Wednesday, December 07, 2011

That Was The Thing (Indie Ink Writing Challenge)

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".

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: "Too Late For Love"

The marvelous, temporarily spit up free Chuck Wendig has issued a challenge to the Flash Fiction Friday folks, 1000 words using three of the following words: vitamins, squid, ballroom, razor, carnival. My entry is called "Too Late For Love".

I didn't want to be there. A sick colleague brought me in on a Saturday to the Independence Ballroom to tend bar for a wedding reception. The rhythms were familiar. I served drinks, mixed the cocktails, prepared Shirley Temples. I hustled, and bantered, and joked. It wasn't a hard gig, but it was mental work, tracking faces. Old people trying to look young, younger people trying to look old. Wedding party members in the full blush of youth, knowing their power.

The big partying had been done, all the ceremonial bits you expect, the wild carnival of two families forming a third. The garter had been peeled, the bouquet thrown, the first dance completed, the speeches made. Meals had been served, and guests were starting to sneak away. I kept the drinks flowing.

One of the bridesmaids, a pretty brunette with a dark, serious face like Natalie Merchant, made her way to the bar. I watched her approach. She wasn't drunk, but she was definitely headed that way. She was in the dark blue dress that they all wore. There was a little more girl than there was dress, and she carried her heels in one hand, holding a slim clutch in the other. She walked up uncertainly and put a wrinkled bill into my tip jar.

"Thanks," I said. "What can I get you?"

"An excuse to go home," she said, and chuckled sadly.

"Too much, huh?"

"Way too much," she said sadly. "I'm exhausted, and it isn't even my party." She looked down. "White wine, please?"

"Sure," I said. I poured it.

"It's her day, right? So I have no right to complain."

"You don't need a right to complain."

She sighed. "You do a lot of these?"

"Weddings? Too many," I said. "I haven't had a weekend off since Opening Day."

"That sucks," she admitted. "I've spent the last four weekends helping Stacy get ready for this nightmare. If I knew it was going to be this much work, I never would have made friends with her in sixth grade."

"A real Bridezilla?"

"Oh, God," she said. "The worst." I handed her the glass and she took a sip. "I better take my vitamin," she said, smiling. She reached into the clutch and opened a tiny vial with Hello Kitty on it. She took out a small white tablet and swallowed it, chasing it with a mouthful of wine. It didn't look like a vitamin. There was a series of angry red scratches on her upper arm, like she was a prisoner marking off days of her sentence. I had seen scratches like that, on another woman's arm, at another time. She saw my eyes noticing it.

"I cut myself getting ready," she said too quickly. I nodded, moving laterally to pour a beer for a glaring older man with a mustache.

After he left, she turned her brown eyes on me. "What do you do when you're not, uh...tending?"

Not much, I thought. "I write some. I have a novel that keeps getting rejected. What do you do?"

"Still in school," she said. "Professional student." She took another swallow of wine. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to bother you. You're working."

"No, it's fine." Some human interaction was welcome.

"It's all about Stace, and that's fine, but it's still....annoying. You're just expected to give, and give. I get sick of it."

"Even though you know better. You know it's not about you, but you're human, too. "

"Yeah." She drained her glass. "I'm not drunk, you know." she said.

"I know," I said.

"I'm not," she said more forcefully. Saying "I'm not drunk" is kind of like saying "I'm not racist." If you have to say it, it's probably not true.

I didn't say anything.

"When you're a little girl," she began, "you dream about a day like this. All the dresses, and the makeup, and the hair, and the shoes, and the food, and all the people. You dream about all these people coming together to celebrate. And it's really just this huge excuse to get drunk and behave like idiots. It's this big party that proves that you can throw a big party. It's nothing, on top of nothing, with stupid shoes that hurt your feet. It's phony, every bit of it. It doesn't make people stay married, or people be more in love. It's just a party. And I'm never going to be that special, that kind of person who makes a whole day all about them. "

She looked at me.

"I'm sorry."

"It's OK. Why do you think you're not special?"

"It's a long story," she said, choking on the words. "I'm just not. I'm not the marriage type. I can't love someone like that."

"I don't think that's true," I said.

"It is," she shot back. "I'm broken. I just don't get other people, I don't get how they work. I never understand what anyone means. I'm lost, all the time."

She looked at me again. Her eyes looked watery. "I hate all the small talk, all the fake smiling, all the rituals. All the girl stuff, all the stuff I have to act like I care about to fit in. I hate all the effort. I hate pretending. It exhausts me."

"At least it's over now, right?"

"Yeah. Now I can go home and cry. It's hard."

"Being in a wedding?"

"Being me," she said.