by Lynn Rhodes Campbell
The casino loomed on the wooded hilltop like a majestic castle, a human creation towering over a forest of nature’s own blue spruce and white birch. The grand, domineering structure of multi-angled grey granite was shaped like a wedding cake with multi-tiered layers, all lit up by strategically placed golden spotlights, twinkling like fireworks in the night sky. It looked so warm and welcoming, especially if you were coming in from the coldness of a winter snowfall, as Mariah was.
Mariah parked Old Blue, her little rusting car, as close as possible to the door, though it was still a good walk away at her age. She got out and pressed the remote car lock, which beeped its comfortingly familiar tune. Good, she said to herself, no one could break in to steal her panic-driven supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, safely concealed in the trunk. She coughed a couple of times as she made her way to the grand doors of the casino. I’ll be glad to get out of this cold air, she thought.
As Mariah approached the casino, she looked around furtively, to make sure that she didn’t see anyone she knew. Perhaps I should have worn a wig or a hat, she chided herself, well aware that the yellow tinge to her white hair was rather distinctive. Too late for disguises now, she was already opening the shiny brass door handles with her coat sleeves, to limit contamination. The elegant comfort of the front lobby drew her in, and she stood for a moment under the umbrella of the opalescent crystal chandeliers, feeling the plushness of the deep carpet under her feet through her old, thin-soled running shoes.
This was a distant world from the subsidized, one-bedroom apartment in the affordable building block that housed Mariah and her companion, her hamster George. A far cry indeed from the worn parquet floors and the cheap plywood doors and the cracked windows that let in both the heat of summer and the freezing winter winds.
When Mariah was at the casino, she could pretend she was a grand lady again, the woman she was when she lived with her late husband Frank in the luxury of a professionally decorated mansion across the river—a young bride, full of youthful hope that her good fortune would never end. Back when she wore high heels and furs and ate filet mignon, not ramen noodles.
Still glancing about nervously to see if there were any familiar faces, Mariah rummaged through her faux-leather handbag for her buffet dinner coupon. She didn’t have enough comps for the fancy steakhouse, but she preferred the buffet with its variety anyway. And who wants to dine at a high-end place alone? Too conspicuous. Mariah wanted to hide in the crowd. She didn’t want anyone to know that she was here in this crowded public place, when doing so now was so ill-advised.
It seemed like the whole world was starting to close because of the virus: theaters, pools, arenas and sports venues, concert halls, public buildings, schools and day-cares. Also the bingo hall and community center. They had cancelled her beloved seniors’ euchre games, karaoke nights, and even the senior’s exercise program she enjoyed. Someone had gone so far as to spray Lysol on the jigsaw puzzle in the common room at her building.
Because of the pandemic, all normal human interaction was being discouraged. Social distancing, they called it. Stay away from large groups of people, they warned. Self-isolate for fourteen days if you have been out of the country. Go to the drive-through virus test center at the hospital if you have symptoms.
Yet the casino was still open, though she wondered for how much longer. This evening, it was pretty crowded, despite all the warnings about not going out to public places. No doubt there were people here who may have travelled to the hotspots where the virus was mushrooming and lives were being lost—people who may already have been infected or who may be carriers. Such types were supposed to be self-isolating. But they were gamblers, people who take risks. That’s why they were here at the casino, drawn to the gaming world so strongly that nothing else mattered. Social distancing be damned.
On the way to the buffet line, Mariah spotted one of her favorite slot machines: The one with all of the cute, multi-colored fish. She’d won $30 on this one once! She had gone home with $75 after she tried her luck at the one with the three cherries and at another one with a mermaid and a pirate.
Mariah sat down heavily and, after some fumbling with her arthritic hands, located her player’s card and inserted it. She had $10 free play! Woohoo! It was this card that had earned her all of the free meals, gifts like Tupperware and necklaces, food choppers and blankets. She had use for some of them, but no one to give the rest to, so she mostly just kept them in Old Blue’s trunk. It was a hoarder’s dream, that car, like a rummage sale on wheels.
Those fish were so adorable, tangerine and peacock blue and magenta, all the prettiest crayon colors, dancing on the waves of the virtual ocean on the screen amidst a sea of bubbles. They were her fun little friends. Even though her fingers were stiff and sore, she pushed down repeatedly on the replay button, her pale-blue eyes mesmerized by the on-screen action. She kept this up until she had lost $22. Her elderly, apple-doll face crinkled into a frown. But then the magic happened. Up popped the words Free spins! Bonus! Congratulations! Big win! Soon Mariah was back up $43 bucks. She glowed with excitement.
It was time to celebrate, to go to eat something wonderful. She hardly bothered to cook at home. Just tea and canned soup and crackers, mostly. If desperate, she made her own soup out of ketchup and hot water. Mariah was still in line but craning her neck to scout out the buffet specials when a fortyish lady in a purple peacoat who was standing behind her coughed twice, trying to stifle each in the crook of her elbow. Mariah turned around and gave her the death stare, her blue eyes ablaze. The purple peacoat lady’s male companion put his arm around her protectively. “Smoker’s cough,” he mumbled. Mariah watched as he ushered the woman towards the soup tureens. No soup for me, she decided as she saw them hungrily grabbing at the serving spoons.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mariah spotted someone she knew, a woman with a grey ponytail who used to work at the corner store in her neighborhood. The very same one who got in trouble because she had one winning lottery ticket too many from her work. It was very suspicious. Bad enough to have a gambling problem, but worse if it made you cheat.
Mariah ducked into the casino’s well-lit gift shop. It was full of treasures that lucky patrons could treat themselves to with their winnings. A real pearl necklace, perhaps, or at least a jaunty little fake-fur jacket. There was also gum and snacks and little shot glasses and keychains and other crappy keepsakes for tourists. They were out of hand sanitizer today, however, according to a sign just inside the door.
Mariah was looking for headgear. An orange baseball cap, no. A tie-dyed turban, no. How about a scarf she could wrap around her head to hide her distinctive hair? OMG, it was fifty bucks! And not even real silk, of course. But the moon-and-stars motif on the indigo background was very nice. Everyone would think she was a gypsy fortuneteller, not a poor widow whose sole entertainment was slot machines.
Confident that no one would recognize her now, Mariah approached the buffet. She took a plate and began to scrutinize the spread, watching the other diners out of the corner of her eye. She always hated to see people put something on their plate and then decide to remove some of it. She hoped that at least they had the good sense to get a new plate for seconds. With warm delicacies piled high on her plate, Mariah set off to find a place to sit that was not too close to anyone else. That’s when she remembered that she hadn’t used Purell after playing the slots. Oh well, she’d do it before she ate. The authorities were advising that everyone use hand sanitizer or wash their hands with soap and water for twenty seconds. Or both. And often. Uh oh, she thought as she sat down, no Purell in her purse. But there were ten bottles in the trunk of her car. Oh well. No use being paranoid. If she went to the bathroom now to scrub up, her good food would get cold. And someone might sneeze on it if she wasn’t guarding it.
Mariah dug in and when she had finished, went in search of dessert. She picked up a plate with a piece of lemon pie, but the meringue didn’t look too fresh, so she put it back. How many other people had done the same? She opted for the ice cream, and as she touched the handle that squeezed it out into white swirls into her bowl, she thought with a bit of guilt that she still hadn’t used sanitizer or even washed her hands, but she hoped with optimism that the hundreds of others who had touched it were very hygienic people. Then she erased the whole idea from her mind. Too much to worry about. No, no, Mariah! she scolded herself. Think good thoughts. Don’t be paranoid. It was a comfort to her to notice that the staff were busy wiping down surfaces with disinfectant. Just enjoy your treat of ice cream, she urged herself. It was cool and soft in her mouth, and soothed her raspy throat as she swallowed.
Mariah didn’t have much money left in her budget to play, but she was drawn to the slot machine with the golden turtles. First, though, she padded along to the ladies’ room to wash her hands and was horrified to see another woman leave a cubicle and head for the door without going to the sink for some soap and water first. Shut it out, shut it out, Mariah told her own mind. Don’t have a panic attack!
When she returned to the slots, someone else was sitting at the machine she wanted, so, with disappointment, Mariah wandered around until she was attracted to another machine with a gorgeous raven-haired flamenco dancer in a red dress. Back in the day, when Frankie was alive and they went to so many fancy parties, Mariah had a red dress much like that. And the cleavage to go with it. The softness of its velvet had clung to her curves. Now she was a stick insect in thrift store leggings and a top that once fit but was now baggy and loose.
The flamenco dancer was lucky for her, and after several minutes, thrilled at having won $259, Mariah decided to cash out. As she was handed the money, something tripped in her memory about bills being dirty. But this windfall, combined with her food-bank ration, would help offset the cost of today’s bulk purchases of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Sometimes, when she lost at the casino, it was hard to get through the month till her pension check arrived from the government. An unsuccessful day playing the slots always fueled her motivation to return soon to try to win her lost dollars back.
Even though she didn’t score a jackpot, Mariah was smiling as she walked to the door because of her nice little win. She left the warmth of the casino and made her way to the parking lot. The night air was an icy shock. She got into the driver’s seat of Old Blue and turned on the ignition. Then she coughed. And coughed again harder. The coughs kept coming rougher and faster until she grew light-headed. It was almost twenty minutes later that her head cleared enough for her to put Old Blue into gear and drive home.
Photo by Jonathan Petersson @grizzlybear.se (Sweden)
Lynn Rhodes Campbell is a freelance writer, based in the friendly village of Sunderland, Ontario. For the past nine years, she has written feature articles for Focus on Scugog magazine. She started out her career as a newspaper reporter after studying journalism at Ryerson University. Previously, she worked as the writer/photographer/news editor of the Uxbridge Times-Journal, wrote high-profile columns for the Toronto Sunday Sun. Lynn’s comic novel, entitled Journal of a House Sale: Buy My House Please! was self-published in 2012. Despite other career pursuits over the years, she has always enjoyed writing fiction and poetry in her spare time.