By Andrew Ramirez
It’s only an hour and a half drive east on the I-10, onto the California 60 and past the flare of car dealerships and outlet malls pulsing in the dead Riverside air before you get to the Morongo Casino in Cabazon, California. Inside the cigarette smoke is sucked up by wide-mouthed ventilation units hanging from the ceiling. Waitresses stride by with trays of water and whiskey. Like any casino in California, it’s a playground of lights stuck in the desert of boredom. On the way back, if traffic’s the same, the ride home goes by quicker because you’re running for your life.
Just because the Native Americans lost their land doesn’t mean their common sense went along with it. In fact, as far as the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians are concerned, John Smiths have been getting Pocahontas-chasing, swollen-faced drunk and broke since 1980 when a court ruled that the Cabazon Indian Reservation really was above state law, and craps and roulette and blackjack and poker tables abounded, sprouted as if by a magic séance of retribution, zoomed in on the wings of a 500 year past due karmic adjustment, and my two friends and I somehow decided we were different (Hell, two of us are Mexican, I said) and were going to make the trip in a car with no air conditioning, to pay our respects to the land, the tribe, plus win a shitload of money.
The Morongo’s eighteen-years-and-up gambling regulation caters to teenage impulse and twenty-year-olds with nothing better to do. Any gambler will lean into you like a drunken uncle and with gin-soaked breath offer assurance that you’re never more than one hand away from winning it all back. But assuming this gambler can still see straight, he might also tell you that video roulette isn’t the place to make it happen.
We pushed through the glass doors. My two friends made for the poker tables and vanished. I started towards video roulette. The place was jammed with old women in jeans and T-shirts, smoking cigarettes, the younger girls in glittering cocktail dresses and six-inch heels, clinging to their dates like koalas gripping bamboo shoots in the terrible jungle. The men wore boots and snap button shirts, black and dark blue suits with all-white Nikes, or a T-shirt with a jacket and black jeans.
I fed the roulette kiosk a twenty, then a few ones. I put two on red, lost it. Three on black, lost it. I cupped a hand to my ear and blocked out the noise on one side. The third spin tossed two dollars my way on a 3 to 1 bet. Next to me, an elderly man in a red dinner jacket started giggling.
“You’re doing it wrong.” He grounded out his cigarette in a glass ashtray. “Don’t bet on red or black.”
“But it’s like flipping a coin,” I said. “It’s either gonna be red or black.”
“What about green?” he said. “There’s two greens, too.”
“C’mon,” I said. “What are the chances of hitting green?”
“Thirty-seven to one.” He twisted the gold ring on his pinky finger. “How old are you?”
The video roulette whirled the little white ball on the blur of red and black, coming to a stop on black 17.
“Hey all right! I just won three dollars,” I said. “I’m even again.”
“I know a better game,” he said. “Better odds.”
I said, “Yeah, yeah. Don’t tell me. Craps.”
“Not if you wanna make real money.” He flashed his teeth at me. “A lot of real money. Just think about it.” He lit another cigarette, got up and pulled the lapels on the dark red dinner jacket. The roulette started to spin again.
“Good honest money,” he said. Then: “Ha ha ha,” and disappeared into the crowd like a drop of blood into the loud river.
I caught a bowling ball-shaped waitress with a tray of glasses over one shoulder. “Nurse,” I said. “A few of whatever’s on the tray.” And then: “That guy in the red jacket. Who’s that guy?”
She put a drink and a napkin on the table next to the roulette video screen. “You’re twenty-one, right?”
“One more,” I said. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”
She put another, no napkin. “Whatever. Twenty dollars.”
“They’re not free?”
“Of course not,” she said. “This is a casino.”
I flipped through my wallet. “Who was that guy in the red dinner jacket?”
She took the money and winced. “C’mon. Dinner jacket? What the hell is a dinner jacket?”
The video screen roulette kept spinning. My money marched off in increments of twos and tens, all the way up to triple digit something. I retreated to the bar.
My two friends materialized just before two in the morning.
“I lost everything,” one of them said. “Not really. But a lot.”
The other one said: “I hate reservation Indians.”
On the ride home, my friend drove fifteen miles over the speed limit. The AC was still broken. The radio was on but the windows were cracked, killing all sound.
“Did anyone win anything?” my friend yelled.
“I didn’t get carded,” I said. “That’s kind of like winning.”
My other friend screamed, “Some guy wouldn’t leave me alone.”
I said, “Did he have a red jacket on?”
I fiddled with the AC, twisted it all the way to the right then back to how it was.
“What’s the story with the guy in red,” my other friend said.
“Some guy in a red dinner jacket,” I said. “Some weird guy. I bet casinos are filled with them.”
“I’m not betting on shit anymore,” my friend said.
The other said, “How was he weird?”
I thought about it. Turned the knob on the dashboard some more. The AC made a loud and building rattling noise from which, two seconds later, came a sharp blast of Freon in the tiny car.
“Kind of weird,” I said, “in the sense that I think he—”
“No, no. Wait,” my friend said. Lifting his legs and steering the wheel with his knees, he put his hands together in prayer. “The AC has just taken its last breath, bless its soul.” So we all bowed our heads and waited.