Authors: Eric Dezenhall
“You're going to do horrible things to me, I just know it.”
“You deserve it, the vicious way you treat men. You think you're a queen.”
“If you try anything, I'm telling you now that you'll never be a sire.”
Ooh, the littleâ
“What's there to see in Atlantic City anyhow?” she added.
I stepped close to her ear and whispered, “Gambling and gangsters.”
Claudine inspected Shpilkes for a few more minutes and announced that she wanted to buy her. “How much are you asking?”
I breathed in deep. A lie was called for. If I owned Shpilkes, which I did not, I would have cause to engage Claudine Polk longer. I thought about the prices I had seen posted in sales bulletins. “Ah, thirty-two hundred,” I said.
“That's not bad at all for a thoroughbred. Are you sure?”
Damn. I was low. But what could I say? When love is at stake, the truth can only hurt.
“Yes, thirty-two hundred.”
I returned Shpilkes to her stall, placed her saddle on a wooden post that was protruding from the wall, and headed back to Swig's office.
“Swig, look,” I said. “She's pretty sure she's going to take the horse. Can you hold her? I'm off now, and I'm taking her into A.C.”
“You look jumpy, Jonah. And a little retarded.”
“We live in a casino. How could we be decent?”
In my rearview mirror I could see the neon of Atlantic City glinting in Claudine's eyes. She drove a pale blue Ford van. Her head was swiveling at the spectacle of light. The Golden Prospect Hotel and Casino stood, cute and small, between two mammoth hotels, like a kid cuddling in bed with his parents. I told the parking attendant that Claudine was with me.
I retrieved her suitcase from the back of her van and we took the elevator from the parking lot up to the lobby. When the doors opened, Claudine recoiled at the blitz of bells, lights, buzzers, and purple smoke, all of it multiplied by mirrors.
The Golden Prospect was the smallest of the Boardwalk casinos in Atlantic City. It was the only one that was not owned by a large corporation. Mickey knew that despite his omnipotent legend, it was the last of the gangster-controlled operations, so he probably figured that building it little would make him a less desirable target to the FBI. I didn't think this was impressive logic, but Mickey and his partners were old-school fundamentalists who were opposed to flaunting. Employees were dressed conservatively. The men wore traditional dinner jackets as opposed to glittering vests; the women showed legs and cleavage, but Mickey wouldn't let their rears spill out of their outfits. There was a saltwater taffy store on the ground floor, which had been Mickey's base of operations for decades before he put up the casino.
The Golden Prospect had its share of glitz, though. Once inside the lobby, we passed through giant golden columns with fake marbled cracks. The columns were much too yellow. It was like they were shouting, “See, we're goldenâlike
?” They embarrassed me in Claudine's presence. The phony Colosseum-ruins look was a little sad, too. If you're going for the look of ancient Rome, why not pretend that Rome is still young? They weren't
“By the ghost of Jefferson Davis, I have never seen such a place,” Claudine said, doe-eyed. “This city can't decide whether to push up to heaven or fall into the ocean. I feel like
Alice in Wonderland.
Claudine ogled the photographic portraits of the casino's Patron Saints in the lobby. Frank Sinatra holding a microphone, early sixties. Dean Martin gripping a wine glass, late fifties. Sammy Davis, Jr., a testament to Mickey's racial liberalism, I suppose, holding a cigarette.
“Who's this one?” she asked pointing to a large painting of a handsome man of about forty. He had jet-black hair and blue gimlet eyes, and appeared to be standing on sand.
“That's Bugsy Siegel,” I explained. “He's the Founding Father of casino gambling. “He was one of my grandfather's partners in the old days.”
“He's not a partner anymore?”
“No. Benâthat was his real nameâhe was killed a long time ago.”
“That's awful. Did they find out who did it?”
Claudine's eyes went flat.
I approached the concierge, a smooth local named Lex, and handed him Claudine's suitcase. She was frantically scanning the lobby and the casino. It was cute seeing her, this figure of self-assurance, reduced to girlish awe. She made me think of an automatic pool cleaner, the kind that wanders around the surface getting its only direction from the walls it helplessly bumps into.
“Yo, the big J,” Lex said with lascivious eyes.
“Lex, I need a little help. This is Miss Polk. She needs a comp. I'll be back in a couple of hours. Can you handle it?”
“I can handle it,” he said dragging his eyes all over Claudine. I gave him tombstone eyes, the hard look one of Mickey's enforcers, Fuzzy, taught me when I was getting picked on in school. These are the eyes that nonchalantly promise death. I suspected that I couldn't pull off the affectation.
“Jonah, can you answer something for me?” Claudine asked. “What kind of boy lives in a hotel?”
“A boy without parents.”
She covered her mouth. “I'm so sorry.”
“Don't be. My grandparents raised me. I live with them.”
“I should call my family and let them know that I'm going to buy Spilled Kiss and that I'm staying someplace else.”
Claudine followed me through the casino. She stopped at practically every table to take in the games. She shook her head in disbelief at the sight of all of the cash flowing from the gamblers' pockets across the green felt and down into the little black slits that hungrily swallowed the lost wealth of America. A cocktail waitress named Jamie pinched me on the rear and I jumped toward Claudine.
“It's just me, Jonah,” Jamie said.
I offered Jamie a plastic grin. “Oh, Jamie! This is my friend Claudine.”
Jamie extended her hand and Claudine studied it like a science experiment. Jamie's cleavage was amply displayed, and her fishnet stockings crawled up toward her backside. Jamie sped away, curling her mouth, as if to say, “What's with her?”
“You know that girl?” Claudine asked.
“She works here.”
“But she's our age.”
“You can't imagine what she'd be if the casinos weren't here.”
“What would she be?”
“Probably not a cocktail waitress.”
Claudine again covered her mouth.
We entered a private elevator bank. I removed a key and twisted it to open a small gold-bordered elevator.
“Where are we going anyway?” Claudine asked.
“We're off to see the Wizard. We're going to ask him for a phone.”
“Really. People call my grandfather the Wizard of Odds. You know, because he lives in the casino.”
“May I ask
your grandparents live here?”
“They work here.”
“What do they do?”
“Officially, my grandfather's the bell captain.”
Claudine's eyes were lost somewhere around my hairline.
“What about unofficially?”
“He's the man.”
“Who owns it? Officially.”
“A company called Lenape Amusements.”
Claudine nodded cautiously. “What happens if Mr. Lenape decides to fire your grandfather?” No dummy, she.
“Mr. Lenape can't. It's a lifetime contract. For everyone. Anyway, my grandmother's the hospitality coordinator.”
As Claudine and I rode up the elevator, I was conscious that there were other elevators in the building moving in the opposite direction. These were the elevators that went from the gaming floor to the counting room in the basement. A percentage of the casino's winnings would fall through a false tabletop and travel via conveyor belt to another room, where the skimmed cash would be divided into “shares” that would be bound by rubber bands and distributed via multiple couriers to my grandfather's partners in Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans. Some of the cash would be on a private prop plane the following morning to the Bahamas, where it would be wired into numbered bank accounts in Grand Cayman, Bermuda, and Zurich.
I was mindful of this invisible operation as I opened the door to the apartment of the scheme's mastermind. We were greeted by the rich scent of brisket-based soup. “Pop? Deedee? I have company. Are you decent?”
“We live in a casino. How could we be decent?” Deedee chirped.
“They answer everything with a question,” I quietly advised Claudine, who followed me around the corner.
Deedee was standing in a shimmering showgirl's outfit, massive purple peacock feathers fanning out from her back, doing needlepoint. She had on spiked heels, too. Oh. My. God.
Mickey was seated on a wide easy chair behind a cloud of smoke and feathers wearing a twill suit with a perfectly knotted little bow tie. He was reading the
aloud, lost in the front page.
“We've got the Arabs taking over the world with OPEC. They've got holes burned in their pockets from all the cash they've got. Before long, we'll be the United States of Arabia. Meanwhile, these hotshot prosecutors want to put beat-up old gamblers in jail,” Mickey ranted. He pronounced the word
as “persecutor.” “And now look at this. The shah's running from place to place looking for an apartment. Not a bad guy for a Persian. They should have clipped that towel-headed bastard Khomeini when he was sipping espresso on the Seine!”
I gave Claudine my best teenage I'm-going-to-die-now cringe.
“You sure did a great job with Castro,” Deedee barked back at Mickey, looking down at him from her needlepoint. Seeing Claudine, she grabbed her chest, almost stabbing herself with a needle. She smacked Mickey's arm, causing him to drop the paper. “What, what?” he said.
“Your grandson and Ava Gardner are here.”
Claudine snickered, and I stood, sticklike, searching for the appropriate facial expression.
Mickey bolted upright. He ran his eyes above his half-glasses and slapped his cheeks with his palms. “
” he mouthed.
My tiny grandparents approached, Deedee's peacock feathers following her and nearly knocking over a plant. Claudine shook their hands, munchkins welcoming Dorothy to Munchkin Hell.
“Pop, Deedee, this is Claudine Polk. She's from Tennessee. She's buying that horse.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Polk,” Mickey said. “I'm Moses Price.”
. Oh, he's Moses all of a sudden,” Deedee said to no one.
“Can I get you anything?” Mickey asked. I had never heard him make anyone such an offer before.
“No, I'm fine,” she said.
Deedee took a few steps back. “Look at the legs on Ava!” she said.
“You know, Deedee, that may be embarrassing to AvâClaudine,” I said.
“No, no, I'm fine,” Claudine said. She was clearly amused by the munchkins. “Youâ¦you lookâ¦nice,” she said to Deedee.
“Oh, thanks, doll. I'm just testing out these new outfits for the girls in the show downstairs. I think I'll go with it.”
Mickey nodded as if this were normal. I did not.
“I knew Ava Gardner,” Mickey offered. “She was married to an old friend of mine. You're even prettier.”
“Thank you,” Claudine said. “I thought she was married to Frank Sinatra.”
“They go way back, honey,” Deedee said, with a brushing hand motion.
“Listen to that song of his, âI'm a Fool to Want You,'” Mickey said. “Frank did that one for Ava. He was choked up when he sang it. Just listen.”
Claudine's face froze as she studied Mickey and Deedee. It occurred to me that Mickey didn't look like a munchkin; he looked more like an elf. His skin was deeply tanned, his hair was snow-white, his eyes, like mine, were a deep green, and he was perfectly trim. The glasses perched on his triangular nose gave him the aura of a violin teacher.
Deedee was a different concept. With flaming red hair, small features, and a trim little figure packaged in gilded glory, she looked like a cross between a firecracker and an exploding peacock. In the most recent iterations of her life story, she had been a showgirl. This wasn't true: She had been a cigarette girl in Skinny D'Amato's 500 Club. She had once tried to break into show business, but nothing clicked. As Mickey's casinos expanded in Vegas, Reno, Havana, and a host of far-off places, Deedee had played mother hen to the showgirls, which is probably how she glommed their identities. She still had showgirl legs.
“Claudine needs to call her family,” I told everyone.
“And why should we stand in her way?” Mickey asked. “Now, where do we keep the phone?”
Claudine shot me a perplexed look.
“He hasn't used the phone since the Kefauver hearings in the fifties,” I whispered.
Deedee, to her delight, found a phone in the kitchen under a towel. “Oh look,” she said, “They make 'em with these little buttons now. No more dialing. Who knew?” Deedee handed Claudine the receiver. “While you're in here, sweetheart, grab yourself a knish. You're so skinny!”
?” Claudine asked.
love. They're the little potato dumplings over on that tray.”
“Okay,” Claudine said, mildly terrified. I didn't envision her calling her folks with a mouthful of Yiddish cuisine.
I purposely avoided listening to Claudine's call although I was desperately curious to hear what she told her family. I envisioned her father to be a Bruce Dern type answering a telephone that he kept behind the neck of a polo pony.
My grandparents stared me down as if we were about to duel. Mickey's eyes shot me an attaboy, while Deedee's sent a very different signal.
“Tennessee, huh?” she asked.
“Don't start, Deedee,” Mickey ordered.
“I'll just say it once,” she began.
“She'll say it only once, my eye,” Mickey mumbled.
” Deedee said, jabbing Mickey on his newfound use of his given name. “A girl like that doesn't want to be loved. She wants to
to be loved.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means you'll understand soon enough,” Deedee concluded. “And that's all you'll get outta me.” She made a zipping gesture over her lips, gathered her spectacular feathers behind her, and vamped away.
Claudine reemerged. “How's everything back home, sweetheart?” Mickey asked.
“They're all fine,” Claudine said. “They were a little nervous I was going to Atlantic City.”
“You want I should get them a message that you're in good hands?” Moses, conveyor of divine assurances, asked.
“No,” I cut in. “I arranged for her to have a room in the hotel.”
“Good thinking,” said Mickey. “Now show Miss Polk the Boardwalk. That nice Barry Manilow fellow is in the theater with his rock-and-roll music. He's a bit wild for my taste, but you're young. Make sure she gets saltwater taffy for her family in Tennessee.”