Casinos were a death trap, and Em thought everyone should know that. The room was huge, any possible exit hidden behind the twists of the cosmic carpet. Slot machines beckoned with flashes of bright fortune, their sound nearly drowned out by the pounding bass of loud dance music. There were hundreds of them, stacked against the walls and arranged in small clusters of noise and light. The electronic clatter of coins rang out from every corner. The racket was nearly unbearable, the way out unclear. Anything at eye level swam in neon, cigarette smoke wafting towards the high ceiling, receding away into the dark.
It was just after nine on a Tuesday night in one of the oldest casinos in Atlantic City, and the room was filled with the elderly and infirm. Some had pushed their walkers up directly to the machines, abandoning them alongside once firmly seated in the high, pleather chairs. A graying nurse, still in her scrubs, read a beat-up paperback next to a man in a wheelchair. The man’s left hand mechanically pressed SPIN again and again with little interruption. Across a small aisle, a woman slept at her machine, her head back to the ceiling and her mouth yawning open.
At nineteen, Em was the youngest person in the room by entire decades, caretakers included. She wondered if the noise of the machines and music was amped to pierce the hearing aids of the room. She wondered who the casino was holding out for with the Top 40 music, what sudden generational shift they might think possible. She wondered whether anyone had ever died in this room, quietly leaning until a forehead pressed on the betting buttons forever. It all seemed fairly likely.
Her grandparents had been in bed for an hour. They were not quite the neon devotees that the blue-haired around Em now were. They got frustrated when they lost a twenty without a win, would declare the whole process a bust but for the comped hotel room. The three of them slept together in the one free room, Em taking the bus down from New York to see her grandparents and take advantage of a failing industry’s generosity. Her grandparents had won little, eaten dinner at the aging casino’s food court, and gone to bed. They said they loved the whole trip anyway, were so glad she was here. They asked her if she was enjoying herself on four separate occasions. They asked when she might bring a boyfriend on one of these trips, promising to even spring for multiple hotel rooms in the event of such a surprise. Em desperately needed a beer.
She’d come down to the casino, too young and too broke to avoid it. She could have paid for a beer at the bar, maybe been carded and found out, or she could sit at a machine and pretend to play. A beer would appear at the cost of the waitress’s tip, a dollar bill on a plastic tray, no ID required. Em never played on these trips with her grandparents, thinking the money wasted and the whole enterprise really fucking depressing. She preferred to cheer them on, help them pick the lucky machines, drink the seven-and-sevens the waitresses brought her grandfather. The ungambled cash her grandparents insisted she remove from the ATM weighed down the pockets of her jeans. She was not a gambler. If she had to choose a vice, she was – at best – a drinker. It was more efficient at pushing problems away, and it was cheaper.
She paced the casino, seeking a penny slot machine. She wanted the most beer for the least investment, the least interaction with the casino itself. Em could have joined a table game on the far side of the room, where the players tended more to middle age, but she didn’t know how to play and knew the stakes were considerably higher. She scanned for an empty seat in an empty row. She hoped to be more than fifty feet from a walker and a smoker. Everything about the place made her anxious, a feeling she largely reserved for class presentations or dorm parties with new people. Here, it felt like everything was absurd and anything was possible, and it unnerved her.
From behind her, a voice rose over the clatter and bass: ‘Hey, this one’s hot, if you want.’
Em turned toward the voice, and a stranger gestured towards the chair beside her. She was younger than the others, but not by much. Em guessed mid-fifties, but the range could have been far more expansive. Her hair was streaked with gray and close cropped behind her ears, as close to a men’s cut as a South Jersey barber was likely to give. She wore dark Carhartts, a blue sweater that did little to hide her heavy chest and beer gut. Her face was wrinkled like she had spent her whole life in the sun, her eyes tilting down at the corners under the weight of heavy, lined lids. She held a drink in her hand, clear liquid in ice, no bubbles. Water or vodka.
The hot machine was a penny slot, and there wasn’t a cigarette or walker in sight. Em sat down, a flush of recognition blooming across her face. The stranger smirked, not quite a smile but inviting somehow anyway. Em tried to return it with a nod of thanks, but her face felt hot and tight. They both turned back to their machines, Em still fighting for a neutral expression.
Twenty inserted, the slot’s buttons blinked to life. Em pushed SPIN. The machine spun, a seven, two bars, FREE GAMES, a cherry, an orange. Nothing. She avoided looking at the stranger beside her, who had not pressed a button since she sat down. Em scanned for a waitress, her stomach rolling.
The stranger caught her looking. ‘You want a drink? You even old enough to drink?’ she chuckled. ‘I’m Charlie, by the way.’
Em pushed SPIN. Cherries, a seven, a shiny seven, another seven, two bars. A thirty-cent win. She tried to match her levity, show some level of control. She wished she could subtly put a palm to her face, see if the flush had cooled. ‘I only came in here for a beer. I hear they don’t make you pay and they don’t card. An underage drinker’s dream,’ She had always been able to joke, and she knew that the joke was not an answer. She was glad for the bright machine, for somewhere to look that was not Charlie’s lined face.
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh honey, they always make you pay.’
She drained her glass, held it in the air. The waitress appeared from behind the Wheel of Fortune row, and it seemed that everything must be just that easy for Charlie. The waitress wore a green-sequined dress, so tight her breasts pushed over the fabric. Em could see the indentation where her underwear cut into the flesh of her hips.
‘Another for me, and a beer for my friend here.’ The waitress turned from Charlie to Em, scanned her from boots to crown. Em could guess what she was thinking. Two sevens, a beer, FREE GAMES, a cherry. She smiled, not unkindly.
‘What kind of beer?’
‘Bud Light’s fine.’
The waitress nodded, took Charlie’s empty glass. ‘Be right back, ladies.’ Charlie’s smirk stretched painfully at the word. Em watched the waitress go, her hips swinging as she scanned the room for others still capable of drinking alcohol that would not mess with their medication. Em wished she had ordered three beers at a time, downing them one after another somewhere near the bathroom, and then returned to this scene. She wanted to be braver.
Charlie absentmindedly pressed SPIN, still facing Em. Em turned to her machine, SPUN herself. Nothing from the machine adjacent, but Em’s clattered manically. She had won six dollars and ten FREE GAMES. The slots spun without interruption. Em and Charlie watched the winning numbers in silence. Twenty-three dollars was the final tally.
Charlie whistled. ‘I told you it was hot.’
‘Yeah, seriously,’ Em said. Her body felt too overwhelming, like every nerve ending was standing at its own personal attention. Her throat felt too full and her leg hair prickled beneath her jeans and she was too aware of the vibration of the music and the electricity in the air. The words wouldn’t just tumble from her mouth like they did so easily at parties at home. The lights were too bright and she had to think about everything. ‘I’ll split the winnings with you,’ she finally said, a beat too late to sound natural, ‘like a finder’s fee.’
Charlie raised her eyebrows again. Em heard how it sounded, only after the words were out of her mouth. The insinuation lay thick in the air between them, Em’s embarrassment sliding over everything like a thick gloss. She’d meant only what she said, the money Charlie’s due for selecting the lucky machine. It was how her grandparents split winnings. She didn’t know how to take it back, or if she wanted to. Charlie looked at her, but Em wouldn’t meet her eyes. She wanted to walk away, but didn’t know how. She fidgeted in her chair, crossing her legs to try and quiet the ache.
The waitress arrived, depositing their drinks into the thick fog that enveloped them both. Charlie pressed SPIN again to keep up appearances. Em stuffed her hand in her pocket, peeled two dollars from the crumpled bunch, and laid them on the plastic tray balanced on the waitress’s hip. She took a large swig of her beer, draining a third of the bottle as the waitress turned to leave.
‘To your good health and generosity then.’ Charlie raised her glass in Em’s direction, nodded, took a sip. She looked quite relieved. Vodka then. Em tipped her bottle back. The cold liquid soothed her throat. She was happy for something to hold. Charlie watched her mouth.
Em raised her bet to 50 cents, just to see. She hit SPIN. Nothing this time. The waitress had cut the tension, and Em felt like she could breathe again. The music seemed quieter. She uncrossed her legs. She SPUN again.
Charlie sat back from her machine, watching Em’s, watching Em. She crossed her arms, sipped her vodka with an intentional, passable attempt at nonchalance.
‘So what happens if you spend all these winnings you owe me?’
Apprehension danced back into Em’s chest like a small animal, turning circles before settling in heavy to stay. SPIN, and as each column stopped spinning with a clang, Em’s body pounded with the suggestion. Nothing again. She avoided Charlie’s gaze, even as she felt the stranger searching her face for answers. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. She felt trapped by her own incompetence. Maybe with three more beers, she would know what she wanted. Everything would feel duller and farther away, and perhaps then she could know.
From the corner of Em’s eye, Charlie settled forward, her shoulders hunched and her head cocked slightly to the side. She spun the skinny cocktail straw in her vodka. Em wondered for the first time how old she was, how drunk she was, how long she’d been sitting at this machine, waiting for something like this. If Charlie had done this before, and it seemed like she had, Em wondered why she hadn’t waited for another beer, or insisted on vodka for them both.
‘You got some ideas?’
She wanted more time to think. She’d considered this situation before, but everything was different than what she’d imagined. She wondered why no one had yet sat at the third machine aside her, even when her machine had lit up bright and spun widely with FREE GAMES. When her grandparents played, that drew onlookers, hoping to draft off some of your luck. Other than the waitress, there had been no one. Em avoided Charlie’s stare, glad for the flashing machine in front of her. She SPUN – two cherries, a seven, an orange, a bar. She wanted to leave the casino, walk the entire length of the boardwalk twice, and call a friend. Maybe then.
‘I’ve got a hotel room upstairs, if you want.’
Em was surprised by the sudden, naked suggestion, as if Charlie had grabbed her by the waist and pointed toward the exit, for all the elderly to see. Her head swiveled back to Charlie, finally. The older stranger still spun her cocktail straw, her shoulders collapsed and rounded like a skier on a steep slope, in preparation for something. Her blue sweater pilled at the collar. She met Em’s eyes in nearly a squint, patiently waiting for an answer.
Em had only had sex with three people in her life, and that was if she was being fast and loose with the definition. She had blown her high school boyfriend in the back of the school auditorium, everything about his penis seeming fair less impressive than expected. A year and a half later, sex with the first girl, the one against whom everything else was measured. And then, six months ago, her first one-night stand with a girl she met at a dorm party, disappointing in itself, but thrilling in story form. She had walked home from the other girl’s dorm at three in the morning, Manhattan all lit up and bustling despite the hour, and every step felt like a revelation. She was young and queer in New York, and she could be wanted. It could be easy.
She tried to imagine sex with Charlie, even as the silence after her question grew too long. She imagined a quiet ‘yes,’ and then an awkward elevator ride up to a sad hotel room that smelled like cigarettes. Small bottles of liquor from the minibar, maybe a joint if Charlie was the type and Em was lucky. Or maybe Charlie would skip that stuff, tell her to remove her clothes the minute she entered the room. It almost didn’t matter; every path forward ended in her sneaking back to her grandparents’ hotel room in the early morning hours. She would smell like sex, and she would try to hide it until they dispatched her to a bus, back to the city.
‘I should get back upstairs – my grandparents will be waiting for me.’ She knew it was cruel, and so Em tried to look Charlie in the eye as she said it. There had never been another option. The baldness of it all was unforgivable.
Charlie sat up, steeled, and returned to her machine. Her face did not fall so much as set, no resignation or disappointment visible at all. If she felt humiliated, Em would never know. She said nothing in response, pressing buttons on her slots. Coins clattered.
Em pressed CASH OUT, and the slot machine spit out a paper slip. $40.55. In the world of electronic slots, this was a killing – she’d doubled her money. Em drained the remainder of her beer in one swig, left it next to the machine. She left the paper slip on the shelf as well, pushing it closer to Charlie.
‘Your finder’s fee,’ Em said, and she looked up. Her face was hard.
‘I don’t need your fucking pity money.’ She turned back to her machine, pressing SPIN with a force that echoed in the set of her jaw. Em turned to go, leaving the slip on the shelf. Charlie ignored her.
As she neared the exit of the casino, Em turned around. She could still see the hot slot machine, its buttons still flashing and beckoning. No one sat at it yet. Charlie was gone, slipping out some other way amongst the machines and cashiers and elderly. The cash-out slip remained on the shelf, along with the empty beer bottle and the half-empty glass of vodka and ice. Em went and retrieved the slip, the shame and the desire and the smell of the abandoned vodka cementing into nausea and an inescapable need to be anywhere else. She made for the exit without cashing the slip.
It was after ten as Em exited the elevator and keyed into her grandparents’ hotel room. They breathed heavily, like old people always seem to, in the light bleed from the hallway lamp. She felt for the bathroom door and slipped inside. She shut the door and turned on the light. Her skin was yellow in the fluorescent light, the bags under her eyes deep and blue and lined. She turned from the mirror to the white toilet. Em dropped the cash-out slip into the bowl and flushed. She watched as the white paper spun and broke apart in the water and disappeared from view. She crawled into the bathtub, hugging her sides. She waited for the ache to grow quiet.
TAYLOR CLARKE is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @taylormclarke