Ever since modern casinos replaced coins with little slips of paper, the fake sound of cha-ching fills the smoke-filled air in surrealistic dreams, where few win, most lose, but almost everyone pretends they’re having fun. Players wear lucky hats and keep a good luck charm or a fortune from a cookie in their wallets. They strike a poker face and study the odds, thinking life’s a crapshoot anyway. All members of the human race, pawns on a giant chessboard, knocked around by destiny.
Outside of a gaming house, on legal documents, these are referred to as uncontrollable Acts of God. They include hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, floods, disease and violence. Which begs to ask the philosophical or rhetorical question: how do happy, healthy people manage to evade depression and loss? How is it, their child is spared from autism? Why did their house remain standing during a wildfire? Why did the bullet ricochet off the building, hitting someone else? There must be a trick, akin to counting cards. A practical guide to parenting based on the mathematical theories of probability. An answer every mother of a teenage daughter wants to know, regarding control and the perfect timing for letting go.
Early one Tuesday morning, Penny Murray found herself on the Las Vegas Strip inside a behemoth casino, where John, her husband of 22 years, needed to pick up a check. His last and final paycheck for a February spent in the seedy opposite of the luxury surrounding her. While waiting, she thought about the check. It reminded her of the little slips of paper the slot machines spat out after someone won a jackpot. Faux coin sounds mingled with tinny, clinky chimes, rattled around in her head. She thought about their upcoming move back to California, and how their time in Sin city didn’t prove to be fun at all. Especially, after the nerve-wracking incident at the local airport that had made her blood-pressure orbit. She thought about what all of it had meant. Everything, it seemed had a reason. Predetermined by fate or merely random, she wondered, thinking of the last few weeks and the unexpected joys and dark lessons that clung to her like desert sand.
Cha-ching—the repetitive sound surrounded her, driving her mad with anticipation. They had to get out of Vegas, she thought, swinging short, shapely legs onto a bar stool and wondering why picking up a check took so long. Her eyes focused in on a middle-aged, heavy set woman playing a five-dollar slot machine. The woman wore a hot pink, polyester sweat-suit with worn sneakers. Maybe those clothes had fit her once. A tight bra accentuated her unpleasant back fat. Every few minutes, a cherry symbol gave the woman three dollars, and one time she even had a big ten-dollar win. Poor lady, Penny thought, wondering why the woman kept feeding money into the stupid machine. ‘I’m going home lady,’ Penny whispered to herself, turning away in disgust. ‘And I suggest you do the same thing.’
Something kept that woman glued to that cushioned stool. Her motives had to reach well beyond the obvious desire to win. What made one person lucky and why did others lose? Penny began to judge and analyze the situation. Perhaps the monotonous motion, consisting of pushing the same button, comforted that lady in an odd sort of way. Maybe she needed blinking lights, Day-Glo neon and the maddening sound of phony coins. Perhaps her cat-filled, dilapidated home begged for a tractor to make a path to her bed-bug infested mattress. Or worse, her husband had left with some floozy he met one night at a club, and her deadbeat children lived in another state. Penny figured, the loud chimes and casino noises drowned the woman’s pain, replacing her solitary and bored life with not-so-cheap thrills, thereby placating her soul.
Cynical and sad about the recession, a bankruptcy and a year full of nothing but trouble, Penny didn’t enjoy watching people lose their money. She doubted her instincts were far from the truth. Life in Vegas had taught her many strange and unusual things. Anyway, you sliced it, she hated to think it, but that woman in hot pink looked like a born loser.
A scream filled the air. The woman playing the slot machine shouted and bounced up and down on her stool. It sounded like a knife had plunged into her buffet-filled intestines. The reason became apparent rather fast. There, on the monitor, lined up and flashing, ringing violently with ear splitting sirens and notifying everyone within a mile, this underdog looking woman had won a jackpot. Glowing ruby sevens--pulsated almost sexually--as a crowd gathered. She turned around beaming, revealing a row of coffee-stained, crooked teeth. The slot attendant came over and paid her twenty thousand dollars faster than a winning horse pulls into the lead at the Kentucky Derby. Minutes later, the woman called two or three people on her cell phone.
Maybe, Penny thought, the woman didn’t have a problem with hoarding after all. Maybe she had family members who loved her, and they were coming to get her right now. Hopefully, they’d take her to the dentist on the way home before stopping at a hair salon to have a root touch up. Penny had to admit, watching the entertaining commotion felt like suspended animation. The harder she stared, the more her heart pulled her back into the blissful scene.
Oddly, Penny’s viewpoint changed. It didn’t happen fast, but when her cheeks blazed, it seemed obvious she felt ashamed for her preconceived notions. While staring at the cheering crowd, something deep inside began to twist around, creating a certain kindness towards the plump woman in pink. The more Penny watched, the more she realized the woman must have lived a hard life, earning wrinkles and age spots, one miserable day at a time. Time seemed to stand still. The contagious smiles bouncing from one face to another in the casino, gave Penny hope. Where was John? He needed to see this. Twenty thousand would really help them right about now.
An hour later, John still hadn’t returned with his check and the winner had left with two security guards. Though she thought about going to the parking structure to see if he was at the car, she remembered his words, “Penny, wait here or I’ll never find you.” So, she waited, and thought about the events that uprooted them, bringing them to this gambling mecca in the middle of nowhere.
When they married in Hawaii, so many years ago, John Murray had vowed to love, honor and cherish her forever. Through sickness, health and all the other stuff that came and went in their lives, he had managed fairly well. At this moment however, he didn’t know what to say. After all, people lost their jobs everyday, but somehow, he never thought it would happen to him.
She sat there like a queen from an illustrated book on ancient civilizations. Her auburn hair, now a natural looking shade of red, made her look younger than her years. Sparkling eyes, the color of fresh Key limes, focused beyond the curtains. Her underlying mood, made his heart twist into a massive knot. Normally, she had a friendly, expressive face, but now it looked frozen and the warmth in her cheeks appeared drained and pale. Worry made him wonder what she was thinking, or what she was focusing on the drought, outside in the yard. Maybe, he had hoped, she stared at the sprinklers. The local California water company had told him to adjust his timer. His ears tried to listen for the spray hitting the side of the house. Maybe, she wanted him to adjust them, so they wouldn’t hurt her delicate zinnias.
The striking, good-looking woman he adored, to the deepest part of his soul, usually had the answers and the best ideas. This time however, like those sprinklers, he had come to a wall. This time, he really needed help and her silence only made it worse, because deep in his heart, he knew the truth had nothing to do with lawn irrigation or zinnias. He waited for her to speak.
“Did Lani leave?” Penny asked, without moving her head to look at him.
He glanced at his watch and grumbled an affirmative answer, before his eyes moved to her adorable ears. Perky, little soft ears, with cushioned lobes, he enjoyed kissing.
“Well did she?”
“I said, yeah, sorry.”
“Stop being sorry,” she demanded, in a curt tone that reminded him of the way she spoke to their daughter Lani when she did something wrong.
But he couldn’t help it. “Sorry.”
Sighing, she turned into the room. “Look, it’s not your fault, we’ll figure it out. We’ve figured other things out in the past, so maybe we’ll get lucky and do it again.”
John didn’t think luck had anything to do with it. Was she being facetious? The heaving of the shoulder and an additional sigh, told him her mind kept zipping through some pretty deep stuff. Sometimes, when the going got tough, she still managed to fall into her fantasy world where dreams became reality, and everything eventually worked out. Though an endearing aspect to their relationship, it didn’t add anything solid to his side of any argument. Most often, he’d simply agree, supposing that she’d work it out in her mind. She had a magic touch which in most cases, worked in their favor, but this time, she sounded painfully hopeless. Unless he hawked some of the junk in the garage, so he could make a few bets on a horse race, he didn’t see luck entering the picture.
He wasn’t sure, but thought he noticed red-rimmed eyes and wet lashes, indicating the severity of her displeasure. Wearing vulnerability like a hat fashioned from invisible straw, something he rarely saw, confused him, making him feel helpless. Like a man in a leaky rowboat without any oars. She was more than simply his other half. She was his rock and that rock had become seriously upset. Anything he said only made him feel foolish. He didn’t know what to do, or say, to make things right. When she sniffed, he noticed her nose had turned a rosy shade of pink.
The last time he saw her like this was at her dad’s funeral. He couldn’t fathom how any of this could even vaguely be similar to a life and death situation. His eyes watched her turn back to whatever was happening outside. The sprayers outside had stopped. He could hear the gentle hum of air-conditioning streaming through the vents. Think, he told his brain. Somewhere inside there might be an answer. After all, no one has died. But his brain redirected everything to his heart.
“Babe, I love you.” Maybe she just needed reassurance. The timing seemed awkward, so he looked down at his scuffed work boots.
“I know you do John, but sometimes love is not enough.”
Inside his chest, he felt his ticker beating like a Cuban conga drum. “What does that mean?”
“You tell me,” she replied with an angry tone to her usually lovely voice. “I quit my job at The Globe to raise our daughter and thank God, she’s going to college. We both saved and scrimped for our little girl but now this...crap.” She paused for emphasis, waving her arms towards the window. “I don’t even know what to say John. Without a job, we’re going to lose our house. This recession hit Riverside County hard. The people across the street just went into foreclosure and there are five houses for sale on Lime Street.”
“I know Hon. I applied at six different sites and even asked Hans about being an apprentice at his cabinet shop. Construction is at a huge standstill right now.” The dialogue came to a standstill too. He listened for the sprinklers, still hearing nothing. A minute later Penny pointed out the window.
“Someone’s at the Brown’s house right now. I hope they mow the lawn.”
“Did you hear me? There are no construction jobs available. Like you said, it’s a recession.”
“I hear you, but tell me what exactly happened at that cabinet shop?” She turned towards him, wiping her face on her sleeve.
“Hans fudged around trying to tell me he wanted a younger apprentice, without actually saying it. I think that’s what he meant. Heck, nice guy and everything--but when he gets going, I have trouble understanding him. Guess it’s that accent. Anyway, I’ll keep looking, I promise.”
Her voice now an octave higher and louder, “I know he’s nice John, but nice isn’t helping us, is it?”