It's 12:45 p.m. on New Year's Eve at Sharkey's Nugget. The lunch crowd is steady and Mashelle Begovich slips into the tiny office behind the cashier's stand.
She's trying to be philosophical about the fact that in less than 12 hours, Sharkeys -- the casino she first walked into three decades ago as a 12-year-old, the place she's raised her own teenage daughter -- will belong to someone else.
She's not doing a very good job.
"Give me a Kleenex, will you?" she asks an employee who has come to her with a question.
Mashelle has her game face on, but the tears keep coming as she works through her last day at the Gardnerville casino that bears her father's name.
"This is the hardest day of my life," she confessed. "It's like my best friend is gone forever."
For 31 years, Sharkey's has served as Carson Valley's gathering place, powered by the personality of owner Milos "Sharkey" Begovich and his children, Butch and Mashelle.
He's not here this New Year's Eve afternoon but at Mashelle's home, where he is recovering from a Dec. 17 quadruple bypass heart operation. Since August, the 75-year-old patriarch has been treated for diverticulitis, had a benign tumor removed and undergone heart surgery. He sold the casino in June and the new owners take over at 12:01 a.m.
"I just want my dad well," she said. "That's my focus now."
Mashelle says she has no idea what she'll do next, except to concentrate on her father's health.
"I have never stayed home. I am not a homebody. I am scared to death," she said. "I always planned on dying in here."
Restaurant manager and waitress Linda Hurt arrived in Carson Valley from North Dakota to visit her sister just two weeks after Sharkey's opened in 1971. She went home, packed her bags and came back seven days later. Hurt has been working at the casino ever since and will stay on with the new owners.
"It's just sad after 31 years. I will really miss the family," she said as grilled toast for a breakfast order, just like the first meal she served in 1971.
"But the new people are very nice and I will be back here at 7 a.m. tomorrow," she said.
Comptroller Elaine Agnason, who has been at Sharkey's for almost 17 years, won't have a job when the transition is complete. She'll stay on for a couple of weeks to help the new owners, but then she will be looking for work.
"Let me know if you hear of anything," she says, half joking.
She is busy fielding telephone calls from guests of Serbian Christmases past who haven't heard the news that Sharkey's belongs to someone else.
"We've had to tell them that there won't be any Serbian Christmas this year," Agnason said.
Every year, Sharkey put on a free feed in honor of Serbian Christmas, which is Jan. 7. It was a tradition he learned as a boy at his mother's boarding house in Plymouth, Calif., and brought to the Gardnerville casino. More than 4,000 people came from all over Nevada, California and Arizona to dine on traditional dishes of goat, roast pig, turkey, apple strudel and dozens of side dishes. Locals rubbed elbows with the great and near-great who helped serve the long lines of guests.
But Sharkey's was like that every day. It was the place you could find a job no matter what: new in town, out on probation, barely old enough to bus tables or wash dishes. As long as you didn't ask Sharkey too many questions, he did the same. A day's pay for a day's labor.
Everbody in Carson Valley knew if you were having a fund-raiser, you went to see Sharkey for a donation. If you needed a free meal, a new pair of shoes, a temporary place to stay, you went to see Sharkey. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, the second chance, even the third. You could find Sharkey most mornings sitting at a table in the back of the restaurant or at the lunch counter.
"My dad did a million things for two million people," Mashelle said. "People will never know the half of it. He was like everybody's angel, especially mine. There are no words to even explain what he means to me. He is the light of my life."
People are curious about what can best be described as the "Sharkey-ana" which covers every available inch of wall and table space. Sharkey was a fixture at auctions, neighborhood garage sales and church rummage sales. The casino is a testimonial to his interests in Western art, boxing, saddles and circuses. All the memorabilia was included in the sale of the casino and Mashelle isn't sure what's to become of it.
"People ask me which one is my favorite, but every one is a piece of my heart," she said.
Nobody has to remind her that the most valuable item in the collection is Sharkey himself.
Mashelle collects herself and gets ready to face the regulars and well-wishers who keep stopping her to share memories.
"It's a good thing my dad taught me to have broad shoulders and a big smile," she said, reaching for another Kleenex and heading for the swinging kitchen door under the sign that reads, "Beware of Trains. "
Just 11 hours to go.
Sheila Gardner is night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.