9:07PM Monday, March 7, 1984
Kane wandered through the casino floor. One-armed bandits clicked, spun, and sputtered, coins falling from their mouths. The bandits’ victims, mostly geriatric in nature, smoked cigarettes, sipped cocktails, and fed the machines, often two at a time. Beyond the rows of slots, a section of blackjack tables staggered toward a couple of roulette wheels. Kane made his way to the bar.
“What can I get you?”
Kane turned toward the voice, which sounded like a high tenor or a deep mezzo-soprano. The lights of the bar refracted through the bottles and reflected off the mirror, and Kane couldn’t see the features of the bartender. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.
“Jack and Coke, please.”
Kane turned back toward the room, and the vine pattern swirled. Flowers sprouted near the leaves in the vines, and the green and burgundy carpet gained a merlot tinge. Kane lit a cigarette.
“Do you want to run a tab?”
Kane turned toward the faceless voice. He swallowed. “I think I should pay as I go. I’d like a glass of water, as well, please.”
The bartender filled a pint glass with ice, placed it on the bar, and held the gun over it as it filled. “You having a tough night?”
Kane took the roll from inside his jacket, pulled a bill from the outside and stared at it. He couldn’t identify the president. He kept his largest bills on the outside, so he placed the bill on the bar and slid it toward the bartender, who removed it and replaced it with new bills.
The bartender said, “I get the feeling you’re having a rough night.”
“I’m doing ok. I had a fight with my girlfriend.”
“You here alone?”
Kane stared into the face he couldn’t see, nothing but pale flesh edged by glinting crystal. He looked away and looked back again, but nothing changed.
“I believe my friend made his way to the buffet, but he may have stopped at the slots. He likes to shake hands with lady luck.”
“It’s been a quiet night so far.”
“Probably the fog.”
“How bad is it out there?”
“I’m not really sure. You couldn’t see a lot, but I didn’t feel like I was in danger.”
“You don’t seem like a man who does.”
“I don’t know what that means?”
“Where’d you get that scar? It looks like you were kissed.” The bartender nodded to the mark on Kane’s face where some kids had branded Kane with the blade of a heated pocket knife.
“An accident when I was a kid.”
The bartender waited for more, but Kane didn’t say anything. The bartender looked around at the empty stools, set two shot glasses on the bar, and filled both with whiskey.
“This one’s on the house. I didn’t mean anything by the question.”
They touched glasses and each downed the amber liquid.
Kane said, “Let me ask you something. Why do people come here?”
“To the bar?”
“No, that makes sense to me. I meant to the casino.”
The bartender shrugged. “They want to try their luck.”
Kane spun on his stool to face the floor and leaned his back against the bar. The room felt like the inside of a pinball machine, all bells, whistles, and movement without progress. Kane pointed with the hand that held his drink. “Do those people look lucky? Do they look like they expect to be lucky? It seems like they know they’re going to lose, and they come here to get out of their houses.”
The bartender chuckled. “Alright, I won’t bullshit you. I’m not a gambler, so I’ve wondered this myself. Most of the people who come in here are retired or lonely or both. This year’s been a long winter, and I think people come up from Central City or down from the Northwoods just for something to do. Days are still short and nights have been long for months.”
“Do you think people expect to win?”
“Nobody with a brain does.”
“Why would anyone want something for nothing?”
“It strikes me as unnatural.”
“Everyone I know wants as much as they can get with as little effort as possible.”
“Do you think college is the same way?”
“What? This is the strangest conversation I’ve had since I started working here, and I’ve had a few.”
Kane lit a cigarette, and the bartender slid an ashtray in front of him.
“What was the strangest conversation you had before you started working here?”
“My dad asked me why I wanted to work in a place that preyed on people who want something for nothing. He thought it unnatural and wanted me to go to college.”
Kane said, “I’ve been working my way through school. Something about it, I don’t know…”
“Okay. I took a different route. I’ve been working here since before I graduated from high school, but I’m with you. We’re about the same age.”
“We are?” Kane stared into the glittering void where a face should’ve been.
“Where are you going with this?”
“I’m wondering if school’s a gamble. You put the money into your education, and the education prepares you for a job. Then you work that job, retire, and die. Is that about it? Most of my classmates don’t read. They don’t prepare for class. They cram for tests and party on the weekends. Is that their education, to learn how to show up, cram when it matters, and drink to forget what they spent their week doing?”
“Sounds about like life. I’d remind you that you’re drinking on a Monday night?”
Kane tapped his cigarette on the rim of the ashtray and sipped his drink. “Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Not at all.”
“What if, okay, college is just a way to spend money to get something for nothing. We’re putting our chips on the diploma and spinning the wheel, hoping the needle lands on something we can live with.”
“I don’t think most people see it that way.”
Kane ground out his cigarette and waved his hand toward the casino floor. “How do those people see it?”
“I don’t think they’re terribly educated.” The bartender nodded over Kane’s left shoulder. “Is this your friend?”
Kane turned to see all six-foot-six of Seth moving across the casino carpet as though trying not to step on a crack in the sidewalk. When he reached Kane, he leaned on the bar and took a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket. “That was a close one.”
Kane asked, “Was it the vines?”
“They are vines? That is a relief. They moved like snakes. Most vines are not poisonous.”
The bartender set an extra shot glass on the bar and filled all three. “What were you guys doing before you came here?”