The waiting is what kills you. I’ve been waiting forever. How hard is it to make a goddamn Jack and Coke? The noise in here just makes it worse. Slot machines chime and ding all around me. It’s like violent wedding bells from a church steeple, notching the seconds that pass. Sure, the drink’s free, but they know you’ll just keep dumping money into the machine until they come back. They make you earn you it by waiting.
I slap the buttons on the machine in front of me, careful not to chip the fresh polish on my nails: Sultry Crimson. Damn, I could really use that drink. I’ve been sliding twenties into this video poker machine for the past hour. When Shirley and I showed up, I said I’d only play forty bucks. That was two trips to the ATM ago. That’s the thing about poker: the more hands you play, the more chances you have at that jackpot. You just have to keep playing. Shirley doesn’t get that. She doesn’t like to gamble.
I haven’t seen her since she spotted Cliff. Of course, as soon as she saw him, she had to go slither up to him like a lost puppy coming home. She only agrees to come to the casino cause she knows Cliff’s here all the time. Like I said, she doesn’t like to gamble. Sometimes he’s alone. Most of the time, he isn’t. There’s a reason she divorced his ass. There’s a reason I ain’t ever been married.
I smack the bright greasy buttons in front of me to play another hand. Max bet. Deal. A pair of Jacks and some random numbered cards. I hold the Jacks. Deal. I get nothing good in return when the screen slides out three new cards. The hand pays out even, and I get my money back cause of the two Jacks, but nothing else. Could have been worse. Could have been better. I just keep playing. Max bet. Deal.
I blink hard to see the screen. The overhead lights on the gaming floor are kept dim and the cigarette smoke in the air has dried my eyes like a blow dryer on full-blast. My old peepers ain’t great to begin with. Through squinted eyes, I see a suited King, Queen, and Ace, and two low numbered cards that I couldn’t drop quickly enough. I hold the three high cards, all diamonds, and pray for the best. I always play for the royal flush, no matter what the risk. I slap the glowing “Deal” button and my heart flutters as I await my hand. I get a one-eyed Jack and a 2 of clubs. Another loser. I keep playing.
Where the hell is my damn drink? I spin my head about and flick my hair with force. I scan the penny slots behind me before I shoot my eyes to the craps tables on the left. I still don’t see the cocktail waitress.
“Mind if I play here?” I jerk my head back around to see a stout man standing behind the machine two down from me. I’m playing on the end. I smile bigger than I really intend.
“Not at all. Maybe you’ll bring me some luck.” I say. He chuckles and his finely trimmed goatee eases into a constant grin. He smells like three hours of steady boozing.
“I hope so.”
Max bet. Deal. Two aces, and some garbage. I hold the aces. Deal. Another ace and two Jacks. Full House. My machine erupts into a stream of noise and vibrations as my money total fills with a few bucks from the winnings.
“Well, there you go!” I giggle and quickly pull my shirt down to cover my bouncing tummy. “I’m getting lucky already.” His grin stays fixed, and he raises an eyebrow. The wrinkles on his forehead ripple like waves on a once still pond.
“Glad I could help you with that.” He reaches out his hand, and I shake it. His grip is tender, but he looks awkward, like he’s used to being much more firm. He says his name is Doug, and I believe him. He looks like a Doug. His eyes are kind. He’s bald on top with the sides trimmed short. I tell him my name is Deborah, but my friends call me Deb. He says he’d like to call me Deb.
“You’ll have to earn it.” I lick my lips, more out of habit than actual desire. He says he’d sure like to try. He could’ve been worse. He could’ve been better.
“Here’s your Jack and Coke, hun,” the waitress says from behind me.
About damn time, I think to myself but don’t say it. I spin around and grab my drink.
“Thanks.” I eye the cocktail waitress up and down. Thirty years ago I would have been embarrassed for her, wearing that dress. Now I just wish I could fit into something like that. She hangs around for a moment. I don’t give her a tip. I spin back around, and she stomps off.
Max bet. Deal. I sip my drink. Five random cards. Three spades. I hold the spades. Deal. Nothing good, and it’s a loser hand. I keep playing.
I check my watch. I still haven’t seen Shirley. If things went well with Cliff, she’s in the back of his rusty old truck with him right now. If they didn’t go well, she’s probably still with him in the back of his truck. Either way, it’ll be another hour or so before she folds, gets into a fight with him, and comes looking for my shoulder to sob on.
Max bet. Deal.
“You waiting on anybody, Deborah?” Doug asks after awhile.
“No,” I lie.
Ace of clubs, King of clubs, Queen of clubs, the 3 of diamonds, and the 10 of clubs. Jack of clubs is all I need to win big. I hold my breath. Then, I hold all four of the clubs, delicately pressing the backlit “Hold” button under each card. This could be it.
“Well how about we go somewhere and you let me earn the right to call out your name, Deb?” I turn from the screen and look at him. His grin never wavers. He stares back at me. He’s drunk, but he holds it well. I look at the hand still waiting on my screen. Before I slap the button, I look back at Doug.
Joe Miller is a scientist who enjoys experimenting with words. He studies molecular biology to define reality, and he writes fiction to explain it. His two loyal dogs follow him wherever he writes, and are a constant source of comfort.