I’m in Vegas celebrating my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. They’re reaffirming vows in one of those corny chapels. An Elvis impersonator dressed in a skintight polyester jumpsuit parades my mother down the aisle before a gauntlet of guests wearing fake noses and glasses. There is an entire set of miniature railroad cars sewn down the back of the dress, mother’s idea of a bridal train. I follow, hips thrusting and “a whole lot of shakin’ going on,” while tossing rose petals at their feet.
One thing you have to know about my parents is that they are showbiz people. They love a party and a laugh, sometimes at my expense.
After we celebrate their five-decade marriage, I leave them and head for the casino. I take a seat beside Carol, a woman bejeweled in a sequin tube-top and faux leather pants. She’s hunched over a slot machine.
Carol is a fixture here, spending every day at the same one-arm bandit, fishing into her vinyl clutch for dead presidents. A few years back, she won $1100 with one pull, but since that fateful day the house has eaten her lunch.
“Have you thought of trying another slot machine…maybe Wheel of Fortune?” I ask.
“Hell, no,” Carol says. “This is MY machine. Besides, it wouldn’t matter. I’ve been on a losing streak since I got married.” She pulls the lever and watches as two cherries and a lemon roll to a stop. Each time the machine sucks down her money, she takes a sip of vodka, a hearty 80 proof swig, the very medicine for her misfortune.
“I used to be a high-roller,” says Carol “the Queen of free buffets and booze.” She downs her drink and lights a cigarette, blowing smoke at the fruit machine. “Then I met Jimmy, right in this exact spot, and the next thing I know we’re tying the knot. He was building another dice joint when a crane fell on him. Now he just lies on the couch watching NASCAR.”
I have every intention of telling Carol how sorry I feel about her troubles, except her mouth is waiting for no one.
Carol motors on. “The night we met I won big, everything going right, until we pulled up to the Tunnel of Love Drive Thru and got hitched. All I ever wanted was to get out of this glitzy sandbox. Now I’m stuck…until one of us cashes our chips in.”
Maybe it’s the champagne from the Golden Anniversary toasts, but hearing Carol’s story leaves me melancholy. She looks like someone who could have gone somewhere, but now only a faint glimmer remains of that glad rags gal.
Sometimes people confuse marriage with endurance. It’s easy to do. Endurance makes you feel productive…it’s that space where you spend a great deal of time doing what you can’t imagine not doing, because you don’t have the guts to do anything else.
I’m $20 down at the end of the evening, but Carol’s out a small fortune including a sizeable bar bill for a dozen vodkas and a carton of cigarettes.
I want to leave her with some promise of better times ahead, but frankly I’m at a loss for words. What do you say to someone who looks to a rigged machine for a way out of a shitty life?
Then the voice in my head shakes me like a dog with a chew toy. After all, I am a product of show folk.
“Carol, did you hear the joke about the Vegas panhandler who asks a passerby for change?”
She stares at me as if I’m one card short of a full deck.
“Well, there is this guy,” I say “sitting on the sidewalk, real down on his luck. So he asks a tourist for money, but the tourist answers, “Wait a minute, how do I know you won’t use it for gambling?” And the panhandler says, “Oh, I got gambling money!””
Carol’s face lights up. “Haha, that’s what I love about this town!” And with a wave of her hand she’s gone, like a paycheck.