|Jan/Feb 2016 Fiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
Dark red tracks of stringy salmon blood traversed the worktable leading to a heap of entrails. Inside a Chinook, my knife danced around in a familiar routine, snipping tendons, loosening organs, and wrestling a kidney from alongside the spine, scraping hard until the bone shone. I hoisted the fish up by its flabby lips and sprayed the interior of the empty carcass with water. Its thick, silvery flesh flashed under the fluorescent lights and flopped around like it had one last breath. When the job was done, I put it on the conveyer belt and sent it down to Packing.
A steady stream of cold water trickled from a hanging hose. Despite the thick gloves, my fingers were stiff and my knuckle joints ached. When frigid water spilled over the sides of the table and settled in my galoshes, it made my toes numb all day long.
I didn't exactly plan to become a salmon slimer when I graduated last summer, but my dad told me I'd have to start at the bottom. He dug for oysters down in Fanny Bay for most of his life and said it nearly broke his back.
After work I made my way to Chances Casino. It was the usual routine, only this time I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket as I neared the front entrance. It was a text from Beth: Be home by 8.
When I sat down next to Buck Eddy at a Double Diamond Dipper, I sifted through my wallet. I chose a fifty over a twenty, since Beth was cracking the whip time wise. I didn't dare write back to ask her to join me. The one time I brought her to the casino, she swore she'd never be back. She said watching those people made her "weep for mankind."
The fifty slid into the machine. I pulled a notebook from my inside pocket and Buck Eddy shook his head. "Still totin' that thing around?"
I stroked the leather cover. I used that book to describe the habits, quirks, and big payouts of each of the casino's 125 machines and to keep a running tally of my gains and losses. I was up $3,443 in four years.
"Don't knock it 'til you try it." I said to him.
He shook his head.
When I opened the notebook, a brochure fell out. Buck Eddy pointed to it on the paisley carpet. "Oy, looky looky."
I noticed Beth's familiar curly handwriting across the top, so I picked it up.
Buck Eddy squinted at the title, "The Myths of Gambling," then snorted and turned back to his machine. His gnarled fingers slapped the MAX BET button and the reels somersaulted. He didn't watch the spin, but fished around in his pocket for another fifty. As he fed it into the machine I read Beth's note out loud, "Saw this and thought of you. Love Beth."
"Beth?" Buck Eddy said. "What happened to Julia?"
"Still don't know how you find so many lesbos around."
I felt my cheeks redden. "Ever hear of the Internet?"
Buck Eddy sniffed. "Love is a hammock. Get comfortable, and it'll flip you on your ass."
It was the usual banter. Right on cue, I said, "Where's your wife tonight?"
He lowered his chin to his chest and peered out over the top of his black-rimmed glasses. The lights in the casino picked up the shininess of his bald spot. What little grey hair he had left was thin and wispy like a breath of air. "I don't come here to talk about the old lady."
I scribbled a few notes in my book before getting started.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Machine #4 (DDD)
I concentrated on the fifty in the machine. A few spins went by. I got a couple of cherries, a few mixed bars, but no damn diamonds. Suddenly Buck's machine went off. He bounced up and down on the stool the way he always does when he gets a win. The numbers jumped higher and higher until settling at four hundred. I said, "Not enough to go home, eh?"
"You know I don't leave this early for anything less than a grand."
Buck has been here every day since before my time. I have a note about him in my first entry, dated Friday, September 13, 2008: "Buck Eddy: few missing teeth, seems nice." I remember that day vividly because I had just moved up to Campbell River from Courtenay to start the aquaculture program at North Island College. I went to the casino most nights after that, even found an apartment within walking distance. The casino had just opened, and it was bleeding big cash wins in those days.
"Hear about Jonny?" Buck said.
Jonny had Parkinson's and took some drug that caused compulsive behavior. In his case, it was gambling. Sometimes it was his wife that dragged him out kicking and screaming. Other times, his daughter came to pull him off the reels. She was gentler, but Jonny still resisted and caused a big scene. His daughter would lean forward with her back straight and ass sticking out like she needed to maintain a certain distance from the machines. She carefully peeled his hands off the buttons and coaxed him with bribes like, Let's hit the McDonald's drive thru, hey dad? His wife, however, used threats that always started with Get your scrawny little ass...
Buck said, "Wife caught him in here again," He started laughing. "But—" He was giggling so hard he couldn't talk.
"She chew him out?"
"She tried to shift him off Wheel of Fortune, but he said, on account of the medication and all that, 'If it ain't gambling it's gonna be sex. You take your pick.'"
Buck burst out laughing so hard he wheezed.
I said, "Guess she didn't have to think twice 'bout that."
Buck's rattling chest slowed down as we both concentrated on our game. My book showed that this machine was a fast payout, not like the penny pusher Captain Cutthroat Xtra Reel Power over in the corner, which sometimes took an hour to crack.
Two sevens, two single bars—I was getting close. I fed the machine a few more bills and stroked its side. Buck Eddy always says, "Treat her well and she'll give you what you want."
Just as I neared a $150 loss, my machine got a hit. It was only two triple bars and a doubler, but I got back almost all of my original investment. I pitied Jonny. Maybe he just needed a win to scratch that itch he had.
I got another little hit and it bumped me back up to positive digits. I could feel the rush flooding my system, like hot wax was starting to slowly trickle through my veins. My sweaty palm made a farting noise as it pushed down on the green button for another spin. The reels flashed and teased. The world outside faded away and time became inconsequential.
Beth? Beth who? No way I was leaving now with such a big win about to come. Some grey hair in a pink fleece sweater had been peering over my shoulder all night long. She was all smiles when I turned around and caught her staring. But she was circling like a vulture, waiting to pounce on my machine the moment I gave up. I wasn't going to let her scoop my jackpot. No, I was determined to ride it out.
Several more spins went by. All of a sudden, a pair of double diamonds landed in front of me, then another right beside it. Slow. Quiet. Then the yearning. Dry throat, burning cheeks. A third pair slid into place. I gazed at the perfect symmetry of the three double diamonds staring back at me. My heart slammed against the side of my chest over and over and my hands started shaking like crazy. The machine exploded with music and lights.
"C'mon big money." I screamed as the numbers began flying. I held on to the red ball at the end of the handle to steady myself. Buck tipped his head in respect; the skulking scavenger in pink scowled and walked away. When the machine settled on a number, I did a quick calculation in my head. I waited until my hands stopped shaking before I recorded the winnings in my book:
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Machine #4 (DDD)
The machine blinked a message: "Wait for attendant." I stretched my arms and chatted with Buck. You never knew how long this part would take; it wasn't like the casino was in any rush to give away its money.
When the attendant appeared, she said, "Congratulations!"
I couldn't help but beam. I said, "Well it's about time."
She picked up the receiver on her radio transmitter and mumbled into it. She scribbled a few things on a white form and passed me the pen. "Just need your autograph, ma'am."
After the paperwork was in order, she reset the machine and then left to get my money.
Hands still shaking, I started to feed a twenty in when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and there was Beth standing in front of me. My winner's high deflated like a popped balloon.
She shouted over the chaotic chimes and dings of the casino, "Didn't you get my text?"
"What time is it?"
She held up her phone and showed me the clock. I gasped. "Beth, I'm—"
Buck Eddy leaned over, "Hi, Julia."
Beth asked, "What?"
I said quickly, "Beth. He called you Beth."
Buck gave her a toothless grin, and she gave him a dirty look.
I told her, "I'm so sorry."
She glared at me.
"I was just leaving. I swear."
Beth grabbed the sleeve of my leather jacket firmly and tugged on it. She said, "Then let's go." It was just like I'd seen Jonny's wife grab Jonny and drag his ass out of the casino all holier-than-thou.
"No." I asserted. She let go and stopped.
"I mean," I stuttered. "I had a big win, and I have to wait for the attendant."
She looked around.
"I swear, Beth. She was just here."
"I'll be outside. Waiting." She turned and walked away. I saw that her long blond hair had been French-braided meticulously, not a bump in sight. That always meant she had too much time on her hands.
I called after her, "I'm sorry." She didn't turn around.
At the casino entrance, I saw her smack her hand against the front door and shove it open forcibly. When it closed behind, her I took a deep breath.
Buck piped up, "Your missus sure knows how to kill a buzz."
"Tell me about it."
The attendant took seven minutes. I know because I kept my eye on the clock. Knowing Beth was waiting for me made those few minutes feel like an eternity. I chewed off every nail I had on my left hand. I would've worked my way through the right hand but it was busy burning through $40 in the Double Diamond Dipper.
When I had my winnings in hand, I rushed to the front door. Beth was standing nearby, pacing.
"Took forever. Sorry."
She nodded and started towards the parking lot, and I followed. We walked through a circle of smokers huddled the requisite three meters from the front door of the casino. I recognized them from inside; they were big video poker players. One guy with greasy curls and a ripped vinyl windbreaker called over, "Hope there's a little left for me in there, eh?"
Beth sped up, and something told me to do the same. I ignored the remark, just threw the smokers a sheepish shrug. I tried to catch up to Beth, but she was practically running to the car we shared.
Then my car opener turned on me. I pushed the little "unlock" button about a million times, but my battery had been running low for a while and chose that moment to give up for good. Beth held her opener up and pressed it once. The car made a flat moan, like she'd sucked all the life out of it.
At the car, she said, "Did you get the brochure?"
She stared at me, waiting for a response. I pulled it out of my pocket and held it up to show her I still had it.
"Keep it. For me."
"Fine." I said.
As Beth drove, I scanned the brochure. On the front below her writing, was a little troll wearing a blue shirt that said LUCKY. Inside were seven "myths" about gambling.
Myth #1: Today is my lucky day; I know I'm going to win.
"Bullshit," I said to Beth. "This brochure is a load of—"
Her foot hit the brake a little harder than necessary for the traffic light at Shopper's Row, and I took that as a warning to shut up. She watched as I made a show of tucking the brochure in my notebook and placing it carefully in my inside pocket. Then she turned back to the road and concentrated on driving.
Beth spent the night most of the time but still hadn't moved all her stuff in. Every time I came home, there was something new lying around. Her life was migrating cautiously, one personal effect at a time, from her mother's house to my apartment.
The latest was a fuzzy bathrobe that had once been white but was now a little dingy and tattered around the edges. It was draped over a couch cushion. When we entered the apartment, she grabbed it and headed for the shower. I tried to imagine her in such a ratty piece of clothing, but couldn't. Beth was full of surprises, contradictions. Some days she told me she wanted to have a baby, and could we raise it together? Other days she told me I'd be happier alone.
I was lying in bed when she came in, hair dripping all over the floor.
"Do you want us to finish?"
"What? No!" I sat up in bed. "Where did that come from?"
"I asked you to come home at eight."
"I said I was sorry. The machine took a while to get warmed up."
She got into bed and I hugged her close. I could tell she hadn't brushed her teeth. There was something dark in them, probably seaweed from that takeout sushi she always gets at Save-On.
We were both lying there trying to fall asleep but just tossing and turning when I asked her, "What's with the brochure?"
"Just came across it and thought of you."
She said, "Everyone thinks you're trouble."
"Everyone as in who?"
"My supervisor says you're afraid of commitment."
"You talk about me to your boss?"
I wondered if Buck Eddy had to deal with this crap at home. "What a crock of shit." I told her.
In the light shining in from the living room, I saw her picking at her teeth.
"Have you heard of brushing?"
"Fuck you." She rolled over in bed.
I flipped over, too, so our backs faced each other.
From my bedside table, I grabbed a set of earplugs. She was probably going to start sniffing too loud or clearing her throat obnoxiously, hoping I'd turn over and ask her if she was OK. Then the bedroom lights would have gone on, we'd have had to sit up in bed to "talk things through," and I'd have had to see her dirty teeth again. I scrunched up the little orange plugs and shoved them as far into my ear holes as they'd go.
In the morning her side of the bed was empty. Winter was close, and we were at the tail end of Chum season. I hadn't put the baseboard heaters on yet, and I felt too cold to move. I listened for her in the kitchen, but the apartment was silent. We both had a day off, so she should have been there beside me, sleeping late and cuddling.
I tried to wrap the blanket around me tighter but kept on shaking. My feet were the coldest. They just wouldn't warm up, the same way I could never shake the smell of fish. I ran for the bedroom heater, cranked it, and hopped back to bed. An overwhelming stench of burning dust filled the room—a nice change from dead salmon.
At the end of every shift at the plant, I would shake off my rubber uniform and pour soap all the way up to my elbows. It was pink and thick like Pepto Bismol but smelled like candle wax. After lathering and scrubbing, I'd immerse my hands in some bleach solution until they burned. The cleaners would go at the machines and the floors with all sorts of harsh chemicals. But the stench of dead fish lodged itself in my clothes and hair and followed me onto the ferry, which shuttled me from the fish processing plant on Quadra Island to Campbell River. Even as I walked home through the city, the blustery winds off the ocean couldn't shake it loose.
Sometimes it happened that Beth was finishing her shift at Reitman's around the same time my ferry docked, and she would meet me at the terminal. I'd try to hug her, and she'd say something like, "Fish with a hint of fish. You know the way to a girl's heart."
Once, on our walk home together, I told her about my plans to open a small plant of my own with a store attached.
"You can be the manager." I said.
She wrinkled her nose and said something shitty like, "So I can smell like you? No thank you very much."
Her dad had worked a commercial boat up near Port Hardy. He'd come home for short stints and drink away his paycheques. In the end his liver crapped out, and he left Beth and her mother with a pile of credit card bills to wade through.
Beth said, "You know, I've had it with this town. With salmon."
"The big money's in prawns."
"I don't know the first thing about shrimp," she said. Then we stopped moving, and she walked her fingers up my arm playfully. "Except that I like them sautéed in butter."
I thought I'd ride the momentum. I said, "I'll take care of packing. The shop will smell like whatever you want it to smell like."
"I sell clothes, not fish."
"You're a natural. Look at that bonus you got last month."
"We'll see. You gotta stop throwing money in the slots if you want to save for a business."
"Well, I gotta get the capital from somewhere."
She started walking again, this time faster. I struggled to keep up. We went the rest of the way in silence. I dreamed up business plans and packaging ideas. I knew a guy from college who'd just purchased his own prawn license, which was a pretty big deal.
Beth's smell was all over the pillows and blankets in the bed: It was fresh and slightly fruity—delicate just like her. I rolled over and took a big breath in. I remembered my promise from the night before and reached over to grab my casino notebook from the bedside table. The brochure was tucked inside.
Myth #2: If I'm losing at slots, I'm more likely to win if I keep playing.
I thought about the money I'd won the night before. Just $547, which wasn't even enough to make Buck Eddy call it a night. And it was practically a drop in the bucket for poor Jonny. But still, I wasn't losing at slots. What I was losing at was Beth.
I pictured her feet. They were small and soft. I didn't mind them rubbing against mine in bed. That's how I knew she was the one. I made all the others wear socks.
"Fact," I said to the little troll on the brochure. "Definitely not a myth: I need to keep playing."
I dragged the bed to the window and peered out over the town below. That's what Beth and I usually did on our days off. My apartment building is on a hill overlooking Campbell River. I heard there was an elevator in the medical building behind the post office in Tyee Plaza, but downtown looked remarkably one-storied from my window. The sun shone brightly, and all windows downtown flickered like they were on fire, and the ocean beyond shimmered like the stainless steel fillet knives at work. The sun was burning off those dark clouds that usually obscured the mountains on the mainland and the dense green forest of Quadra Island.
Once Beth pointed towards the crowd of squat buildings. "See that red roof? It's a pool hall. That's where my dad drank his life away."
I remembered it because Beth never talked about her father, as if she'd cut that part of her life out with a scalpel.
"Shitty." I replied.
She said. "You remind me of him."
"He was a good man, you know. Before the drinking, I mean."
I put my arm around her shoulders. I told her, "I would never let you down like that. I'm not a man, so you've got nothing to worry about."
She smiled faintly, and I kissed her deep, not little pecks and awkward hugs like we do in public. She leaned against my shoulder and held my hand on her lap.
"I miss him." She said after a while.
The look on her face reminded me of the one I saw Jonny's daughter make. It was a mixture of guilt and pity, barely visible under the crushing weight of too much love. Jonny's daughter wasn't like his wife. She'd tug on his sleeve gently, wheedle him away slowly like she tried hard to preserve that little bit of dignity he had left. I wondered how Beth coaxed her father out of the pool hall.
I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and called Beth. She didn't answer. I called again at eleven, twelve, one pm.
By three, my car was idling outside her mom's place in Willow Point. I honked, and Beth peered through the blinds for a second before shutting them. I decided to wait it out. I remembered my promise to Beth and picked up the brochure.
Myth #3: If I'm losing at slots, I should increase my bets because a win is due.
Suddenly there was a banging on my window. I rolled it down.
She said, "Get lost. You're making a scene. Mom's livid." The street was so quiet that her voice had an echo.
"Get in the car, Beth. You've made your point."
She bit her lip, took a quick look down the street, and went around to the passenger side.
When she sat down beside me, I thought about increasing my bets.
I said, "Let's have a baby."
Her eyes grew big, her forehead twitching with confusion. "Is that even possible?"
I laughed. "Well by 'let's,' I mean—"
She shook her head. "Wait. Why?"
"Isn't that what you want?"
She leaned back on the headrest and closed her eyes. I hated it when she got like this. All quiet and introspective.
She looked that way the first night we arranged to meet at DI Lounge in the Coast Hotel. It was the same place I met Julia, who ended up being another bored housewife. She said she was curious on the dating site, but by the fifth date we were still just cuddling all night. When I came across Beth, though, I could tell she was the real deal. She knew enough to label herself lipstick femme in her online profile.
She'd been full of self-pity at first, straight out of a bad breakup, but her baggage was lighter than most. And I made her laugh. I always hit it off with women because I'm a pretty funny lady and outgoing as hell. At least that's what they say. Usually, on our way out of the pub, we'd hit the Cold Beer and Wine at the Haida Inn to get a six-pack for the road. Generally speaking, I get the girl outside in the Tyee Plaza parking lot and guide her towards Spirit Square, then crack a few jokes about the carved statue. It's of a high rigger straddling the top of a 50-metre-tall spar.
"Locals call him Logger Mike." I'd say. "Now there's a real man... That cedar pole's almost 500 years old... A real testament to the city's proud logging history."
Then I'd do this whole shtick about Logger Mike being stuck up there so long and wouldn't he love a beer? I'd start to shimmy the log pole, and depending on how many I'd had, I just might make it half way up.
But Beth didn't buy it. She was born and raised in Campbell River, and Spirit Square to her was just where the bus stop used to be. Good thing, too, because now Logger Mike's pole has this protective plastic cone thing around its base, and anyways I was probably too old for that bullshit.
When I suggested a six-pack, she said, "How about a hot chocolate at Starbucks instead?"
When she started spending more time at my apartment, she brought over a salad spinner. I put up with her 17 different lip-glosses scattered across the bathroom counter and her eye shadows that coated my toothbrush in a light pastel dust. She had this annoying habit of dribbling a little bit of milk on the counter when she made cereal, but I dealt with it.
How could I tell her that I was sick of the Logger Mike jokes? I thought of Buck Eddy bouncing in his chair. Marriage, babies, mortgage: it was a risk I was willing to take for a little bit of happiness.
She still hadn't answered me. I looked down at her feet. She was wearing flip-flops.
"Aren't your feet cold?"
My own were cold, and I had wool socks on with work boots. Even when I had a day off, they were cold, as if they just froze out of habit. She didn't tell me how her feet were because she was lost in thought, but I turned on the car and cranked the heat anyways. I turned back to the brochure and wondered if the troll was trying to send me a message.
Myth #4: I can control the game with my positive thinking and my lucky charm.
I pressed play on the CD player and music filled the car. I sang as loudly as I could, even did a little air guitar. She didn't flinch.
"C'mon, cheer up. I love you."
"This street is full of geriatrics—you're gonna blow their hearing aids." She yelled over the noise.
I turned the volume down. She rubbed her toes together, and I wondered how she could stand that little bit of leather between them.
My throat felt dry like it does when I feel a jackpot coming. "I missed you this morning, Beth."
"What's this about a baby?"
"I got some saved. Let's buy a little bungalow." My heart started beating faster.
"The girls at work—"
Beth started laughing. I joined in. I felt relieved, like all the muscles in my face suddenly relaxed.
She said, "I don't know. This is—"
"This is big, Beth."
She promised to call later, and I decided to leave things like that. She was so shocked that she couldn't even open her door. I had to lean over and help her out. Then she ran inside the house as fast as her flip-flops would take her.
I drove straight to Chances. Inside, I went right for Machine #14, the Safari Sundowner. My records showed it was due for a big win. I hadn't been on it since February 13, 2012, the day before I met Beth.
Buck Eddy was on a Pyramids of Gold, a few seats down. He nodded in my direction. No matter the day, I'd always find him here. I didn't know much about his past, but I knew he funded his casino career with some sort of inheritance. He never talked about how much he lost, but he said once that if he thought too hard about playing with free money, it would kill his high. To get around it, he put the cash in his wife's bank account so it would feel like he was burning through her money instead.
I wrote in my book:
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Machine #14 (SS)
I put a green bill in the long thin hole and slapped MAX BET. I played over and over, one twenty after another. I thought about Beth and her strange request. I propped the brochure up on the top of the machine, obscuring the charts displaying all the possible combinations and the corresponding payouts. I'd memorized all that stuff anyway. I guess I'd hoped that Beth would show up, to make amends, and see how I kept her promise to look at the brochure.
Myth #5: Staying at the same slot machine will improve my chances of winning a jackpot.
The reels spun. I emptied the entire contents of my wallet in the machine. I checked my phone. I turned up the ringer volume. I texted Beth, "Miss you. Call me soon." Twenty minutes passed and I lost close to $200—my daily limit.
I looked at the troll and thought, OK you got me there. No jackpot. No Beth. I amended my last entry.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
ON 20:03 OFF 20:25
Machine #14 (SS)
Baby? Not looking good
At work the next day I slipped my fillet knife into the gut of a Chinook and sliced a perfect line down the middle. She had shiny skin, smooth like a wave, with no signs of sea lice or disease. Her eyes were brilliant, and everything coming out was bright and healthy. She was my seventh fish of the day, and my gloves were already stained black on the palms. I was pinching the base of her head and snipping the tendons to coax out the viscera when the supervisor tapped my shoulder.
I was so startled, my knife damn near went through the fish's eye.
The "visitors" were lab rats from BC Fisheries. Larry, who stands next to me on the slime line, was tapped next, and he did a little side shuffle and bum wiggle in excitement. They'd shut the plant down for the rest of the day to test for salmon anemia, and we'd all go home with full pay. These official types had a tendency to just show up and get dramatic about "plummeting stocks" and "widespread epidemic." It was low season and we didn't even have much stock, so I was genuinely surprised. I thought they'd be holed up in some dark office, punching numbers into a computer and coming up with scary scenarios that put the public right off eating salmon.
At clean up, I went through the motions, but I could feel the slime between my fingers even after bleaching, so I started the process again from the beginning. Larry said, "What's bothering you?"
"You're double cleaning?"
I sighed. "It's Beth. I think she's had it with me."
"Plenty of fish in the sea?"
I said to Larry, "Not according to them." I pointed in the direction of the investigation team. Half of them were inspecting a row of recently gutted fish with plastic gloves, while the other half hovered further back making notes on a clipboard. With every scratch of their pens, I imagined another sliming job disappearing.
"Hey, man, let's head for Chances." I said to Larry.
But he went on about his wife nagging him to put up the Christmas lights and what he would do for some peace and quiet.
I'd considered partnering with Larry in my new business. He's pretty efficient, and we're both expecting a promotion to Icing or Packing any day now. Not through the winter months when it's just Chinook coming in, but in June when Coho catches rev up and they hire all the newbies, I'm hoping for a little more than guts.
We don't chat much on shift, what with the overhead fans and delousing turbines spinning like crazy. But on the ferry, I decided to feel him out. I needed a distraction from thinking about Beth and why she wouldn't return any of my phone calls.
"Shit, I hate this job." I said.
"I hear you."
"Got any plans?"
"I told you, Christmas lights."
"No, like after the slime line. After Icing." He still looked confused, so I added, "After we're fed up with all that." I pointed behind us towards the plant on Quadra Island.
He thought for a few seconds and then said, "Well, the wife's itching to move down island."
"Beth's always talking about it, too. Says there's a Reitman's opening in Langford and she's hoping they send her down to help set it up. I mean, us. Send us down."
His eyebrows rose.
I told him, "I think she's the one."
He looked across the ocean and measured his answer. Even when you think it won't work out between your friend and her girlfriend, you have to watch what you say just in case it does. After careful consideration he said, "She best be worth it. Langford's like Courtenay on steroids. You won't find any sliming work there, that's for sure."
I thought about Beth and the way she'd peel off my boots and my wet socks, then rub my cold feet until the blood started flowing again. Sometimes we'd shower together and she'd massage my lower back, which ached after hunching over fish all day long.
Before we docked, I texted Beth and asked her to meet me at the Queen of Hearts in Chances. I said, "This is important."
By the time I arrived at the casino, she still hadn't replied. I spotted Buck at the Pyramids of Gold. When I got close enough, I patted him on the back. He jumped.
"Hey, it's just me!" I said.
"Shit, man. I got the heebie-jeebies since your missus hunted me down."
"Beth was here?"
"A couple of hours ago. It was the goddamned Spanish Inquisition." Then Buck used some high-pitched, crackly voice to imitate Beth asking questions, "Well how would you define 'problem gambling'? Well now, Buck, tell me, on a scale of one to ten..."
"Sorry man. She's really lost it this time." I said.
"Get rid. She's more trouble than—"
"Get rid?" Beth said behind us.
She must have crept up quietly. I felt my stomach lurch and tumble, like I was a salmon and someone had my guts clutched in their fist. "Beth, wait. I can explain." I reached for her.
She slapped my hand away. "Don't bother. I came here to say something, so just wait for it."
"OK." I sat down. My heart was beating fast.
"I can stay in Campbell River, for you. But the gambling. It's just too much."
I felt a little relieved knowing it was something so minor. "I'll stop. It's just a hobby."
"I don't want you to stop."
"I want you to want to stop."
Buck muttered, "Doublespeak. Typical."
She stared at me, arms folded, waiting. I told Buck, "Hey, I heard Pirates of Penzance was hot today. I'll catch up with you later."
Buck look irritated, but he took the hint and left.
"Beth, I love you."
"No, you love these machines."
"It's no big deal. I can stop any time."
She looked down at her hands and spoke quietly, "My father said the same thing about drinking."
"I'm up. Look." I pulled the notebook out. But she wouldn't take it, so I shoved it back in my pocket.
She said, "You live in a dream world."
"I won't come here anymore. Would that make you happy?"
"No, I don't think it would."
She turned and left without a word, like she couldn't spare another breath on me. I pulled out the brochure and read the myths again as if they contained the answers to all of our problems.
Myth #6: Over time, I'll win more than I lose.
I wandered around the casino aimlessly, then leaned against the wall and flipped through my notebook. I decided to settle on a high stakes machine called Lady Luck. It was due for a little pay out, according to my calculations. I fed it a fifty.
"I'll win more than I lose." I read again. I was up in money, it was right there in my notebook in black and white: $3243. It wasn't a myth. I felt Buck Eddy put his bony hand on my shoulder.
"What's the story morning glory?"
"She dumped me."
"Is that why you're just staring at that machine?"
"Just stop." I said roughly.
He was unfazed. He said, "The odds are shit here, but it's even worse in marriage. Consider yourself saved."
"Forget it. Let's play. Take your mind off things."
He stuck his member's card in the machine and then fed it a twenty.
"You never play the dollar slots." I said.
He pressed the green SPIN button and said, "Got a feeling is all."
We played in comfortable silence. I was leafing through my notebook, planning my next move, when I heard the noise. The sirens whirled above Buck and music blared. His machine went into spasms. The numbers jumped from 100 to 200 to 400 and they showed no signs of slowing.
"Holy shit, Buck!"
At $2350, things started to wind down. Buck bounced up and down on his stool. A crowd of grey hairs gathered to snoop and sniff at his success, whispering to each other, "What's he got there? Now would you look at that."
When it was all over and the attendant had come and gone twice, he said, "Well, that's me."
"Maybe the Missus'll be happy you're home early tonight."
"She ain't never happy. That's just it."
After he left, I updated my book:
Friday, November 16, 2012
Machine #24 (Lady Luck)
(Buck's GAINS: $2350 > he left before me!!)
I looked around the casino. Jonny was huddled over a machine in the corner, hiding in a black baseball cap and dark vinyl jacket. Maybe Beth thought we all played erratically like him, like we didn't consider consequences and limits. But Jonny was always there, like Buck. They play and lose; they play and win. Nothing could be more predictable than that.
I heard Buck's voice behind me, "Well, wouldn't you know it. Subtract my losses today, and I got just $999 after all is said and done."
I smiled at him and was surprised by the relief I felt. "I'm fine, you can go home."
"I'd rather see where this takes us."
He handed me a fifty and gestured towards a machine nearby.
"I don't know about that one," I started to flip through my notebook and the brochure fell out on to the floor. I went to pick it up, but Buck grabbed my arm. He shook his head.
"Lose the brochure. Heck, lose the notebook, too. The slots, Beth, it's all blind luck."
But there was nothing blind about it. Even Buck didn't get it.
He was right about the brochure, though. I picked it up and headed for the garbage can near the casino entrance. My eyes scanned through all of the myths once more before reaching the end.
Myth #7: I almost won, so a win must be close.
Behind me the casino was calling to me with its constant loud dings and whistles, and those incessant, rhythmic flashing lights. Outside, I could see the smokers huddled near the front door, the same ones Beth had snubbed. Behind them was the parking lot and beyond that the apartment we had shared.
A win was coming; the troll was wrong again. I considered leaving and calling Beth. Then I remembered Buck who was handing out fifties like candy. I had to weigh my chances.
I threw the brochure into the garbage can. It didn't make much of a sound, like it landed on something soft. Like it never was. Or like Beth was a jackpot that never paid out.
I turned and saw Buck feeding a Flaming Flamingos machine and stroking its side. The seat next to him was empty, its machine quiet and waiting. Ready. I moved quickly, before one of those old geezers beat me to it.