ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Saturday night. Atlantic City. October cold. A hard wind down off the barrens as sharp as new money.
"This is the part I hate, the waiting." He points straight down. The old boxer's hands, ruinous and beautiful.
This is in the Boardwalk Hall, the Jazz Age convention center on the beach. But the locker room could be anywhere. Nothing can happen in this room. Too bright, too much light in every corner, too hot, too clean. Indifferent as a motel room, it enforces anonymity, dislocates you, drains you out the soles of your shoes.
Watching the undercard, Bernard Hopkins stretches on the floor. The carpet is hospital blue. Emergency room blue. On the monitor, Nicolai Firtha takes a silent beating from Deontay Wilder. Big punches. Neither heavyweight can box worth a damn. Firtha bleeds from the nose like he's been shot in the face.
"But he's game," the champ says low. "He's game."
He listens to a docked pod. Stretching. Tapping his toes. Firtha goes down for the last time to the bridge from " Please, Please, Please." James Brown bent double in a cape. Then Sir Joe Quarterman. " I Got So Much Trouble In My Mind." All that brass and '70s Dexedrine guitar scratch. Rub on a little Jackie Wilson. " A Woman, A Lover, A Friend."
Under the door, from the dark, that noise. The crowd.
The champ's eyes close, his face as unlined as a baby's.
Down the boardwalk, the wait for the buffet at the Tropicana doubles back on itself. The stilettos and puffy white sneakers and walkers inch forward as seats open. The racket from the slots sounds like Christmas in Hell. Steam rises off the seafood bisque into the lights. The roast beef chef at the carving station cracks wise and slices thin. Crab legs, prime rib, sneeze guard, dessert station. All you can eat. The kind of B-minus chop you'd expect for $30 worth of loyalty on your players card.
"We're here every couple months."
"We don't spend really but what we gamble. They comp us most of the rest. More free dinners than we can use."
"We break even mostly. See a show. Go home."
"You should go upstairs and get a card. It's fun. Better than Dover. Ever been to Dover?"
Upstairs are the chandeliers and the table games and the cashiers' windows, the hen parties walking five wide, watery blender drinks in clouded plastic cups, all legs and Spanx and underwires, extensions and foundation and concealer, hip to hip to hip between the slots and the poker robots, an inventory of French tips and bad skin, glitter and low hopes. Pit bosses watch, grim as priests. The rebreathed air rings metal on metal with the sound of money won and money gone. The noise. The smoke. The hapless frat-house bros, eyes red as dice, drunk and unloved by luck. The honeymooners and the living dead, the sharps and bangers and addicts, the ironic weekenders and the low rollers and the porkpies and the hypnotized seniors and all that madness patterned right into the carpets. Red felt and green felt everywhere, acres of it, the green baize like a summer field, a fat green harvest of money.