He was winning. The little blue marble that kept rolling around the turntable fell more often than he expected on his number or his color. Roulette waa a game he had been attracted to while visiting the casinos at Atlantic City while on a business trip, and now he was here, in the capital of gambling, Las Vegas, and he was really winning. He looked forward to the little ball whirling on the mahogany wheel and “clicking” in a slot carved out on the edges. So simple, he thought, It is just so simple. He had accumulated over one-hundred dollars in large chips and each time he bet he would see more pushed over to him from the attractive blonde behind the table. Her name was Rosemary, and she looked to be about in her fifties. Nice hair and hands. He was just climbing into his 70’s and on this night he was working on an eighteen year old glass of Glenlivet and a smooth tasting Cuban cigar that he had picked up along the Strip the night before. He had always wanted to taste a Cuban.
He was alone at the table, and as he played he talked to Rosemary, “I seem to be winning tonight,” he mumbled with the cigar sticking out of the side of his mouth with a lilt in his voice and lifting his chin to look at her, “I like winning.”
She smiled, pushed some more winning chips towards him and then said “place your bets.”
He cradled a few of the chips in his left hand as he deftly slipped one and then another to his right to snap the chip on a color, a number, or a line that seemed to him a potential winner, or he skidded it across the table and Rosemary would place it the square that he indicated with a nod or a “please.”
“The board is closed,” Rosemary said finally, passing her hand over the board as if to say a prayer for him. He felt special every time he watched her golden bracelet with the pearl charm flow neatly over the chips that were now scattered around the black and red squares and numbers.
“What brings you to Vegas?” she finally asked after letting the ball spin on the wheel. He did not reply right away, but instead watched as the ball settled into the red three slot and he moved his focus to the red three on the corner where he had placed five five-dollar chips.
“3-1,” she said with a smile, “it looks like you win again. “Place your bets,” and the game began again.
“I am here for a wedding,” he said finally, “my niece is getting married to a man from Hawaii, and we are here on what you would call a destination wedding. The whole family made the trip from different parts of the country. It has been fun. We had a few days on the Strip and now we are here at the hotel for the ceremony and reception.”
“Is your wife with you?” she asked, pushing a few more chips his way, “Too bad she is not here to enjoy the winnings.”
“No,” he replied, glancing at the golden wedding ring on his hand, “she is not with me,” and noticing that his ringed finger was very visible while he stacked the chips on the table, and built them into neat piles. He twirled the ring with his now empty right hand. “My wife died about eight months ago. We had scheduled this trip for the wedding with tickets and all, but her fight with cancer caught up to her.” He didn’t know whether it was the night, the scotch, or the loneliness that made him talk so much, but now it was too late. “I’m here with my son and daughter for a few days and the wedding. It’s her side of the family, and my kids are very close to their cousins.”
“I am sorry to hear about your loss,” she said and he watched as her hand again passed over the table, “the board is closed.”
“Thank you,” he responded again, watching her pinched fingers with the red nail polish set the marble loose on the table. “Are you married?” he asked, not believing that it was him talking, “I don’t see a ring.”
“No, “ she replied without stopping to count the chips on the table, rake the losers into her drawer, and count out a few more winners for him. “My husband left me about three years ago.” I have lived here in Vegas for about a year. It isn’t all that bad. I have a good job, and I don’t mind the heat.” Then after a short pause and another “place your bets,” my cousin had cancer. She died last year.
I wish I could have spent more time with her.
Am I ready for this? He asked himself, she is very attractive and she smells nice.”
Just then his nephew, Brad, a young man of twenty-five and his younger brother, Samuel, appeared at the end of the table, each with a long Cuban and a fresh drink in each hand.
Their appearance broke the mood and he was suddenly drawn back into the reality of his family and the loss of his wife.
“Let me join in,” Brad said, covering the table with a puff of smoke. “It looks like you are winning!”
“Yeah,” he replied, “I think it’s the scotch.”
“Good,” Brad followed,” maybe we can get lucky as well,” and he laid down a one-hundred dollar bill and asked for chips.
Rosemary took the money, counted out the bright gold and white chips, and then slid them over to Brad at the end of the table.
“Place your bets,” Rosemary said, and he followed her gaze as the boys spread their chips around the table, even topping some that he had placed there because they knew that he was having a lucky night.
“Go with the odd numbers,” he said, letting them join into the flow of the game. “They have been working for me.”
Rosemary smiled, and her hand once again passed over the table. He smiled as she announced the black seventeen, a number special to him because it was the day of his wife’s birthday. He always had a few chips on seventeen, and his and Brad’s chips played the winner on that turn of the wheel.
“All right,” yelled Brad, sounding a little bit more inebriated than he had thought when Brad first stood at the table. “It’s a winner,” as the cigar smoke filled the air above the table.
Brad grabbed his cips and left them in a large pile in front of him while, unlike Brad, Randall took each one he had gained and stacked it neatly in piles of five and ten chips each. That was so he could keep track. He tracked Rosemary’s eyes only to pause when he saw her reflected in his wedding ring. It was a flick of light that carried the red dress and nail polish, but he saw it.
Brad was much less organized and as result his train of thought also skipped around the nuances of the game as he never discovered the energy that brought his chips together with the moving ball and the little grooves in the roulette wheel.
Randall was in tune, and kept winning, but Brad lost his chips in a very short time. Samuel just watched and occasionally threw out a suggestion, but nothing seemed to work. That is when the game ended. Brad was broke, he placed his last chip on top of the black seventeen that Randall had already covered, and hoped for the best. They both lost.
He had been doing fine, alone with Rosemary, but his luck changed also and the game lost its allure.
He gathered his chips, thanked Rosemary, and left a good tip. He caught one last whiff of the essence of her beauty while pulling himself out of the chair holding tightly to the edge. He was more than a little drunk. He walked with Brad through the lobby with the purple and gold carpet, and rode with him in the elevator to the fifteenth floor where they had rooms.
He said good night to Brad, opened his door, and rolled into bed, alone, like he had been doing for so many of the previous nights. Death is like a game of Roulette, he mused, letting his head spin from the scotch that he had consumed during the night. I wonder if Rosemary was interested? He missed his wife as he rolled on his side and slipped into the position that he had slipped into each night for the forty-two years that they had been married. He smiled, This is the slot I like, and he brought his knees up towards his chest, pulled a large pillow under his arm and fell asleep holding onto the soft shape of a body that he could never win back. “Good night,” he said to the pillow, hugged it tighter, and fell asleep.
He slept late and wandered to the restaurant, alone, and found a buffet with eggs, bacon, and good coffee. His son and daughter joined him for the second cup, and they talked a little about the trip, the strip, and the scotch the night before. He felt that there was a strange absence of his wife’s memory in the conversation, but he was not ready to bring up any kind of deeper discussion about her. His children seemed to be in agreement. He paid the tab. They spent the rest of the morning walking around the grounds of the hotel, checking on the rooms where the wedding reception would be held, and eventually meeting the cousins for a beer and lunch. He left his kids with the cousins to let them socialize and again he was alone to walk and think about all that had happened during the last few months. His wife’s death was still on his mind. He knew it would be there awhile. It had been a massive heart attack after three years of chemo, transfusions, and all that goes with it. He knew that she had gone quickly for a reason, and she had prepared him as best she could have since he cried with her in the kitchen once the words multiple myeloma were uttered. The three years went too quickly.
The wedding was in the garden at the back of the hotel, and the warm sun had everyone sweating even though they were under large pine trees. The chairs were white with padded backs, very neatly lined up with a large center isle. He liked that. The families sat on two sides of the aisle in a traditional setting. His niece, Bethany, was marrying an Hawain native, and his family and friends who had flown to Vegas and the hotel, as he and his family had done from different parts of the country. He had never been to Hawaii, but it had been on the list that he and his wife had spoken about so he felt a slight connection. He tried to open discussions with the other side of the family with small talk and questions about their home, but there seemed to him a type of isolation that each side maintained without understanding that it was happening. He chalked it off as the cultural divide that it was, and thought little more about it. He loved his niece, and he was happy that she had found someone, and he also cared a lot for his brother-in-law and his wife, Rachel, who was his drinking partner at family gatherings. He smiled when he saw her walking down the aisle in her long and flowing light green gown and her dark brown hair neatly curled around her shoulders. He smiled as he thought of all the times that they had ended up at one end of the Thanksgiving or Christmas table with wine glasses in hand beckoning to the wine gods to let them each just keep making the other laugh. Everyone else used to hint that they should be separated, but somehow they always found a way to sit together. “It was karma,” Rachel used to say.
He smiled when she came over to hug him and she kissed him on the lips as was her custom. Not everyone did that. He liked it.
“You look beautiful,” he said after releasing her from the embrace. “Thank you,” she replied, looking him in the eye and smiling. “I am glad that you are here.”
“Jean is a beautiful bride,” he said, “what a beautiful wedding. You must be very happy.”
“I am,” she said, “I have to go. I will see you at the reception. Save a dance for me.”
“I will save two,” he said while squeezing her arm, and as she walked off to rejoin the wedding party he let his hand linger on her shoulder just long enough for her to turn and look back at him. She smiled again, and then her long hair fell over her face as she turned back.
He had a sudden rush of interest and for an instant the loneliness that had been haunting him throughout the trip disappeared into a short fantasy. It’s nice to feel love again, he thought catching himself and returning to reality, if only for an instant.
He sat with his children at the wedding and they all dealt with the heat as best they could. His son was a bit more practical and removed his suit jacket. His daughter had on a pale blue dress that was meant to be worn in warm weather. The ceremony was short and they all moved quickly into the air conditioned rooms that lay just beyond the gazebo that was positioned strategically under the trees.
The reception was set in a darkened room at the side of the hotel, and without fanfare the bride and groom entered, they sat at a table on a raised balcony, and he sat with another older couple and his son for a dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Of course, there was wine, but he had already filled his glass with Glenlivet while greeting his brothers-in-law, their wives, their children, and the guests from Hawaii. Without his wife, their sister, he felt a bit like a wedding crasher, and the usual conversations that included his family were shortened or abreviated because there was just not enough information that he could share. His wife had always been the better communicator and he had depended on her to get a picture of what was going on in the family. When he talked now, there was a sadness in each word, and a sorrow deep underneath each laugh and memory. He found that he was repeating himself as he labored to conceal his grief, and he fell back on the old stories and the old jokes. I may not stay here too long, he thought. I am not into this.
At his table with his new friends the conversation was typical, and he learned that they had been married for over thirty years and they had four children all who had finished college. “It was forty-two for us, he said, and he thought of his own two children, their successes, and he joined them in a mutual congratulatory toast with the champagne that they found at the table when they had first sat down.
Then the music started, and things changed. He and his wife had loved dancing and they were often the only couple on the floor when jazzy or waltzy music was playing. He immediately focused on the DJ as it seemed the song choices were chosen for his wedding and not his nieces. Interest in his new friends waned, and he began to look for Rachel. He knew that he wanted a dance, maybe two, and since she was now living in Hawaii, close to her daughter, he knew that it might be one of the last dances that they would ever have together again.
The disc jockey had his number, and he smiled when he thought of Rosemary. She had also had his number. What a place, he thought, I am going to have fun tonight. The smooth jazz beats and long musical phrases fit his dancing style perfectly, and each time he stepped on the floor he was again holding that magical moment. In his mind he could see he and his wife gliding across the floor, around the floor and flirting with disaster as he would change the beat with a step or two and bring her to a sudden stop only to hear her complain, but not really. He loved her for her love of dancing and so much more. The scotch was working again.
When he grabbed Rachel he took a strong lead and she melted into his arms letting him direct her around the floor as they chatted about the wedding, the family, and the children whom they all loved. His sophisticated dance steps, and the complementing music propelled them over the floor and into another world. When the song ended, there was another kiss on the lips, and another warm embrace, and she walked away to join with someone else.
As he stood there watching her, he knew that it was a final good-bye, it would be the last time that he would be with her. The thought grew quickly and expanded. He looked about the room. There was the young and athletic Marjorie, all of twenty-one, and her mother, Sally, who was another of his favorite relatives. There were so many, and they lived in so many different places in the world. They were all held together with him through the memory of his wife. Without hesitation he let the music lead him to interact with each one, each lady, young or old, who he placed in his physical memory alongside his wife’s as he danced and shared the music and the heightened significance of the interaction. Each time he spun one around, or stopped suddenly changing the pace or the beat, the way he used to do with his wife, he recalled her smile because he knew that she was with him saying good-bye as well. He was dancing for both of them. All night he spun and swirled, laughed and gasped for air, and like a game of roulette, he saw the ball dropping into its perfect place with each new partner. It was his way of saying goodbye to his family who had come to share in this destination.
He saw Rachel for the last time the next morning at breakfast. They embraced and she kissed him softly on the lips. “Thank you for coming. You were really something on the dance floor last night. Jean is still talking about it, and how you danced with everyone. You made it a very special night.”
He smiled, kissed her back, and his goodbye settled in his memory. He had done the right thing!
Stephen Day writes about those lessons and memories that he has gleaned from his family and friends. He enjoys finding the meaning of things from everyday experiences. He is currently living in Costa Rica where he has time to write and reflect.