We Play With Fire

Today we have a wonderful piece of guest fiction from one of our regular and dearly loved commentators. We Play with Fire is copyright 2009 D J Young.

Slipping his debit card into the casino’s ATM, Jimmy waits.

The ATM’s gray/white screen indicates that it will charge him three dollars should he wish to continue his transaction.  Jimmy does not need to think on this.  He taps his finger on the screen over the red letters Y-E-S.   Multiple options appear before him: $100 $200 $500 $1500 $2500.   He selects ‘other options’ and types $50.00 on the metal keypad.

YOUR TRANSACTION CANNOT BE COMPLETED AT THIS TIME.

Frowning, he types $100.00.

PLEASE WAIT WHILE YOUR CASH IS BEING DISPENSED.

The sweat from his armpits cools a little as he releases a jagged breath and takes a glance behind him.  Four elderly, overweight women are waiting impatiently behind him.  One of the ladies is in motorized wheelchair with a green oxygen tank strapped to the back.  A thin plastic line of hose extends from the tank and is wrapped around the woman’s face, terminating in two small plugs inserted in her nostrils.  She is holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a plastic water bottle with the fading label North Point Retirement Community wrapped around its body.   Jimmy feels slightly faint; he is not sure if it is from the perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke floating around the casino or from the mistake he knows he is about to make. 

The ATM whirrs as it dispenses his $100 in a neat, slim pile of notes.  He collects them and counts for a moment, waiting for his receipt.   He feels the eyes on him but doesn’t turn back.  He plucks his receipt from the machine and marches off, brisk and anxious, his heart like a pack of wild dogs racing through his chest.

He spies his mother, Theresa, in front of one of her penny machines: The Mistress of the Nile.  A Cleopatraesque figure is reclined on a bed of diamonds; below her on the machine’s screen are multiple lines of various Egyptian-looking symbols in bright, clashing colors.  Ravens, ankhs, sarcophagi, mummies and Cleo herself, eyes gleaming like emeralds; they whirl and bounce and glitter as his mother presses the Spin button again and again.  She does not notice him standing over her shoulder.  He notes that her bet is 80 across five of the twenty available lines.  He knows his mother thinks she is cautious, only playing the penny machines.  Never mind she is betting almost a dollar each time she hits Spin. 

“How ya doing?”

She glances up toward him but her eyes are still fixed on the screen.  Jimmy knows she is almost in a trance-like state and he really shouldn’t bother her, but there are routines to maintain and he doesn’t feel like finding his own machine yet. 

“Fine.”

She has no intention of talking to him; his vibes might be negative and the machine will grow cold on her if he stands too close or stays too long.   He can see she is up a little: 5600 pennies and she probably started with ten dollars.  She hits Spin and three Bonus markers appear.  She squirms happily in her seat as she is given five free spins. 

“Good job.” 

She is pleased now and rubs the side of the machine like a magic lamp. 

“See that?  Fourth one in a row.  I’m on a roll.  So don’t bug me.” 

He stays long enough to see her five free spins award her another 400 pennies – four more dollars.  He tries to feel happy for her, but he knows it’s only a kind of glamour.   She will keep playing the machine until the numbers start to roll back and she eventually walks away minus her initial investment.  She will find another machine, just like The Mistress of the Nile and sit, poke her flimsy ten dollars into its neat, narrow slot, select her lines and her bet and hit Spin, over and over and over again.  He has watched her throw away hundreds if not thousands in one evening. 

He drifts off through the crowded casino, an oversized bottom filling every seat he sees.  He hates how he feels, watching them, all these sagging bellies and blotchy faces. 

Most of them aren’t that old, I bet.  This place sucks the life out of them.  They walked in young and fresh and hopeful, now they’re like chain-smoking zombies, always thirsty, always feeding, feeding, feeding the machines, praying for a sweet return.  

Croupiers stand vigil at empty blackjack tables; spit-polished pit bosses glancing over their shoulders, into the pinball floors, watching the various balls bounce back and forth from machine to machine.  Tilt!  Pow! Zap! Lose your turn.  Behind metal bars middle-aged women dole out cash from winning tickets.  They tap their fingers in small pink bowls of resin, keeping them moist, slick as they count out dollar after dollar.  Bills are fanned out like a deck of cards on a magician’s table.  They hold their hands up, turning them over twice to show the invisible camera above them they aren’t cheating.

Corbin has found his own corner, near the cigarette machine no less.  Jimmy watches his father draw a cigarette to his lips as he stabs one of his chubby digits at his machine, Grab Yer Booty.  Pairs of comic pirates duel on top of overflowing treasure chests.  The machine is identical to the one his mother is playing save for the theme.  He knows without having to look that his father is playing all twenty lines.  The man throws caution to the wind, is what his mother would say. 

His father’s gut sticks out from the faded plaid flannel of his coat, rubbing against his belt buckle.  He pats his own belly for a moment, relieved at its emptiness.  The smoke is making him feel dizzy.   He hears the music no one is listening to seep from the overhead speakers: Cast your fate to the wind.  Jimmy watches as his father pulls another dollar bill from his shirt pocket and slides it into the machine.   It’s just money, Jimmy.  That’s what his father says.

Isn’t it just, really, when you don’t have a job and you’re living off the kindness of extended benefits.  Jimmy hasn’t worked in over a year.   He knows his benefits will run out soon, next week, in fact.  The letter folded in his back pocket tells him so.  He hasn’t told his parents.  He thinks about the phone call he’ll making in the morning.  The hour on hold, the cranky agent on the other end explaining to him again how it works and what he has to do and how no, sorry, he’ll have to wait another six months before he can re-apply, and how it’s no one’s fault but his own that he throws his money away, can’t pay rent or child support for the daughter he hasn’t seen in two years and well, better hope your parents have a spare room. 

Three security guards have their eye on him.  They know he’s loitering, waiting for a machine or just waiting to try and make off with some grandma’s retirement fund.  He can see himself reflected in the glass tube full of dollar bills: not thirty yet, still in good shape, non-smoker, non-drinker, just a loser that’s all – standard issue.  Like army greens.

There’s an opportunity I missed.  Army would have paid for it all.  I’d have a nice pension too, be taken care of, no problem.  Dad would have liked that. His dad would have liked that.  They were army men.  They’re taken care of, healthcare, retirement, even a cemetery plot.   Only son, the liberal donkey had to go to college without a uniform.  Lazy, commie pacifist son with a bleeding heart, arms wrapped around a tree, swimming with dolphins, saving the whales, protecting the environment, hanging with the gays, the artsy fartsy smartasses and gym bunnies.  Never even finished, did you?  Just had to get Melanie Rink pregnant and live in her parent’s basement for three years while you worked at Wal-Mart. 

He looks around the floor for a place to sit, for something promising.  A Lucky Sevens dollar slot has an empty seat.  He takes it.

His eyes are moist now, wet from the sting of cigarette smoke.  He can barely read the bet on the screen.  First coin. Second coin.   He knows he wants at least three blue sevens.  Three blue sevens on the second coin could net him 1500 dollars. He could pay for another month of rent with that.  If he gets the three purple sevens that could be 2500 dollars.  No chance of the three flaming red sevens, the big one, the 5000, that won’t happen.  

Unwrapping the tender roll of bills, he pulls a twenty, stretching it, smoothing out the wrinkles, before placing one end at the mouth of the machine.  He feels like he’s just drank a dozen cups of coffee; everything is humming, even the smoke saturating his skin.  Gambling, for some, is a life’s passion.  There are those who could not go a day or a week or a month without making a bet.  The machine swallows his offering, whole.

The bill slides down, with a tiny ping as the numbers gallop to a stop on his level of contribution.  He makes his choice, second coin, spin. 

No joy, as his father would say.

He selects the second coin again. 

Almost – two purple sevens and a bar – but no joy.

He plays like this until he reaches ten dollars down.  He is out ten dollars and no joy as of yet.  He has only taken five spins but it feels like five hundred.  His palms are sweaty and he feels too warm, stuffy.  He shrugs off his jacket and lays it over the back of his chair.  His mother would snap at him for playing the dollar machines – stick with the pennies, she’d say, you’ll play longer with less. 

He knows better.  No matter what machine he plays, the bet is always the same.  Jimmy always tells her he feels more honest playing the dollar machines.

“I’m not bullshitting myself.”

Besides, mom, everyone pays longer with less.

Second coin comeback, he whispers, here we go. 

He stares at the menu above the screen: three single bars = 5, two single bars = 15, three single bars = 25.  He finds the three flaming red sevens.  They look hot to the touch.  He focuses on them, hoping his focus will make them appear, magically, on that middle line, on the second coin.  Spin.

Melanie would tell him he’s not doing it for her or for Emma.  Not that she calls him anymore.  He sent a card on Emma’s birthday with $25 but never heard back from them.  He found her on Facebook, but she blocked him.  He saw her profile picture, with her and Emma and David, smiling, a Christmas ago.  Emma calls David daddy now.  If he called now, if he got her on the phone, Melanie would probably tell him to go to hell. 

An old lady behind him just hit a tiny jackpot.  He turns for a moment to see her, small, wrapped in a knit pink sweater, her white hair tied up in back with a series of little metal clips.  She hit three sevens, but all of them different colors and only on one coin.  Still, that’s fifty dollars in her purse – if she keeps it.

He turns back to his machine, to the blue seven and the two bars.   He’s got six dollars left on this machine.   Eighty dollars left in his pocket.  Just play it out, he tells himself.  Just play it out.  Who cares?

His fingers stab at the Spin button.  Something in his chest starts to fall, a slow sinking drop down to his stomach.  It slices, hatchet shaped, through his intestines.  Any moment it will reach his balls and he will feel them, watch them, as they slide down either trouser leg and roll out, onto the floor. 

No joy, son.  No joy.

Now is the moment, now is the time.  You should stop.  You really should.  Keep your eighty.  You’ve learned your lesson.   No need to throw away the last of what you have.  The odds are against you.  You know this. 

He spies a purple dolphin riding a surfboard and sits down in front of it. 

But what if – now hear me out – what if tonight is the night?  What if I slip this bill into this machine and we hit?  The machine looks ready.  It hasn’t paid out anything tonight.  It’s ready to.  The numbers should be ready.  They’ll roll my way and I’ll be the one with the three surfing dolphins on the third coin.  Four THOUSAND dollars.  Want to make a bet?

He talks himself into it again.  He waits for the machine to accept his token, his donation, his offering.  The screen spins to life and he hits the third coin and Spin. 

Three beach balls in a row: the machine pings excitedly as it awards him $25.  

See there now?  Already made up our losses and little change.  We’re on fire, I’m telling you.  We’re gonna be on fire tonight. 

Spin, he grins, spin you freaking tuna net.  Bring me those dolphins!

One dolphin – smack – two dolphins – smack – one beach ball – splat.

Doesn’t matter, you know it doesn’t.  You’re betting three dollars a hit and it doesn’t matter.  The dolphins are out there and you’re going to get them.  Go on, spin again.

He does.

Two more beach balls and a herring. 

Three herrings would have been $100.   He spins again.

Can’t remember when we took Emma to the beach last.  She rode a horse on the sand.  When it stopped and peed it made a huge puddle she lost her shoe in.  Who fished it out, Jimmy?

A herring and two seagulls.  Three seagulls would have been $50.   Spin again.

Of course, Melanie’s dad paid for the whole trip, so it was only fitting you get to find the shoe in the lake of horse piss.  She’s your daughter by the way.  You didn’t even get to ride a horse.  They all took off without you, holding that smelly shoe in your hand.  You washed it off in the surf and later told Melanie you’d cleaned it at the beach house, with detergent.  Never hurt Emma.

Two bars and a shovel.   No joy.

Dig yourself out of this one, can you?

Never hurt Emma. 

Spin spin spin spin spin. 

Another twenty.  And another. 

You’re losing it now son. 

It’s only money, dad.

The dolphins don’t want you son.

The dolphins can suck it, dad.

The rolling smoke bomb with the oxygen tank pulls up next to him; she has a wad of twenty-dollar bills in her hands.   He has five dollars left on the machine.  Five dollars left in the whole world.  He watches her, as she slips first one then another then another dollar bill into the machine.  She sets a packet of cigarettes on the machine.  He can hear the wheeze in her chest, the weight of her breath.  Her presence makes him shrink a little; he knows what his mother feels like, when he’s hovering.  She says he brings bad luck when he does that. 

You brought me into this world, more ways than one.  I was your jewel, your joy, your prize.  Now I’m the albatross. 

Three albatross on his machine net $300.  

He lets his fingers tap softly against the machine, waiting for the right moment, pretending he’s playing.   He keeps watch, from the corner of his eye: the woman’s face is glowing red in the light of her machine.  She looks flushed.  She is playing five dollars a spin.  There is no pause between turns.  The mottled skin of her chubby right hand rests against the Deal button, never lifting.   A pair of baby devils in red suits with pitchforks and curly tails wiggle on every bet. 

A small woman in an apron carrying a tray of drinks brushes his shoulder.

“Would you like a drink?”

Jimmy wants to laugh.  Women don’t ask him this very often.  He is only buying himself time when he accepts a soft drink and takes a sip, flat pellets of ice slipping between his teeth.  He bites down, grinds down and gazes out at the casino floor.

Business has slowed down since he walked in.  There are no clocks on the walls to tell him how long he has been here.  He measures time by money.  When he is out, his time is up.  There are fewer people staggering around, more empty seats.  He could cash out his five, move to another chair.  Moving might give him a little more time, help him stall.  He could wander the floor a bit, drink in hand, thirst growing, until just the right machine came into view.   He will sit, he will play, he will, possibly, maybe, walk out of here with his shirt on.   Make a decision.  His fingers make it for him. 

Three more dollars as the slots turn and turn, pinging loudly as they light up on the hit.  One seagull.  Two seagulls.  Bonus. 

Bonus looks like a blue ribbon prize at a county fair.  Bonus means double.  He has a hundred and seven dollars on the machine now. 

“They play with you, don’t they?”

The woman is not even looking at him: she is still focused on her own screen, so Jimmy is unsure if she is the one who spoke.  He looks around for a moment, but no one else is there.  A casino employee in a black vest pushes a shiny silver and red vacuum cleaner around the floor.   Jimmy guesses the man probably doesn’t even speak English. 

“Yeah.”

He drains the rest of his drink; in spite of the ice it is warmer than he thought.  It does not quench his thirst, the dryness in his throat and chest.   He is back where he started, no worse off than before.  No better.

This is my luck.  

Smoke drifts noxious through his senses.  His clothes will always reek of it.  His skin will turn the color of bile.  His hair will grow greasy and matted.  His insides will turn black, covered in ugly cankerous nodules.   

Emma will never call me daddy again.  

The screen on the woman’s machine explodes in balls of animated fire; Satan himself appears in his rubbery red suit, twiddling his moustache.  The two little horns on his head glisten and sparkle.  Old Scratch winks and numbers start to tumble across the screen.

“About time.”

He watches as the woman’s bonus dances across her screen in clouds of smoke: fifteen hundred coins – fifteen hundred dollars. 

Chances are, if I start again, make another bet on this machine, I’m going to lose it all.  I could find another machine, something without silly sea creatures or jewel-eyed nymphs. 

He spies another Devil Deals machine and hits CASH OUT, collecting his ticket. 

“Can I bum a smoke?”

The woman smiles at him and holds up her pack of cigarettes.  He reaches for one as she hands him a lighter.  

“Good luck.”

He takes a long drag as he walks away, toward the bank of flames reaching out to him.

“I’m going all the way.”

~ by yearzerowriters on January 4, 2010.

21 Responses to “We Play With Fire”

  1. This guy writes just great. I like his style and wit very much. Welcome!

  2. DJ! What a wonderful surprise! You know I rate this story. Great to see it out & about.
    Pen

  3. Splendid. What an introduction you make!

    Anne LG

  4. Fantastic portrait of monomanical vision and the desperation underpinning it. As the child of a compulsive gambler I could relate exactly to the little bargains and negotiations with the self you’ve written here. The imagery is wonderful, I could place myself as the reader ‘loitering’ over his shoulder, his gaze reflected to me in the gaudy lights of the machines.

    Marc

  5. […] of writers and artists known as Year Zero, have allowed me a guest post spot for my short story, We Play With Fire:  hope you enjoy (and don’t forget to check out YZ’s great contributors whose latest […]

  6. Wow and wow again – thank you all so much for taking the time to read and thank you Dan for posting. I must point out, since there is some dispute on my gender – I am of the female persuasion (in more ways than one), but thank you Heikki for enjoying the story all the same!

    Pen – you got to see it first, very glad you are still pleased.

    Anne – Thank you muchly – I hope to make another contribution in the near-future.

    Marc – Thank you for your great comments – I worried this story might be a bit too American on some level – the tribal casino experience is so unique here I think – and tragic to watch. I hope your story has/had a happier ending though. Cheers!

  7. Powerful unflinching unsentimental stuff. Intense and claustrophobic – I like this very much.

  8. Dan – I am very glad and many thanks to you for allowing me to contribute. XOX

    Skycycler – Thank you so much – I’m glad when a story takes a hold of a person this way. Very gratifying.

    • I think the addiction thing transcends cultural boundaries, the emptiness that lies at the heart desperate to be filled.

      I visited Vegas with my folks when I was 14 and of course was below the age limit to do anything ‘fun’, but I got an eyeful of the gaudy madness all the same.

      Marc

  9. Marc – Yes, it is a story about a kind of addiction – you put it very well. So much emptiness around us, wanting anything to take it away, put something better in its place. People are so competitive for it and gambling is the perfect outlet, or perfect metaphor for this need to be more than we are. As if there were something else – not sure what.

    I visited Vegas as well at about that age, with my grandparents. My aunt and I, both of us too young, had to sit outside in the hot sun while they played quarter machines. That’s a sunburn I’ll never forget.

    DJ

    • I think most addictions have an element of trying to fill the emptiness with something -anything that is far from nourishing and hence destructive, be it drugs, alcohol or gambling. What better image than the constant feeding of dollars into the slot, please fill me up by vomiting back a jackpot at me…

      marc

  10. That’s a fascinating problem, isn’t it? Why is a tendency to negativity so common – because it is easier or because it tastes/looks better? Maybe all the above. I saw an Asian woman, a tourist in a tribal casino once, years ago (my first visit to one), and she kept feeding the machine as it were, over and over, losing over and over and kept saying ‘Oh shit. Stupid. Oh shit. So stupid.’ in this thick accent. At the time I thought it was hilarious – but it’s scary too – how quickly we give ourselves over to it.

    I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I like the ’emptiness’ – I never noticed as a young person, but now it feels liberating.

    DJ

  11. Jesus christ – the emptiness petrifies me. Maybe thats coz it all but swallowed me. I try to keep it jam-packed, feeding it with words & people & anything positive I can manage to swallow without gagging. If I remember rightly, in NA they say addicts are like ring doughnuts.
    Penny

  12. PS Swallow or be swallowed! Ugh…
    Pen

  13. It used to scare me shitless too – to the point of panic attacks and constant anxiety. It’s taken a long time to work through, still working through it, could not survive without a connection to something, someone. Hanging on to certain things though, toxic things or potentially toxic – feeling empty feels better, to me.

    Of course, it can also be isolating, so – yes, the doughnut metaphor sounds apt!
    DJ

  14. I experience the emptiness as something outside of myself, bigger than me but theres a corresponding emptiness inside me & the horror happens when/if they fuse.
    I used to get pulled up sharply for ‘isolating’ in rehab (it was one of the ‘forbiddens’) but I swear it saved me. We used to get lots of ponderous written work, had to write life story twice & had to write & receive ‘confrontation letters’ in response to our life stories – all of this done by reading aloud to each other in a small attic – where you supposedly ‘attacked’ the addict in someone. It all got extremely personal, nasty, emotional. But writing the stuff in a corner with my back to everyone was my first taste of how to live without booze.
    Pen

  15. Sorry – I seem to have strayed from the point. The point is – your story is powerful. It packs a grim punch.
    P

  16. i have such a potential to be a degenerate gambler…and i just love the aesthetic of las vegas. i’ve spent a lot of time there! and this scene nails it. totally fucking nails it.
    thanks a lot.

  17. Pen – I have a feeling your life would make one amazing book/film/collage/installation someday. xox

    Jenn – You? A gambler? No way!🙂 Vegas has changed so much over the years, since I first went there in…1981 I think….but no matter how ‘family-friendly’ they try to make it, its rotted core still shows beneath. There is something about the timelessness of a casino, that lack of real air, of pure fantasy and drama, that keeps gamblers going for hours without ever looking at a watch – I’ve always found it unsettling, sad, a hellish cabaret. Glad you enjoyed.😀

    DJ

  18. Annette Messager showed an installation called ‘Casino’ at The Hayward last spring. I wish I could find a decent vid of it. It was… I can’t find words good enough… it was awesome, breathtaking – a huge shallow space saturated with intense red & a billowing wall & floor of red fabric moving over mysterious glowing red lumps, never fully revealed. It sucked you in & held you, pinned in sleaze & menace.
    Pen

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