My headlights reached out into the darkness, searching for what lay ahead but finding only road. The world felt big, like it stretched forever, but for all I knew it ended fifty feet from the side of the road. Out there was only darkness.
I had given up on the radio; there is a limit to the number of times I can listen to little girls sing of heartbreak. The songs are sincere, I'm sure, and the pain those girls feel is real, but when it comes right down to it they have no idea. Their broken hearts will mend before they ever learn to play the blues or an old Irish ballad. If they're lucky they will never know the sadness; they will never find themselves lost in a Universe that cares not for their souls. I contented myself with the song of the wind and the lyrics in my head.
The car flew along, gliding down the deserted blacktop. I watched the miles tick by, and knew I wasn't getting any closer to anything. I rounded a bend and in the distance was a scattering of lights, hard and clear in the cold desert night. By the time I reached them it would be time to stop.
The hotel was a little place; there were no cars parked in front but the lights -- those that weren't burned out -- were on. "H tel Ca no ar," the neon sign spelled. The H was flickering like a dying fly trapped between window panes. I pulled in and shut down my machine. As my ears recovered from the rush of the wind I could hear country music leaking out through a window decorated with a neon Budweiser sign. I found a door with a sign taped to it, written in magic marker: "Hotel Registration in Casino". Above that, almost invisible in the night, was a carved wood sign that read "Casino". I opened the door.
I was confronted by the smell of cigarettes that had been smoked before the pilgrims came to America. Along one side of the room was a row of slot machines, abandoned, calling out to the uncaring night. The bar ran along the opposite wall. There was no bartender in sight; the only person in the room was a man sitting on a barstool, intently punching at the buttons on the video poker machine embedded in the bartop in front of him. I pulled onto a stool nearby, but not too close.
"Margie'll be back in a minute," he said without looking up. He watched his game with red-rimmed eyes. The bottle in front of him was empty. I made myself comfortable, watching the screen in front of my stool as it begged for my money.
"You can win if you do it right," the other guy said. "I make enough to pay for a couple extra beers for the walk home almost every night."
"Not sure you can call that 'winning', Hank," a woman said as she came from the back. Margie was maybe fifty, hair bleached by the sun that had turned her skin to leather. She put a fresh Bud longneck in front of him, collecting the empty. "What'll it be?" she asked me.
"Bud's fine," I said. When in Rome.
"If you aren't playing you gotta pay."
"That's all right. I'll take the sure bet. Beer for money."
Margie chuckled as was required of her when a new customer made an old joke and popped the top off another longneck. She tossed down a napkin and set the bottle before me, ice still clinging to it. "Two fifty," she said. "You want to run a tab?"
"You should play," Hank said. "I'll tell you what to do."
"Don't want to think so hard," I said. "You got a room tonight?" I asked Margie to change the subject.
She smiled the grim smile of a soldier making a last stand. "I'll have to check," she said. "Yep, it's your lucky night. The princess suite is still open. Princess not included."
"That's too bad."
She knew I was joking but that didn't stop her. "Hell, hon, when they opened up I-80 those were the first to pack up and leave. They were lucky; they didn't have a dying hotel to fly into the ground."
"How much for a room?" I asked.
"Twenty bucks for a room, or you can have the hotel for a hundred."
Luckily for me, I didn't have a hundred bucks. The Lord smiles on the righteous sometimes. I asked for another beer. "All right," Margie said, "But if you wind up staying five nights it's yours whether you want it or not."
"That's no way to encourage repeat customers," I said.
She shrugged. "They're not worth the effort. Always wanting something. I'd have closed up this hole a long time ago, but what would Hank do?"
"That's right," he said, not looking up from his game.
I sipped my beer and wondered what Hank would do when this place succumbed to the inevitable. Would the old man fold up with it? I pictured him standing outside the door, looking unbelievingly at the CLOSED sign hanging there, peering in through the windows to see the chairs still up on the tables, the dust already collecting. How long would he wait? How long would he stand out in the afternoon sun hoping that Margie was just running late? And then where? Back to his trailer cooking in the evening sun or the other direction, out into the unforgiving desert, his final journey to the place that offered him enduring comfort?
"If you sold this place, what would you do then?" I asked Margie.
She shook her head. "I don't know. There's got to be something better than this, though."
"You want to come with me?" I asked, surprising myself.
"Where you goin'?"
"I don't know."
"Been there," she said, lighting a cigarette. "It's not so great."
Hank studied the machine blinking and chiming in front of him, cursing occasionally. I studied my beer and the one that came after. Margie tidied up the bar, hoping something would happen to make it messy.
She disappeared and came back a few minutes later. "You want nonsmoking?" she asked me. "They have newer mattresses. Nonsmokers are bitchier." She pulled on her own cigarette to make a point.
She tossed down a handful of keys. "Take your pick."
"Which do you recommend?"
"This is a casino, hon." I nodded and looked at the keys. As I reached out she said, "But one of 'em has a princess in it."
I pulled my hand back. The keys were lying in a jumble on the bar in front of me, the video poker game flickering and blinking beneath them. I wondered if this game was rigged, but more than that I wondered what winning meant.
"One in seven," she said, watching me seriously.
What did she want? If she wanted company for the night, why leave it to such long odds? But if she didn't, why make the challenge at all? Had her time in this place gotten to her somehow, giving random events a higher power, the hand of the divine dictating happiness and life, joy and love? Had she given herself to that God, waiting for the roll of the die that would change her life?
One in seven. The tags were all face down; no room numbers were visible. What were the chances of that? Something was at work here, something unseen but powerful. I felt the unseen hand of the God of Numbers that ruled this desiccated place, the hand which had placed the tags all face down when she threw them onto the bar. She was a priestess, and when she made the challenge she was asking her God for direction. Or, perhaps, for permission.
Who was I to argue with power like that? What had brought me there but an accident of the locations of gas stations, the red-on-white sign for a roadside burger place painted on the roof of a barn and the time I spent over a second chocolate shake, and countless other tiny events that had put me here, now. Out here it was easy to believe in a God that lived to pull the strings, giving tiny events great significance.
I reached out and plucked a key from the stack. One key meant a night of uncertainty and, ultimately, emptiness more powerful than before. For her, perhaps, it meant a break from the crushing sameness of each day. But for each of us that seventh key meant something more; it meant another roll of some other die, a roll that could change everything. The other six keys meant a lifetime wondering what we had missed.
The God of Numbers watching, I pulled a key from the pile and flipped over the tag. Number 7.
"Heck yeah!" Hank said, his joyful face bathed in the glow of the machine pinging enthusiastically in front of him. He pushed a button and coins began clanging noisily out of the machine.
"Seven," Margie said. "That's a good room. Good view of the rusted-out Chevys." She took a breath. "No Princesses, though. You need another Bud?"
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-10-24