Inside a casino lies a small eatery, where the twinkling lights of a pinball machine illuminate the darkened back corner of the room. The rest of the space is sterile and bright, the stainless steel tabletops surgically clean, no streaks or residue. A woman hovers by the counter with a bottle of household cleaner and a rag, waiting for fingers to come down and leave their prints upon the immaculate surface where she will land, moments later, to spray and wipe. Spray and wipe. For a woman of her size and stature she moves with speed, with the practiced and repetitive motions of someone experienced in the feminine art of housework.
A small boy sits watching one of the televisions that are perched in the upper corner of the room. Before him on the table sits a bag of popcorn that, if placed on the ground, would reach clear to his shoulders. He’s only a quarter of the way through and it’s taken him nearly an hour, two episodes of SpongeBob, to get that far. Every few minutes he grows weary of squinting his eyes up at the television and rubs the crick in his neck, a habit far too adult for a child so young but children left to themselves tend to pick up odd behaviors. He’ll wander over to the toy machines and check their slots for lost coins as if it was possible for one to manifest itself where there wasn’t one before. He’ll toggle the handles of the pinball machine and grin with foolish pleasure at the dings and the bells and the whistles it emits, no different than the adults in the next room over who do the very same as they play the penny slots.
His eyes don’t have the same glaze and they still give off the glimmer of life but give it time and his pale skin will fade to dark and those clear blue eyes will become glassy and opaque like the little pools of water that cling for life under the shade of a solitary palm.
He returns to his table at the center of the room where his small, buttery fingerprints have since been lifted by our overzealous keeper of the chambers only to streak his hand across the steel and mar the pristine surface. She twitches nervously from behind the counter, her hand reaching out to the spray bottle and coming back to rest again at her side. Back and forth. The pendulum swings and the little boy shoves another handful of popcorn into his mouth and by now a third of the bag is gone and a fair portion of that lies on the stained concrete floor beneath his seat. His feet don’t touch the ground and instead swing from the edge of the chair and the woman reaches for the broom and pulls her hand back and the pinball machine whirs and flashes and begs to be touched. He sips from the clear cup of water that sits before him, the most nutritious thing he will consume all day. Already the skin is thickening around his joints and his stomach is beginning to pour out generously from the lining of his belt and if he doesn’t win the jackpot he has a future in diabetes and cholesterol and heart disease and even if he wins it he’ll probably still turn out the same.
From time to time his mother comes through the double doors that lead into the casino proper, peeking her head into the room and then back out, loving him just enough to ensure he is still there, still safely entombed in the swatches of white and silver and gray. Her hair is white, so fiercely bleached that the split ends have assembled themselves into a tangled mess of a nest that sits on her shoulders, so stiff that the winds that bang against the walls of the trailer park can’t make it budge. Her lips are lined in the red of hookers and whores, a shade so dark and devilish the woman behind the counter cannot look into her eyes. She crosses herself discretely each time the mother passes her by, fingering the Rosary that hangs about her neck and giving the spray bottle a moment’s reprieve.
Eyes caked with chunks of mascara that has either never been washed off or came from the old tube that rests in the cup holder of her car. Her skin is porcelain white, a rarity out here, and seems to disappear into her hair, or vise versa. It becomes increasingly hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
Each time the boy catches sight of his mother his eyes light up, only to be shut off as she turns back time and time again, disappearing into that room with the glimmering lights and the fun machines. The room where liquor flows like dollar bills and every woman in town shows up on Saturday for ten dollars worth of free play that they turn into twenty and then lose completely. It’s Saturday. And yet only one child hovers about in agonizing solitude.
We sit at a table towards the exit, far enough away from the counter to grant us safety from the spray of the cleanser but not so far so as to appear rude it takes careful calculations to determine just the right spot. The boy’s eyes catch our own and he approaches, glad for the company. He helps himself to the seat beside mine and pulls a little game from his pocket. A mini slot machine. “Want to try?” He asks. “Just press the button that says ‘Max Bet.'”
I lose. He wins. Time and time again.
“Maybe you’re just not lucky.”
He looks as if he’s sad for me but one day I know that look will turn into something else. I only hope he’s as lucky with the real thing as he is with the game because a child who’s spent more time in a casino in his eight years than I ever have in my entire life has only one future carved out for him and it’s right here. In this little reservation town where ladies play free on Saturdays and bingo is hosted every afternoon at the trailer park down the road.
I take a bite of my pizza, so hungry that meat lovers was worth the inevitable risk. My teeth sink into the uncooked dough and the cheese slides off and lands below me first on the edge of the table and then on my lap and that tiny paper napkin didn’t do me any favors and the woman behind the counter is already armed with her spray bottle and headed this way.
Maybe this is why no one eats here. Or maybe I’m just not lucky.