Two seats to Anna’s left, an undead black woman – who looked to be a hundred, or perhaps a hundred and fifty – was wrapped in thin, colorful scarves and an animal print blouse. Each gnarled finger on both hands carried a hideous ring; some were gold, but most were cheap settings of tiger’s eye or plastic amber. A healthy pile of five-dollar chips in front of her was reflected twice in the lenses of enormous purple sunglasses, which hid the ashen wrinkles of her face. The old woman split sevens against the house’s sixteen and covered her mouth with both hands as she waited for her next card to fall. On the first hand, the dealer turned first an ace – which the Mummy waved – then a four on the neighboring hand which she hit, landing a king.
“There goes the bust,” mumbled the short man batting leadoff.
He was sitting on fifteen. Anna, sitting dead center with empty seats to her left and right, had stayed on seventeen, banking on the bust. The man was right – the woman had probably taken the dealer’s bust card – but watching the old woman clap softly at her good luck, she wasn’t able to feel the same disgust she usually held for tourists. The dealer flipped a deuce, and Anna’s last three chips slid away. Again the Mummy clapped to herself.
The short man viciously rubbed his eyes, before collecting the pile of chips and leaving the table without tipping Linda, the small Asian girl dealing.
“Get out while you can,” he said privately to Anna as he passed her.
Instead, she dug in her pocket for another hundred and laid it in front of her. It was the third of five she with which she had armed herself earlier that afternoon at Desert Rose Payday Loans; its predecessors were shattered into various denominations in front of Linda.
“One hundred coming in!” shouted the girl over her shoulder to a bulging man with the clipboard.
Anna felt the familiar mixture of dread and excitement as the girl slid four small, even piles of red chips in front of her and stuffed the bill into the box at her hip. She made a move to deal, but the Mummy stopped her before the first card came out of the shoe.
“Wait, wait, wait,” she yelped.
The dealer froze as the old woman got to her feet, collecting her beaten leather purse and moving one seat over to sit at Anna’s left hand.
“It’s just me and you now, sweetie,” she said, “we might as well have us some conversation while we play.”
She smiled and nodded, and the woman put ten dollars out next to Anna’s fifteen. The girl again reached for the cards and began to deal, placing nineteen in front of them both. She showed an ace.
“You all alone here?” the woman asked as they each waved the insurance.
Anna barely nodded as the house struck blackjack and the first of the fresh chips was taken from her.
“Now ain’t that rotten?” she asked before continuing, “Me? I’m from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Y’all know where that is?”
She pronounced it “Cape Gir-a-doo, Missourah,” the south bubbling from her mouth like molasses. Anna shook her head no and began to fidget with her chips.
“It’s right there on the Mississippi River. Learned to swim in it when I was no taller than this here card table.”
She laughed at the memory, maybe imagining the muddy water and the heat of one hundred summers ago. Anna smiled at her and spoke for the first time.
“Sounds nice,” she said, as she drew a soft seventeen on another fifteen-dollar bet.
The woman laughed harder, “Oh sweetie, it’s no nicer than nowhere else I been. But my, we had us some fun there. When I was a little thing we used to catch all kinda bugs and bullfrogs down by the water. Course, that’s before I met my Willie. He didn’t like to splash around in the water like that. Said it was too country of us. He was always such a serious boy.”
Linda turned over sixteen, then twenty-six and they both won, but the woman was too caught up in her story to notice. Anna reached over her and slid her winnings into her pile for her, leaving ten for the next hand.
“We all knew Willie was gonna be somebody, you know? A real somebody. Even when he was barkin’ at us about one thing or another, we just laughed and did like he told because we knew. Why, I don’t think I ever loved another man. Not even for a minute.”
They played hand after hand, and Anna’s loan began to return in bits and pieces. Miss Cathy – she eventually introduced herself as exactly that – told how Willie grew up and started wearing suits he bought secondhand with the money he made unloading boats; how the war had taken him from her, then returned him with a broad officer’s chest and a taste for the world; how he laid her down on their wedding night and she cried because she didn’t bleed the way most girls did; how he held her and told her he had seen enough blood for a lifetime; how they built a business on his back, and fed children, then grandchildren with the spoils of their sweat; how Willie died holding her hand on her eighty-ninth birthday. The glasses hid her eyes completely, but her voice became wet around the time Anna broke even.
“So, I took me a bus from little old Cape Gir-a-doo and told myself I was gonna be a somebody, too. And look at me go!”
She pointed to the stacks of chips in front of her, but there was no clapping. They had come to the top of the hour, and Linda’s time at the table was over. She clapped both hands and waved them, palms up, before taking their gratuity and moving on to the next table. The next dealer approached – a young man with a large smile – but Miss Cathy was already on her feet.
“I don’t think I have the gumption for anymore, sweetie,” she said, sounding tired for the first time, “you go on ahead and play for me. Go on and drop off the money the next time you come to Missourah.”
Anna insisted she take the money, but she was already well on her way to a bank of elevators. She watched the woman enter one of them and raise a small wave before the doors closed. Turning back to table, she hesitated, then pulled Miss Cathy’s chips into her own.
“That was awfully generous,” said the dealer, “friend of yours?”
She drew thirteen and hit to twenty.
“No,” she said, “just somebody.”