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The Blackjack Dealer

By Dawn Corrigan

"The dealer must hit on 16. Always assume the dealer has 10 down. If the dealer shows a 6 or below, you stick with anything 12 or above. If the dealer shows a 7 or more, you hit with anything below a 17. On 17 and above you stay."

My mother taught me these rules. They formed the catechism of my youth, principles I was encouraged to internalize even as other, more conventional, ethics were ignored.

Nobody does play by these rules, though, or almost nobody. Instead, they rely on hunches, intuition. I watch as they chain smoke and run their fingers through their hair. I see decision on their faces. Then afterward, when I lightly sweep up the stacks of chips they've lost on hunches, I see something else. This is a big, noisy place, but for them it becomes very small; there is only the voice inside their head. When they finally get up to leave they sway a bit, not from drinking, and walk unsteadily off the floor.

I work forty minutes on, twenty off. On the way to the break room I stare at the carpet, which is splendid and ballsy in its ugliness. A special company covers casino floors; no one else in the world needs carpets like this one.

The employee break room, on the other hand, is glamourless: worn beige carpet, linoleum tables, cigarettes, and gossip. Steve's wife showed up on the floor today while he was dealing and made a scene, accused him of cheating, demanded to know if Linda is the slut he's sleeping with.

(She is.)

The casino's response to this outburst was to put Steve under surveillance, meaning he'll be watched every second that he's here until further notice. The rationale, I suppose, is a man under that much stress is more likely to slip a few chips into his pocket.

The rest of us are indignant. Who needs that shit when your marriage is breaking up?

Walking back out onto the floor after break, the noise hits you like a slap in the face, bells ringing and the continuous jangle of coins dropping, as though everyone's winning all the time. Then you get under the sound, can live in it again.

Some of the other dealers joke with their customers. "This is a cheap table. Think of all the money you'll save." Some don't talk at all, except to the pit boss: "Shuffle please, Gil? Thank you." Many give hints to the players, signaling with their eyes when it's time to stop hitting. Some even risk their jobs to do it. I once saw a woman I knew needed the job desperately say to her table, "When you have 16, stick with it," then mouth silently at them, waving her hand insistently: Stay! The players ignore these hints.

I say "Are you ready to play?" when I begin a new hand, and "Thanks for playing" when a player leaves my table. I smile a little when they win.

Sometimes my cousin Patricia sits at my table. During the Depression our grandfather, who worked as a detective, gave his wife $25 a week on which to support herself and their seven kids. She paid all the bills out of that money—food, clothes, heat, everything—although he made up to $50 a week more than that. This he kept for his own amusement. Horses, mostly, but also baseball games, boxing matches, any kind of pickup game with the guys in the neighborhood. Anything, really. He'd bet on anything.

None of us can get away from it. Before my mother died, she'd show up at my table once in awhile, too. I'd glance up from the cards and there she'd be, wearing some outrageous outfit, a cigarette in a long holder dangling between her fingers, trapped in some ridiculous, outmoded notion of glamour.

"Hello, Kitten," she'd purr, blowing smoke toward me through lipsticked lips. It was all I could do to keep myself from throwing her chips off the table, remembering the moves from one apartment to another in the middle of the night, the men with scary voices on the other end when I answered the phone to tell them, as instructed, that my mother wasn't home, or was dead: my childhood.

Tonight, though, Patricia plays carefully, by the rules, and when she leaves she's $40 up.

A skinny guy in flannel takes her place in the anchor position at the table. Then there's a blonde woman, an Indian man, and two unsmiling men in three piece suits, one old, one young, obviously together. Father and son, I think.

"Are you ready to play?" I say, and "Place your bets," and I slide the cards out of the shoe.

The table has been playing pretty well, but now flannel shirt starts playing wild—taking hits on 17—and everyone gets confused. He's losing, the woman is losing, the turbaned man is winning and father-and-son are about even. The blonde has developed that glazed look in her eyes and is hitting on 15 when I show a 6.

I keep dealing; it's time for a shuffle; the turbaned man cashes in. I wish it were the blonde but she hasn't had enough punishment yet.

I start the game again. The older suited man stands up, takes a step back from his stool, falls down. I lean over the table to see what's going on. His eyes are closed, his hand curled against his chest. Before I can signal for help, my floorperson and pit boss are already there, and security with walkie-talkies, then paramedics. They carry him away. I turn to look at Johanne, my floorperson—although my forty isn't up, surely I deserve a break?—but she isn't at her station.

Then someone is tapping my shoulder. I turn. The younger suited man has not left with his father, is still at the table. "Keep playing," he insists. I stare at him. "Deal," he says.

 

Dawn Corrigan's fiction and microfiction have appeared online recently at Hobart, Rumble, Defenestration, The Raging Face, Monkeybicycle, 3711 Atlantic and The Dream People. Her nonfiction appears regularly at The Nervous Breakdown.

Photo "Card Series" courtesy of Robert Grubba, Gdynia, Poland.


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