Two months ago, after flirting with a handsome Ojibwa who poured stiff Margaritinas, Fonda tottered over to the slots and maxed out her credit card, setting her back two grand. Which is why, heading south on I-31 after an afternoon wine-tasting in Traverse City, I’m surprised when she tells us from the back seat that her inner voice just whispered: Twenty bucks will move your spirit toward prosperity.
Since her heart bypass last year, Fonda’s been on speaking terms with her gut. “You know that ‘feeling?’” she says. “Well, I’m finally listening.”
“Did your gut mention how long you’ll have to play?” Bets wants to know. “’Cause I can’t afford to call in sick tomorrow.”
“Twenty bucks,” Fonda promises.
The giant marquee in front of the Little River Casino & Resort advertises “Only Tonight! Bitty KISS!” Bitty looks exactly like Gene Simmons—shiny black Brillo pad of hair, dark sunglasses, plumped up lips—except he and his sidekicks are little people.
“Could be interesting,” Bets says, snapping her gum. She and I can’t afford to gamble. We like to joke that our monthly Social Security checks barely cover our ass-ettes. Sure, Bets works part-time at Lowe’s “making do,” and I get a chunk of my husband’s life insurance, but still, we’re pinching retirement pennies.
Fonda can’t afford to gamble either, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She’s been on disability for twenty years since she and her former boyfriend, who turned out to be “another manic phase,” dumped his Harley in the UP. She’s got a steal rod in her thigh, but it doesn’t interfere with her pulling the one-armed bandits.
Fonda walks ten steps ahead of us, the smell of easy money and cafeteria grease wafting through the electronic doors along with a gush of stale AC. For her, this Neon Oz with binkety-dinkety computerized sirens is her idea of heaven, enough buzz and bling to seduce the most tone-deaf sinner. After she pays to play, she waves adios amigas and wanders across the casino looking for a hot machine with a cushy seat.
Bets and I wander off, weaving around gamblers with fanny packs and credit cards tethered to lanyards, dependable oxygen tanks pushed aside. Though penny-pinchers, we’re not above being hypocrites and agree to splurge on All-You-Can-Eat Crab Legs and Prime Rib buffet for $29.99. But before we track the scent, we pass a dark, quiet bar. We’re on our third snake bites, watching a big-screen of the floor, when all hell breaks loose. Lights flash, bells ring. Someone’s hit the Big One.
“Come on,” says Bets.
We slither off our stools and stumble out onto the floor where a crowd has gathered.
A guy shouts, “It’s letting go of 300 grand!”
“Quick, what do you call a group of gamblers watching someone hit a jackpot?” a grizzled guy with a leather Hell’s Angels vest asks me. Before I can guess, he answers, “Jealous.”
An old man with a flannel shirt scratches his gray beard. “Man, I just played that machine.”
Bets and I pray that when folks part like the Red Sea it’ll be Fonda sitting there in a stream of gold coins. She’s been struggling to pay her monthly trailer rent and has hinted she might get bounced soon.
But when we push through the gawkers, all we see is a dazed gambler with outstretched hands, coins spilling out of an ecstatic machine into an overflowing plastic pail, a strobe light flickering, rapturing the winner to the Almighty Slot Machine in the Sky. And when the winner turns around, she has pink bangs and an “I Went to Vegas and This Is All I Got” T-shirt—definitely not Fonda.
We find our Fonda in the snack lounge with a chocolate soft-serve ice cream cone. Turns out she blew ten dollars before her gut spoke up, told her she was wasting her time and money, and that it was hungry. She stares at the overhead flat-screen TVs—kickboxing, Canadian curling, the World Poker Tour. A skinny guy on one screen jumps up and kicks his opponent square in the jaw.
“These slots are so tight,” Fonda says, “they squeak.”
Bets asks her if she’s seen the handsome Ojibwa bartender. Fonda shakes her head. “Has the night off.”
On our way out, we pass the crowded auditorium where the Bitty KISS concert is just getting started.
“C’mon,” I say. “We’re so late, we’ve got plenty of time.”
Bitty and his band come on stage. Not only does he sing, he raps and thrusts out his red salamander tongue. If he wasn’t so darn cute—if you could imagine him taller—he could almost pass for the real deal.
There’s only a handful of people in the crowd, so we move down to the front row and watch as Bitty dances over to the edge of the stage singing “I Was Made for Loving You.” He bends down and stretches out his tiny hand. Bets reaches out, and he starts singing to her. Up close, under the lights, he looks 110-years-old.
I stare. It’s wrong to stare. Yet it feels wrong not to. Bitty pumps his bulbous fists, spits into the hot mic, thrusts his bantam hips.
When the song’s over, I poke Bets and Fonda: “Taxi’s leaving.”
We stroll past indoor ponds with fake lily pads, our ears thrumming from the music. Outside, a silent gray dawn is just starting its show.
Fonda and Bets worry I’ll fall asleep driving and make a big deal about keeping me awake. But as soon as we hit the road, they’re both out, heads slung back, snoring.
Wide awake, I keep thinking about Bitty. How we all sang along, our mouths moving without our hearts’ concern. I feel bad I watched the show with the same enthusiasm I’d watch a car wreck. The whole evening seemed strained—Bets and I tossing back shots, Fonda wanting so damn bad for those machines to cough out cash. This is our life now, I think. Holy hell.
I scan the highway. Up here, if it’s not suicidal venison, it’s crazy wolves or raucous raccoons.
We’ve got the road to ourselves. If I push it a little, we should make it back in time so Bets can get to her job at Walmart.
This retired life. It’s having time without money, or money without time. It’s watching days fly by like the birch and fir trees along this highway. It’s friendship and sadness and what-ifs and maybe-nots and who-knows. It’s a bad poker hand on a hot table, or a cold slot machine that suddenly sizzles.
Up ahead, three sets of green eyes glow from the dark forest. I slow down, not because I my gut says I should, but because I know how it feels to be hit hard.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower