The Fiction

Stop Loss

From the Christmas, 2010, issue 

(No. 25)

Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

The edge of the last building slid behind the retaining wall of the highway as she headed southwest, her bumper discreetly duct-taped to the chassis and her driver’s-side door panel fluttering like a rusted leaf ready to whip away in the wind. She’d driven for what seemed like ages with the town lingering in the rear-view, losing a letter from Walmart every few minutes, the bubbly little car on the Minute Lube sign soon looking more like a flickering pink distress signal. Sullivan Avenue morphed from shop-lined street to rural route to provincial highway so effortlessly it was hard to notice the distance but for that reflection, the town clutching the road as if mooring itself.

From the highway she could see nearly everything but the casino. It was tucked behind the hospital and the jar factory in the left-hand corner of her mirror. She could imagine it, though, the neon just flickering to life in the dusk, the setting sun bouncing off the street lamps in the parking lot, turning them to gold cylinders.

In front of her the sky domed pink across the five lanes of light traffic, the red ball hovering just above the horizon. She and Dodds had loved that time of day. They’d rush dinner in winter to make sure they didn’t miss the chance to run the stretch of highway behind her apartment and watch the setting light bounce from asphalt to snowbank to the hood of her jalopy, where they rode freezing and happy.

His cassette still whirred on the tape deck, “Fortunate Son” strumming its tinny first notes into her ears. Nearly every morning in the shower he’d gargled those words with a watery, mock-Southern drawl.

He talked incessantly about swimming the Niagara River and sneaking into the States. Cover of darkness. Homemade scuba gear. His black hair hanging slick over his face would twitch against his lip as he spoke of it. His eyes, wrinkled into a smile well ahead of his lips, were ignited by the idea. When she told him she planned on heading south he slid a hand between her back and the sweaty vinyl of the sofa cushion.

“You should go,” he said, resting his forehead against her shoulder. “It was not uncommon for men of his age to mistake her desires for their own.

John Fogerty was beginning to piss her off. That song did it to her every time—made her think of him. She couldn’t help but see Dodds in the passenger seat, wrist bent out the window, ash from his cigarette streaming a white line into the night air. This car was Dodds all over. Just deodorant and du Maurier. Could have been anybody, but it was him.

When she met the kid she was working three machines in the fifty-cent-slot pit and was up by a hundred and fifty bucks. She binned the coins, cashed out, and for the first time in five years bought a pack of Player’s menthols to celebrate. A downpour had washed all but the most desperate of smokers inside. She leaned against the building under an awning in her jeans and sweatshirt, her three empty coin buckets on the ground next to her, and pulled hard on her smoke.

She noticed him nestled with a bunch of his fellow maintenance workers under another awning. The rain began to fall sideways, gently at first, then fierce, leaving the awning useless as cover. Her car was parked in her usual spot—first row, third spot in—so she broke across the lot and jumped into the cover of the driver’s seat. She watched him through the streaming windshield as he pulled the collar of his uniform up around his jaw and leaned into the wall for cover. He mouthed a few curse words and wiped the dripping hair from his face. He tucked his chin into his chest to protect his feebly burning cigarette and cursed again. She started the car, pulled up to him and unlocked the passenger door as a courtesy—helping the kid get dry before he returned to the craps lounge, where she’d often seen him sweeping napkins and swizzle sticks into a tiny, long-handled garbage bin. She wasn’t even sure he’d get in. But he did.

Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” was playing as they sat parked against the curb, thickening the air of the tiny cockpit with their smokes.

“Hey, thanks for coming over, eh? My uniform is soaked to shit.”

He spoke into the windshield without looking at her. He had a profile she couldn’t ignore. His nose, without a single bump in it, swung smoothly up at the end, like a baby’s. He had an awkward way of chewing his lip between words.

“Oh yeah, don’t even mention it.” She cracked the window and slid her cigarette out to ash it. “You just on a break? ”

“They give us fucking twenty-five minutes to eat. Cheap assholes.”

She didn’t respond, just looked at the dashboard clock, which perpetually read 88:68.

“And what the hell does that mean, anyway? ‘29-5-6-2-4’? ”

“It’s ‘25 or 6 to 4.’”

“And? ”

“Hell if I know.”

He smiled and let his head flop on the headrest so he faced her.

“I dig this music. This old-timer’s shit. It’s—”

“Old-timers? ” She feigned shock.

“Oh, c’mon, you know you’re an old timer.”

“Bull.”

“O.K., name one Top 10 hit from the past five years.”

She rolled her eyes and ashed her cigarette.

“And that wouldn’t even make you cool, not by a long fucking shot. It’d just make you not old.”

“I dunno.”

“Old.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “Timer. Anyway, it’s cool, this old shit. It never makes any sense. Like the whole ‘I am the walrus’ thing.”

“So not the same thing. Two different decades, man,” she said, sounding much more like a hippie than she meant to.

He laughed, lightly stamping his feet and shaking his head.

“‘Man’? Aw, lady, there’s more to you than this Northern Reflections getup suggests, isn’t there? ”

She smiled and dropped her head back against the headrest. The rain had let up enough for her to crank her window all the way down and flick her cigarette against the building in a burst of sparks.

“All right, better get back.”

He sighed and bit his cigarette as he stepped out of the car. She tugged the sleeve of his uniform as he left.

“Hey, maybe I’ll make you a mix tape of this old-timer’s stuff. For your car, eh? ”

“We use MP3s now, hon. Those’d blow your mind. They don’t even actually exist.”

He wiggled his fingers toward her as if to illustrate the witchcraft of this new technology, strode in front of the car, slapping the hood once, and ran toward the double-glass doors clutching his pants by the back of his belt.

There are three surefire ways to make money at the slots: play loose, play progressive, play quick. Duane “the Odds” Schmidt was as loose as he was quick and more progressive than a lesbian at a parent-teacher conference. Looser than an anorexic’s bikini. Quicker than a priest in a whorehouse. He had dozens of those.

If a local player came back to the pit at least three times a week for at least six weeks they earned the talk from the Odds. He’d size up a new player’s demeanour, their style of dress, whether they showed outward displays of disappointment and glee as they played. Then he’d slide onto the stool next to the guy, put his full coin bin on the ledge so close to the guy’s elbow he’d knock it off if he even twitched, and say, “You know what you oughta do, dontcha? ”

It was like this. In any pit in any casino the odds of hitting on a slot machine are determined by three things: the payback percentage for that machine, progressive jackpots and how you use them, and the probability of house mathematical advantage.

“Number one. They might say the payback is seventy-five to ninety-eight percent. That’s not all denominations, and it’s not all machines. It’s an average. Some machines are looser than others. Watch the payback. That old broad on that quarter machine? She never leaves it. Makes seventy-five bucks a day and eats a steak dinner every night. Swear to God.

“Number two. Machines have got a maximum bid for a reason. Use it. A progressive jackpot only works if you’re paying in full each spin. Don’t cheap out if you’re here to win.

“Number three. You keep playing the same machine when it’s not hitting and you lower your possibility of cashing in. It’s the house advantage. They’re banking on you being rational and thinking that by simple probability the higher the number of attempts you made the more likely you are of hitting the jackpot. This ain’t a fitty-fitty draw. No matter how many times you throw your hat in the ring, if that machine isn’t bleeding, it isn’t bleeding. If it doesn’t give you something at least every three spins, get outta there.”

Then he’d clap the newbie on the back and shuffle off to his Klondike Gold machine against the back wall of the pit with its six hundred dollar Daily Prospector’s Jackpot and sip a beer until closing time.

If you called him Duane, you worked for the bank. If you called him the Odds, you didn’t know him very well. If you called him Dodds, you knew his shoe size was fifteen and a half and had probably thrown his dirty boxers into your washing machine.

She slept with him the second night they spoke. He’d given her the talk on a Tuesday and on the following Thursday, after three hours of playing the maximum at a bank of Major Moolah machines and coming up empty-handed, she walked over to Dodds and leaned against the machine next to his.

“You’re full of it, aren’t you? ” she said.

He didn’t take his eyes off the reels, just nudged his coin bucket with his elbow to hear the satisfying jingle of hundreds of quarters.

“Yeah, well, I never see you cash out. You probably just bring that thing in with you full every day, don’t you? ”

He looked up and smiled.

“That would be a good way for a guy to make himself look flush, wouldn’t it? ”

“So you admit it? You got nothin’ on these machines.”

“Honey, I can tell you’re going to think whatever you want to think and I’m thirsty as hell. I’ll buy you a drink if you keep your voice down and don’t go spreading the rumour that this machine ain’t even plugged in.”

They sat in the lounge across from the pit covering three cocktail tables with empty Canadian bottles. He talked about working as a security guard in the high-rise that went up in eighty-three over at Seventh Street and King. Nights tossing pencils into the drop ceiling like a frat boy, early mornings spent teetering on the security desk pulling them out.

“So, I guess that was the training you needed to become so good at sitting on your behind all day,” she teased across the mouth of a bottle.

“Honey, I wouldn’t go calling the kettle black if I was you. I mean, you’re a pretty little thing, but I don’t see you leading us all in one of those Tae Bo workouts around here.”

“Hey, don’t tempt me, Dodds. I might get your ass into one of those neon leotards yet.”

“I think that’d be better suited to you, missy, but I’m open-minded, I have to admit.”

By the time the waitress came to settle up she was hunched over him using a chunk of her ponytail to show him, in their reflection on a napkin dispenser, how dapper he’d look with a moustache.

They staggered out into the empty parking lot and sat on the hood of her car. “That’s how I know it’s time to go home,” Dodds muttered, tucking his hand nonchalantly up under the bottom hem of her sweater.

They fumbled into the back seat of her car, kept their shirts on, hers a doughnut around her neck, their pants around their knees in the cool autumn night.

She didn’t see the kid for a long time. Thought she glimpsed him once running into the staff room across from the pit, but nothing substantial.

Dodds had been living with her for about a year. He’d moved a huge television he’d had in storage into her studio apartment and they spent most nights lying planked in front of the wood-encased behemoth watching reruns of Banacek and The A-Team. They kept a half-full coin bucket beside the bed for trips to the hallway vending machine during commercial breaks and consumed more Reese’s Pieces than a six-year-old millionaire. She was beginning to feel queasy at the first glimpse of George Peppard.

On weekends the regulars were outnumbered at the casino by part-timers, as they called overdressed townsfolk who treated the casino as a date destination, a nightclub, and a pickup joint. She hated standing in the front grounds having a smoke surrounded by pin-thin tipsy twentysomethings, so she made periodic trips to her car, leaving Dodds to his Gold Rally and beer.

She sat watching the smoke from her ten o’clock cigarette fogging the rim of the half-cranked window and was jolted to attention by a slap on the hood and the sudden presence of the kid in the passenger seat.

“You got a smoke I could borrow? ”

His voice was louder than was comfortable for the confined space and she winced.

“Sorry, what? Borrow? You mean you plan on giving it back to me afterward? ”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

She held the pack out to him. He pushed in the cigarette lighter on the dashboard and snubbed the smoke against his knee while he waited for it to pop.

“So? ” He looked at her. “What’s happening? ”

“Oh, you know, same old. We ‘old-timers’ don’t get much excitement in our lives.”

“Wow, you really don’t let anything go, do you? ”

“Hey, when you reach my age, you’re lucky to remember anything at all. It’s a blessing, really.”

“Shut up. You’re a brutal little old bat, aren’t you? ” He laughed.

As she reached to turn up the volume on the tape deck, she brushed his knee accidentally. He didn’t pull away. Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” was just waning on the speakers.

“Now, this should be something you like. This is real psychedelic stuff.”

He began nodding his head and smirking.

“I know this, you know. I know all the lyrics.”

She scoffed.

“No, for real, I do. I used to listen to this shit when I was a kid. My dad had all these Solid Gold oldies tapes and we used to rock out to them.”

He licked his lips, looked at her mock-longingly, and began to croon the first verse, matching the cheesy serpentine intonation perfectly.

He tipped his smoke in her direction at the end of “you’re going to be mine” and winked. He snaked his head side to side to the beat. He had just had his hair cut. She could tell by the crisp black line at the base of his neck. She could almost feel the smoothness of that skin. He pointed at her to join in and she belted it out. It was child’s play, a song she’d been singing since the Grade 9 dance where she’d first been tongue-kissed by a boy she didn’t know in the hallway outside the gym.

Suddenly she noticed he had stopped singing. She had her hand on his neck, two fingers tucked into the collar of his shirt, stroking the hard smoothness of his collar bone. It had made its way there via a caress of his cheek. It was too soft-looking, slightly goosebumped in the cool night with the windows open. She hadn’t even thought about it. She had just wanted to touch him and she had.

He looked at her with his eyes only slightly narrowed for a moment and shrugged her hand away. She said nothing.

She expected him to leave, but he smoked and stayed, not looking at her. Finally he turned.

“How old are you, anyway? ”

She laughed and shrugged. “Too old,” she said.

She looked down at her lap and realized she had, out of habit, fastened her seat belt. A bulge of embarrassing fabric ballooned over her stomach making her look far heavier than she was.

She had never been one to be embarrassed. That night in the back seat, Dodds had whispered, “You don’t hide it,” looking down at her nakedness in the neon glow. But now she felt so much shame she couldn’t help but cry. She turned toward the window and breathed deeply.

“It’s not so bad,” the kid said, facing the passenger-side window, speaking barely audibly.

The song ended and there was a moment of dead air, only the amplified wheel of the tape coming through the speakers.

“So, you living with the Odds? I see you guys together all the time,” he said, his tone so changed you wouldn’t know he’d just seen a middle-aged woman break down in front of him.

She managed an “Ah, yeah” without her voice cracking.

“He’s been around a long time, eh? You know he lives off one jackpot he got down in Niagara Falls? Apparently he made, like, a couple-hundred grand in one score down there and he moved up here cause it’s so cheap to live.”

She nodded.

“I don’t know if he’s ever won a thing here, but he seems to be doing O.K.”

“He eats Zoodles and toast for dinner.”

She sniffed and looked toward the kid.

“And I don’t mean if there’s nothing else to eat in the house. I mean he asks for it.”

The kid smiled and flicked his cigarette against the window of the car beside them. “Barracuda,” by Heart, filled the car with its driving lead guitar. He pointed at the dash as he got out.

“Now, that’s truly shit.”

She smiled. “You’ve got no idea, kid.”

“Think I do,” he said. With a slap of the hood he was gone.

She leaned her head against the seat and breathed. She started the car.

There was no fight with Dodds later that night when she told him she was leaving. She sat up until he got home, half his winnings in his pocket, half pissed away in the form of Bud and two shots of J‰ger. He just loaded his TV into his truck and took it back to storage. She wondered where he slept that night. Whether he had a bed crammed into his All Canadian Self-Storage unit. Whether he had a bed waiting somewhere else. She never asked. Two days later, he checked her oil, made sure the brake fluid was topped up, and called ahead to a guy he knew at the casino down south who could put her on the V.I.P. list so that she’d at least have a suite to stay in until she found a place. He pulled two one hundred dollar bills from his wallet and pushed them into her purse saying, “No fighting, now.” Then she left.

A sign whipped past her window telling her she had fifty-six kilometres left to go. The sun had set. The road had lost its sparkle in the orange highway light towering above her. She drove with the high not-quite-silent whir of the tape deck in the air to keep her company. She waited for it to change sides yet again, knowing exactly what she’d hear when it did.

Kelly Ward is the managing editor of a small, independent publisher and the author of Keep It Beautiful. She won the 2008 Lush Triumphant award for fiction. Last updated winter, 2016–2017.
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