Authors: Keisha Orphey
Joe followed Dawn down a narrow flight of stairs to the employee breakroom, where vending machines lined the wall, and the putrid smell of curry simmering in the microwave mixed with brewing coffee filled the air. The room was the basement of the casino, located below soft count – a heavily guarded room off limits to everyone but those employed to count the cash. There were numerous tables and chairs, several refrigerators and even a free hot food buffet line where employees could eat their fill once per shift.
Dawn avoided eating in the breakroom. The smell repulsed her. Instead, she poured herself a cup of coffee.
“Well, how was dinner?” Joe popped open a can of soda and guzzled. All of that sugar. Hadn’t a doctor advised him sodas were the reason for that barrel belly of his?
She shrugged, “It was nice.”
“Nice? What’d you have?” he asked as if wishing she’d paint a mental picture of the overpriced entrees so he could just reach right in and grab it, gobble it down with that sugary rich cola.
“He ordered lobsters and steak, but we didn’t eat.
“Why in the heck not?”
“I’m married, Joe.”
“True, but that man is loaded. And to be quite honest, I was shocked when he asked that you accompany him. That man can have any woman in this place—“
“Oh, you know what I mean, Dawn. It’s a compliment more than you’re giving me credit for.”
“No problem. I need to take a nap.” Sure, he was her superior, and she’d been rude, but she was tired and the last thing she wanted to do was talk to anyone about Nicoli. A man she hardly knew. There’d be no adventure-filled stories or the likes of how’d they met. She’d merely been chosen. The pick of the litter selected to escort a rich man to dinner. A gorgeous man with wavy black hair, long toned arms, a broad chest, and penetrating green eyes…
Stop it now. He’s gone. And I’ll never see him again, she thought.
She walked toward one of the couches and sunk deep into the cushions, laid her head on the arm, and closed her eyes. Seconds passed, then: “Leave.” A familiar disembodied voice whispered tickling the tiny hairs on her face. Dawn opened fatigued eyes to investigate and found the room buzzing with other casino employees; some eating quickly on their short breaks and others sharing stories from the casino floor.
“He was up sixty-seven thousand!”
“You know he lost it all.”
“He’ll be back.”
And before Dawn could close her eyes again: “Sleep well?” A woman asked sitting beside her on the sofa. The funny thing is that she hadn’t felt the sofa shift to accommodate the extra weight. An older lady in her late sixties, the woman gave a warm, sincere smile, and reminded Dawn of her mother Sylvia. Was it the way she’d curled her hair with hot rollers and picked it out using what seemed like an entire can of hair spray? White Rain. The green can. Or was it the sincerity in her tone?
“Aren’t you from Louisiana?” the woman asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Lafayette. Two hours west of New Orleans.
“I was born in Eunice.”
“Are you serious? My mother was from Eunice. What’s your last name?”
“I’ll have to ask my mom if she knows your family.”
“I doubt she’ll know them. My parents moved to Texas in the late fifties. I grew up in Houston.”
Dawn’s cellphone buzzed in her jacket pocket. She removed it and saw that the illuminated screen read: MOM, but before Dawn could answer, she realized the woman had already gone. “Hey, hey.”
“How’s it going over there?”
“Ugh, I’m exhausted like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I bet. New Orleans is getting pummeled by Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of homes are under water.”
“I just saw it on the news. That is horrible. Are y’all being affected?”
“Just light rain. Nothing to be concerned about on this end.”
“How’s daddy feeling?”
“The chemo makes him groggy and irritable. He’s lost a bunch of weight, but it was to be expected. His hair hasn’t started falling yet.”
“Tell him I said ‘hello’. Is he asleep?”
“Yes. He sleeps all the time.”
On a more positive note, Dawn said: “Sierra took her first steps today.”
“Aww, are you serious? That’s beautiful. My lil’ honey. And Christopher. Did he have a game today?”
“No, but he has one this weekend. I wish you and daddy could be here.”
“Me too. And Mason. Does he still think he’s Spider Man?” she laughed.
Dawn chuckled. “You know it. Philip said Christopher wore his skate shoes to Wal-Mart yesterday and was asked by the manager to stop skating in the store. He told that lady it was his constitutional right to skate anywhere he pleased!”
The phone line filled with whooping laughter.
“Barron, it’s time to go!” Joe called from across the room.
“Momma, I gotta get back to the floor. I’ll call you tomorrow when I wake up, okay?”
“Kiss the kids for me. Love y’all.”
“Love you more, Momma. I’ll talk to you later.” She ended the call, then thought about the Greenwood lady, and wondered if her mother would know the family. If she didn’t, she was sure her Uncle Johnny would. There’d been six children born to her maternal grandparents and Johnny was the only one who had never left Eunice. He owned and operated a successful mechanic shop in the heart of the city. If there was anyone worth knowing, he’d be the one to ask.
¤ ¤ ¤
Dawn caught a glimpse of the Greenwood lady standing idle near the cashier cage – an observable distance from where she stood in the blackjack pit. She’d been watching Dawn. She saw the gentle, yet swift turn of her head as they had locked eyes for a split second. She hadn’t even smiled. What was she thinking? Why was she there? Didn’t she have her own work to tend to? Wasn’t her supervisor wondering the same? Or had she been studying Dawn’s features looking for some sort of resemblance to disprove their families had any relation? Dawn thought how nice it would have been to have a relative in the desert, especially someone who’d reminded her of her mother, but the city had been a cold place. People were stand-offish and arrogant, at least those she’d met. She hadn’t made a single friend. Neighbors didn’t even say ‘hello’ when their moving truck arrived three months ago. Las Vegas wasn’t like any city in Louisiana where you could start a conversation with a stranger about anything, even the weather, and wind up being invited to dinner.
I don’t care much for friends, anyway, she thought. They only wind up disappointing me and they never last. People, in general, are fake. Besides, I don’t plan on living the rest of my life in Las Vegas. It’s just too damn hot during the day. Desert heat felt like being inside an oven. It was nothing in comparison to Louisiana’s humidity, but Dawn preferred it. And at this moment, she yearned for any part of Louisiana…any part of home.
Dawn glanced at her watch. A quarter past three in the morning and people still seemed to be pouring in at every entrance. All with that winner’s gleam in their eye. Only gamble what you can afford to lose is what should be posted at every entrance, Dawn had said. And clocks! Why weren’t there any clocks in any casino? Or windows? She could go on forever. Not like her rant would change anything. She was just a table games supervisor, although she’d been promoted and transferred from Louisiana, she wasn’t anyone of importance.
Like Joe was.
Or pretended to be.
He’d started his career in the casino industry as a table games dealer in the early eighties, moved up quickly to a tables games supervisor, and finally secured a top management spot in Sin City’s prime casino – The Ritz. But like every casino employee, Joe’d tested his gambling skills in nearly every location in the city. And when his wife Hazel got sick, he found himself behind the eight ball – broke and living check-to-check. Piling medical bills and non-stop collection calls drove him to desperate measures, which included seeking help from the underworld. Rubbing elbows with the cartel had been both, a slip of good luck and the beginning of the end. He’d managed to place Hazel in an affordable nursing home and get back on his feet financially, but he’d sold his soul to the devil to accomplish it.
Dawn was generating a complimentary dining ticket on the pit computer for a guest when the call came. The phone rang only once when she picked the receiver up and said, “Pit five. Barron.”
“Good morning, Dawn.” The caller’s voice was smooth as silk and one she’d never forget.
She fell silent. Her words trapped in her throat. She pictured his naked chest, his tanned, toned body lying on white cotton sheets, arm behind his head …
“Hi, Nicoli. How are you?” she turned her attention to a guest standing beside one of the blackjack tables. “Could you hold just a minute? I’ll be right back.” She placed the receiver on the pit stand, tore the ticket from the printer, signed it and handed it to the gambler. “Thank you, sir. Enjoy your breakfast.” Quickly, she put the phone back to her ear. “Are you still there?”
“Yes. I know you’re busy, and I apologize for calling, but I’d really like to see you. When you get off, if that’s okay. I promise to behave,” he smiled.
Dawn didn’t speak. She was too busy hanging on to every word, picturing his lips moving as he spoke them.
“Yes, I’m here.” She whimpered. “I tried calling you earlier to apologize—
“There’s no need to apologize.” Seconds passed, minutes it seemed. “Come to me.”
Dawn inhaled deeply and turned her attention to the Greenwood lady who was staring directly at her. For a split second, she thought she saw something in the lady’s eyes so dark and evil, it scared her. Chilled her. But then she smiled and all she’d imagined dissipated. The Greenwood lady waved, walked away, and disappeared around the cashier cage.
“You’re very persistent, aren’t you?”
He was smiling again. “Can we start over?”
“Nicoli, as much as I want to say ‘yes’, I-I just can’t.”
“Okay. I understand.” He mumbled something in a language she didn’t understand, then he was gone.
Dawn listened to the dial tone a moment -- her heart pattering, breaking, then she hung up the phone. Ten minutes later, she was standing in the service elevator of the hotel. Casino employees weren’t allowed in the guest elevators, even if they were staying in the hotel. It was a strict company policy and she would stick to it. Joe seemed to be in her corner. She had no idea how long she’d been walking (running) to Nicoli’s suite; it was located in a totally separate section of the expansive property. Her hands and feet tingled with numbness and she couldn’t even hear the classical music playing through invisible speakers along the corridor; every noise around her sounded like she was underwater.
Only when Nicoli opened the door shirtless did her senses return and she heard the faint whisper of another woman’s voice calling him back to bed.
Dawn gasped, flushed with fury, red-faced with anger. Not at Nicoli, but at herself for even allowing herself to go to him, consider such sinful behavior … for wanting him. In a daze, she glowered at him. “What was I thinking? Why am I even here?” she sighed and the grimace on her face revealed how much he sickened her. And for what seemed like an eternity, they locked eyes. Dawn felt herself sink and thought how stupid she must look to him now, but when he reached for her, she yanked her arm back before he could touch her.
“Dawn … please. She’s not –“
“Save it,” she avoided looking into his eyes. “To think I actually believed you were real – “
She turned and walked away like a lovesick fool, ambling back toward the elevator. At the end of the hallway, she felt tears swell in her eyes, but quickly swiped them away. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Nicoli was still standing in the doorway with drooping sad eyes, his broad shoulders gleaming, his muscular arm raised and braced against the edge of the cherry stained French door.
She wondered if he’d embraced that woman in those arms, kissed her with the lips she’d dreamed of kissing, then the elevator doors cranked open, and she stepped inside the dimly lit space – black walls with random names chipped into the paint -- and for the first time, she heard the rusted mechanical sounds of the crane as the elevator whined downward.
Upon exiting the elevator, entering the ‘employees only’ area of lobby, Dawn came face-to-face with the Greenwood lady. When their eyes met, in that simple glance, the lady saw pain and disappointment in Dawn’s glare.
“You look like you need to talk.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Sure.” Dawn obliged.
“Let’s meet at Sushi’s in --” she glanced at her wristwatch, “—thirty minutes?”
“Thank you,” Dawn said. “I could really use some preaching right now.”
¤ ¤ ¤
She slid onto the cushioned seat across from the Greenwood lady at Sushi’s -- one of her favorite spots in The Ritz to eat after work. During midday, the place hopping with tourists, google-eyeing the colorful koi swimming in custom thousand-gallon aquarium tanks built in the wall. But at six A.M., she and the Greenwood lady were most certainly the only occupants dining. Dawn had eaten there several times. The Shrimp Lo Mein was her favorite dish, but she was too upset to eat, ordering a decaffeinated coffee before she even sat down.
“You didn’t have to do this, Ms. Greenwood. I know you’re just worried about me, but I’ll be alright – “
“Oh, no, chil’. First of all, call me ‘Elizabeth’. Secondly, I knew the moment I saw you walk out of that elevator, you needed to vent. No sense in going home to your family feeling down like that. What’s going on?” her voice shrill with curiosity.
Dawn exhaled. She couldn’t find the words to tell this woman she’d almost cheated on her husband with a man she hardly knew, but then she just blurted it out: “I met this man – “