It is very easy to discern what is real and what matters when one is losing money.
Harmon wanted a bold poker game, to order drinks he wasn’t going to pay for, and then talk the dealer’s ear off. But, slot machines were right in front of him when he got off the elevator. So, he put his back to lions (hard not to keep checking over one’s shoulder, when there are lions mere feet away) and started pushing buttons. An old black lady, by way of offering comfort, showed him how to do it:
“But first, before you go touching things, you need to pick a game with odds in your favor, and cheap each time you play. Mine’s got the treasure chest, you see, and then there’s all these lines, almost twenty–where the letters and numbers can match up for me to win back my dollar. So, with twenty lines and if it’s five cents a pull, I play a whole dollar. But, if I want to try my luck with half that many chances to win, it’s only fifty cents.”
Harmon scratched beneath his sideburns and the Ralph Lauren shades. “Look, I’m not really into this…”
“People don’t come to Vegas for no good reason, now. Here, you’ll feel better honey, try it. I was a high-roller in Atlantic City and it’s going to be like that here, too, before long.” She paused to re-fix hairpins beneath a grievous rose-colored church-lady hat.
“Do you mean that you moved, here, Ma’am?”
“I’m a good gambler,” she shrugged. “And Mr. Samuels wanted this place or Orlando, so that the grandkids might finally make their excuse to come visit. Oh, but I fixed him when we went by the Borgata in Jersey. His first time in my favorite casino, we walked right out of one of those complimentary platinum member limos, me dressed up like the queen I am–he didn’t wanna listen–but he regretted that. I explained the penny-slots and told him all that luxury was because of my so-called, expensive habit. I said, ‘Forget Orlando. Just imagine baby, what Vegas does for people like us, in our retirement.'”
“Terrible economy out here, though, worse than a lot of places if you’re not set up nice with a job in one of these casinos. But I’m an old woman so I gamble. You alright there, young man? If you’re sick, you’d better head out to the lobby and get some fresh air-conditioning in you…”
In his haze, Harmon began to see that he already knew how to play the slots. In his life, he’d been playing about five lines this past month, including Bill who’d finally paid up, Zeus, Sparky, Binny and Carmen. What a glittering nightmare, waiting for just one of those people to come through with something to make Orlando worth it. Celebration had fallen through, their mansion with a pool had not been worth the extra money, then the only other state where he passed the bar didn’t want him. Carmen found two decent friends for them to play with eventually, but that only got started about a year ago and the other couple was already fleeing. No wonder he’d been losing money steadily along the way, when he was already losing patience, losing his sense…
But wasn’t Carmen was still with him? She was just upstairs, waiting. One last pull, one line, that wasn’t so complicated, was it?
For reasons Harmon didn’t want to think through, “Hey there, you said you’ve been gambling a while? Have you ever seen–and this is gonna sound stupid–a person change into an animal, at a casino?”
“What, do you mean like one of them Cirque du Soleil shows? I went just the other night with Mr. Samuels, it’s not weird at all–well, it is strange and artistic, but in a good way. In a, ‘they might as well use so many rhinestones and painted-on spandex, when it better be worth my hundred dollars’ kinda way. Ha!”
Harmon finished startling all around himself and even up at the ceiling. The voice was not directly nearby like before. It’d gone tinny and its owner disappeared from his plane of view. A pink flamingo’s neck dipped down by his elbow, snakelike, to tap blinking buttons on the machine next door. The neck was so flexible, it was able to duck far enough and around, to skim across a row of flashing beeps in their almost cellular song. The woman’s regular plump shoulders feathered pink out of the edge of her dress, the arms turned into wings, when he blinked. “Come on, come on,” sang the beak as it scissored upside down, “I’ll have to switch machines if it’s gonna be like this–I thought for sure I’d get a bonus round by now, or somethin.’ Hey, Miss, I’d like a drink while I’m sitting here… how about a margarita–no, not salty enough. Maybe a brine solution, or a shrimp cocktail?”
Who all knows how strange casino guests could be or else however short the waitress in black miniskirt was on tips that afternoon. She took the order down fast, then asked Harmon what he wanted without missing a beat. He patted himself down to make sure all his limbs were intact first, then got out of there.
No, back upstairs had to be far more simple.