Spring 2016, Volume 20

Fiction by Brooks Rexroat

Casino Girl

Her name is Marta, she says, and her English gets better the more she drinks. Which is to say it improves steadily as the evening wears on. She invited herself to this table, of course, because how else would he know someone here—half a world from home and a full world removed from anything familiar? He kills time with this sour wine sloshing in his glass, a glass he’s fairly certain could’ve used a more thorough washing before anyone poured expensive fluids into it, but now that he’s halfway finished there’s no benefit in closer inspection. This dance between them is about delay: Freddy Gorman of Akron, Ohio works to extend his stay in the casino because everything else near his hotel has closed and the trams have stopped and it seems absurd to spend a night in Marseille accomplishing nothing better than to sit in a cramped hotel room with no television. Marta wants delay, too—but Freddy Gorman cannot sort out what or why and with each sip from his less-than-clean wine glass, the likelihood of successful sorting diminishes. What he does understand thoroughly: even at the cheapest slot tables, he’s bled cash all too quick and in the back of his mind a ledger sheet compares his savings account (slim as the nearest of two pole dancers who hold court over this lounge) with the value of lingering in this place. A drink—that ledger sheet has told him. You can take it as slow as you might, and at least you’re getting some measure of return, the tangible feeling of the liquid flowing through your body instead of just the sight of currency disappearing into flashing machines.

So he ordered a drink and quickly got Marta.

When she first approached, she placed her hand on his shoulder and asked if he’d like company. He thought she asked, “Do you work for a company?” So he mumbled the name of the aeronautical manufacturing that sent him to train employees of the new French plant. But she shook her head and laughed and pointed to the seat. “Oh, he said. “Oh! Would I like company?” This was one of the two times the pair would fully understand each other. He nodded, a vigorous reply. Yes. Yes, he would very much like company.


So, here they are atop moderately comfortable but sharply angled chairs that Freddy imagines must be quite fashionable, and she drains the last bit of pink wine from the glass she’s brought to the table with her. Her glass looks pristine, except for the soft pink etchings her lipstick has left on the rim. A smartly dressed waiter retrieves the empty vessel almost immediately, as though he’s been watching Marta, and Freddy thinks, well, why wouldn’t he be watching her?

“You like this show?” she asks. He turns his head, follows the point of her slim finger toward the bikini dancers who twirl a-rhythmically on pedestal-mounted brass poles flanking the cocktail lounge. One has her hair poorly bleached—he can only notice how bad it is when the light hits her just right, but the light hits her just right nearly all of the time. The other is brunette and further away. He can’t tell with certainty from that distance, but he’s fairly sure her shoes do not match. These women are New Jersey pretty, he thinks, not central Europe pretty. He wonders if he’s just thought a horrible thing or made a keen observation. The line is so thin.

“It’s…okay,” he tells her. He says this slowly for her benefit, because he imagines she needs it. She looks disappointed, as though she’s got something invested in his response. As if maybe her turn is up next, and he suddenly regrets it all: his thoughts, his words, his posture.

“You do not like girls?” she asks, and he feels warmth in his cheeks as they redden.

“Of course,” he says. He scoots forward, suddenly feeling very invested himself. “Just not—”

“It is okay,” she says, and places her hand atop his. Freddy tries not to tremble at the shock of her softness. He fails.

“Would you like another?” He points to her drink.

“You are American—maybe we drink whiskey to celebrate friendship.” He looks at the trilingual Casino menu (German, too). A drink of whiskey is the most expensive thing on it, save for a full bottle of champagne, which isn’t very much more. But the way she says it, the wh turned so elegantly into a vee and the way she sustains the word for practically an entire extra syllable: “vhiskeeeeee.” Not to mention the way those soft fingertips feel as they rest on his knuckles. He nods, turns down the internal ledger’s fiscal yelping. Yes, he’ll celebrate this. He’ll celebrate this all.

He pulls the Euro notes out of his faux leather passport holder. He attempts modesty, heeding Rick Steve’s warning to avoid flashing all his cash around. It’s a casino, after all, and dishonest people could certainly be about him. He feels Marta move closer, so close it almost feels as if she’s looking over his shoulder as he fingers the bills. This closeness gives him goosebumps and hope.


“You like to play the games?” she asks.

“After my drink,” he says, and she looks at her watch. He sips in response; he does not want her to discover he is delaying.

“Do you live here in town,” he asks. “In the city center?”

Her English suddenly turns poor. It’s been too long between sips, maybe. She mumbles something, he pretends to understand. He lets it go.

She drinks, and her English improves: “What work is for you?”

He tells her about his new management position, but does not tell her the title sounds far better than the salary. He tells her about his overseas training sessions, about how he complained, first, at the inconvenience and even asked his supervisor if maybe he could train workers somewhere more Caribbean but how beautiful it’s turned out to be in France, even if the guys back home poked fun of him about it, told him he was heading off to some dreadful gray wasteland. He leaves out the part about how the workers at home suspect it will be the French who still make aeronautical components long after the Akron plant closes. That Freddy Gorman is probably training the workers who will make him and his whole crew obsolete, sooner rather than later.

“Marseille,” he says. “I never would’ve imagined myself here.” All these sentences are flayed out, slow.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well,” he says. “You know…”

“I do not know. This is why I ask.”

“France…is just...it has connota—”

He gives up trying to explain and instead tells her he simply doesn’t know very much about her country.

She puts her hand on top of his, and it feels like permission to stop speaking. He laughs—not at anything in particular. He just laughs, the way someone does when reprieve comes unexpectedly, and she joins in and he catches in his periphery the waving hips of one of the dancers and brushes off the image, instead returning his attention to Marta’s eyes.

“Where do you stay?”

Unable to pronounce the name of his hotel, he produces his room key card to show her and she nods approval.

“Very good.” Marta smiles. “Very near.”

He doesn’t let himself read anything into this. It wouldn’t be proper to think that way. So he puts his brain to work seeking a question that will keep the conversation gentle.

“Tell me about your city,” he says, and her English again grows poor but again he pretends to understand.

“Tell me about yours,” she says, and despite protesting that there’s nothing important to say about Akron, Ohio, he tells her all about it anyway, tells her about the rubber manufacturing plants and the arts district (he’s never bothered to visit but imagines it’s the sort of thing she might want to hear about) and the University (which he didn’t attend) and its kangaroo mascot and of course there’s Cleveland just up the road…

The whole time he talks, he maintains this satisfaction: the meniscus atop his little glass of whisky isn’t dropping its level, which means that with every word, he’s buying himself another instant with Marta. Somewhere, there’s an entirely different ledger for this exchange.

Every time he turns away from that very cheap yet very expensive whiskey and glances at her she nods her head as though she’s been doing it the whole time, and every now and then she arches her eyebrows inquisitively. Her elbow rests on the table and she holds her hand as if she’s used to having a cigarette draped between her fingers but there’s no smoking allowed in here—not anymore, at least, even though the smell of it still wafts from everything. That must be torture for her, he imagines, but he doesn’t ask because assuming she’s a smoker if she’s not would be the same thing, essentially, as assuming a woman is pregnant when one’s not sure, and he’s seen that scenario play out in all sorts of awful ways. He stops frequently during all this explaining to trace with his eyes the gentle slope of her nose, the angular rigidity of her cheekbones, the softness of her forehead’s arc, the slightness of her chin. But none of these exemplary features hold his attention quite like her eyes, and he’s not terribly sure whether he keeps returning there to judge for comprehension or for the simple sake of looking into her eyes, which are brown and large and so lovely and fully alive. Again, he checks the money in that thinning passport case. Her knee taps against his.

“You like to play slots?”

“Roulette,” he says, and she smiles. He knows nothing about roulette, but he knows he’s awful at slots and doesn’t want to place his futility on full display. Why should he?

“Very good,” she says. This time, the arch of the eyebrows seems genuine. “Take me.”

His mind stops there. That phrase, so full of the possible. His whole body locks up. Hell, maybe his heart, too. Take me. These syllables are clear, simple. Like a die dropped off the table, and then a tiny click against the ground. But she just means to the games, after all. He cannot let himself get carried away. Unless—

No, he thinks. She just means to watch him dump his money on a green felt table. But—

“I save seat,” she says. She sits at the table, places her hand on a spot next to her, then points him toward the cashier’s window. He nods and walks toward the line for chips, and when he looks back, she seems to have struck a conversation already with the dealer. But of course she has. She lives here. Probably, at least—she never really did answer, or maybe it’s his own fault for not being able to comprehend what she’s said. Would it be rude to ask again? He doesn’t know, and cheap as the drink is he can feel new warmth in his head. The edges of everything take on a delightful softness. She must come here frequently. Nothing else to do for blocks and blocks, so of course this would be how she passes her evenings.

So she holds his table—such a very kind thing of her to do—while he stands in line and waits and steps forward and waits and steps forward, the red carpet so soft and luxurious beneath his rubber-soled dress shoes, purchased from the clearance rack of a store inside the Crestview Place Mall of Akron, Ohio.

When he has traded fifty Euro for a handful of chips, she stands from the seat, says, “For you,” and smiles. She places a hand on each of his shoulders and rubs lightly as the dealer asks questions in rapid-fire Slovene he cannot remotely understand, and in the end, he places his five chips on the table and points at a stack of colored roulette chips. One of the hands leaves his shoulder, and then the other.

“You understand English?” the dealer asks. He nods.

“Sixty Euro to buy color. Not enough here.” The short, tuxedoed bald man points at his chips for emphasis. “Not enough. More.” The table is busy and there’s a crowd, but the tinge of embarrassment quickly subsides to privileged comfort: he’s got Marta to hold his place. How many of these other men with all their fancy clothes and chip stacks can say that same? So he stands in line for the bank machine and brushes aside his mental ledger, which wants him to consider with withdrawal fees and charges for rate conversion. Then he waits in line again with his hand full of crisp new notes to trade at the window so he can finally switch those for colored table chips and—why in God’s name must this all be so complicated? He thinks, all the while, of strategies for hanging on as long as possible to chips he doesn’t even have yet. It’s unlikely he’ll actually win any money, but at least he can beat the clock, if he’s smart about it.

The line inches forward and it’s torture, but in a few moments it all will be fine. Just fine.

Maybe he should grab her another drink while he’s off, but the expense account is tapped out and how he’s drawing from his own savings account now. If by chance, he wins a few Euro (because how hard can it be to sort out where the ball might land next?) he’ll splurge and treat her because who on earth wouldn’t?

He steps forward and waits, steps forward and waits, trades, returns. A man with a leather jacket and Mohawk is firmly planted in the seat that was so briefly his. He looks around: Marta is nowhere in sight. She must have gone to the restroom. He’s taken so long—how rude of him. And certainly, there’s a line inside because if there’s one thing he knows about the ladies’ room, it’s that there are never enough stalls, no matter which continent one’s on. There’s a line for everything in this place anyway, sweltering as it is with the energy of its spenders and sellers and takers. He decides he must remain at the table and wait for Marta, who will certainly return for him, and so he stands at the back of the crowd and waits for a spot to open.

The delay is not pleasant, alone. And yet he waits.

A man hits on snake eyes and everyone celebrates: applause, cheers, drinks for the table. On the same spin, another man breaks and Freddy steps forward ready to claim the vacant seat, but another man slips money to the busted player and in an instant another teetering chip pile rests before him. Freddy sighs, wonders why that man didn’t have to go to the window first. He steps back, looks at the other tables. It’s not any thinner anywhere else, so he stands and shifts his weight between legs that grow increasingly tired as the delay becomes increasingly sad. Yet, it does not cross his mind to leave.

When spot does open following a woman’s hissing, chipless departure he mounts a padded stool and trades all his window chips for a pile of pink table chips. He wouldn’t have chosen this color, not for a second. He wonders briefly if it’s an insult, but the dealer looks far too tired and bored to invest in trivial sleights. He fingers the pink chips, turns a couple over in his fingers, and smiles. A waitress hands him a drink and nods and he nods back, grateful for the gift. He sips from it and nods again because she’s still standing there, but then the waitress clears her throat.

“Ten Euro,” she says.

This feels like a punch to his stomach, but the last thing he wants Marta to see upon her return is an argument with this haggard-looking cocktail waitress, so he fishes one more bill from that increasingly lonely wallet and practically tosses it at the waitress. He drinks, and it tastes just as weak as the last and the taste is unpleasant, but likes the softness of the room as the fuzz returns to his head.

 What did she say she does, anyway? Has he asked himself this already? The evening is becoming a very sweet blur. He places a chip on red and another on even. An education assistant, was it? He wonders what that means, what she does during the day when she is not sitting alone at the casino bar in leggings and a dress and tall wedge heels that make the contours of her calves ripple spectacularly floorward.

“Minimum tri. Three,” the dealer says and because Freddy is busy thinking about leggings and calves, it takes him a moment to realize he’s the one being shouted at. The dealer points to the red space, and the even one, as well. He rushes to place more of his pink two-Euro chips on the spot but the dealer stops him. “Too late. Next time.”

The wheel stops at black thirteen, and he watches both his chips as they’re swept off the table into the pile of nothingness, into the casino’s profit margin. Good thing Marta wasn’t here to see the poor start. He looks around at the first time and sees the people at his table: a hard-wrinkled woman with hair dyed orange as a carrot. That man in the Mohawk, who twirls blue chips expertly between his fingers, occupying so flippantly the spot that should have been Freddy’s from the beginning. Freddy wants to glare at him, wants to hate him out loud, even, but doesn’t dare. Freddy imagines Marta put up a valiant attempt to save the spot, but what was the dealer to do? She was not playing, and the man with the Mohawk wished to play and so it could not be helped. Of course, there are suits and gowns, too, as well as T-shirts. Freddy feels like he’s part of a beautiful spectrum, and while he’s thinking about it, he forgets to put down any chips this round, and the dealer shouts at him again, with compounded vigor.

At the end of the table sits a pair of French men, middle aged, who carry themselves with the air of significant wealth, yet they are dressed like American teenagers with too-tight rock group (Freddy supposes this—the text is in Slovene) T-shirts and pale skinny jeans, one with checkered skater shoes and the other with brightly colored high-top basketball sneakers. Freddy drops another couple of chips on the table and looks around the casino: most of the wealthy French men appear to be dressed like teenagers. Freddy wonders what it would feel like to get away with dressing this way. Is this the way of it in New York, too? In Seattle? In Chicago? Marseille has turned out to be the most glamorous place he’s ever been and he doesn’t know how he should feel about that. He looks around again, at the clothes, at the walks, at the glancers and glanced. Most of the people in this room look like they get away with anything they want, anytime they like.

The chips get swept off again, including all of Freddy’s again, and his stack already looks sad—a low-slung Akron surrounded by chips piles that more closely resemble Dubai and London and Rome and Rio. He wishes he could place just one disc at a time now, hoping to drag them out at least until Marta returns. But the dealer watches him like a hawk, won’t even touch the wheel until at least three pink chips adorn the table.

Freddy wanders what it is Marta wants. What it is she gets from this place full of wanters and takers. He suddenly wants to take her from here, from all these absurd lights and red carpets, from all the fakeness. Rescue is a word that occurs to him, and he imagines a grateful look in written on those wide-open eyes, that shy, careful smile. He wonders, as the wheel spins again and his chips are taken again, how he might delicately go about asking her to leave this place, whether it would be too forward to ask her to visit his room, or whether he should suggest drinks somewhere else first, or perhaps even a walk, but each of these have the potential to sound awful and indelicate, and as much as he’d love to feel the softness of her skin he knows this is an unlikely outcome, and he’d like to just be near her a while longer, but not here. Not in this room.

As he places his final chip on twenty-four, and as the dealer lets the ball slide down its chute, he hopes very much that it’s him she wants. She took such great effort, after all, to listen to him, and their conversation was so pleasant. He cranes his neck, searching the room for her, and sees nothing. He hopes she is okay, that nothing befell her. He wants to check the restroom, the hallways, the cloakroom—the pedestals. He watches the dealer gleefully reach a brass scraper for that final, sad pink chip and it falls off the edge of the table into a pile of all the other takings. Freddy stands and buttons his J.C. Penney sport coat and a young blonde man takes his spot, trades chips for an enormous pile of pink two-Euro table chips and Freddy walks out of the roulette room, past the tattooed dancers, one of whom smiles right at him, but he can’t be bothered by such things because where is Marta?

He spots her standing at the back of a crowd that’s assembled at a poker table.

“Zdravo,” he says. “Hello, Marta.” Marta turns. She smiles, but it’s not as bright. Not bright at all. This place has a way of that, he thinks.

“Končal sem,” he tells her, mustering all he’s got in reserve from a flight’s worth of phrasebook studies. She scrunches her brow, unable to understand his accent, his bad jumble of vocabulary words. “I am finished,” he says. “I lost.”

“Yes,” she says. She puts a gentle, understanding hand on his shoulder, and he is comforted by the gesture.

“I lose, too.” She shrugs, a full shrug with uplifted palms, and he opens his mouth to ask her away from this place, but she turns her attention back to the poker table, and so he follows suit. A few seconds later, she walks off, her back turned so definitively toward him.

Confused, Freddy walks the other direction. He takes the grand, spiraled staircase to the basement, following the WC signs, and an attendant greets him.

He shakes his head no at all the perfumes and candies. He just wants to wash his face and collect himself, and so he splashes water and reaches for a towel, but the attendant has those too and now that he’s halfway through the process, he has to pay for one. Back up the stairs, back to the poker room, but she’s gone. Not in the slots, either, or back in the roulette room. Freddy walks once more through the go-go girls and there she is in the cocktail lounge, but the seat next to her is full—it’s full and she’s turned to the man in a pressed gray suit and pointed shoes, she’s turned to him in just such an angle that their knees must touch on occasion and as Freddy walks by close—as Freddy walks by too close he hears them speaking in Slovene and her fingers brush the man’s shoulder and the man places his own hand on her knee, and Freddy had been far too respectful to do such a thing.

This is what he tells himself: He’s too late. He didn’t get her out of there soon enough, but he can leave. He can rescue himself before it’s too late, before something sinister befalls him. And so out onto the street he goes, where a boy stands on a sidewalk with an American football and tries to throw it in stride to a friend on a bicycle, and there’s a basket they’ve laid on the curb with a small cardboard sign that asks for tips. Even though they don’t complete one as Freddy walks by he leaves a Euro anyway and walks toward his hotel, away from that sad casino and all those makers and takers and breakers, away from all those powerful men dressed like children, away from sad, beautiful Marta who did not even know what she’d gotten herself into but it couldn’t be helped, not at all.

This is what he tells himself. But in the partition of his mind normally occupied by sad financial math, he knows the precision with which they’ve finally understood each other.




BIO: Brooks Rexroat teaches and writes in Huntington, WV. A 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow and 2016-2017 Fullbright Scholar to Russia, he has published stories in more than 30 magazines and journals including Day One, Midwestern Gothic, and Press 53's Anywhere Stories anthology. His debut novel Pine Gap is due in March, 2017 from Peasantry Press. Visit him online at http://www.brooksrexroat.com.