. I'll take a cab in."
I thought about arguing with her, telling her I would stay until she at least saw the doctor, but I felt like she was breaking balls just for the hell of it and so I stood up and walked out.
When I got back to the table I could see the kid was up quite a bit. Looked like at least four or five hundred in front of him. Sol had been rotated out to one of the stud tables and a younger blonde with too many rings and bracelets had taken her place. She was new. I'd never seen her before. Her hair came down over her shoulder and covered the nametag above her left breast and it bothered me that I didn't know her name. I sat down and she asked whether I wanted to be dealt in the next hand or wait until the blinds came around and I told her I'd wait.
"Hey, we were worried about you," the kid said, from across the table. He grinned and couldn't even help himself from looking down to his stack and then back up to me.
"Well," I said, "you should have been worried about me coming back."
"We fossils need the little boy's room a little more frequently, you know. We don't have the luxury of a diaper."
He cracked a smile. The other guys at the table looked a little steamed and I knew he must have caught a nice run while I was gone.
Over by the seating desk I could just see the back of Anne's head nodding as she talked to one of her dealers. I used to have to hear these sob stories late at night while we lay in bed. "Just lookin' out for my gals," she'd say. There was something about Anne that always had these girls confiding in her. This one's boyfriend took two extra mortgages out on the condo without telling her and lost it all in a single weekend at the Bellagio. This one was pregnant with her husband's brother's kid. This one took pills. This one cut herself in the lady's room during her break. Anne honestly felt some kind of maternal thing for these hopeless train wrecks. I used to talk her down from her adoptive ledge some nights until the sun began to break through the queen palm outside our bedroom window. Anne, the Las Vegas pit shrink. Anne, the surrogate mother.
When the blinds finally came around, the nameless dealer swung me pocket kings right off the bat and Sol became a distant memory. The kid, playing three seats outside the action, put on his sunglasses, raised to fifteen, and got two callers before the play even came around to the blinds. I re-raised to thirty-five. He called. The other two mucked.
"Good luck," he said, just as the dealer was placing the flop out in front of her face down. The balls on this kid.
Flop came ten of diamonds, four of spades, king of clubs and the kid checked. I led out with fifteen instead of checking the set and got a quick call.
"Don't chase," I said, stretching chase out into a singsong kind of warning.
The kid just smirked.
Turn came two of spades and he checked again. I came out with forty-five and he thought about it for about two whole minutes before raising it to ninety.
"Look who decided to make a play," I said. He laughed again, and for the first time that I night I could see how young he really was. I doubted he was even old enough to be in the casino. He had a nervous high pitch to his voice that said he was doing something wrong and getting away with it. There was nothing he could be holding that would beat the three kings. I knew he had to be playing a gut-shot draw or maybe even a smaller set, the poor bastard, but I waited a good long minute before I re-upped another one-eighty to bring the pot ten shy of a nickel. He couldn't have had more than one-twenty or one-thirty left in his stack but I put out the one-eighty just the same to force him all in. I watched him when I reached for the re-raise; I saw the color draining from his face. He looked like he was going to be sick and when I saw that, when I saw any shred of confidence that he may have amassed over the last few hours dwindle down to a tight little knot at the pit of his stomach, I felt a kind of sickness myself. How many times had I been in this exact position? How many times had I lured someone into this exact spot just to see them crumble and walk off with their head in their hands, or worse, pretend as if it didn't hurt, as if there was nothing worth covering your face over?
To the kid's credit he regained his composure pretty quickly, but not before I realized that he was most definitely playing a draw and hoping to put me off of a top pair with the initial raise. Now he would have to put everything he had into the pot on a nine to one gut-shot straight and though part of me didn't want to see him call it, I knew that he was more than priced in. But he took his sweet time about it anyway. After five minutes the blond dealer whose name I didn't know wrapped her knuckles on the felt, her bracelets clacking together like a baby's rattle, and announced thirty seconds.
When I think about it now, I still don't fully understand why I did what I did next. When the kid had about fifteen seconds left before forfeiting the hand, I pulled two one dollar chips off of my stack and flipped them up in front of the dealer, where they landed right on top of the automatic shuffler with a ta-tick.
"Thanks," I said to the dealer.
I didn't even look at the kid when he finally got the point and mucked the hand.
I left him with just enough of a stack to build himself back up, pot by pot, until three hours later he busted me out with a shit hand against my wired aces.
Not long after I left Anne at the clinic that day, my cell phone rang and I remember I thought about not even picking it up.
"Tom, where are you?" she said.
"I had to stop to get some gas so I'm just getting to the valet at The Oasis now. Why?"
I still had an attitude about her giving me crap at the clinic but I dropped it when I heard her hiccup on the other end of the line. This was something of a tic of hers after she'd been crying. She would fall into bouts of hiccupping that scared the shit out of me.
"The nurse made me take a pregnancy test and it came up positive."
She hiccupped a few times and then took a deep breath.
"They're trying to tell me that I'm pregnant here."
"What do you mean pregnant? Aren't you . . . "
"Yes, Tom, I understand the situation. I'm just telling you what they're telling me."
Anne was fifty-one at the time and I was fifty-eight. The concept of starting a family seemed about as likely as us moving to Hawaii.
"I'll come pick you up," I said.
When I got there Anne was waiting outside the clinic smoking one of her blue Nat Sherman's. A plastic bag dangled from her other hand and when she saw me pull into the lot she put the cigarette out on the heel of her shoe and flicked the butt into the shrubs.
It was the look on her face when she got into the car that kills me the most, now, whenever I think back on picking her up that day. She slipped into my car and was absolutely beaming. The olive tinge had washed right out of her cheeks and they glowed a healthy pink. She smiled and her eyes seemed to fill up her whole face.
"I'm going to have a baby," she said, and started rummaging through the plastic bag on her lap; pulling out pamphlets and brochures, free samples.
For a couple weeks after this I hardly recognized her. There was the constant stream of baby that Anne spoke whenever we were alone. She was hoping for a boy; all of the counseling she'd done for her girls at The Oasis had turned her off to the idea of raising a girl in this city. The doctor had told her that there was an increased risk of Down's Syndrome or autism because of her age but she quickly waved these cautions off. It was as if all of this talk had been building up in her for fifty-one years. You would have thought that we had been trying to have a kid for years. In fact, the pregnancy was such a blessing in Anne's eyes that my thoughts about the whole matter were irrelevant. And what were my thoughts during this time? Even now when I think back on it I'm not quite sure what I was thinking. It was as if I lived as another person for those two weeks out of my entire life, some kind of a test life that seemed comfortable enough from what I could see, but could I really trade in? We had something dangled out in front of us for the briefest of an instant and I can't help but think that in my hesitation someone upped and yanked it away.
"I just always knew that I'd have a baby," she said, that day in the car. "Even when all of my life said otherwise, I knew."
The day that we finally went in for a check-up and ultrasound, Anne glowed in the waiting room. She rubbed my knee and grinned at every dealer, cocktail waitress, pit boss and sad sack that walked into the place. She giggled when the ultrasound technician, a chubby little Mexican woman, squeezed the jelly onto her stomach and pressed the wand into gel. She moved the wand slightly and something like a night-vision display of pulsating grapes throbbed on the screen to the left of Anne's head. The tech moved the wand around some more and cocked her head at the screen.
"Hmm," she said.
"What is it?" Anne asked.
The chubby little woman removed the wand from Anne's stomach and placed it on the instrument tray by the bed. She snapped off her latex gloves, stepped on the pedal to the wastebasket in the corner of the room, and threw them inside.
"I'll be right back," she said. "I need to get doctor."
"Does something look wrong in there?" I asked. It seemed to me that we could have been watching some CNN air-strike coverage with the sound off.
"The doctor will look," she said, and left the room quickly.
Anne turned to me with wide eyes. She squeezed my hand. It was amazing how much younger she looked since hearing the news. In the weeks leading up to the ultrasound, even in her uniform, she gave off this kind of feminine energy that I had never seen in her before. She babied the high rollers to their private roulette tables. She pinched her dealer's cheeks.
"What was that all about?" she said.
"No idea. Wait until the doctor comes in. I'm sure she just fucked something up."
Anne nodded and took my hand.vWhen the doctor finally did come in, Anne had taken to drawing intricate designs into the transmission gel on her stomach with her fingernails. The doctor smiled and snapped on a pair of gloves.
"How are we today, folks?" he asked, smiling brightly.
"A little confused, doc," I said. "What's going on here?"
He squirted some more gel on Anne's stomach and pressed the wand down gently. Again, the cluster of grapes flared and shifted on the screen.
"We're just a little concerned about what we're seeing here," he said.
"What are we seeing?" Anne asked.
He moved the wand around some more and inched his face closer and closer to the screen. Nothing changed as far as I could see. He sighed and put the wand back down on the tray. The screen went black.
"Looks like a mole. Extremely rare, odds are maybe one in a thousand pregnancies. I'm very sorry."
He snapped off the gloves and tossed them into the wastebasket. I pictured a tiny rodent squirming around in Anne's stomach. Some blind little thing burrowing down inside her.
"A molar pregnancy," he clarified. "It's a problem that occurs right at fertilization. The sperm fertilizes an essentially empty egg, which develops into a kind of placenta, but there is no fetus. No baby inside. It's really nobody's fault."
Anne sat up on the bed and pulled the gown around her.
"Wait, what do you mean 'no fetus'. I'm pregnant. I can feel him there. Look again, I can feel him."
I put my hand on Anne's shoulder but she shook it off.
"Put that gunk on my stomach and look again. You're not looking hard enough," she said.
"Anne, your body thinks it's pregnant but there is no fetus there. I'm positive about that. We can induce labor to eject the placenta, but there really is no baby."
It didn't matter how the doctor phrased it. Anne forced him to run the ultrasound again, and again. Each time she would point to something in the display, a brief flicker, a small flitting of tissue, and ask if that was the heart.
"It's there, you're just not looking hard enough," she kept saying.
After the second time I couldn't look at the screen anymore. Even when she called my name, when she asked me if that tiny little quiver didn't look like a heartbeat, I couldn't look her in the face.
After the kid cleaned me out that night, I wished everyone at the table good luck.
"Sorry," he said, as I was turning to leave. He was raking in all of my chips, but I could tell he meant it.
"What's there to be sorry about?" I said. "That's the game right? Nice hand."
He stopped stacking the chips and waved a finger at me, squinted his eyes.
"I like that move you put on me earlier. That was classy," he said. "Old school."
"Whatever you want to call it," I said.
"I'll be seeing you around the tables."
"I hope not," I said, and I meant it.
He nodded and the dealer was already doling out the next hand when I walked out toward the casino lobby. Up above, on a giant LCD screen, an electronic sky burned bright blue but I knew that it was nearly three o'clock in the morning and that the real sky was dark out there, that the mist was already starting to come in from off the mountains and across the desert, that it was blacking out the stars.
I waited for my car by the valet stand. I didn't even notice Anne leaning up against one of the pillars by the limo island. She was smoking a dark gold cigarette with pink bands down around the filter and tapping her foot against the concrete. I think she was hoping I wouldn't see her but I walked over anyway.
"Tough night?" I said.
She nodded and exhaled a drag into the night.
"Yeah, me too," I said. "You okay with a ride?"
She looked at me strangely. I couldn't tell what she was thinking exactly but I knew that whatever it was, it wasn't what I wanted her to be thinking.
"John should be here any minute," she said. She tried to smile but it came off hard and sad.
Just then the valet swung around in my Buick and hopped out of the driver's seat. I handed him a couple of bucks and turned back toward Anne. She was grinding the butt of her cigarette into her heel.
"Alright, Anne, I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," she said.
I waved to her as I pulled away and she lifted her chin only slightly in my direction. I turned the radio off driving north on the 15 and listened to the whine of the wheels against the asphalt. I opened the windows and let the desert air lift dust and sand into the car and wondered how many years it would take to bury someone out here.