The pineapple in the third row would cost me four fifty if I recalled to myself, “Bring the coupon you cut. Why do you always forget the coupons?”
I forget the coupons.
On the way to the store, I stop for groceries, and stock up on dairy, and then, and then, and then I drive to Winding River and leave the groceries--the milk, the yogurt, the ice cream--in the backseat of my last-leg Camry even though it’s July 3rd. It’s the hottest week of the year and one of the hottest of the last four and a half years. The groceries won’t last long, and that’s the point. I don’t want to be in Winding River for longer than half an hour, and the only way to guarantee I won’t be in there longer is to make myself fantasize about the smell of rancid milk roiling in the summer heat.
I park my car in the Stolen Bear section of the parking lot, because there’s a bit more shade there cast by the thirty-eight story hotel. My automatic locks are broken, but if somebody stole the car, even with the groceries in it, it might just be a blessing to me. I’ll drive the car until it dies, and then I’ll find someone to tow it back to my house and place it in the backyard alongside the corpses of all my other vehicles. The county has warned me six times now that if I don’t get rid of the jalopies, I could start facing fines, but it won’t matter if I can get four cherries.
It’s a machine in the most smoke-saturated wing of the casino--across from the ribhouse and encompassed by all the 90’s movies slot machines--Twister, Independence Day, even a Notting Hill machine where if you hear Julia Roberts say “I’m just a girl…” it means you’ve won the jackpot. That’s how long these machines have been sitting here. One day they’ll replace them, but one day they might. The carpet is thicker than anywhere else in Winding River. The aim is comfort--to lull you in ways that aren't necessary anymore. Nobody who comes here wants to leave. Even if the higher-ups stripped it of all its boutiques and bauble stores, the magnetization would still attract the Senior Center swains and boisterous bachelorette parties.
I like Cherries because I never have to fear that my seat will be occupied. Nobody likes the machine but me. I’m devoted to it and it makes itself available to me whether I show up at seven in the morning or eleven at night. I’ve been there for it at both those hours and every other house. I was here on my birthday. I was here on Christmas. I was on the way here when I heard that a jet plane had crashed into a house in suburbia and it turned out to be the home where my parents lived, but had been turned over to the bank after their deaths because they had stopped paying bills in their final years to get my attention.
It didn’t work.
Back then, I had to use all my deliberation just to get two cherries. The pineapples would fall on every yank of the golden lever. On the display screen, DOS monkeys, distant relatives of Donkey Kong, would appear on screen and mock me as my nickels disappeared into the hungry deposit drop. After a year of playing and a second job as a food-runner at Rosie DeStefano’s, I willed three cherries to line up for the very first time. I began to scream, and security walked up to make sure I wasn’t having a breakdown like so many do after they spend funds meant for their children’s braces or a mortgage payment. When they saw I was simply thrilled to have made a breakthrough on the most elusive of slot machines, they let me be. I’m sure knowing how much I had spent up to that point hadn’t hurt either.
I was not encouraged by the third cherry. Every climber knows that nothing matters but the top. I began to attend Winding River during all of my free hours. While I was there, I would perform phone sex on my mobile, bringing in money even as I was watching it evaporate. I began to merge sex and slots in my mind. How many yanks could I get if I pretended to be a flight attendant on a layover? How many if I played as a naughty hitchhiker? What kind of play for how many plays and a yank for a yank and a tug of the lever and soon, I was seeing the cherries form in new ways, new lines, new arrangements that were only discernible to me. They never lined up first, second, and third until I had been there for at least nine or ten hours. Once that happened, I had a small window of time when that impossible fourth would show itself. I knew this without knowing it, the way a parent knows a child is in danger or how a parrot knows a pirate has died.
The windows would always close in the same way--Cherry, Cherry, Pineapple, Cherry. The dreaded combination that meant it was time to go home. Soon, it started showing itself early into my casino floor nights. This was a blessing in some ways, because it meant I might as well go home. Once the pineapple positioned itself in third, there was no reason to play any further. The Cherries machine was done with me, and I needed to gather up my empty Diet Coke cans and redeem whatever was left on my chit at the office near the exit.
As money became tighter due to a medical issue involving my trachea and phone sex rates not being what they used to be, I found myself needing to limit the amount of time I spent at Winding River. The machine seemed to tacitly agree to play by my stricter time limits, but it didn’t make it any more forgiving when it came to doling out that fourth cherry. It seemed to have some insight into my new boundaries. If I gave myself an hour to play, the pineapple was in the third position right at the hour mark. If I gave myself two hours, it was the same. Now it was taunting me. Keeping things suspenseful. Cherries wanted a life like something out of a movie, and I didn’t blame it. How could I? Wasn’t I partly here for the thrill as well?
By minute twenty-nine on the Day of the Dairy, I knew something was different. There was a tension in the air and machines had been hitting all day. The woman next to me in a purple visor and Going to Florida, See You Later, Gator! sweatshirt told me that Julia Roberts had said “I’m just a girl” no less than three times in under four hours.
Now was my moment.
I played up to the very last minute, and as the clock struck eleven thirty, I saw that fourth cherry drop into the third position. No pineapple. No orange. No Wild Card Monkey which gets you an extra spin that usually leads you right back to ruin.
There it was.
Cherry, Cherry, Cherry, Cherry.
In fact, the cherries kept coming. One after another. The machine had reached a breaking point. No slot machine is meant to be played for more than a decade, and Cherries was more than three times that old. Smoke started coming out the sides. I looked in the coin tray, but nothing was coming out. The monkeys were screaming and banging on the display screen, yowling for assistance. A way out. Their pixels on fire.
I sat and watched as I got everything I ever wanted only to know that there would be no pay-out. There would be no way to prove that I had finally pushed the pineapple away and beat the machine. There is no beating the machine. When it’s done with you, it’s because everything is done. The casino emptied out while firefighters arrived to try and subdue the smoke that was wafting over the Speed machine, clouding the faces of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
I sat in the food court, not sure where to turn, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a machine diagonal to the Sbarro’s.
It seemed like a sign.
It was a sign.
A gorgeous pink and purple sign all lit up with the promise of double the jackpot Cherries had offered.
And I still had two nickels left to rub together and start…
Outside, a jet flew over my car.
And the milk began to spoil.