|Oct/Nov 2018 Fiction|
Gretchen's face was filthy, and she had to be dragged inside. She fought hard, too, with a fierce animal strength, and Margaret entered the shiny glass doors panting and bruised, sweat fusing her hands with the child's sticky, twisting limbs. At first Margaret took comfort in the familiar music of the slots, the brilliant blue carpet that made her feel like a queen. But then she saw it was Donny at the door, even though it was supposed to be Mark Dale on Wednesdays. Mark Dale was sweet, goofy, always with a little toy for Gretchen, but Donny was mean and suspicious, and he just loved to enforce any rule you could think of. Margaret bestowed on him her most dazzling smile.
But that Donny didn't care. He wouldn't smile back, just raked his hand through his greasy pile of hair and asked for Margaret's ID. Her ID, for God's sake. Everybody in the joint knew her and Gretchen after all these years.
"Sure," she said, keeping the smile pasted on. "Just hang on and let me find it in this trash heap." She did a little routine of rummaging through her purse, taking out smushed pieces of paper and putting them back in, dropping a hairbrush and laughing at her clumsiness, all so he could see how hard she was trying.
"So sorry," she kept saying. The child stepped on her heel, hard, and Margaret's smile got rigid and ferocious. "So sorry, this thing is such a mess."
Donny narrowed his eyes at her, curled his lip. What the hell did he have to be so precious about, she wondered. She'd heard he used to be a cop but got kicked off the force for keeping people's drugs. Probably he was still bitter about that, unhappy with his life. Oughta loosen up, she thought, have a drink, play some roulette or cards.
Pretty soon an ancient couple wandered in and started muttering at one another and walking in little pointless circles, the way old people do. Donny's face transformed. Suddenly he was all kind and solicitous, like the old folks walked on water. Even though they were so frail a breeze'd blow them over and the man held onto the woman's sleeve. She wore a hot pink sweatshirt with a little white collar and matching sweatpants. She patted the man's arm here and there, as if soothing him. Margaret was briefly fascinated by these two. How could you spent what might be your remaining days—your remaining minutes, even—in a run-down casino like this one? When she got that old, she promised herself, she'd be in Vegas every second of every minute of every day.
"You're nothing but a big fake," Gretchen whispered savagely. "You know you don't have a driver's license no more."
"Ssssh," Margaret hissed at her. "What is wrong with you, anyway? You had your movie, you had your candy, didn't you? What, are you hungry again?"
Gretchen had china-blue eyes and angel-gold hair that looked like it had just been blown out at a salon. No child this evil had a right to be so beautiful. Margaret couldn't figure where she'd gotten her looks. Margaret's own hair was mud-colored, frizzy and unpredictable, and Jack, Gretchen's father, had been shiny bald ever since Margaret had known him.
"I'm not hungry," Gretchen said, in a voice loud enough for anybody to hear. "I'm just mad you're such a big phony." She drew the last word out. Phoooooneeee. Like she was starring in a damn soap opera.
"Keep your trap shut, or you're going in the daycare," Margaret hissed at her. "Don't think I won't do it." Gretchen was only eight, but her mother usually let the child sit with her while she gambled, because Gretchen hated the casino's daycare with a fiery passion. Margaret didn't really intend to put her there. It would be like sprinkling rat poison into a perfectly good bowl of soup. Gretchen would steal toys, curse out the employees, give little boys black eyes by hitting them with blocks. Just last month she'd taken a bottle of Elmer's and glued another little girl's crayons together. Every single crayon in a 64-count box. Crayolas, the good kind.
"Why did you do this, Gretchen?" Margaret had asked her, as the young attendant showed her the tangled rack of crayons, completely useless now that they were fused together.
"I wanted to see what they looked like stuck together," Gretchen had informed her. "Plus they're Jenny's, and Jenny is an old bitch." The tiny, tear-streaked Jenny sat on a yellow plastic chair, inconsolable.
Margaret had felt pretty sick that afternoon, after losing a grand in the slots, so she didn't have the strength to deliver the tirade she should have. She'd just yanked at her daughter's hand and headed for the elevators. They never spoke of the incident again, but Margaret wasn't sure now that Gretchen would even be allowed back.
But maybe Gretchen didn't know that. Margaret clenched her face up sternly, and it worked. Gretchen's Barbie doll face turned uncertain, then sullen.
"Fine," she muttered. "But you're still a big fat phony."
"Sure I am," her mother responded. "Big phony. But let's be friends anyway kiddo, what do you think? Look at what I found in my purse." She extended a stick of gum. The child chewed it grimly, like a cow who'd guessed its fate. The scent of watermelon drifted over them.
She slid her eyes over at Donny. The old people were asking all kinds of questions, and he answered each one patiently. What an asshole, thought Margaret. But she'd emptied her entire purse and there wasn't gonna be an I.D. in there, so it was either throw herself on that asshole's mercy or sneak by him while he was distracted.
She opted for the latter. He didn't move his big oily face at all as they slipped past, even though Gretchen was smacking that gum loud enough to wake the dead.
Just like Dorothy, they walked down the yellow brick road. That's what Margaret called it in her mind anyway. It was a patch of carpet dyed like a winding golden path, silver stars embroidered along its edges. One fork led you straight to the tables and one to the slots. She loved walking between the stars, entering the fairy land. She began to hum, forgetting her troubles.
Gretchen had to ruin the moment of course. "Mommy," she yelled. "Mommy Margaret."
"It's just Mommy," Margaret told her. "You're not old enough to call me by my name."
"When will I be old enough?"
"Sixteen," said Margaret, immediately regretting it. That was eight years away, but Gretchen would remember. She'd wake up on her 16th birthday—no doubt tall, lithe, a supermodel—and start belting Margaret! Margaret! Shaking the walls of their dingy little house. If they still had a house by then, anyway.
Quit thinking that way, Margaret told herself. You're lucky. Your luck always comes back.
"Okay, mommy, until 16 then," said Gretchen. "What are you going to do when that man comes looking for you?"
"What man?" asked Margaret. They were nearing the slots. She could hear the music of the levers, the showers of coins. She smiled, felt warmth creep over her skin.
"The man from the door, dummy," Gretchen answered. "When he comes looking for you because you sneaked past him like a criminal. Maybe he'll put us in jail."
"You don't go to jail for losing your driver's license," Margaret told her. She dug in her purse and brought out a baggie full of quarters.
"Here, you can play, too, what do you say?"
Gretchen regarded the quarters with disgust. You would have thought the money was a dead body, all ripe and putrid, the way she looked at it.
"Let me give you a tip," said Margaret. "You don't turn down money. Here, take some." She jingled the change around in the bag.
"I'll take it if I don't have to put it in the machines," said Gretchen. "They never give it back."
"That's because you don't believe," said Margaret. "You have to have faith in the win. When you win you get a hundred or maybe even a thousand times more money than you put in. You just have to trust your luck. Like I'm always telling you, luck always comes back."
Gretchen made a face and spat the wad of gum out onto the carpet. It was shiny and foamy with her spit. Now Margaret had to push her away fast, over to another row of machines. She'd already sneaked in; she couldn't be seen littering.
"Hey pretty ladies," Tony said, when they found open machines and sat down. Tony was an eager rat-faced man who wore a cowboy hat when he played. His hat was lucky.
"Wore it when my wife said she'd marry me," he'd told her. "And she claims if not for the hat she never would've said yes."
"That's a joke," Margaret had said. "You don't marry someone because of a cowboy hat."
"She did," he'd insisted. "She took a shine to it. Said it made her think of adventure. Of faraway shores. Claims it told her I was a free spirit and I'd show her the world, make sure she never got trapped in one of those suburban lives where you only go out of the house to go to an office job or to buy groceries."
"High expectations," Margaret had said, smiling up at the hat. It was black, adorned with a silver chain. "Did you show her the world?"
"Well, I showed her Nevada and Atlantic City, and half of Kansas, then we moved here. So she's seen enough. Every so often she gets to talking about Europe, and that's when I escape out to the casino. I ain't got the time for Europe."
"Ain't you old? Ain't you retired?" Gretchen had demanded. "Ain't you got all the time in the world?"
"Yes, Miss Gretchen, I am pretty darn old. But there's better things to do with time then spend it wandering around countries where the buildings is strange and don't nobody speak your language. Where it's too hot or too cold and the power outlets don't even work right, you gotta carry an adapter with you just to charge your phone. Remember kiddo, somewhere else ain't always an improvement." Tony, satisfied with this wisdom, had propped his cowboy boots up on an unoccupied chair. Margaret had gazed at Gretchen, wondering If someone else's words could make it through that hard careless face. But the child's eyes were blank. Marbles, polished pennies.
"Hey, Tony," she said now. "Is she a lady tonight?" If luck was a lady, she was favoring Tony. If she wasn't, then Tony would say she was the opposite. Which Margaret assumed was a prostitute, but she'd never asked because she didn't want Gretchen to learn more bad words than she already knew.
"You know," said Tony, yawning, showing black spaces where he was missing teeth on the sides of his mouth, "she ain't decided yet how she's gonna treat me today. She goes back and forth, giving a little, taking a little. Like one a them spring days that ain't quite warm but it seems silly to wear your coat."
"I know exactly what you mean," said Margaret. She didn't—who cared about weather inside the casino?—but she thought maybe she could sweet-talk Tony into taking Gretchen for ice cream.
Unexpectedly, Gretchen climbed onto Tony's lap. "Well, hello there, little lady. Pretty lady," he said, although his face looked as though he'd accidentally swallowed a bug. Gretchen was getting way too big to be sitting on people's laps. Margaret was confused, for a second, by how long her legs were, as though she'd sprouted overnight, like a pernicious weed.
"Gretchen, get off of him," she said. "That's rude."
"Well, that's okay, that's okay," Tony said, gingerly patting Gretchen's blond head.
Gretchen fixed him with one of her border collie stares. Margaret had started calling them that after she'd watched a dog show with Jack a few years back. Margaret could care less about dogs, but Jack was fanatical about them, never missed a Westminster. They'd watched a black and white dog bark furiously at a slow-moving herd of sheep. The sheep bleated and milled; the dog was wild-eyed, hyper-focused.
"See there? See the stare it's got?" he'd asked her.
"Creepy," she'd said. "It looks like a serial killer. Why are its eyes blue?"
"That's how they're bred. That's what they do with the sheep. That stare hypnotizes them. See, they're all falling in line now." They were, too. Margaret had shuddered, felt glad she'd never been interested in pets.
"Did you know Margaret lost her driver's license the other day?" Gretchen asked Tony. No matter how long you watched, you never saw her blink. That child's eyeballs ought to be as shriveled as raisins by now.
"Hush up," said Margaret, embarrassed. "Everybody doesn't need to know our business."
"It's not my business," said the child. "Except you driving me all over creation when you don't even have a license. But it's mostly your business, because it's your fault."
"Hum," said Tony. He reached around Gretchen and dropped a quarter into a slot. "Damn," he said. "Or, darn it," he said, "sorry," when he ended up with two apples and a number three with lightning coming out of it.
Margaret felt compelled to explain herself. She didn't want him to think she'd been driving drunk or something.
"See," she said, "See, Tony, it's no big deal. But something happened to my eyes since last time I renewed it."
"Your eyes, huh?" he said, not looking away from the machine.
"Yes, I have 20-20 vision, always have, perfect vision, they'd tell me when I was a kid. But wouldn't you know it, I go into that DMV the other day and fail the vision test. Must've been something wrong with the test. I've never failed a vision test in my life. Or maybe the people working there were just, you know, playing a joke on me. I said capital E, but they said no, it was an A. Those two letters don't even look alike! Like I'm gonna make that mistake! Well, they wouldn't listen. So I'm going to take the test again when there's different people working."
"She don't want to go to the doctor and get glasses," said Gretchen, sanctimoniously. "I'm not sure if it's because she thinks she's too pretty to wear 'em, or because we're too poor lately. We ate tomato soup made with water the last five nights. Not even any grilled cheeses to go with it."
"For God's sake, how do you even remember all this?" asked Margaret, nearing the edge of her patience.
"I remember everything," said the girl, mysteriously. "I remember everything there is to know." She hopped off Tony's lap. "He has bony legs," she explained, as she climbed onto an empty chair. "Not fun to sit on."
"Fine, take these quarters," said Margaret, shoving the baggie at her. Her own slot stash was in her pocket, so heavy it just about made her walk lopsided, but she liked to have it next to her body. It comforted her, reminded her of this place when she was in her house, the grocery, the post office. Those empty moments that if you were looking in from the outside, you'd think were Margaret's life. But you'd be wrong. You wouldn't have understood that Margaret had treasure hidden within.
Had Tony even heard her explanation? It would be even more embarrassing to repeat it. She studied his profile to see if he thought less of her, but he just looked like everyone else in the casino. Eyes wide, mouth agape, body tensed forward. Skin alien-green, flickery, because of the lights in there.
At first, playing the slots never did it for you. It was like the first mile of a run, the first few minutes of an unfamiliar TV show. You felt prickly and vaguely disappointed. You wondered what had been so compelling before. But Margaret had been coming long enough to know that these feelings meant nothing. The beautiful trance would come in time. It caught you up and didn't let you go; it was like slipping into a warm, fragrant bath when you were cold. It was like water on a hot parched throat. It was like a hundred things, only not exactly like any of them, and she always gave up trying to describe it, when people asked her, because you couldn't put words to it, not really. You just had to experience it.
Fuck him anyway, she thought. It wasn't Tony she meant, not exactly. Tony was just who was here. He would do for now. Plus you couldn't worry about things over and done with. You went on, you played, you won.
Soon she was feeding quarters in rapid-fire, like bullets. The machine paid out twice: once only a few dollars, but the second felt like 30, 40 even. She didn't stop to count. She felt the adrenaline seize her body up, and the happy excitement rushed in after it. She and Tony were in rhythm; she heard him grunt, crow, and curse. She felt the intensity building up. Soon, she'd leave for the tables. Slots got you warmed up, but they weren't a main course. Blackjack was her game, and she was already seeing the rippling of the cards, the dealer's kind smile. The moment just before you got hit, when nothingness, with the promise of everything, quivered within you.
For cards she'd need a drink, so she took a break to signal one of the girls circulating beneath the play of lights. When you stopped playing, even for just a few seconds, the silence hit you hard. Too much silence, like a church. You couldn't think about how many people were in here, not talking at all—not to themselves, not to each other, not to anybody. She ordered a Jack and Coke, played until the drink arrived beneath her elbow. She rolled the sweet liquid around her mouth and changed her last crumpled $100 bill for chips.
At the blackjack table, she settled between a fat woman in a flowered dress and a young man who smelled like Old Spice. Strange, she thought. Only men over 50 wore Old Spice anymore, but who cared? There were three of them, the perfect number. And it was her favorite dealer, Kenny. Kenny was very young, and it was hard to look at his face because of all the acne, like his skin boiled from within, but she felt he really cared about his players. He smiled, said hello.
"How's it going, Kenny?" she asked.
"It's going," he said. "My mom's got worse."
Margaret bit her lip and searched her memory for facts about Kenny's mother. Had he told her about an illness, an addiction? He must have; he was looking at her expectantly, need in his eyes.
"I'm so sorry to hear that, Kenny," she said, and he nodded sombrely. "What's—do the doctors—"
"I hate her doctor," he said, and dropped the cards in his hands. They scattered in a messy pile. Her fingers itched to gather them, show them the respect they deserved. "I hate that man. You ask me, he's a quack."
"Now, now," said Old Spice. "Let's keep this here hand going, now. I need a hit." Old Spice had dirty fingernails resting on a ten and a five. Margaret regarded this tableau doubtfully.
"I don't know that you do need a hit," she told him. "I'd stick."
"I hate him," Kenny said again. "He won't even talk to me. I ask him questions, and he tells me, ask the nurse. Like he can't even be bothered to waste his breath. He has this British accent. Like every word out of his mouth is supposed to tell you how much better he is than you. Don't you hate that accent?" He was still staring at her. He had a mouth kind of like a rat's, she thought. Toothy, furtive.
"Yeah," she said. "Hate it. Doesn't everybody?"
"I think it's elegant," said the fat woman. "Like on a TV show where they all live in big mansions and have servants. Trays of tea and toast in the morning, in canopy beds."
"That's exactly what I mean," Kenny complained. "I bet this guy has servants, I'd put money on it."
"I've got money on this hand," said Old Spice, pointedly.
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry, sir, sorry," said Kenny, and hit him. It was a Queen.
"Told you," Margaret couldn't resist saying. "Don't you wish you'd stuck?"
"No way," said the young man. He turned, gave her a rich, expansive smile. She blinked, bewildered and charmed. "I got what I paid for," he told her.
"What did you pay for?" she asked, curious. "How do you lose and say that?"
"I got the rush," he said. "I got it like amphetamines in my veins. It's the losing that does it for me. I need it. Oh, I could go skydiving, I could climb up mountains with those little pegs and ropes, like people do. But I'm not the athletic type. This here's better than any of those things."
"Losing?" she asked.
"Yup," he said, smiling again. "I always think it's gonna sting, but it never does. Instead I feel all clean inside. Like somebody gave my brain a power-washing. You know?"
"Not really," said Margaret, biting her lip. "I like to win."
"Well, most folks do," said the young man, carelessly, turning away without interest. As if her wanting to win was bourgeois, beneath notice. She felt a spurt of anger. Who was he to ignore her like that? The fat woman was giggling. How had she gotten so fat, anyway? Margaret's teeth bit savagely into the soft skin on the inside of her mouth.
"I like that," said Kenny, softly. He'd left the cards where they had fallen. His chin was resting in his hand, which was hairy and bony. "Brain a power-washing, that's what I need."
"We all do," sighed the fat woman. You could keep yourself in shape if you just worked at it a little, Margaret thought. You'd have to really work at it to get that fat, she thought. Like a powerlifter, downing raw eggs and protein shakes. "There's things everyone wants to forget. Don't kid yourself, friends, we're all in the same boat when we walk in here."
"No, I meant, for my mother," said Kenny. "Brain cancer. She's got a tumor in her head. Pressing on the, what did he say, cortex or something."
"That's rough, pal, sorry to hear it," said the young man, but not like he meant it, thought Margaret. She could be more sympathetic. She'd show him what simple human kindness looked like.
"Kenny, that's so terrible," she said, filling her voice up with feeling. "You must feel so frustrated and alone."
He looked at her, and she realized his eyes were just as blue as Gretchen's. Cold blue, coated with light, like a piece of china too expensive to use, too small and perfect to break.
"She's got a tumor pressing against the part of her brain that makes memories," he said. "And stores them. It presses, pushes, crowds out everything she ought to know. She don't know my name. I tell it to her every time I go. I say, don't you remember me, mama? I'm Kenny, your oldest. Your pride and joy. That's what she always called me. She promises she'll remember next time. But do you think she does? Nope. I gotta say it all over again the next day. How can I ever have been her pride and joy in the first place, if she forgets so easy? I'm asking you."
"Probably time to quit," commented the young man. "Just leave it, buddy. Let her be what she is now. You know, instead of wanting her to be different."
"I can't do that," said Kenny. "I can't let her be like that. Lost everything that made her, her. And made me, me. It ain't right."
Margaret was still chewing the inside of her mouth. She liked the way the blood tasted. When would Kenny would stop and deal her in? What if she was trapped in this quicksand moment forever? What if those blue eyes filled up with tears and he just kept going, until she knew every bit of his life—his football trophies, skinned knees, failing grades, the girl his mama didn't approve of? The prospect sickened her.
You're taking a vacation from your whole life, Jack said, in some dark part of her brain. You think that's something you can do?
Shut the fuck up, Jack, she told him, silently. He couldn't just come back, live in her thoughts like that. Shut the fuck up unless you wanna start paying rent, to live up there.
The fat woman was stabbing her phone with a ringed finger, not bothering to hide her boredom. Margaret was sitting too close to the young man to see what his face looked like. But there was rank sweat rising beneath the Old Spice.
"Kenny," she said, "I hope your mother recovers." She did, too. Stories ought to have happy endings. She waited, tense, unsure.
"Sixteen in," he said, finally. Relief washed through her. She stacked up her chips and the hand proceeded. She won, then lost, then lost again. She waited for the strangeness of what had come before to vanish. She won again.
"Lucky lady this afternoon," said the young man, an edge in his voice. "You good at this? Studied up on it?"
"Just lucky," said Margaret. She felt something—a memory, an anxiety—tug at the edges of her mind. She pushed it away. She needed to concentrate to win again. If she focused hard enough, she would. But the next hand she lost her nerve and stuck at 13, and Kenny topped her easily, a King of Spades beneath his fingers. Then she lost three more hands, for the same reason. Couldn't take a risk. It was like somebody held her voice prisoner, preventing it from saying hit me when the time was right. She was sweaty, fatigued; she thought maybe she should order another drink, get her blood sugar back up. Gretchen hadn't been wrong about the slim pickings around their house lately. Margaret groped for the bowl of peanuts, but wouldn't you know it, the fat woman had them all to herself, munching happily. Margaret couldn't very well ask for some. You couldn't show weakness at the tables.
"Ah," somebody said behind her. Margaret was confused. Where was her Jack and coke? Then she remembered she hadn't ordered another one. It was the game. It switched events in your mind. She turned around, nearly hit her face on Tony's cowboy hat.
"Jesus," she said. "You scared me." He was wearing his sunglasses. They were big and square with little rhinestones at the corners. The sunglasses were lucky, too. He said he only wore them when he needed extra special luck, like when he was down at least five hundred. Tony had a lot of rules, she reflected. But didn't they all?
"Sorry," said Tony. She stared into the sunglasses. Perfect, formless black. "Sorry, but I think your little girl's gone missing."
"What do you mean? She didn't go missing," said Margaret. "She'll turn up."
"Well, but," said Tony, putting his hands in his pockets, "she ain't been around for at least an hour. I think."
"You in?" Kenny said behind her. "Margaret? You out?"
"Hurry it up," said the young man, irritably. The oniony BO had now overpowered the deodorant. She liked it better that way. Him and his triumphant loss. He wasn't better than her now, was he? He was just a guy who didn't have basic hygiene.
She shoved her last chips into the center of the table. It was a ten and a five, and at last, she was able to take a hit, and it was a six. Joy shot up through her stomach.
"Damn," she laughed. "That's good stuff, Kenny. Keep ‘em coming like that!"
"You know it, beautiful," he said, and it was the tone she'd always known him to use—careless, superior. Bantering. The real Kenny.
You just don't give a fuck about anybody but yourself, Jack intoned.
"Shut the fuck up," she said, not realizing she'd spoken aloud until Tony, still hovering behind her, jumped back as if he'd been stung.
"Sorry, Tony, I didn't mean you," she said. "Just thinking out loud." Her ears filled with a fluttery rushing sound. Why was Tony breathing so loud, as if he'd been running? She looked back at him again. Thin trickles of sweat moved down his jawline.
"What's wrong, Tony, you had a bad run?" she asked him.
"No, Margaret, I'm telling you, she's gone. I think she got kidnapped."
Margaret laughed. The thought was absurd. "Who would kidnap Gretchen?"
There was a silence. When she looked up, she saw they'd gone quiet, looking at her. The fat woman's wet mouth had stopped chewing. Kenny looked muddled, as if trying to work out a math problem too hard for him.
"I mean," she said, into the blur, "I mean, why would anybody do that? People come here to play."
"Lady," said the young man. "You brought your daughter into a casino, and now she's missing, and you don't care? How'd you even get a kid in here?"
"Of course I care," she said, irritated. "And they have a daycare, for your information. That's probably where she is now." When she said it with such force, she believed it, but the belief was a funny fragile thing, because it left her, and in its place there was something cold, like a pile of melting snow in the bottom of her stomach.
"She ain't in the day care," Tony said, apologetically. "I already checked. They say they ain't seen her."
"Well, then she went to get some ice cream," Margaret said. "That child will eat sweets till she throws up. That's not even an exaggeration. Our bathroom on Halloween? You don't even want to know."
"She didn't look hungry to me," said Tony, doubtfully. "She was—she was just sitting there playing the slots. I mean, when I looked over at her she was into it, you know? She had the look. You all know the look."
They all nodded.
"So I don't think she ran off," said Tony. "I think somebody snatched her."
"You see it on TV all the time," said the fat woman. There wasn't anything in her mouth, but she was chewing on air. Or maybe it was Margaret's vision, which wouldn't stop blurring. As if she were imprisoned in a camera that wouldn't focus.
"See what?" Margaret demanded.
"If I was a kid-snatcher," Kenny opined, "First place I'd come to is this casino."
"And why would you do that, Kenny, pray tell?" she asked him. "What makes this place such a prime hunting ground?" He stared at her. She dropped her gaze.
"Because of how people get," he said. "You know what I mean."
Margaret was suddenly so fatigued she could barely sit up. She'd been fighting some battle she'd forgotten she was in. She'd been struggling through the days and the bills and Jack, mean, stupid, stupid Jack, and this place was her home. It was inconceivable anything bad could happen here. And yet something bad was happening. It wasn't that she thought Gretchen was really kidnapped. It was that everybody else did and expected her to think it was true, too. And to be different than what she was. Why couldn't she sleep here? Just rest her head on the soft green table. None of it was fair. Everybody in her life, it seemed, had broken the rules. Nobody had told her what it was going to be like. Not one person had warned her. Why hadn't they told her, all those forceful teachers she'd had, her own parents, solid, truthful people, so confident in the paths they'd chosen? Why hadn't Jack warned her? All he'd done was run his hand over her rising belly, laughing and saying they should name the kid beanpole or karate kid.
Maybe finally, it was over. Maybe Gretchen really was gone. And that felt like it was meant to be, the way the six had shone against her five and ten. Different suits, but that didn't matter in blackjack, did it? Red, black, clubs and hearts. Adding up to the magic number. All she wanted was that rightness, that one moment where everything fit together, like when you were a kid and finished a thousand-piece puzzle. Stupid thing to occupy yourself with, only she'd done them with her mother, and she'd loved her mother, hadn't she? She'd have done anything for her, and what did that matter, when she'd ended up with an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a half-full quart of vodka next to her on the nightstand? Panicked and more than panicked, furious, 15-year old Margaret had shaken her cold limbs and cursed her with every bad word she knew. You can't leave me like this. You can't do this.
But she had, hadn't she? And hadn't Jack? And now Gretchen. So what you did was, you concentrated on the cards, the tumble of the dice. The grand prize for the sweepstakes—a gleaming silver car up on a platform, with a near-naked blond woman draped over it, smiling and smiling and smiling.
But they were all waiting for her to speak.
"I'll—I'll look for her," she said. "I'll start right now. I'll stop playing, Kenny." It was hard to get up. She ordered another drink first, downed it before following Tony back to the slots. She wasn't sure why they were going there, if Gretchen wasn't there, but she followed. She wasn't really in control anyway. The path guided her.
Gretchen's seat was empty. On the table sat her bag of coins, neatly closed with the twist tie. She picked it up and tucked it in the pocket of her skirt. There was still a lot of money in it.
"Good grief, Tony," she said. "If some criminal came over here and stole Gretchen, why didn't he steal all this money, too?"
Tony looked at her with disapproval; she couldn't see his eyes, but she saw how his mouth furrowed.
"Come on, now," he said. "People who snatch kids don't care about money."
"Of course they do," she retorted. "What do you think a ransom demand is, anyway?"
"That only happens in the movies," Tony sighed. He knelt, ran his fingers over the blue carpet. What was he doing? Getting his fingers dirty, mainly. Up close she noticed how speckled with trash the carpet was. Bits of lint, cigarette butts, caved-in beer cans.
"Get up, Tony, it's filthy down there," she told him, but he wasn't listening. She signaled the waitress, ordered another drink. She sat down in the chair she'd occupied just a little while ago—half an hour? Not more, surely, although she didn't know. No clocks in the casino. And she always made sure to remove her watch before she arrived.
"You wearing a watch, Tony?" she asked him.
"No," he told her, over his shoulder. "Never wear one when I play."
"Me, neither," she said, and sipped her drink.
"Well," he said, "here we go." He held up a small pink object. Gretchen's gum, Margaret realized. Watermelon.
"Tony, that's disgusting."
"But it shows she was here, but she's been gone awhile. The gum's cold. Ice cold. Here, feel it."
"I am not touching that," Margaret declared. "Honestly. This is pointless. Let's go to the daycare and check it."
Without waiting for him she rose and headed down the Yellow Brick road. For luck, as always, she touched the surface of the grand prize car as they passed. The model grinned at her, proffered a sheaf of unbought tickets. The car was warm beneath her touch.
The daycare was behind thick glass, and she could see the children milling about like pills spilled from a bottle. Their teenage babysitters sat on chairs, poking at phones. Margaret searched for Gretchen's golden head, but there was only brown, black, frizzy white-blond. The children, sensing her stare, raised their faces, scared and confused. She realized she must look strange to them, trying so hard to be fierce and watchful.
She and Tony questioned every employee and all the children, too. They were thorough. Like detectives on a cop show, they kept to the essentials, describing Gretchen, asking about times. The teenagers shrugged, apologized, said they hadn't seen her. The children were more difficult. You couldn't get straight answers from them. They wanted to talk about games or toy cars; they told you their sisters were going to prom in a puffy blue dress with a mean boy named Brad.
"See," said a little Asian girl, "she's bored by this game right now." She was speaking of her doll, a blank-faced thing in pink pyjamas, dragged on the floor so often that the blond hair was soiled. "She only likes it when people play cards, or do mazes."
"Yes," said Margaret. "But do you know a little girl named Gretchen?" The child smoothed her doll's hair, hummed a little tune. She muttered unintelligibly to the doll. Margaret was pretty sure it was about her, whatever the child was saying.
"Gretchen," said Margaret again. "Do you know Gretchen?"
"I know Gretchen," said a little boy. He had the white-blond hair, so fine you could see his scalp through the strands. He carried a blue plastic truck, and he set it down on the floor, carefully, and gave it a little dusting with his palm.
"Did you see her today?" asked Margaret.
"Yeah," he said. "We played Truth or Dare."
"You what?" Margaret wanted to know. "You taught her how to play Truth or Dare?"
"Lady, she taught me," said the boy, and sighed, wearied by Margaret's stupidity. "She never wants Truth. I think you should have both, like to make it equal, people should both do both. Truth and Dare. But she only wants Dares. I told her she should pick Truth sometimes, and she told me not to be immature. I don't even know what that means, but I think she meant it in a mean way."
"Okay," said Tony. Margaret had forgotten he was there. He had taken off the sunglasses. Underneath the fluorescent lights, his skin was gray. He was so much smaller standing up. Margaret felt a rush of sorrow she couldn't identify the source of.
"So I dared her to go drive the car," said the little boy. He had transparent green eyes, like sea glass. "I told her, go over there and pick up the keys, anybody can see they're just laying on that table behind the blond lady, and start it up and drive it around the casino. Like you're a grownup and can do whatever you want."
"Well, she didn't do that," said Margaret.
"Yeah, but she did," the little boy said, patiently. "I told you, she only wants Dares. She always does what you Dare her to. Otherwise maybe next time she'd have to pick Truth."
"Well, that's ridiculous," said Margaret. "We just walked past the car. First of all, it's up on a platform. Second, there's a lady watching over it. Third, don't you think everybody in this place would have noticed if there was a car driving around it? Inside?"
"She did, though," said the boy. He shrugged. "People didn't notice. They were playing games. Gretchen took the car and steered it so she followed the yellow path. The engine roared loud but still nobody noticed. Then she drove outside. I saw her go. The car was dark silver, but it changed color in the sun. It looked like the light that comes from stars. Then she drove around the parking lot and braked, real hard, and the tires made squeaky noises. Then I opened the doors for her and she drove it back in."
"Honestly," said Margaret. She looked around for a waitress. Did they even serve Jack back here where the children were? "You can't drive a whole car through those doors."
"Sure you can," said the little boy, pedantically. "Come on lady, how do you think they got it in here in the first place?"
"I don't know," said Margaret. She had no other answer. The car had just appeared one day. Why shouldn't it? You bought tickets—50 bucks apiece—and wrote names on them. Margaret, Gretchen, Jack, and Margaret again. Soon the sunny-faced model would draw a ticket from a basket and someone—her, she'd bet—would win the car. She'd drive it out into the sun, just like the boy said. She could look out in the morning and see the car, sleek, unblemished, and she might not even need to come to the casino that day. The car, unlike everything else, might somehow, someday, be enough.
"I don't know," she told the little boy. "Maybe she did do that. Exactly like you said. I mean, I can see why."
She'd left her empty drink tumbler on a side table, and she removed it carefully, wiping the ring with her sleeve. She hoped she didn't smell like booze to the children. "I suppose she did go get that car. That's exactly something Gretchen would do."
"But anyway," said the boy, "After that she didn't want to play Truth or Dare no more."
"So what happened then?" Margaret asked. "What games did you play?"
The boy shrugged. "She never came back here no more. Or she did once, just to make a face at me through the glass. Stick her fingers in her ears, you know. She told me that day she talked you into never sending her to the daycare no more."
"But wait," said Margaret. "So wait, this was—not today, that she drove the car?"
The boy was surprised. "No, lady, that was like, weeks ago. I think. Days, at least. A long time. Or lots of hours. Long hours, like the ones before supper."
"But," Margaret said, the tumbler cool beneath her fingers. "Did you see her today?"
"I don't think it was today that I saw her," the boy answered. "But it could have been. It feels like a long time, but maybe it was a short time. You can't tell. They don't have any clocks in here."
"Yeah," she sighed. "I know." She put her hand out, cupped the boy's head in her palm. The hair was soft, but you could feel the small, forceful skull beneath the skin. The boy would grow up strong; he would not give in when pushed.
"Um," said Tony, "Hey, I'm sorry, pretty lady. Margaret."
"What are you sorry for?" she asked, her hand still on the boy's head. She let her fingers trail out of his hair, then picked up the truck and handed it to him.
"I'm sorry, but I gotta get back," Tony said. "I only got maybe an hour left and then my wife's gonna raise hell. I'm real sorry. Otherwise I'd stay and look with you. But the thing is she just disappeared."
"That's no problem," said Margaret. "You go on back to the slots, Tony."
"You sure?" he said. He put his sunglasses back on. He looked like a beetle wearing a cowboy hat. This thought made her smile.
"Sure," she said. "Go on back." She looked around at all the people surrounding her. All of them were children, even the ones who were grown up. Tentative. Searching for something. Even old predictable Tony—he'd been a child, too. Careful, kind, a boy who would pick up bugs and set them free into the summer air.
"Go on back, Tony," she said again. "It's okay. Thank you for helping me. I'll find her."
She watched his back, the bones of it showing through his shirt. She wondered what it was about the human spine that made it so determined to assert itself. She put her fingers on her back and was reassured by the bumps of her own vertebrae. She rose—she had been kneeling to bring herself down to the boy's height—and left the music of the children's voices behind. She remembered the glass in her hand and scanned the signs until she found one pointing towards a kitchen. There were staff in black aprons moving behind counters, sizzling things in pans, a riot of smells. She found a bin of dirty dishes and placed the tumbler inside it, nestled between smeared plates and beer mugs.
Then it was time to set off. She made sure she had everything—keys, purse. There wasn't much. It wasn't hard to leave with what she'd come in with. She headed back down the yellow brick road, keeping her steps within it. She came to the door and saw that Mark Dale had replaced Donny at the podium. He didn't look at her, and she didn't speak to him. It wasn't important.
Outside the afternoon was leaden gray. There was a storm coming; she smelled that salty heaviness. She remembered from childhood the way the men in the family all stood outside, their arms crossed, their backs so straight you could use them as rulers, watching for tornadoes. The sky that dense foggy green. She wished she had stood out there with them, instead of hiding in the basement with her mother. Her mother would roll her eyes, call the men stupid for staying outside. She wished she and Jack had watched a storm, that she'd taken Gretchen out to a cornfield in the afternoon to see the spiraling funnel. She supposed that was why Gretchen had driven the car outside, then back in again.
When she reached the car, she saw that Gretchen was asleep in the back seat, her gold hair strewn across her forehead. There were still streaks of red on her face from the lollipop Margaret had given her for breakfast. The child's breathing was heavy and regular. She couldn't stay awake anymore, so she had come outside, alone, and found a place to rest. Margaret couldn't say she didn't envy her. What was there in life, anyway, but storms and peace, and then storms again.
She wanted to wake her up, to say something to her. But she couldn't wake her, not now, and she wasn't sure what words were pushing through the lump in her throat. So she just breathed in the warm smells of leather and sleeping child. She resolved to wash Gretchen's clothes when they got home. They were filthy with casino dust, with cheap snacks, with the life Margaret had constructed for them both. She drove home the back way, the way her father had taught her, instead of the interstate. The roads were still real country; they didn't even have speed limits. There were deer, forest, deep and echoing silence. Gretchen slept the whole way. The drive took a long time, but she never woke and never complained.