It's funny how years diminish time. You meet people at a poker or dice table, you share a drink, they pass through your life, and then like a shadow in the desert, a mirage perhaps, they are gone.
Jack was an impressive individual whose favorite casino was Caesar's Palace on The Strip. He was a wealthy contractor who would fly to McCarran International Airport from Los Angeles where he built custom homes in Hollywood, Malibu and other neighborhoods where the Jet Set sipped the most expensive champagnes and lived in a fantasy existence.
I was living in Las Vegas and working as a staff writer for the Las Vegas Business Journal when I met Jack. He had flown into town to attend a convention of builders which I had covered for the magazine He was a big man, over 6-3, powerfully built, expensively dressed, with the usual gold rope around his neck and a diamond and gold Rolex on his thick wrist.
After the speeches and presentations were over, I collected my notes and was heading for my car when Jack pulled me aside. He and I had struck up a brief acquaintance, exchanged business cards and were on a first-name basis.
'What are your plans for the evening?,' he wanted to know. I shrugged and told him, 'Probably a little poker. Maybe I'll shoot some dice.'
He invited me to meet him for dinner at Caesar's Palace and suggested we have fun gambling together. I agreed and we set up a time and a meeting place.
Jack was a high roller. He bet big, won big, and lost big. Win or lose, it didn't matter to him. He had the money and he was having fun in the city that never sleeps.
We had a steak and lobster dinner at Caesar's Palace. While we were dining and sipping Brut Champagne, the restaurant host escorted a girl to a table across the room from us. Jack was married and boasted about his wife and his children. His wife was a successful securities analyst in Beverly Hills. From the way he spoke of her and his family, he had a good life. Probably better than 90 percent of the people I knew.
The girl captivated his attention.
She was young, in her 20s, and incredibly attractive. Somewhere between Jean Harlow, Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe. Jack could not take his eyes off her. He signaled to our waiter and ordered a bottle of the most expensive champagne in the house. Jack slipped the waiter a $20 bill and instructed him to present it to her.
When the champagne arrived, she lifted the glass toward Jack and rewarded him with a smile.
I enjoyed my steak and lobster and sipped the bubbly. The Franciscan Monks who invented champagne called it 'drinking stars,' an appropriate description. When the girl finished her dinner, she came over to our table.
'Thanks for the champagne,' she said. 'Mind if I join you?'
Her name was Loni. She was a dancer, she said. Before she left, she gave Jack a card and invited him to come by the club in North Las Vegas where she worked.
Jack not only went to the club that evening. He began flying to Las Vegas every week to watch Loni dance. Sometimes he would call me just to say hello. Other times I would see him gambling at Caesar's or The Orleans, but the evenings always ended the same, at the strip club where he would watch Loni dance.
Over a period of several months, I watched a man deteriorate. Jack was in love with Loni -- hopelessly, helplessly in love. Nothing mattered but seeing her. He would try to tell me about it and be at a loss for words. He couldn't explain.
'She's a teacher in Phoenix,' he told me one night after too much champagne. 'She teaches at one of those exclusive schools in Paradise Valley. Comes up here every weekend to dance. It pays a lot more than teaching.' He finished his glass of champagne and ordered another bottle.
I don't know all the details of what happened between Jack and Loni. I do know he made her an offer that would have paid all her expenses, wherever she wanted to live, just so he could be with her. And she turned him down.
A few weeks later, I dropped over to the club in North Las Vegas for a visit. One of the other dancers came by my table and sat down.
'How's Loni?,' I said casually.
'You didn't hear? She's gone. Quit her job. She even resigned from her teaching job in Phoenix. She moved. I think she went to Alaska.'
I shook my head. 'How's Jack?'
The dancer shook her head. 'Poor guy. He's really bad. His business is suffering. He and his wife are getting a divorce, I hear. That's why I'll never fall in love. Can I get you a drink?'