|A Christmas Story: In Waiting|
Pregnant Woman: FDA.gov
Say, you’re right. This place could stand a few decorations.
Maybe a Christmas tree, some lights strung above the bar.
Next year for sure.
Don’t know about a Manger scene, though. Can’t picture competing with Baby Jesus in my own casino.
Just had the Grand Opening last week. Bad timing, I know, but that’s how the chips fell. I suppose I could’ve waited for the New Year’s crowd, but why not get a jump on my customer base?
Another Virgin Mary, coming up. That’ll be two bucks.
Say, my prices are cut to the bone as it is. Down at Wally’s, that drink would’ve cost you three bucks, maybe more. Don’t know how he gets away with it.
‘Course I’ll close for Christmas tomorrow. I’d fear for my immortal soul if I was to allow gambling and carousing in my casino on Christ’s birthday.
My soul’s not the only worry: my sister would string my butt up for sure.
See, I named this place after her, and she’s got a reputation to uphold in the Church.
Sal’s husband’s a deacon. Don’t need the hassle, so I’ll close tonight at 11:00 and attend Midnight Mass over in Sioux City with Sal and her brood.
I’m already in Dutch with her; she can’t see how I’d want to have a baby without a husband.
Girl, don’t look so shocked, it’s no big deal these days. Not everyone has luck in finding a husband like you obviously did – you look due any second.
Say, don’t pop that kid in my casino. Like you said, I don’t have a Manger here.
Just a little joke.
Anyway, in vitro hasn’t worked out yet: three tries, no hits. I guess this casino’s my baby for now, my biological clock, tick tocking away. I’m 36, you know.
My “baby” was a last minute thing. I had no mind to move back here. I made good money selling cancer insurance in York, Pennsylvania. Always told my customers I was in remission from the big C and couldn’t get at any price the insurance I was giving them dirt cheap. Worked every time.
Well, almost. Not everyone’s a sucker.
Then came that damn Obamacare, disrupting everything.
One night, when I was weighin’ my options, NBC News ran a feature on Deadwood – that little tourist trap near the Black Hills – and how the town was coping with legalized gambling after more than 20 years. How the rest of the state was struggling, what with the competition from Iowa: WinnaVegas and the Argosy over in Sioux City.
How some South Dakota casino owners are getting out of the biz and selling cheap.
Sure was news to me, and Sal tells me nothing.
But, then again, I never told her about the prime Iowa acreage I bought 10 years ago for my early retirement love nest.
Picked it up cheap when the area was still reelin’ from Gateway’s departure.
Iowa values have plumped up a bit and South Dakota’s dived – decided to sell and buy me a struggling casino, right here in North Sioux.
Border property. Couldn’t afford it without my sweet acreage.
Now with all these non-smoking laws on the books, non-smokers from Iowa will love tossing quarters into these South Dakota slots.
So I quit my Big C job, sold my condo, and settled here.
Never looked back.
Knew I had to find a new angle, what with all the established competition – and fast.
Started by pestering Sal and her friend Babe ‘cause they got the scoop on where to find the action. Yeah, famous bar hoppers from a way back then. Sorta makes me feel like a greenhorn. Not that I’ve been in a convent exactly, but I would’ve been a fool not to pick their brains.
So one night last July, we three hunkered down in Sal’s living room, slugging down Red, White, and Blues, and put our heads together. For hours, nothing clicked: too expensive or ridiculous, like a Playboy-type club. The idea of a woman opening up a bunny club here, especially in 2013, fell flat on our ears.
So we drank more beer.
Then Babe shrieked, “That’s it!” She crushed out her cig, jumped up, and snatched a can from my nephew’s beer can collection, a mess that takes up the entire south wall of Sal’s living room.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“An idea for your casino.” Babe plunked the can down in front of the dozen or so empty beer cans and her smoldering ashtray.
Sioux City Sarsaparilla.
“So?” I said, trying to figure out what root beer had to do with my casino.
I picked up the can and studied it: the front depicted a cowboy swaggering into a Wild West bar through saloon doors, the other side his backside, his posture not quite as surefooted.
You know who the distributor is? White Rock Products, New York.
Goes to show how East coast dudes see us as a bunch of cowpokes, I told Sal.
I tossed the can to Sal.
“Oh you take everything so personal,” Sal said as she studied the can, her eyes growing larger. “Oh, this is great. Why didn’t we think of it before?”
“What?” I asked, still sizzling hot.
“A saloon, stupid! Babe said in her raspy voice.
She’s like that, always spouting off her big mouth, but she’s Sal’s friend, so I let it slide. Besides, her saloon idea was better than middlin’.
Say, you’d never know this place was a modular, would you?
Well, it is. Couldn’t afford to raze it and build a real structure. So we built around it and spent a bundle on the finishing work.
Like this bar. Solid mahogany. Bought it off an old farmer just outside Jefferson. Sure didn’t look like much at first, but after Sal’s boys spent two weeks sanding and varnishing – well you can see for yourself.
Can’t tell you how long Sal and I hunted for these tables and bar stools. We rummaged through old barns for those farm implements and blacksmith tools on the wall. Nothin’ half-assed for my saloon.
Slots came in two weeks ago, all connected to Pierre.
Bye, bye nest egg and early retirement.
Oh, you don’t need quarters. The machine’ll take that buck, fivers, sawbucks, even twenties.
Yeah, that’s right. Just shove old Georgie’s face in like so.
I take it you’re not from around here.
Baltimore? Small world. How about that.
Doubt you’ll make it back for that baby’s birth, eh?
Don’t worry, these slots are easy. Not much variety, mostly poker, Keno, and Bingo. All computerized through Pierre, our capital. You can wager anywhere from one quarter to eight, depending how lucky you feel.
Say, I’ll show you.
Beginner’s luck! Hear that “Alleluia”? You get that awful tinny noise when you hit. Looks like you got yourself a flush. Worth two bucks.
Sorry, the money doesn’t drop down – you get credits instead, and when you’re ready to cash out, you’ll get a “grocery ticket” good for your winnings at the register.
The state keeps tabs on everything.
Gotta admit: I miss the good old days when your coins dropped into the tray and you gathered a bucketful of coins.
The music of money.
You ready? Sure thing. Two seventy-five comin’ up. Not much of a gambler, eh?
Personally, I’d like to see more kinds of gambling, like at the boat over in Sioux City. Like legal card games and true one-armed bandits not hooked up to Pierre.
But I’m not complainin’. I think I’ll make a good living here.
At least opening day was good; Sal, Babe, and I wore these Annie Oakley outfits, and Phil and Zeke – Sal and Babe’s better halves – turned out in their cowboy costumes, complete with holsters and fake pistols.
We had a big crowd. ‘Course, I advertised in the newspaper, on TV, and online.
Offered prizes: large frozen turkeys for anyone hitting a straight flush and $100 in quarters for a Royal Flush. We gave away a lot of turkeys, but no quarters, thank God. It’s a bit too soon for that.
Say, don’t get me wrong; I would’ve paid out, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.
No one left unhappy, ‘cause Sal cooked up a bunch of burgers on day-old Wonder Bread buns and gave ‘em out free.
Broke even for the day. Not bad, huh?
Business has been steady ever since. Today’s the first slow day, being it’s Christmas Eve and all.
Say, what brings you to North Sioux City?
Tough break, hon. This Afghanistan thing’s been something else. But don’t let it get you down. Think positive: maybe your soldier won’t get sent overseas after he’s done with basic.
Mark my words. Your mother-in-law will come around when that baby’s born.
Say, you call here if she doesn’t, okay?
Here’s another Virgin Mary. On the house.
Looks like you could use something stronger, but not ‘til that little one gets here, eh?
How I would trade all I own for what you have.
Leaving already? You have a place to stay?
If you don’t, I have an extra bed...
Oh, all is good, then, eh?
Doubt if anyone else will show up now, now that it’s after eight...
Look. Take this. Buy a Christmas present for the baby.
No, I insist. Twenty bucks is nothing.
Please. Just take it.
That’s a good girl.
And, say? Maybe next year I’ll put in that Manger scene, after all, Baby Jesus as a little buckeroo.
Just in case.
“In Waiting,” copyright 1990 and 2013 by the author, was a finalist in the Sun Magazine (Baltimore) Holiday Contest in 1990.
To freshen it up a bit, I have updated the story slightly.
No part of this story may be reprinted or reposted without the permission from the author.