Orange lights reflect off the building, in the distance, which I could see from a couple miles down the highway, peeking over the cliffs protecting Sullivan County; a red light on its roof, blinking. From the city, I rode up in the afternoon; a packed car like I had a family inside. All my clothes—casino clothes—stacked and layered in the trunk while I stop for a sandwich somewhere in Jersey. Speeding up the highway that runs and cuts these small towns by the blade of a semi’s horn, blaring down the rumble strips, pumping smoke into the cold, thin air like someone’s breath. And the building fades over the granite as I come closer to it, where there’s finally the ramped exit with the green, direction sign reading, Resorts World Catskills: the arrow pointing straight. Monticello, is written underneath. Its small arrow pointing in the other direction, over to the other side of the overpass, where there’s just a gas station.
The town itself has its own exit ramp a little ways down the highway—maybe a mile—which runs the length of the main street instead of joining it. It’s the quick bypass that forgets the town. The exit ramp drops you off just after Monticello’s Main Street, by Walmart, with the rest of the strip mall centers, lined up with tall signs of fast food promises, like all the other highway towns that advertise their essentials to people that might need gas. The little symbols are etched on the signs before the town, so people driving North know what’s offered. And of course, the casino has its own exit ramp. A trip to McDonald’s is just a 65 mph shot passed Downtown.
There’s a small neighborhood before the casino that looks misplaced off of the exit. One street recedes to the right with houses mixed in between the bulging text of the entrance sign, emphasized and highlighted underneath by shadowed lamp light behind its letters. The houses are shack-like but tallish with two to three different entrances scaling the sides of them, connected by stairs and fallen over bicycles, each pumping smoke out of their thin chimneys. The dirty homes seemed inherently snow-covered in a thin layer that shook down through the early morning but stopped before anyone woke up to see it falling. But there is no snow. It’s just what it feels like, as the homes run down the length of the flat street, perpendicular to the expansive lane of the casino’s entrance; biking distance.
They must all be V.I.P. members. I see a local boy on his bmx turn at the light before me, pedaling slowly, two gears too high, crosslegged, and riding underneath the street lamps that extend down the winding length.
This drive-up to the casino can only be described in the same way that a community college campus entrance should be described after one comes through its first toll booth. There’s no toll booth here, but from the traffic light that finally flashes green off the highway ramp, it’s still a mile to the parking lots. The long, smoothed, paved street keeps on going, its two directions separated by a strip of lawn that runs the whole length of it, protected by wooden guardrails precisely manufactured, interspersed with streams that run underneath the hollowed pavement through cement tunnels that pop out every now and then as I keep driving. The sun is just setting over the forest on either side of me, earlier in the day now, and the movement of the highway still pokes through the leafless tress to the left, approaching still, and I’ve passed the kid on his bike who gives me the finger in my casino clothes; I’m a watch glistening through the passenger-side window. Winding, smooth, and totally unnecessary, the drive-up basically extends the highway to the building, except kids are allowed to bike on this shoulder.
There are small ponds and masses of pine trees on the right that separate the kid’s neighborhood from the casino. This ‘scraper, plopped down in the middle of these purchased grounds. It’s like a yellow brick road that I’m following between the highway and the forest, running beneath the street lamps that are placed every car length or so behind the guardrails, now beginning to shift the shadows in my car as the sun gets darker and they become the light source, pocked over the black pavement, making circles of lights like the top of a clarinet. The angled monolith that is the casino juts in different directions towards its top, reflecting all the sky through its blue-grey tint, as I turn the final sloped corner of the bobsled track, speeding closer on the open road designed for buses, wide enough so they can swerve. But it’s just me, in my car, taking up both lanes as I approach the building, seeing its glass face extend upwards before me around the bend. Windows rise up, gridded high above the beamed entranceway that crisses and crosses over itself and underneath. It’s like a mirror, surrounded by forest, reflecting none of it, only sky; through the red lights blinking on its surface, the cloudy, November sky fades in a reflection. Only a couple hotel squares of light poke through the camouflage, repeating itself over the background.
Once I’m close, once I’m very close to it, it’s as if it’s a little warmer under the overhang entranceway, even though it’s not. As if palm trees should be lined around the rock gardens that hug the place, and a cactus might be in its main lobby. Pulling in between the other cars, it’s as if everything has thawed, like the building is a radiator, and the ghosts of tropicana still stand tall in front of its entrance.
A couple cars are scurrying out as I pull in. We all stop at a traffic light before the casino parking lot. Most blow right through the red, because no one else is there, and they’re familiar; BMWs with city plates, tinted windows. They take a left on red as if it were a dusty road. Cars don’t fill the parking lot but the spaces closest to the building are occupied; a couple layers extending outwards. As I get closer with my car, I sit in the scene for a second more, taking in the heat of the dashboard vents before gathering my things to check in inside.
The kid on his bike pulls up in my rearview while I’m still sitting there, collecting myself, and I see him blow right through the red light too, waving friendly to a car, friendly honked, and going passed, taking the short-cut to the back, and changing into his work clothes for the evening shift.
“How’s business between the casino and the waterpark?”
“Used to be great,” she said. The woman inside the store is every texture that she already sells: wavy, painted, plaid, and dripping. She’s wearing all of them, rattling around the place when she walks, dangling from her earrings, her necklaces; the shells and beads on all of them rustle. Her shop’s stuck in the middle of the purchased grounds, a small boutique that’s rarely open; it always has its banner up. The Hippy Chick flaps it’s wavy sign that reads “OPEN” in mock-handwriting; all squirrelly and chic against the purple.
“Are you looking for someone?” She asked as she put her mask. She hadn’t expected someone without a car; someone who’d walk in.
“No, just me,” I said, combing through a rack of the most beautiful jean skirts I’d ever seen; the most beautiful jean skirts between a waterpark and a casino.
On that Friday during my stay, I noticed her little Volkswagon buggy parked outside and decided that the place was finally open. It was the nicest day so far in Monticello. The air had warmed to almost 60, and it was dress-shirt weather with an overcoat. I decided to go for a walk down the casino road, wide and empty, passed the parking lots, to where the sidewalks are just as wide as the casino’s entrance road, and no one uses them, no pedestrians; little bridges are built over the streams that run underneath. Her store exists alongside them, just skipping-distance from the casino. It’s like the small boutique was commissioned alongside the rest of the shenanigans in the complex’s blueprint. And she’s inside, as if she were commissioned too.
“How long have you had the store?” I asked her at some point.
“Well, my father owned it.”
I looked around the place. Women’s clothes covered every wall like a tapestry. A couple mirrors on pedestals, bedazzled, plopped along the floorboards. The glass case with jewelry she sits across from at the counter is also patterned, heavy, wooden.
“Well, he owned the land. That’s our house on the corner there. We own this whole square right here. They practically built around us.”
“So, you opened the store?”
“Correct,” she said, and now she’s up with me, looking over my shoulder at what I’m browsing. “I used to sell a lot of things to people.”
“Well, do people win big at the casino?” I checked the price tag on an item.
“Exactly,” she said.
I float around some more in the silence.
“By the way, this is a ‘No Legging Zone.’ That’s what I tell them.”
“Exactly. Only fashion. These boring girls, in all their leggings...” She trails off.
I know the rest. I do. I touch the denim on my jeans to the skirts that hang against me. “What about leggings under skirts? No?”
“I suppose,” she said, and I assumed she had another skirt beneath the one she was already wearing; her long, grey hair, almost touching her bracelets. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was wearing leggings.
“I love the skirts,” I said and meant it.
“For you?” She asks, holding one against me.
“I mean, yeah,” I show her the clothes already on me, twisting my leg, already covered in visual fragrance.
“Yes,” she said, a little more curious. “Are you here for the casino?”
I said yes, she’d be correct. And when she asked, I was from the city.
“Ah,” she said, like an epiphany, “The city will rise up here eventually.”
“With the oceans?”
“Yes, exactly. Plus, they’re all getting bored down there. It’s good. But when this place becomes their place, it won’t be this place anymore. You understand?” She looked out the window, passed her salad bowl, through the glass to the casino in the distance. “They promised so much with this thing, y’know? Sometimes, I wonder if they’re trying, like, where’s all the outdoor stuff? They got all this space, and they couldn’t have even built, like, a mini golf?”
I admitted to her that I was only in her store because I was looking for something outside. “It’s the first warm day I’ve had here and I’ve gone outside my hotel room to find something to do.”
“And there’s nothing, right?”
I looked around at the store again. A dressing room or two with curtains pulled back. Small knick-knacks on the coffee tables next to couches no one sits on. “I mean, yeah. They even built the waterpark inside.”
She laughed at this, at a couple of the things I said. And as I stayed longer, we got to sitting down across the cashier cabinet with all its jewelry laid inside it. I shuffled through a bowl of bracelets on the glass as I told her about my stay so far. “It’s weird in there... It’s little things.”
“Like what?” She asked, between her tea.
“Like... Okay, so there’s vending rooms on every floor, right? Like every hotel has. Like, little rooms off every hallway for candy machines and ice. But you open the doors to these ones, on every level of the casino, there’s nothing inside, not even an ice machine. Maybe just a sink in the corner. Like they expect you to fill up your own bucket and freeze it. It’s like, they even laid off the vending machines.”
She laughed again, putting down her Mason jar. “Well they should have. Replace them with humans. They should get people in those rooms taking quarters, and handing out snacks behind plexiglass.”
Now I chuckled, and all of a sudden, I felt obligated to buy something. I flirted closer to the bracelet tray with all the $10 items. “How much for the puka shell?” I grabbed the bracelet before she answered.
“8 dollars.” And when I bought it, she handed me her business card with a slight of hand along the bag. “In case you’re in the area again and you want to buy a skirt.” Her picture’s on the little card, playing the banjo in the grass. Next to her, the cartoon sun from her logo: tie-dyed, folk, and festive.
“I’ll try not to lose this at the table,” I said, pinching it in between my fingers. “Maybe, I’ll win big tonight,” brushing past the skirts again. “Would you mind if I tried one on?”
I took it to the dressing room, and I might have been her only customer all that week. I didn’t come back to check. I didn’t win big at the casino either, not that night before I left. And I almost lost the puka shell bracelet off the smoker’s deck, fiddling with it in the moonlight, looking at her business card, pulling it out of my wallet, knowing that she was just across the street, in her father’s farm house, eating Annie’s mac n’ cheese or something and thinking about me at the casino table— in my casino clothes. The memory of me twirling out that dressing room with the skirt on tight around me, and her applauding my ability to fit it.
I’m at the table now, with my hands on my face, while she stands behind me in support, blending into the carpets of the casino floor in her own patterns, watching the cards with me as I roll the dice and it bounces the length. I’m in the skirt, jumping up, long and frilly, as all the chips get pushed our way, and we celebrate, jump around, and move ourselves to an empty vending room.
I thought to give her my room’s number when I pulled down my mask before leaving. She recognized me all at once as someone who could smile, with a face, and if I really was her only customer, she’d be thinking about me that night across the street before her nightly joint. And if she was lucky, maybe tomorrow, I’d take that skirt off her hands, on my way to the waterpark.
He was there the first day that I checked in. A Don Jr. type; young and slick, like he had just gotten up from the blackjack table, with Daddy’s money, and won the name-tag off the dealer, wearing it now for show in the hotel’s lobby. He didn’t look like he worked here, he looked like the owner’s son.
I hadn’t seen him since the first day, when he tried to help me with my bags. I didn’t let him. A few days later, he’s back in the lobby wearing the same skinny, rayon plaids, buckled dress shoes–freshly shined–the same J. Crew overcoat’s on his back, standing next to the glass, front doors, keeping them warm as Townies make a draft, shuffling through the motion sensors; they get corralled by ropes as they get their temperatures checked digitally.
During my stay at the casino, I had to switch rooms midweek because of a booking error in the system. The opportunity to help me with my bags again was like blood in the water for him. The front desk man pointed me his way, “Over there, that’s James. He can help you with your bags.” And he’s already behind me, coming closer in those leather shoes, already trying to take my backpack off.
“No, it’s quite alright,” I said, trying to save a bit of money. “I’ll just move from my old room to my new room by myself. All my bags are still up there anyway.”
“Fair enough,” the front desk man said, and James receded back, back to his post, stalking his sights a new prey.
My plan was full proof, until I realized, that I had locked myself out of my room; all my bags were locked inside. When I came back down from the elevators, James perked up at the sorry sight of me, and I was the one who waved him over. “No problem, sir,” he said when I told him, and we headed to the elevators together.
“How’s your stay been?” He asked me before we reached the buttons. “You’ve been here for a while, no? I remember you from earlier this week.”
In a moment, I realized that I was recognizable. The elevator’s lobby is empty besides us. There’s one other guy across the way; he’s buying a candy bar–overpriced–in the store across the hallway.
The grease from James’ hair wet the button, as we shuffled in. He revealed to me the bad news; they were about to lay him off. “Only two days left,” he said with a sigh. “And when do you leave, sir?” He asked.
“Well, same as you,” I said. “Two days.”
He looked down at his toes. “Then let’s go out with a bang,” he said, smiling a little.
The elevator kept on going as he continued about his days as the VIP Valet, “When things were really happening. People used to come in droves on a night like this. They’d drive up in their Beamers, and he’d take them for a spin, up the garage, cruising up and down the levels in a spiral.” He’d make $7K a weekend parking cars. “Now, it’s just buses…Pick-up trucks. And they all just park themselves.”
I think I said something like, “That’s crazy.” And it really was. I wanted to hear more about the casino and the business.
“It’s dead now. Y’know? But, I mean, you like, missed it by a week.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, even a week ago you could still get drinks on the floor, and the whole place didn’t have to close at 10.” Then he looked to me, about to reveal a secret. He slid closer. “That’s how the real money gets made here; people get fucked up on drinkies and gamble ’til they’re over.”
He held the doors for me as we got out, now walking down the hallway.
“But of course, gambling never used to close at 10. We were the only open in town 24/7, just us and the diner… And McDonald’s.”
We walked down the hallway. The VIP Valet Attendant and I. And now he’s handling my bags like a bell hop.
“That sucks man.”
“I know,” he said, and when he opened the door to my room, he came in with me. “Yeah,” he said, floating to the window. “This whole parking lot used to be packed with cars,” gesturing to it down below us.
Meanwhile, I’m grabbing my bags in the hallway and bringing them in myself.
“Wow,” he said, putting his hands on both his hips, still looking out the window. “What a view. What do you do for a living? If you don’t mind me asking.”
For a second, I thought about the question. I was hoping it would show him that I was thinking, whether or not to tell him. Really, I was just thinking about what to say.
“Real estate,” I finally said, looking at him. He looked over his shoulder as I answered. I said a couple more sentences to make the point seem real, and he thought about it, looking out at the view again. It’s just forest out that big, casino window—long and flat—the glass takes up one, whole wall of the room. It looks out towards Pennsylvania, and the highway that meanders through the forest; trees short like shrubbery. Its the “Town” view from the casino: the other side has the “Mountain” view, forbidden for my eyes. In the “Town” view, a couple, wooden homes are pocked among small hills, each in their own little clearings. A cell tower blinks on the ground, but never comes close to how tall we are, above the town. The Walmart’s on the tallest hill that can be seen, in the distance. McDonald’s shares a building with it; their logos stand side-by-side. From that parking lot, you could see my naked ass with some binoculars.
“Lots of land for Real Estate,” he finally said. “If you ever need a partner, I’ll go in with you.” He’s still looking out at that view, uninspired, when I hand him a bag, tapping it on his elbow. “Ah, yes… the bags. Is this one ready, sir?”
“Yep,” I said, and we finally left the room, onto the next one.
My new room was two floors up, just one away from the penthouse suites; I could tap on the ceiling above and shake the chyna of the elite. “I’m moving up in this world, James,” I joked with him as we got back into the elevator.
He kept the conversation going. “Have you done much gambling during your stay?”
“A little blackjack, and craps,” I admitted.
“Nice, nice. Good games. Both of them. But, y’know, I saw a guy last week make 30 grand off penny slots...”
“Really?” I said in a high tone.
“No shit. He stayed here, for like, a week. Like you. And by the time he left, he was up 30 grand off penny slots. It’s crazy… Man, I used to make so much money here...”
The elevator slowed as we got out. I didn’t ask James what his plans were after Saturday. I wondered to myself, in the hallway of the new room, if his confessional attitude to me was his own uncertainty shining through his buttoned shirt, or, if he was just using his VIP-valet-mojo, to pull a fast one on me. I wondered if someone could really win 30 grand off penny slots. I was beginning to think my “Blackjackand and Craps” answer wasn’t in the house’s best interest.
He got a tenner out of me regardless. As I shook his hand, I ducked it underneath his jacket’s sleeve.
“Thanks, Boss,” he said. “And good luck.” Quickly, he was out the door, shutting it.
When we were in my the old room, James saw my heaps of clothes and cartons—almond milk and energy drinks—weed brushed into a corner on the table, like crumbs after a messy cake. And he brushed it all off, to the back of his mind (I was a real estate agent) where he keeps all the other guests’ baggage, and their money too.
I wondered if I’d see him again when walking out on both our last days, packing our bags, walking out to our cars parked on edges of the parking lot, turning ourselves around to see that view of that building one last time.
Part of me wanted to stay in my car on my last day, wait for him, watch him. I’d stay in my car until the sunrise, just to see his Cadillac still pulled back in the next day—clicked it locked—and it was all just a rouse for him to get another tip.
If it wasn’t, I wondered what he’d do passed Saturday. Maybe—if he was lucky—he’d come back up to Vermont with me. We’d have Thanksgiving like the rest of them. He’d smoke with me on the back of my parent’s house while we start our own valet business, in our words, up in the Green Mountains. And once Vermont legalized gambling, around 2026 or so, we’d start our own casino, make millions off New Englanders, more than they could make in a week off penny slots. But we’d always tell them that story, of that guy who did, and if they were lucky, they could be just like him.
The smell of vacuum fresh off the casino floor through my mask in the early morning. The sun shines on the patterned carpets, making steam so early in the day. Not many people shuffle between the tables. The levers cast long shadows, adding to the fabric.
Guards block the entrance during the breakfast shift; large men, who shaved their faces a couple days ago and are almost looking unkempt, like football coaches. They eat well at Burger King during their time off. They’re dressed in suits with name-tags on them. They’re sneaking candy behind their masks when no one’s looking.
Behind them, the sun still comes through the windows in the back, which are forgotten as windows once it’s nighttime; they just become more reflective walls. Clouds that will be in the sky haven’t covered yet, so early in the morning.
Nowadays, most of the business here is during daytime. Big buses with no suitcases in their undercarriages come up from the city, strictly housing Chinatown patrons, who gamble at the Baccarat tables in their own corner of the casino, with its own smoker’s patio, and language, for them to pull down their mask and talk on the telephone.
None of them are here yet so early in the morning; their buses are still on the way. Noodles and wontons, pre-packaged, are usually laid out for them. They’re still being prepared by the cooks out back, who smoke more cigarettes than they invent new recipes.
Yep, only a couple people mill the floor at this hour. A father and a son are two of them. He’s too young to gamble. They sit at the only table being used. Nameless workers sanitize chips in water vats in the background. Both the Dad and son have their stacks lined up in front of them. I wonder who learned from who. They bet against each other. He’s practicing for his years to come.
I roam the floor, checking everything, like I had gotten used to doing: pretending to gamble from slot machine to slot machine, occasionally watching over the shoulder of some hand being played at a table that seems interesting, pretending to be that guy eyeing all the competition, choosing wisely.
But I don’t know how to gamble. I was barely let onto the casino floor my first day. But the boy and his Dad are regulars. Everyone knows them by name.
“That’s Devin, and Devin’s Dad,” one of the guards said to me. “Devin just got into 9th grade.” He said it like it was a college.
I asked him, “Are you his football coach or soemthing?”
“No, um, Mr. Carry,” he scoffed at my I.D., handing it back to me.
I entered the floor. I wanted to see Devin gamble. Eventually, I ended up there, looking over the shoulder of the father-and-son outing being had. By the time I got there though, there was another man at the table, looking to make a quick buck off the youngster. He was also wearing a hoodie, so early in the morning, like they all had just rolled out of bed, into their pick-up trucks, driving down the highway to win that money for a new ATV. I just wanted to see who won the pot.
But the game was a stalemate for minutes on end; fold after fold. No one wanted to budge on any of their cards. The dealer was serving crap, apparently. I wouldn’t know. I just watched the shuffle of the cards. The man who sat down was starting to get annoyed.
Devin’s Dad was beggining to succumb to the pressure. “Whaddaya got Dev?” He said with his mouth aside.
Devin only chuckled. He side-eyed the stranger, moved in all his chips. That was the first bet of the day.
I wondered if he’d be back for a second night.
And he was, hovering the sports book in that same puff coat. I kept him in the corner of my eye, planning my reintroduction. I didn’t want him to see me playing penny slots, like a pussy.
The other men around the flat screens, that cover the walls so far back in the casino, all seem to know each other, and they make jokes about the bets they place and the players in the sports games.
One of them can’t catch a break. He claps his piece of paper on his side everytime something doesn’t go his way. None of them seem as if they’re winning though, but a team on the TV always is. They all seem drunk even though there’s no booze. There might be a couple dollars won here or there, but the general vibe is that of boredom. Scattered applause happens whenever someone scores. The rest of them are slumped in lounge chairs. It feels more like a pizzeria than a casino, like an old man’s reading a newspaper. They surround the empty bar of the sports book, looking like a chain-restaurant without a bartender.
My friend is standing with them too, leaning on the counter like the rest of them, and when I give my notebook to the lady taking bets, like the night before, to watch my stuff while I use the bathroom, I notice that he places himself right there when I come back, so that he can run back into me. This time, I guess, he just expected a friendly wave. When he looked at me, that’s all he did, and focused back on the game.
“How are we?” I asked.
He gave a thumbs up (a thin smile underneath his dirty mask that I could see from his cheeks) wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt; its peaking out from an unzipped sweatshirt, from an unzipped jacket. His carpenter pants are just as dirty as the night before, stained with paint, or food, maybe. Either way, it needs to be washed.
Meanwhile, I’m wearing my most flamboyant outfit of the trip so far; a patterned skirt and a tight-fitting blouse. Later in the night, I’d apologize to him about it, but in that moment, I was just wondering how to start talking to him again.
“I’m sorry that this is how the game looks nowadays,” I drunkenly said to him after failing a conversation on the smoker’s deck. I put my fist up in the air to bump it, but we both pretended that it wasn’t there after a couple of seconds or so. And once that happened, it was almost 10 anyway, and the floor was about to close, and I was off it; I still wanted to buy a corndog. That’s what I told him. “Because, I’m up, tonight,” I said. “Treat myself.”
He found that funny. But he didn’t want to come with.
I stood there watching him, watching games, and I asked him a question for the road.
“So, this is it? This is what you do now? You come here and bet on football and shoot off guns Upstate?”
“Pretty much,” he shrugged the answer off with his hands. And we didn’t say much else.
And the food court wasn’t making corndogs by the time I got there. And the handle in my jacket pocket was also finished. I asked if I could just get a cold one, from the freezer. I’d find a way to warm it up. But they didn’t believe me, waving off the drunk bastard, like a weirdo, dressed in patterns reserved for carpets, walking around a casino meant for losers, trying to heat up a corndog from the ice.
On one of my nights at the casino, I met God in the sports book when I went to use the bathroom and left my pens and paper with the woman taking bets. By the time that I came out, the night’s adventure had already begun, just beneath my pee stream.
“You draw anything cool?” A man said, standing next to my stuff when I retrieved it.
“Uh, sure!” I said, and the woman behind the glass watched me show the man some drawings I had done. “These are some of the casino,” I told him, showing him one I did of a man reading a newspaper in the wee hours of the morning floor.
“Cool, cool,” he said, already thinking about his next sentence. “You want me to draw something in it?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
We went over to where the free pencils were, stacked in little jars with the casino’s logo on them, and he grabbed a Sharpie from my kit and began to draw his tag on any open page. “Just any page,” I told him. “It’s a very stream of conscious thing this book”
“Of course,” he said, and chose the last one.
I was holding my phone like I was on it, but really, I was looking at what he was doing; hunched over the paper, making his symbol with strong lines back and forth—the routine of his craft—beginning to seep through the paper as he grabbed an empty play-card to stop the bleeding. It was just a quick one he etched before the commercial break was over, and now he’s looking back at me, clipping the cap back on the marker.
“Here you go,” he said. “Show your friends. They won’t believe you.”
I took a look at the graffiti tag he drew. “Well, thanks man,” I said, and walked away.
At the penny slots, a little ways down the carpet, I sat down to gather what had just happened. I looked over the drawing printed on my pages now. Quickly, I researched the words and numbers in the tag.
Articles and memoirs popped up in my search bar—stories about “crews,” the 90’s—just image after image of the big letters now spread across my notebook’s back. And I looked around to see if he was still there, a living legend, sitting in the lounge chairs with the rest of them. The thought of letting my comfortability remain, perched at a distance behind flashing lights, to let this something slip away from me.
I moved to sit down with him instead. I apologized for being too high earlier. He said he didn’t give a shit.
“So, you knew, ZEXOR?” I asked like I was a student.
“Knew? I’d say he was practically my son,” still watching the game behind me. “I watched him grow,” he said.
Some silence passed before a break in the action on the TV. He started to drop more names at me. Places and things I didn’t know and couldn’t look up as the moment escaped me. Bushwick and “rollies”; Cartel and “lodigans.” Eventually, I offered him a nug—for another drawing—just so I could stop the leak that he was spewing.
I felt I needed to smoke cigarettes with him to get to the conversations that I wanted, even though I don’t smoke. He followed me out to the smoker’s deck—I didn’t tell him to—curious about the kid with the necklaces and his mask still on, offering him a nug for just one more drawing.
Outside, I watched his chin hold a stogie, grey and scratchy. The cigar looked even more aged in his mouth, leaning over the railing, spilling more shit my way—jail time, reasons for leaving the city. COVID kept him off the job, back on the streets. “It’s been 10 years now since a throw-up of mine. But shit, I’ve been so bored. It’s happened again.”
He said he lived a couple of miles away. “Hell, I remember when they tore it all down and built this new one up. Right down there,” he pointed below us at a patch between the parking lot. “Right down there, there used to be a swimming pool, all empty and shit, and I had a tag down there.” He took another drag. “That’s gone.” He waved it off.
The spark of his lighter as the blood pumped within my temples, keeping me warm outside without a jacket. I watched the screen of his phone, bright and white on his smokey face, pull up his most famous tag, apparently. “The sugar factory,” he said, like I knew it.
I told him that I was from New York, but slowly, the spectrum he had in his head between expert and amateur was inaccurate to place me in. Standing there, I blended both, looking me up and down, not asking what I do or how long I’d been here, on this planet. At a place like the casino, my youth began to wear on everyone.
“Oh, cool!” I said, because I was blowing it, and I pushed through the conversation regardless of my inability to act it off. With everything that seemed to be happening at my fingertips, no wonder I began to slip.
And eventually, we were silent, taking in the night. The view we were leaning over was nothing really; just more parking lots and a helipad. I hocked a loogie to cut the tension, just as the party that was never happening began to shut down on the floor behind us. Half time was almost over, and so was his stogie.
I floated around the casino, trying to cross our paths again (because I thought we were supposed to). It didn’t work out though, and when I handed him a drawing of mine, ripped from the binding of my notebook with car-keys in the bathroom, he looked at it and handed it back.
I’m started standing with some outcasts in the corner while the floor began to close, and I assumed he’d listen to the rest of the football game in his car ride home, fiddling with the nug I gave him in his jacket pocket, blowing through the red light that no one stops at, leaving this place.
He said he was locked up for 8 years. “They caught me here. After I moved. They’re bored up here. These state troopers. A warehouse off the main road.” He fussed with a nicotine patch that I couldn’t see but knew was beneath his coat, with holes unstuffed like a couch. “They saw my car, and that’s how you’re fucked. That’s what I’d tell you. Look at me now. Park far away and walk in. They’ll always think you’re a hiker.”
Between puffs he said this to me. “They’ll always think you’re a hiker...” He looked up at me, up and down, what I was wearing. “They’ll even think you’re a hiker...”
I wondered in the elevator up, if he’d be back for a second night, putting money on the next game, and maybe, he’d take my drawing then; enough whiskey in his system.
“I’ll see you when I see you,” he said to me in the way an artist talks. “Keep doing what you’re doing.” I’ll see you when your work is right in front of me. When it’s on the wall in front of me. When it happens upon me. When your work creeps through the tunnel in the dark through the parking lot of the Resorts World Catskills, and it’s coming through my tunnel, and parking on the main level.
I wondered if my weed got him high, or if he’d seen that all before too. And he flicked the stogie to where I spat and put his mask on again.
In a corner of the casino I’ve found another slot machine to eat my money up. In a big coat with a little dollar, my stubby paws feel like they’re coming out a purse, slipping the dollar into the vending machine. The eyes have stopped watching me in this corner now that I’ve interacted with machinery. A cranny of the casino that I had not seen before. It must have been the spot where cooks come out to gamble for their paycheck, because it’s only three slot machines adjacent metal doors to no where.
In that moment, there were the most amount of eyes were on me than anywhere I’d been in the casino. The black bulbs, recording everything, still seeped back to this part of the ceiling, and no doubt, I triggered the motion sensor when I revealed this tiny hide-y-hole.
The buttons on the pad when I put my dollar in go blank and glitch as the screen stays normal with its regular tropes; bikini’d women, fat panda bears dancing. They jump and cheer as the numbers spin, and I press aimlessly on the black boxes with no symbols; like the binary was scratched on the inside, and now the thing only takes twenties.
I stayed engaged for my own self-interest. A man in dressed in white popped around the corner, wearing a uniform that I had not seen yet, reserved, I guess, for a situation like this type; when the kid finds the magic slot that no one gets a turn on.
He left me alone. Or maybe he wanted me to believe that, and I continued to abide by the rules of the corner, reaching for my notebook to write this all down. Watching me again. The black bulbs don’t rotate but I feel the chair swivel as the person watches, maybe two of them, inside the control room passed the metal doors.
Time to go. This town has my name. Gotta shower before they take me out of here in a Resorts World straitjacket. I don’t know how I got away with it. The biggest scam in Monticello history. And it wasn’t even my intention.
I’m talking about the only righteous thing I could think to do for a last night in Monticello; I had to eat at McDonald’s like all the other Townie’s and Out-of-Townie’s alike. It was 10 p.m., and all the restaurants had closed per governor’s orders, except the drive-thrus. They stayed open as late as they wanted to because folks wouldn’t have it any other way.
I used the highway short-cut after the casino closed, from exit to exit. McDonald’s—just a speeding ticket away—a quick shot passed Downtown on the highway. The line stretched around the building, which must have been modeled the same year as the casino, holding that same visual language of 21st century capitalism, where the beauty’s in the smoothness of a surface.
I waited in line behind a pick-up truck, and when it came my time to order, all I wanted was chicken tendies. No fries. Extra buffalo sauce.
Through the speaker and her mask, her stiff voice said, “All out.”
The car horns honked as I tried to decide on a different version of the same thing.
“Uhh,” I stumbled. “10-piece nuggets. Buffalo.”
“Next window please.”
I inched up as the rest of the line folded behind me and now it was my turn at the second window to pay and get my stuff. She handed me the bag, paper and greasy, and in a quick flash of memory, I realized I needed a water too.
“No problem,” she said, unaffected, and went back for Dasani straight from the cooler.
More honks behind me. Unprepared for the extra payment. In an attempt to compensate before my card, I reached out with two loose singles in the wind.
But she waived them off.
“It’s okay,” she said.
And I kept the money in my fingers.
Then I drove away, pulling and parking in the lot with everything. A second passed, and I felt the crinkle of the money still in my hands. I tapped my chest and felt my card, and realized it had never moved. Holding the bag as the line moved forward in my rearview.
I never paid. No problem. Just need to go out and hand her five, slip it under her sleeve at the window like a tip. It’s just some nuggets and some sauce.
I checked the bag real quick before I left and the smell was the first thing to hit me. There were no McNuggets in the bag, only an entire McChicken, a large fry, plus, underneath it all, a 10-piece McNuggets. She forgot the buffalo sauce.
I closed the door before I even opened it and looked behind me at the cars, already too angry without their meal. I’m looking at it in my lap, holding it like a brain and I’m a mad scientist, and slowly, as the spirit moves me, I’m turning out onto the highway and driving away as fast as I can away from there. I’m still holding the bag in the air before I say anything to myself.
“What the fuck,” comes out the void.
I’m laughing and I’m driving and I’m swerving down the casino entranceway, blasting music and holding the McChicken like an apple, crushing its bones in my power, finishing the whole thing as I drive, no beverages this late at night, but finally I’ve won it big.
The eyes are on me now. They must be. I feel I’m about to be pulled over, crushing 10 McNuggets. The McDonald’s feds, who run this town, will block me in here with their sirens, red and yellow lights flashing through my rearview, and they’ll yell, “McFlurry!” Instead of, “Freeze!”
It’s speeding, fast, and now it’s morning, the bag is empty; evidence is in the trash. And I have to go. Before the cashier who handed me the contents comes to win her money back, when playing slots before the masses.
“The universe gives and takes away,” the front desk man says to me. He swipes my card.
I’m tapping my foot before she comes, barreling through that entranceway, and my chances of leaving the casino “up” escape me. Snow is falling, finally, in quick flurries before anyone in the hotel wakes to see me leave. It’s falling softly on the concrete landscape.
And I’m about to get away with it. I really am about to drive away with it. With the Catskills. In my head. Stolen images. Borrowed stories. Given to me like a cash voucher stuffed in pillows. Receiving words. Relaying none. And I never looked at real estate.
The people inside, once I leave, clean my room of any stains, wash my sheets and tidy up, throw my trash out with the rest.
The guards who block the casino floor watch me leave in my big jacket. One of them nudges the other and says, “That’s Mr. Carry. I heard he turned McNuggets to a Happy Meal in just a week.”
The other corrects him, “No,” he says. “I heard it was McNuggets to a Big Mac; Super- sized with extra sauce... And he got to keep the nuggets...” He trails off in all the admiration.
And I’m gone before there’s time to question, before the house wins and I become it. They didn’t even realize I’d become it. And their eyes were on me the entire time.