You never hit on seventeen. Everybody knows that. Unless you’re me.
For most people, the fun is in guessing right and beating the dealer. I know every card in the deck before she’s shown. I call the cards “she” because I can read them before they fall, and they never lie.
I discovered my unusual talent at age 5. My 1st grade teacher held up flash cards with pictures of animals. I named the animal before she turned them. Every time. This scared her.
Doctors tested me with Zener cards. Those cards with the five shapes. I got 100% every single time.
I’m dumber than a box of rocks, so I didn’t profit from this talent until I was in my twenties. When I first started out, I made the mistake of winning as much as I could in a single weekend at the Mirage in Vegas. My first 48-hour binge netted me just under $50K. The next weekend, I took them for another $42K. Not bad for four days of work.
After that second chunk of change found its way into my pocket, a few “friends of the casino” wanted to meet me and congratulate me on my incredible luck.
They were friendly, at first. Feeling around, trying to see if I was a card-counter. I told them I just had an incredible string of luck.
Then, the head-goon growled, “I’ve been in the casino business for thirty years and nobody has a run of luck like that. So, fess up before I start breaking things.”
I panicked. I’ve seen movies about Vegas. I didn’t want my hand smashed with a hammer. Or worse.
This guy was a self-proclaimed lie-detector, and I swore to God and every other deity known to man that I was not counting cards. Finally, he believed me.
The last thing he said was, “It wouldn’t be healthy if your luck continues in this fashion. You get me?”
Since then, I’ve never taken home more than five thousand in a given weekend. Usually around two or three grand. Discipline is an occupational necessity.
In July of 2021, I was playing blackjack at the MGM, and this angel sat down next to me. I know, you’re thinking this is going to be some cliché about a tall gorgeous blond with striking blue eyes in a tight red dress sucking the air out of every man in the room. But no, she wasn’t like that. She was better.
Dawn had an unassuming beauty about her. She wore sadness like an accessory, imbuing her with a sense of maturity. Her eyes screamed of desperation, but every man in the room was drawn to her like bees to a flower. She wore a black dress that should have paid her rent for the privilege. Medium length brown hair and these great blue eyes. Like the ocean on a stormy day.
When she sat down next to me at the $25 minimum blackjack table, she changed a single hundred dollar bill. Four hands later, she was broke.
I glanced at her, and she was already looking back at me. She didn’t exactly smile, but her eyes told me she was trouble. Then she slid out of her chair and melted the place on her way over to the bar for a drink.
I was doing well. Winning inconspicuously. All I had to do is read the cards. But I couldn’t read this one. Not Dawn. Whatever suit she was, I couldn’t sense it. She was hot and cold. But who knows? My precognitive talents are relegated to playing cards.
Unable to get her out of my head, I found myself glancing over at her. If I had a type, she was it. Yeah, she suited me just fine. So, I gathered up my chips and headed over to get a drink myself.
I’m a reasonably self-aware man, and I know the ladies aren’t exactly lining up to have a drink with me. I’m 42, skinny, curly hair that’s way too long and messy, with a face only a mother could love. Playing the hand I was dealt, I decided I was all in on this 28 year old heart-stealer.
Before the scotch was in my hand, I heard a soft, almost hoarse, voice say, “Lady Luck’s dancing with you tonight.”
Caught off guard by the quip, I said, “Huh?”
She pointed at my bulging pockets.
“Oh yeah. She likes to tango, but I’ve got two left feet.”
She smiled for the first time and dealt a genuine soft laugh. Her glass was filled with a clear liquor, on the rocks. Vodka probably. Or maybe rum. I don’t know. I’m not much of a drinker. My poison is hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs.
And that’s how I began my week with this angel named Dawn.
Her voice was like sand falling through an hourglass. And her eyes, oh man, they could hold you for days while you drowned. Every time she smiled, she could have asked me for the world and I would have figured out a way to get it for her.
We sat at that bar for a long time that night. Time that I would have usually spent at a table stacking chips. We talked. We drank. She laughed at my jokes.
Out of the blue, she burst into tears. She buried her face in her arms, slumped over the bar.
After a minute, she sat upright. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. Eyes red. She was still beautiful though.
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and uttered a fake laugh.
Quietly, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m such a mess.”
I shook my head.
She looked down. Ashamed. “I’m sorry for—I don’t want to burden you with my troubles.”
I leaned closer and wiped the tears from her face with the handkerchief sticking out from my breast pocket like the top half of a diamond.
She looked up at me with these sad eyes. Hands folded in her lap as she let me wipe her cheeks.
Softly, she said, “Do you want to go up to my room?”
We were sitting on her bed within minutes.
Holding my hands in her lap, she said, “I just lost my last hundred dollars. I can’t even pay for this room.”
Confused, I asked, “Why did you come to a casino then?”
Shaking her head, “It’s my sister. She’s in real trouble. She owes some people. A lot. I thought if I could somehow turn a little money into—“
“A hundred grand.”
I stood up and walked to the giant window looking down onto the strip. I’m as dumb as a box of rocks, but even I could see where this was going.”
“That’s a lot of dough. Maybe you can borrow it? Or pay a little at a time? Can’t she work it off?”
Dawn sat on the edge of the bed holding her head in her hands as if it ached.
“You don’t understand. I’ve got four days to pay them, and if I don’t, they’ll kill her!”
I spun around. “Go to the cops. That’s your only option.”
Fresh tears leaked from those angel eyes, and she laughed. It was the harshest, most cynical laugh I’ve ever heard.
She looked right at me and said, “They’re connected. You know?”
She didn’t have to nod. “And they own the cops. I have no out here. No cards left to play.”
In the gentlest voice I could muster, I said, “I’m sorry. You’ve got to—“
Grabbing my hand again, she said, “You can help me.”
“I don’t have that kind of cash!”
Glancing down at the chips straining the limits of my pockets, she said, “You can win it. You said you win every weekend. Won’t you help me?”
I stood up again, wincing at how cold it felt to wrestle my hand away from hers. Her head fell, and my heart reached for her.
The voice in my head told me to get the hell out of that room. I paced to the door, ignoring the invisible strings pulling on my heart. My stupid heart.
I had one foot out the door when she sobbed again. I shouldn’t have looked back.
Through her tears, she said, “If you can’t help me, can you at least hold me? I’m so scared.”
She shivered. Like a lost puppy out in a March rain.
The fool I am, I ran to her. Wrapped my arms around her. She wept.
Her face nuzzled into my shoulder, her arms clutching me like a life preserver. At some point, we lay down and didn’t say a word.
I don’t know what time it was, but I got up after a couple of hours and turned off the lights. I covered her with a blanket. Instead of waking her up, I left her a note.
I’m all in. Room 212. Call me in the morning.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Sometime before the sun came up, there was a hesitant knock at my door. I knew it was Dawn.
“They kicked me out of my room. Can I stay with you?”
I offered her the bed, but she insisted I sleep with her. For the first time in years, I slept with my arms wrapped around a woman.
The next day, she told me all about her sister and the trouble she was in.
When I made my first run at stacking chips, a sinking feeling grew like a sapling in my gut. I could feel the eyes on me as my stack grew.
That first day with Dawn at my side, I won just under $20K. She wore a look of cautious optimism as she clutched my arm.
I was exhausted though. And we spent an early night in the room together. I held her, and she cried herself to sleep.
Some time later, she stirred and woke.
“Thank you for doing this for me, Grant. You are a good man. And thank you for letting me stay with you. I feel safe in your arms. I know you’re going to save my sister and me.”
Her face was as close to mine as any woman’s had been in a long time. Our foreheads pressed against each other. I did what any red-blooded man would do. I kissed her.
She closed her eyes and kissed me back. Then, she pulled away.
I apologized. But she said, “No, it’s ok. I just don’t think I can do anything but think about my sister right now.”
Disappointment must have spread across my face like a wildfire because she followed that little bit of bad news with, “After this is all over, I want to be with you. Would you let me?”
“Of course, darling. I’d do anything for you.”
The next day, I made $33K. It was intoxicating to see hope return to Dawn’s eyes. She seemed relaxed, and we even went to the pool late that night. Had a couple of drinks.
While half-asleep, Dawn mumbled that she was falling in love with me. My head buzzed, and my heart sang. I kissed her cheek and dreamed about life after Vegas. Just me and Dawn. I could keep us comfortable forever.
Day three, I made another $30K. Happy Dawn, almost manic. Long bouts of cuddling, holding each other. She kissed me lightly a few times, on the lips. As we lay in the half-light, our faces mere inches apart, she stared deep into my eyes. I wanted to kiss her so badly, but she put up the boundary two nights earlier.
Turns out, I didn’t have to resist. She kissed me. Slowly at first. Our bodies burned in ecstasy as she pressed her lips into mine. Between harsh breaths, she told me she couldn’t stop herself anymore.
“I can’t believe you’re so brave to help little old me.”
I pulled away from her for a moment and said, “I would go to the ends of the earth to keep you safe, darling.”
Finally, we made love as the sun came up.
With the curtains drawn, she held my face in her hands while she dozed. Her legs wrapped around mine, keeping me close. She told me she never slept better and just knew I was her savior.
On day four, men in matching suits wearing earpieces and holstered walkie-talkies started showing up in my entourage. I tried to make it look good, but the clock was ticking. With Dawn at my side, I dove headfirst into the drunken state that came with winning. Before dinner, I had won another $22K, putting us over the hump. I cashed in our chips and treated my beautiful lady to steak and lobster.
We spent the night laughing and drinking champagne. The deck was full of hearts, and I owned them all.
At some point before midnight, Dawn wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me close to her. I wanted to see her smile like that for the rest of my days.
“You saved my life, Grant. My sister’s too. I’m gonna pay these guys and get my sister. And then I’ll come back and we’ll—I don’t know, but we can do anything! I’m yours! If you’ll have me?”
I hugged her tightly and said, “You kidding? Of course I’ll have you. I think I am falling in love with you.”
Her face grew serious, and for a moment I panicked. I went too far, didn’t I? Dammit! I should have just kept my mouth shut.
She put her hand to my cheek and gazed deeply into my eyes as she said, “I’m falling in love with you too, Grant.”
I was back in the clouds. Floating on air.
Dawn pulled away from me with an effort, grabbed the bag of money, and said, “I’ll be back before midnight.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She shook her head and said, “No. I think that might spook them.”
I nodded. That sinking feeling again. Growing in my gut like a weed.
The last thing she said before heading out that door was, “I love you, Grant. You’re my angel.”
Midnight came and went. No Dawn. Panic set in, and I paced the lobby to catch her at the door. By 2am, I nervously sipped a beer near the entrance, scanning every face that passed. Something went wrong. I knew it.
At 4am, four goons wearing matching gray suits approached me with my luggage, hastily packed with my things.
The head goon grabbed my arm and ushered me to a windowless room off to the side of the floor. For three hours, they questioned me, accused me, and finally threatened me. I swore I wasn’t counting cards, but they weren’t hearing it.
A limo waited for me in front of the casino. The head goon guided me toward it while another tossed my bags into the trunk. Goon #2 got in the limo on the other side.
“Your name and photo will be in every casino manager’s hands by noon. I wouldn’t come back if I were you. Ever. Next time, you won’t be leaving in one piece.”
At the airport, the silent goon accompanied me to the ticket counter as I purchased a seat on the next flight to New Jersey at his suggestion.
Fear for my own life was slowly replaced by sadness, and then depression at the thought of what could have happened to Dawn and her sister. My mind ran wild with horrifying scenarios of how things went so wrong.
That was two years ago.
Last week, I finally got the courage to take a trip back to Vegas.
I cautiously got through my first day and night back in the city of lights. I was up $1200 and decided to quit while I was ahead. Nobody approached me. Nobody knew me. The nostalgia of being in that place for the first time since seeing Dawn, being with her, was overpowering. I saw her face in every woman who walked by.
My second night, I decided to head over to the MGM. After an hour or two of modest wins, I meandered over to the bar for a drink.
And just like that, there she was. A woman with long brown hair wearing a blue strapless dress stirred her drink just two seats down from me. Then she turned my way, and I was sure. It was in her eyes. Those eyes that drowned me once before.
My heart pounded, flushing away two years of heartache, longing, and fear. Fear that I’d lost her forever.
She looked up and smiled.
I could see she barely remembered me. Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, a card turned over with my face, and she knew me.
I didn’t wait for her to feel awkward, searching for my name. I said, “It’s Grant. Two years ago?”
“Oh! Right! How are you?”
“I thought I’d never see you again. I always wondered—but I never got your last name. Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re ok!”
I leaned in to hug her, but she pulled away with a slightly annoyed look.
Grabbing her drink, she turned to head to the slots.
“It was great to see you again, Gary. I’m meeting someone, so I have to go now.”
“It’s Grant.” That sinking feeling again. How did she get my name wrong after all we’ve been through?
I moved past this and leaned closer to her as I quietly said, “Hey, so how did everything go with your sister? Is she ok now?”
She cocked her head, looking confused. Then she gave a little laugh and said, “I don’t have a sister.”