A Language of Black and Red
Eli and I sit on ladder-backs next to a luxurious roulette in a casino in Spain. I can almost pick glitters from the heavy, lowered chandeliers. I can practically touch the shiny wooden wheel. I can see the croupier's manicured nails. Lithe young bellhops, clad in ornamental uniforms, place trays on gypsum pillars next to our chairs. We fervently gulp the champagne from the tall, prismatic glasses and nibble at the tiny sandwiches.
We are that lucky that we dare not leave the table, not even to relieve ourselves.
Piles of shiny square chips represent our exceptional streak of winnings. The table supervisor looks very anxious. He shifts restlessly on his elevated seat, hawk-eyeing everyone malevolently. Sure enough, he doesn't like us. He clears all other players, letting us bet in splendid isolation, facing each other.
Eli's upper lip and temples glisten. My armpits ooze the acrid smell of manly perspiration. Easy to tell we are tense or apprehensive or both. We evade each other's gaze. Our hands are shaking and the boys keep pumping us with increasingly inebriating drinks. They want us under the influence. They want us to cough up everything we have and then some. We want to win. We want the casino broke. Our differences are profoundly irreconcilable.
Eli is a quarter of a tough century my senior. His life-swept face is haggard, straggly and raven eyebrows, lips cruel and eyes chillingly penetrating. He finds his sense of humor irresistible. It often is.
My baby face is framed by the plastic quadrangles of my glasses. I broadcast innocence and guile. The reactions I provoke are mixed. Some sense my vulnerability and hasten to protect me. Others find my haughty slyness loathsome. I guess I conjure my defenselessness to con my victims.
It may prove unhealthy to lose our sponsors' money. These people are charm itself and sheer delight - until you breach their pockets. They tend to lose their fabled equanimity. They regard business losses as hostile acts and the perpetrators as lethal enemies. So, they strike first, giving you no chance to err, to apologize, to scrutinize.
We are piling on not be piled in. The dough is multiplying. What if we lose? Eli says he has this thing going for him tonight, a wild card, from nature, and he does not dream to stop even though we reek of the casino's funds, even though two Spanish beauties resolutely scramble over him and heavies in bursting suits forage around obtrusively.
Eli's protruding eyes fixated on the wheel, mesmerically attempting to bring it to a favored halt.
It smoothly winds down and Eli ignores my furious pestering: our underwriters invested to test and implement a betting method I developed. "I am offended" - I whisper, he ignores me. A febrile Eli has bonded with the table and every number wins, especially his choices.
"Twenty eight!" - he hisses, sidestepping the croupier to fetch his gains. He sprawls on the green felt surface and lovingly enfolds the clacking tokens. Reclining, eyes shut agloat, he savors his unaccustomed fortune. For he deserves a break. To Eli, this is not a game or, as I regard it, merely another path to self-enrichment.
To him, it is a sweet revenge for all the years he wasted, vending decaying fruits, along dusty and sizzling highways. This loot proves his detractors wrong. It loudly states, in black and red: I am here, not to be snubbed.
"Let's play some baccarat" - he sneers - "I am tired of this game."
We stretch our limbs and Eli surveys the killing fields we leave behind. He tremulously stacks the chips on one another, by size and then by color. We carry them with trepidation all the way to the cashier and convert them to pesetas. Eli halves the tottering mound. He entreats me to deposit one of the two resulting heaps in the strongbox in our room.
He pleadingly commands me:
"No matter how much I beg and threaten, order or cajole - do not be tempted to obey me. Do not bring down this money."
I eagerly acquiesce.
"And now" - he rubs his hands - "Let's fry this fish in its own fat. Let's use some of the profits to dine in the casino's restaurant. Do you know that eateries in gambling dens are the best in the world?"
I don't. It is my first trip away from Israel. But he is right, the food is mouthwatering. A gypsy band of violins plays in the background.
Now, cleaned out gamblers alight by our burdened table and pat Eli's upright back. They greet him eagerly, as though, through him, they humble the much unloved establishment. They questioningly glance at me, a cold appraising look. They recount how they turned pros and swap the numbers of their rooms in the hotel above the gaming halls.
They sound content but look harassed and wiry. Involuntary ticks ravage their hands and faces. They all sport golden rings, red necks enchained with chokers. Their eyes dart restively. They sound as though they are listening and nod their heads in places, right and wrong - but they are distant. Minute or two of pleasantries and off they go to haunt another patron.
The dinner over, Eli fires up a black cigar and sighs. He casts an ominous stare at me for daring to suggest we call it a day.
"Don't be a jinx!" - he rasps - "You don't retire on a night like this with Lady Luck herself in partnership. These are the kind of early hours that casinos fear, I tell you." - and he goes on to rattle off the names of acquaintances turned millionaires. The next day they reverted, he ruefully admits. "Too greedy" - is his verdict - "Didn't know when to stand up"
Now that we've won, can we try out my method?
"It puts me to sleep, your martingale." - he grunts - "Its slowness drives me to distraction. I came here to enjoy myself, not just to profit. If you insist, here is some cash. Go, play your darned system. Just do me a favor, stray to another table."
Eli, returning to our first roulette, is greeted with regal pomp. I wander to a further board with lower minimum wagers. I squash my way into a raucous mob. They screech and squeal with every spin. I place some of my meager funds on red. Despite the tiny sum and nearly equal chances - I waver nauseous and scared. Until the ball reposes and the croupier announces black. Twenty eight.
Another dose on red, just slightly larger. Another anxious wait while the croupier employs a silver rake to place the bets. I sneak a peek at Eli's table. It's hard to tell his state. His body tilts in zealous inclination, his shaded eyes impale the imperturbable dealer, his twitchy hands engulf the cards doled out from the "shoe". It's "21" or Blackjack, a pretty basic card game.
On certain rounds, Eli presents his palm, two of its fingers pointing at the "shoe". The dealer acknowledges him discreetly and draws the cards. He lays them gingerly in front of Eli who, exultant, gathers his winnings and tips the grateful worker. I can relax.
My tiny gains accumulate. The hours pass, the tables empty, it's only I and the croupier. My capital is nearly doubled. Eli, his countenance spent, keeps gambling. His bobbing head recoils as he awakes from interrupted slumber. It's just the two of us against the weary staff.
As autumn night is pierced by moonlight, the practiced smiles are lifted, wiped is the feigned civility of all involved. Players and house alike frantically observe each card, each turn of the wheel, the rested ball, the flickering digits of the stressed croupier. We shut our bloodshot eyes between one twirl and another, in intervals when cards aren't dealt and profits aren't paid.
Fatigue-glued to my chair I find it hard to stoop and place the wagers on the fluctuating squares of the roulette board. Eli wobbles towards me, his loosened tie dangling on his much-stained shirt. He undoes the upper buttons and slumps onto a lounger.
The presence of his silence compels me to skip the coming spin. I half turn towards him, rubbing my eyes with sticky hand. We stare at the tarnished carpet until he mutters:
"I am left with nothing."
"Go get the money from the safe."
But then he had instructed me to ignore such orders. Using my method, I have doubled our funds and more while Eli lost all our money overnight. I feel wrath-struck. I want to grab him by his tainted collar and shake him till it hurts. Instead, I rise, my legs a wobbly and edematous mass. I stumble hesitantly until the pains subside and I can properly walk, toes hard on heels, to the elevator bank.
When I am back, Eli is slouched, position same, and snores. I could refrain from rousing him, say that I fell asleep in our room, that I lost the key to the safety deposit box, that I stirred him up but he wouldn't budge, I could come up with anything I damn well please, now that he is sound asleep - he will thank me for it, he will want to believe me. It is our last chance.
I regard the rustling plastic bag. I feel the greenish notes inside. Then I jiggle Eli's shoulder. He comes to in panic, surveying the alien landscape. Then, mechanically, he snatches our neatly packed reserve and falters towards his table.
I bide the time to his return, eyes glazed, lips forced into a tortuous smile.
"It's over" - he mumbles - "let's get out of here."
I collect my winnings from the board and proudly display them. He snickers:
"Less than my losses in every minute of this cursed evening."
But that is all we have. We pack our meager belongings and sneak through the back door to the taxi at the head of a nocturnal queue. Eli sprawls across the upholstered back seat for a quick shut-eye. I give the driver the name of our hotel at the heart of Madrid and he embarks on the twisting byways of the mountain slope.
Midway, Eli stops the cab and throws up through the semi lowered pane. The irate cabby refuses to proceed. He points to an antiquated manual meter and demands his fee. I pay him and with emphatic whoosh he vanishes behind a gloomy curve.
Eli and I, left crouching on a foreign hillside, far from any settlement, the night a velvet murk. Eli ascends the road, takes me in tow, two Chaplinesque figures in bargain-basement suits and fluttering cravats. The hours pass and we are no closer to our destination. A rising sun daubs us with pink and wine.
Eli turns to me and vows:
"From now on we play only with your system, Shmuel, I swear to you, only your martingale."
I don't respond. I distrust Eli's ability to keep his promises. This pledge came unsolicited and useless.
Eli drags his feet laboriously, wipes tears from reddened eyes and moans:
"Only your way, I guarantee, never again just gambling wildly. We wager on your brain and win, we win a lot, I'm talking millions. We won't know what to do with it, I'm telling you. After all, how many steaks can one consume? With mushrooming gains, we will occupy the best hotels and bang the greatest stunners, and wear the chicest clothes ..."
There is such yearning in his voice. I embrace him warmly and I say:
"Sure thing, Eli, it's bound to happen. You and I, and screw the world. What you have just described is only the beginning. Just stick to my gambling system and it will turn out fine. Casinos everywhere will fear us like the plague ..."
"The plague" - Eli reiterates and we stand, cuddled, two silhouettes carved against the inexorably rising day.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
This part is meant only to provoke thoughts. It is not a substitute to independent thinking, criticism, and analysis.
Do you feel pity for Eli? Why?
How is Eli's gambling related to his narcissism?
How does Eli's narcissism show? In what ways does him affect him and his nearest?
What do you think of my behavior in the story? Should and could I have behaved differently?
Can you visualize Eli's future?
What relationship do I maintain with Eli and why do I stick with him?