It was polite. That was the thing. The stupid machine displayed the message, in ancient looking glowing green phosphor, "SORRY! TRANSACTION UNABLE TO BE PERFORMED AT THIS TIME- PLEASE TRY AGAIN!". It was a perfectly neutral message, the electronic equivalent of a shrug. Not implying you were broke, or that you were bad with money, or that you were a poor person. I was all those things, but the machine was clearly not judging me. The message stayed the same, no matter how long I looked at it, and when I felt the hot gaze of someone else wanting the machine on my back, I hit the button, took my now worthless card, and skulked away. I knew, walking up to it, what was probably going to happen. I figured I'd try anyway- maybe the mortgage check hadn't cleared yet?
The casino floor was alive with action, a fever dream of lights and noises and money disappearing from bank accounts and retirement funds and Social Security checks. It was a pulse quickener, the constant lights, the bells and buzzers and whistles all signalling fun and happiness. Looking over it, I felt soulless and dead, a far cry from the hope I had when I walked in 6 long hours ago. I took out my cell phone, checking the time. 7 ½ hours, it turns out. I knew what I had left- enough money for a cup of coffee and a sandwich and the tolls to reach home. I didn't look forward to that part.
It was going to be the same old phrases. "You said you were going to stop." "What am I supposed to do for groceries?" "How can you do this to your children?" I'll give the same old unsatisfying responses. "I don't know." "I lost control." "I'm sorry." "I promise I'll stop. This time I mean it." "But you don't understand, I was on a run...," followed by her tearful retreat to our bed and my sleep in front of Sportscenter downstairs.
A cocktail waitress walked by, wearing so little she would have gotten thrown out of my high school. She stopped in front of me. Her eyes were kind, but wrinkled. She had a woman's body, hips and thighs on view underneath a skimpy little number that barely qualified as a dress.
I was on a run, too. That was the thing. I was crushing- filling straights, pairing up when I needed to, luring in bettors and crushing them with better hands. I was raking in chips, doing mental math in a giddy rush, counting the number of bills I could kill off. I should have stopped, and I even thought about stopping, but this mania took over. I couldn't hear, I couldn't see anything but the cards. I couldn't lose. Just one more hand, I kept telling myself, and then I would win that one, and then I'd play another. I couldn't stand the thought of leaving money on the table.
My father in law told me once, the first time he brought us to the casino, before the kids and the confusion, to play until you get that first bad beat. When you have a strong hand and you bet and you get creamed, walk away. "The Gods have turned on you," he said in his Slavic accent, gold medallions at the neck of his sweatshirt. "If you stay, they will destroy you." And destroy me they did, taking my winnings back, plus more, making me run to the cash machine once, twice, and then the final, fatal, third time, knowing before I got there that there wasn't anything left to bet.
"Drink, sir?," the waitress asked me. I looked into her face, too much makeup, 35 trying to look 15. She looked like I felt, broken down and out of sorts.
"No thanks," I said, but slid a one dollar bill onto her tray.
"Thank you, sir," she said sweetly, and sauntered away. I watched her walk. It was kind of like a strip club in that respect, women on display, so kind but really only interested in the dollars you held. Boy, Jennifer would hate it if that were where I was, wouldn't she? On the other hand, that was something she could at least understand.
I walked slowly, with my head down, towards the exit. Looking at the kids' faces as they emerged into the joy of a new day tomorrow morning would be the hardest part. When I was playing, it was like they didn't exist, but now, trudging into the utilitarian cement of the parking garage, I could see their faces. I remembered from my own childhood the sour stomach I got when another promise of a trip to the movies evaporated when Minnesota didn't cover the spread. Was it genetic, this craving for the rush? This need to have stakes, to have something to lose, did I inherit it like my fading hairline and fallen arches?
I shouldn't have had kids, I thought. If I never had kids, I'd only be disappointing myself and Jennifer. Or maybe just myself. The rush was so good, so real and beautiful and perfect, but the crash, the utter emptiness of another brokenhearted trip back to the house I could barely afford, the crash killed me and sent me into a spiral that wouldn't lift until I got paid again and swore to myself I would win it all back, then quit forever.
I thought about the last song that was playing on satellite radio when I got out of the car. It was Johnny Cash, but I think it was someone else's song. "You can have it all," the Man in Black said as only he could, "my empire of dirt...,". Yeah, that's what it felt like. My life, an empire of dirt. Ready to blow away in the next strong wind.
I hoped I had enough gas to get home. Then again, that was the thing; I kind of hoped I didn't.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with "You can't fight genetics" and I challenged Diane with "Don't go away mad, just go away".