Gail and I have always been fortunate in life. We’ve been blessed with great kids, relative financial success, and of course we found each other. Our friends and relatives would always call our fortune ‘luck’, but I’d always preferred to think we had a hand in our own success.
The two of us had been joking about how many people mention our perceived luck for years. They always say things like “you’re so lucky your kids turned out great”, “you’re lucky to both have great jobs”, and so on. But we’ve wondered about the merit of that ‘luck’ for as long as I can remember, and now we have our first chance in twenty years to test it out. Our kids, Pat and Lily, are both in college now – Lily is entering her junior year and Pat is going just starting at Marist. After we ship them both off for the semester, we’d have our first chance in twenty years for some alone time.
One night, Gail was lightly commenting on how boring our lives had been lately without the kids around. Even when they’re home they always seem to be off somewhere with their friends. Everything was feeling quieter and slower, like a certain vibrancy had left for college along with them. A commercial was playing that night about a casino about twenty miles from the Vegas strip. In the commercial was a cartoon cowboy wearing a 10-gallon hat, a dress shirt, and spurred shoes with a pair of cards in his hands. That cowboy’s name was Lester and he slapped the cards down on the table to reveal two aces, giving him a four-of-a-kind hand. His face lit up and eyes bulged out. He then reached his long slender arms over the velvety green table and pulled a massive stack of chips towards his body. “At Lester’s Lucky Casino, everyone’s a winner!” he said. “So if you’re feeling lucky today, grab your partner and swing on over!”
When the commercial faded back to Wheel of Fortune, Gail looked to me and said, “Walt, I think we should take a stab at this luck everyone’s always telling us about. What do you say we go out to that casino?”
“Lester’s Lucky Casino?” I said in a fake southern drawl. “We could just go to the strip.”
“We’ve been to the strip already. Besides, we’re far too old for that scene these days. I want to try something a little off the beaten path, you know?”
I laughed. “No, you’re right. I’m not sure I could handle the ‘anything goes’ type of vacation these days.” We agreed to set a week aside in late August of 2018 after the kids went back to school to finally put our luck to the test.
August comes around and Pat and Lily are back in school. Right after Lily heads out, Gail and I hop on the next plane to Nevada. The ride is smooth, no delays or anything. I slept most of the way while Gail read a book called The Complete Nevada Traveler, as if we’d never been out West before.
We get off the plane, retrieve our bags, and take a taxi to the hotel. The hotel is just across the street from the casino. Once we get settled in, we start off by having a lovely dinner at Ace’s Bar and Grill, which is in the same quaint town as the casino. It’s still quiet without the kids, but as I look at Gail I feel something spark inside me. It’s a certain passion I’d ignored for years. She notices me smiling. She asks what it’s for and I tell her, “Oh nothing. You just look so beautiful.”
She blushes and holds her hand over her heart. “Why, Walter. Thank you.” She pauses and then says, “You don’t look half bad yourself.”
After dinner, the two of us are a few drinks in and raring to go over to Lester’s Lucky Casino. “You look nervous,” I say.
“Well Walt,” Gail begins, trying to hide a smile. “What if we don’t turn out to be so lucky?”
“Then I guess none of it was luck after all.”
“In a way, I’d love to lose then. Prove everyone wrong,” Gail says.
“But don’t lose too badly,” I say. “We need to make our budget last the whole week.”
We approach the glimmering golden front doors to the casino. They’re massive and arched inwards, and the words “LESTER’S LUCKY CASINO” are scrawled in flashing yellow lights above. Above that is the cartoon cowboy from the commercial with a toothless grin, a 5-o’clock shadow, a 10-gallon hat, and a pair of aces in his hand. The dusking sun hits him in such a way that his hat and left eye reflect a shining, almost blinding light off them.
At the door, a younger man in a tuxedo spots us approaching. His cold demeanor turns into a welcoming grin. “Welcome, y’all. How’s your night going?”
“It’s great, thank you,” Gail responds. “We’re actually here on our first child-less vacation in twenty years.”
“That’s fantastic. Well I’m going to need some ID from you lovebirds anyway. It’s casino policy.”
Gail laughs, holding a hand to her chest again. “Can’t tell if I’m 21, can you?”
“You don’t look a day over, ma’am,” the doorman replies. He takes our IDs and begins examining them. He’s more thorough than I expected. While he’s looking at my card, He glances up through his thick eyebrows and I’m slightly startled. “Feeling lucky today, Walter?”
It’s almost 8pm, so I find it strange for him to be saying ‘today’ instead of ‘tonight’, but I smile back at him and reply politely. “Sure am.”
He doesn’t respond directly. Instead he hands our drivers’ licenses back and says, “Have a great time.”
Gail says ‘thank you’, but for some reason he unnerves me, so I don’t say another word until we’re past the doors. “Did he seem strange to you?” I say.
“Strange? No, he seemed like a fine young gentleman,” Gail replies. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. Just a feeling.”
I mostly shake the uneasiness and we head inside. We’re here to have fun and test our luck, not to be creeped out by some doorman. Gail asks me if I’d want to start at the slot machines. I say yes, and we start walking the casino floor looking for low-stakes machines. As we make our way through the casino, I observe some of the other patrons. I see a man, older than myself, pulling on the lever of a high-stakes slot machine with what little strength he has left in his frail arm. I look for his companion, but he appears to be alone. Then there’s a middle-aged gentleman wearing leather boots and a dark blue dress shirt playing roulette while his wife sips a martini behind him. Then there’s a heavy-set man looking disheveled and lost. We make eye contact briefly, and he looks like he’s going to cry. And lastly, I see a man looking quite vindictive, leaning back on his stool at the bar and smoking a cigar.
Last time we went to a casino, you could play slots for as low as a penny, but it doesn’t look like that’s the case anymore. The lowest threshold we see is twenty-five cents, so we find two slot machines beside each other and take our seats. Gail rubs her hands together and playfully grits her teeth. She squeals with excitement.
“It’s time to put it all to the test. It’s put up or shut up now.”
“You know it, Walt. Time to test that luck.” Gail slips a quarter into the slot machine. It rattles and falls, landing on the other quarters inside the machine. The screen lights up and lights flash around the outside. After all these years, it’s as mesmerizing an experience as I remember. “Here goes nothing,” she says.
Gail grabs the lever and pulls down slowly. I listen to its soft crank as it comes down, then zips back and bounces into place. The machine rings and pings as the three wheels rotate behind the screen. I stare at it and say, “Come on, come on.” I told myself I wouldn’t care if we win or lose, but as the machine spins, the suspense immediately gets to me. The first wheel lands on a picture of 3 cherries. The second lands on the number 7. The third stops between a ‘BAR’ and a set of cherries and counts for nothing.
“Oh well,” Gail says. “I guess we’re not that lucky after all.”
“I don’t know about that. That’s only our first spin. We’ve got a whole week ahead of us.”
She nods, puts another quarter in, then wraps her fingers around the handle to spin again.
Suddenly, a thick hand comes smashing down on top of the machine. It rattles and shakes and Gail gasps. It’s a wild-eyed looking man in a dark suit with a depiction of a 10-gallon hat sewn into his jacket pocket. He points his loose gaze towards me and smiles wide. “Feeling lucky today?” he croaks.
I rub my hand on Gail’s back to calm her down. I can tell she’s still shaken up by the man’s abruptness. “I’m sorry, do you work here?”
The man looks around like he’s unsure and wants validation from elsewhere. “Well – yes I work here. Feeling lucky today?”
“Yes,” I say firmly. I keep rubbing Gail’s back and realize I’m trying to reassure myself just as much as I’m trying to reassure her.
The man hooks his arm and punches the air, then nods at me and walks off.
“A little overly friendly around here, aren’t they?” Gail says.
“Yeah…friendly.” I watch him walk away. He has a slight limp in his left leg and bounces on his toes with every step. I can’t tell where he’s headed and I’m not sure he knows either.
Gail reaches for the lever again. “Ready?”
“Always,” I say.
She pulls down. The machine cranks, zips, whistles, dings and rings as the wheels spin. The first wheel snaps into place. It’s a 7. The next is a 7 too. Then the third takes a little longer and Gail starts to get excited. It stops. A 7. The machine rings loudly and dings and a sound like a kazoo go off. It zips and shakes and nearly screams to us. “Oh my – oh my god. We won. We won,” Gail says.
I can’t believe it. I try to say something back to her, but I’m speechless and huff out instead through an elated grin. I finally say what’s on my mind. “I can’t believe it.” I look back toward the direction in which the limping man walked off, but I don’t see him anymore. I hug Gail and kiss her for a long while. She giggles and claps her hands, then clicks on the ‘Cash Out’ button to see how much we made. The machine purrs and whizzes, then prints out a ticket and the lights shut off. Gail takes her thin reading glasses out of her purse and holds the ticket close to her face. Her hands start shaking like she’s committed a crime. She can hardly turn the ticket around to show me. “What is it? How much did we make? Let me see,” I say.
I take the ticket from her. Gail stares at me with her mouth agape and wilting wide eyes awaiting my reaction. “Two – two thousand dollars.”
“And you put in 25 cents, right?”
She nods again.
“That can’t be right. That’s a uh – that’s an eight thousand percent profit.”
Gail nods once more, her shocked lips turning to a grin.
“We won the jackpot.”
Gail squeals and hugs me tightly. I try to hug back just as tight. “I spoke too soon: we are lucky.”
“Yeah,” I say quietly. “Yeah I guess we are.” I pause, then release her. Still holding onto Gail’s shoulders, I say, “do you want to go back to the hotel and celebrate?”
“It feels a little early to call it a night, but on the other hand…whoever gets to say they actually won at a casino?”
“Exactly. And we have all week, right?”
“We sure do. Let’s go back to the hotel,” she agrees. Gail takes the ticket back and stuffs it deep in her purse. It seems not too many people noticed how big we won and we intend on keeping it subtle. When we stand from the machines I look straight forward, left then right, then behind: I have no idea how to get out. Everything looks so unfamiliar – the machines, the lighting, the few mirrored walls, the people, the bars, the signage. I vaguely remember taking a left on our way to the machines, but I don’t remember there being ten poker tables in that direction. Nevertheless, I confidently suggest we need to go right. Gail follows me closely. I don’t recognize anyone from our way in. I don’t see the old man at the slot machine, nor the young couple at the roulette table, nor the disheveled man, nor the vindictive one – not even the wild-eyed employee we just saw.
A dealer abruptly jumps in front of us from behind a table. “Feeling lucky today?” he asks. I’m starting to think this is just the casino’s not-so-original catchphrase. “I sure am,” I reply.
“How ‘bout a hand?” He prompts. “What do ya say?”
“Buy-in is only twenty-five bucks a hand. What do ya say?” he tries to convince me with a sort of alluring hiss to his voice.
I look at Gail and she shrugs. “We have only been here for about twenty minutes. A quick hand shouldn’t hurt.”
I nod, then turn my attention back to the eager dealer. He keeps nodding as he waits for an answer. He looks like he’s in a rush. “Sure, we can play a hand.”
“Fantastic, right this way,” he says.
We sit at the table and we say we want to play together. He tries to get us to play separately for a ‘higher chance of winning’, but we don’t want to spend fifty dollars a game. He gives in after a few tries, then deals to us and another man at the table. The other man is wearing a red polo shirt and light blue jeans. He smiles and says, “Hi, I’m Rob.” He looks uneasy, like he’s on his last twenty-five dollars.
“Hi,” Gail says. “I’m Gail, and this is my husband, Walt.” I bend the two cards back and look at our hand. It’s an ace of hearts and a king of spades: an 11 or 21 off the bat. I stay calm and act like I don’t have blackjack already. “Maybe we really are lucky,” I think to myself.
“Feeling lucky today?” Rob says. I blink twice and stutter. He said it too. And he doesn’t work here.
“Hit?” the dealer asks me.
“I – um – I’ll stay. Y – yes, I guess we are feeling lucky,” I respond to Rob. My voice sounds unintentionally annoyed. We’ve not been here thirty minutes and I’m already losing count of how many times I’ve heard the question.
“Hit?” the dealer asks Rob.
Rob checks his cards, then taps his fingers on the table. “Hit,” he says.
The dealer slaps down a jack and Rob immediately slams his fist into the table. “God damn it,” he yells. His face is red and eyes bulging when he looks over to Gail and I. His nose is flaring and heaving. But Rob doesn’t say anything more and walks away. The dealer takes a hit and then shows his cards. He has 19. I show mine and he yells, “Blackjack!”
Rob whips around and glares back at me. I want to celebrate but I feel too guilty to do it. Gail doesn’t notice so she claps her hands and bounces in her seat. “We won again. What a night.”
We play another round and tie the dealer. Then we play two more hands and lose them both, netting zero. Our spirits start to dampen at the table and we don’t intend to lose any more money. “Alright, I think we’ll be going,” I say.
“Aw, just a few more hands?” the dealer pleads.
“No, but thank you. We really must be moving on.”
We bid the dealer a good night and get up from the table. It all looks different again – even more unfamiliar than when we stood from the slots. Gail looks to me, awaiting my direction. I have no idea where to go. I don’t see any of the people we’d already run into, not even Rob. The slots we played at are nowhere to be seen, nor the frail old man nor the roulette couple nor the wild-eyed employee. I have no intentions of lingering next to this eager dealer so I say, “Let’s go,” and head straight from where we’re standing. Gail follows me until we’re a distance from the blackjack table. My head is pounding and eyes whirring. I curse myself for not paying more attention to where we were going as we walked through the casino.
A woman steps in front of Gail and lightly grabs her shoulder. She’s wearing a suit and has graying hair and green eyes and is standing beside a roulette table. “Feeling lucky today?”
I can’t control my own breathing. I stare at her, my eyes locked on and probably looking menacing. “Let’s go, Gail.”
“Oh come on, just a quick hand. What do ya say?” the woman implores.
“We really must be going, thanks,” I say. I grab Gail’s wrist and guide her past the dealer.
“No need to be rude, Walt,” Gail says. “Surely we have a few minutes to spare for some roulette.”
“I thought you wanted to go back to the hotel and celebrate. Don’t you?”
“Yes of course. But…just a game or two wouldn’t hurt.”
“Well…okay. If you insist,” I say. Usually when I say it like that, Gail will relent.
But not this time. Instead she turns back around towards the way we came to go to the roulette table. She stops dead in her tracks. Gail is shaking again, but she’s not excited anymore. The woman is gone. There is no roulette table. In fact – there aren’t any tables at all. It’s just slot machines as far as the eye can see operated by mindless patrons all with the same dead glazed looks on their faces. “Where – where is she? Where’s the table?” She almost falls over as she grabs me and pulls me close.
“Gail, we have to go,” I say. I take her wrist again and spin back around.
“Feeling lucky today?” a stout, bald man in a suit asks.
I push past him violently without a word. I turn my head slightly back so Gail hears me as I speak softly. “Gail, honey, I need to be honest with you. I’m not sure where we are or where we came in from. We’re lost.”
“We could ask guest services,” she says.
“Feeling lucky today?” a younger woman asks.
“No, thank you,” Gail says. Her voice isn’t so sweet this time. It’s shaky and blunt.
Gail spots a guest services desk and points to it. We walk straight towards it. This time I’m not holding Gail’s hand: she just follows me on our way to the desk. “Slow down,” Gail says. “I’m wearing heels.”
I slow down a touch, but I won’t be caught standing still or coming close to it. I hear voices of dealers echoing all around us. “Feeling lucky today?” they say one after the other. Some louder, some softer, some high-pitched, some booming. But they all say the same thing.
I reach the desk and the short-haired lady behind it is scrolling through her phone. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to get her attention.
She looks up nonchalantly, then turns her phone upside down on the desk. “Good day, sir. How may I help you?”
“We got a little lost and were hoping you could help us find the exit.”
“Who’s we?” the woman asks. Her face is twisted with perplexion.
I turn to point to Gail. “Why it’s just me and my –” Gone. In her place are ten, twelve, maybe twenty dealers all wearing black suits with 10-gallon hats on their jacket pockets and maniacal smiles upon their face. “Feeling lucky today?” they say in unison.
I turn back towards the guest services desk and the woman is now wearing a suit too and sitting at a poker table, shuffling a stack of cards in her hands. “Just a quick hand,” she says. “What do ya say?”
The dealers behind me step in closer. The hot air from one’s nose breaks down my neck and otherwise the air feels cold – freezing even. I look at the woman and then allow my gaze to roll over the crowd of dealers surrounding us. She pulls back the corner of the cards and lets them snap back into each other. The casino is silent. It doesn’t smell of cigars and cologne anymore – only death. I gulp and slowly sit down at the table. “Sh – sure. I suppose a quick hand couldn’t hurt.”