Iím at Gold Strike Casino, a half-mile north of Hoover Dam. Her face is hard and blank as the dam. Weíre playing quarters. Iím on Wild Cherry. Sheís on Double Diamond.
This goddamn machine, she says, last week she loved me. This week she hates my guts.
Two weeks later, I drive old 66. Basalt ridges stretch like charred spines, Joshua trees twist skeletal against a calcium sky. This Mojave is pure bone. I come down into Bullhead City. The sun begins to drop behind the Providence Mountains, over Devilís Playground and the Old Woman Mountains. Below me, whatís left of the Colorado River gleams amber. I cruise through town, past strip malls burning copper- rose in the dying light. Housing developments metastasize into the eastern hills. There are roads where, six months ago, there were none, and streetlights where once only cholla and mojave yucca shimmered at dusk.
I cross the river into a gazillion-watt kaleidoscope, emerald, silver, bright pink and gold, Colorado Belle, Pioneer, Golden Nugget, a cowboy two stories high waves day and night, and you open the door to your room with a computerized card. The sidewalks are thronged with old couples in matching pastel jogging suits. Old women lean on walkers. Old men lean on their wives.
I park my truck, grab my lucky bucket of nickels, and hustle toward the Golden Nugget. A hound-faced guy opens the smoked glass door. I walk through into a jungle. Impossibly turquoise water spills over polymer boulders. Parrots shriek. I smell river, Shinumo beach on the Colorado, coyote willow, tamarisk. Triple canopy vinyl trees arch over me. My heart pounding in my ears, and beyond the jungle, voices, shrieks and the get-over-here-now! clunk of dollar slot pay- offs.
A woman emerges from the dazzle. She wears a lime-green tunic appliqued with gold feathers, and a plastic mask strapped to her face, oxygen pouring up from a cylinder clipped to her walker. I wear battered hiking boots and rock-climbing tights, my still-dark hair tied back in a faded bandana. We both clutch a bucket of coins.
She nods. I smile. I guess she is seventy-five, maybe sixty, dessicated by what chokes her. We meet on the wooden foot-bridge over the spot-lit stream. She stops, leans on her walker, pulls the mask away. Listen, honey, she rasps. Wild Rose was good to me.
Iím in Piggy Bankiní, where three blanks on the centerline mean your bet gets dumped in a bank, and a piggy on the line breaks the bank open and dances to the sound of breaking crockery.
Listen, the woman says, Iíve been on this stinkiní machine for two hours and the most Iíve hit is twenty. What the hell, they keep bringing me these wine coolers, so at two bucks a pop, Iím probably ahead.
She reaches out her hand. Sheís wearing five rings, all gold, one a tiny cat with diamond eyes. Hi. Iím Rose. Isnít this the wildest ?
"Itís chewing me up and spitting me out," I say.
A long-legged young woman in high-cut leotard and high heels sways toward us. "Careforadrink?" She passes us. I try to imagine walking in those shoes for five minutes, and canít.
Can you imagine, Rose says, walking in those high heels for eight hours? Hey, she yells, wine cooler, honey. She drops five bucks in the girlís tray.
"Jeez," the girl says, "I mean, thanks." She wanders away.
Rose shakes her head. They think old women donít tip. She doesnít know who I was.
Itís 3 a.m. Iím bleary-eyed, down a hundred eighty-three bucks. Iím wandering from machine to machine, old woman to old woman. I canít stop. I see a seat open on nickel HayWire. I go. The old gal next to me is groomed to the teeth and she is losing. Steadily. She turns to me.
Listen, I wonder if I shouldíve gotten started on this. I come here every day. My husband doesnít know. Heís busy with his projects. Last week I used the Visa to pay the other two cards. Weíre not those kind of people. I mean, we go to church and everything.
I keep coming back. I keep thinking Iím going to hit big, pay off what Iíve lost. It could happen. There. There she goes. Two double bars and a Wild Cherry Bar, four times sixty--thatís sixty dollars. Thatís something.
She smiles at me. One thing Iíve always wondered, have you noticed this? Whenever we talk about the machines, we always say 'She.'
"Listen," I begin to say. Listen.
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