Casino, 1995, USA, Director Martin Scorcese

I remember you.  We met in Los Angeles a while back.  Still working and writing, I see.  We all have to make a living, I suppose.  I told you all about that strange guy.  That’s right,  Superman Claude, the guy they shot and gassed in the drainpipe.  I still go back to LA a couple of times a year.  I make my living here in Vegas.  I don’t kick my legs in the air anymore but I get by, and dealing cards on a blackjack table is a lot easier on the pins.  Ginger McKenna, may she rest in peace, got me the job.  That ain’t strictly true.   She spoke to Ace Rothstein, and he gave me the job.  Ace had this idea of having female blackjack dealers to drive up the betting in the casinos which it did.  I was one of the first women blackjack dealers in Vegas.  Ace would have preferred someone younger than me but he knew I didn’t look so bad. And the lights in the casino don’t do the wrinkles any harm.

I know what people say, that Ginger McKenna should never have got married and that she was a working girl who should have stayed that way.   I wouldn’t say that was wrong but what I would say is that if she was going to get married it sure as hell shouldn’t have been to Ace Rothstein.   They were different people.  Ginger was a beautiful girl, and Ace was, how do I put this, he looked like what some girls would think was a customer.  You understand me?  I can see from your smile that you do.  Not that Ginger went for the oil paintings.   Her first husband Lester Diamond wouldn’t win a beauty contest either. 

You shouldn’t ask me about Ace and Lester.  Ace was my boss .  I’ve never been a fan of bosses, and in the casino everything had to be the way Ace said, you know, just so.  The man wasn’t always easy but he had respect.  The FBI called me in to speak to them this one time.  A guy called Dave McBain.  He had terrible things to say about Nicky Santoro which is understandable as Nicky was doing heists across the city and killing people.  But Dave McBain talked differently about Ace Rothstein, to the extent I wondered whether Ace had done a deal with the FBI.  There have been rumours.  But no one had respect for Lester.  Ginger, felt something for him and I wouldn’t call it respect.  Lester was this skinny nervous guy and he set my teeth on edge but Ginger thought the clown had something.  I saw Lester the first night I arrived in Vegas after Ginger had invited me out here.  I didn’t like Lester Diamond then and, as far as I could see, the creep got worse.   

Ace and Lester both lived off people but in different ways.  Ace was a fixer that liked to chisel the odds.  You always got something from Ace but he took more than he gave because he was an operator.  Lester just fed from people.  And Ginger having Ace as a rich husband meant that for Lester there was a lot to feed from.  Lester got more nervous and restless thinking of the money Ace had, and Ginger just had to feed the leech that hung from her arm.  If I blame anyone for what happened between Ace and Ginger, it was the creep Lester.  He never did an honest day’s work in his life.  Ace and Ginger were never going to make Ideal Homes as the married couple of the year but without Lester and his claws they might have stood a chance.  And then maybe not.

I know this man.  I won’t call him a guy because he’s a gentleman.  He’s a lawyer.  I’ve known more than one lawyer in my time.  This man talks to me sometimes.  He doesn’t play the tables and all the time I’ve known him he’s never asked me for anything.  He just likes to talk and buy me martinis.  Mister Barratt was a big shot in LA and he’s even done well here in Vegas.  Without him that animal Nicky Santoro would have been sent to the pen for at least one of his fourteen murders.  I haven’t seen Mister Barratt recently but I remember everything he said to me.   We were talking about Ace and Ginger and the battles they were having.  People are talking about bad publicity for Vegas, I said.  It won’t make much difference, said Fred Barratt.  I never called him Fred to his face, always Mister Barratt.   The people who run Vegas have been good customers of mine, said Fred Barratt, but they won’t last out here in the desert.  At the time I knew Howard Hughes had bought his first hotel.  He will buy others, said Fred Barratt.  Hughes and Fred Barratt were working on half a dozen acquisitions.  Once that happens, said Mister Barrratt, Wall Street will become interested.   I just listened.  The hoods won’t help themselves, said Fred Barratt, and there’ll be killings but there’s always more hoods to replace the dead bodies.  That won’t be the reason they disappear, said Mister Barratt.  No, Howard Hughes won’t own all of Vegas because he will become bored before that happens.  But he is a lot bigger than a crack in the door and once it’s open.  Of course, I said.  Now, if I’d been married like Ginger, I wouldn’t have heard any of that.  Not that it would have made any difference to Ginger.

People play around everywhere, look astray, whatever words you want to use.  But there is only one way to play around in Vegas and that is in public.  Maybe it’s because the place is surrounded by desert or maybe it’s something to do with how the place is built to worship money.  You need faith to survive in Vegas.  And that faith means having money, spending it and having fun.  Ginger and Ace both strayed.   What annoyed them, though, was everyone else seeing them play around.  There were arguments and fights but that could have settled into a routine except there was also Lester hanging on.   As long as there was Lester, there was no equality between Ace and Ginger, no tit for tat.   People ask me why she just didn’t dump Lester.  You know, Ace walks around thinking he knows everything but he didn’t know that Ginger had a kid with Lester before she met Ace.  Lester was the father of her first child.  I think that was the reason she couldn’t abandon Lester.  And Ginger could also be herself with Lester.  That makes a difference, too.

I talked to Mister Barratt about Ace and Ginger and asked him what I could do as a friend.  Mister Barratt just looked at me and shook his head.  The problem with those two, said Fred Barratt, is that the husband earns his living by knowing you can’t beat the odds and the wife can only get through life by trying to beat the odds.  I have to say, I’ve thought often about what Mister Barratt said.   To me that sums it up well.  Ace and Ginger were both hustlers but opposites.  Ace calculated the odds and, when he couldn’t get them to work in his favour, he cheated.  That was how he became friendly with the mob.  If he hadn’t fixed so many fights, football games and horse races, he might have been given a gaming licence in Vegas which is what I think he wanted more than anything.  Ginger didn’t want the odds in her favour.  She wanted to beat them.  If she hadn’t, she might have stayed off the coke and the booze.  But she didn’t and that was what she had in common with that lowlife Lester Diamond.   

You’re going to ask me why didn’t she leave Ace.  She wanted the money.   And, because she was my friend and did me favours, I like to think she had to be kind of loyal to any man that fathered her children.   I know what you’re going to say, the time she tied her kid to the bed so she could hit the town is no way for a mother to behave.  I didn’t say Ginger was a good mother.  That doesn’t mean, though, you can’t be loyal.  It works the other way, too.  I’ve never felt loyal to a man in my life but I’ve always been fair, always been straight with them.

What did Ginger McKenna see in Nicky Santoro?  Well, it wasn’t his handsome profile, that’s for sure.   She did it with Nicky to get even with Ace.  Nicky was a shoulder for a while, and he was dangerous.  Ginger always liked to beat the odds.    And, when Ginger walked off with two million dollars that belonged to Ace, she must have thought she’d beaten the odds big style.  And she did except she didn’t.  Lester, Ginger and maybe others spent the two million in a couple of months.  Some of the same friends said it was an accidental drug overdose except, as Mister Barratt said, it was always going to happen.  And I say that as a real friend.  The way she lived, the way she wanted to live, it was always how it would end.  Call it fate, the odds, whatever you want.   Ace was right after all.  You don’t try to beat the odds.  Ginger died when she was 46 years old.  Ace lasted until he was almost eighty.   As Ace once said to me, whatever way you play you lose but there are ways of losing more slowly.  My shift is about to start.  Nice to meet you again.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.