Nine Lines

“Now hold on a second dangit. Before we go to dinner, I wanna talk to you about something. Ok, now listen here, because I’m the expert on this stuff. The best way to go is to just play nine lines, that’ll keep you alive. Anything more than nine lines is a waste. Just play two or three cents a line, so each spin is just eighteen or twenty seven cents. That’ll keep you alive. Now I’m gonna give you kids some fun money.” He pulls out $200.

“Aw thanks grandpa you don’t have to do that.” We go to dinner. Grandpa pulls out the headlamp he keeps tied around his neck and pulls it up onto his forehead. He peers through a magnifying glass at the laminated menu. Marilyn makes fun of him when he forgets to turn it off. My cousin laughs. I laugh. He laughs and we snap a photo. Grandpa says, “Wow, this place sure has changed a lot, I tell ya.” We agree, but we’ve never been there before. The waitress comes over. He says to her, “Wow this place sure has changed a lot, I tell ya. I’ve been hearing people say it’s no good anymore, but this looks purdy good to me.” He loves the shrimp, he won’t stop talking about how good the shrimp is. Seems like he wants to come back to this restaurant soon. “This shrimp is unbelievable I tell ya; I’ve been trying to find some good shrimp near here.” Marilyn seems indifferent. He’s happy, we haven’t seen that before.

The four of us walk out onto the floor. “Ok tomorrow morning at 10:30, Nevada time, we’ll meetcha out here. Marilyn will be sitting here, and I’ll be over at these machines right here. Let me show ya. All ya need is nine lines, two or three cents a line. That’ll keep you alive.” He plays, he wins, he loses most of what he wins. “I don’t mind, it’s their money. Did you see that Jerry Van Dyke died today?” The money slips away, but he is still here. It’s 9 PM and he is still here, sober. We haven’t seen that before. We play a bit, we lose right away. Push a button if you’d like to bleed; we do it slow. We’d rather just keep the money to be honest, but what else are we gonna do. I don’t feel alive. dingdingdingdingdingding spins spins spins. “Like I says, ya only need nine lines. Any more than nine lines is a waste.” Grandpa is up about ten dollars. Marilyn says “take it and run Mike.” Spins spins spins. “Let me just get it down to fifteen bucks.” The bleeding is slow tonight. “I usually just play these in the week before the horses open. See sometimes I put my finger on the ‘cash out’ button like this. The machine can tell that you’re thinkin about leavin.” He walks away eventually. He moves slow, but he moves now. We haven’t seen that before. “Ok tomorrow morning at 10:30, that’s Nevada time. So it’ll be 11:30 our time. Ok?” Yeah Grandpa, you got it.

In the morning we come out, he’s at his machine. Sevens sevens sevens. “What time is it? It’s 10:30 already? Well I’ll be darned.” He’s winning. “Ya gotta play nine lines. Ya wanna try this machine?” Sure I said. I play his rules. Nine lines, two cents per line. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Bleed bleed bleed. Spins. Dingdingdingding. Five bucks back, two bucks down. “One of these machines right here will always hit. It’s better on the weekdays. I been following these four machines around for the last eight years. They always are movin’ em around. But on these ones, all ya need is nine lines.” Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Bleed bleed bleed. Spins. Sevens sevens sevens. Nine bucks back, now I’m four dollars down. Thirty minutes, one button over and over and over. Ten bucks down. Grandpa looks and he says, “See, all ya need is nine lines. That’ll keep ya alive. You been playin for thirty minutes.” “Money well spent," I say. He nods in approval and says, “See Marilyn doesn’t understand. I know I’ll lose it. These machines are designed to take yer money, I know that. Playin these just gives me something to do. What else am I supposed to do? Sit on the couch all day?” Funny that he would mention it. Sitting on the couch all day is exactly what he did for decades. That’s how I always knew him.

When I was young, he drank. That was the only thing he did. Well, he went to play the horses sometimes too. Married with Children reruns, on a loop, on the couch. Whiskey, Ten High. Fifty years of that. Then outta nowhere, he gets a phone call I guess. He puts down the drink for good, just like that. He shaves his beard. He starts going on walks. Going on trips. One morning he’s gone. He’s moved to Arizona, he’s living with a woman. The woman is not my grandma, not his wife of fifty years. I was pretty mad at him for a long time; my grandma’s a saint; he was a real piece of shit. But here I am, looking at him, playing the nine lines. He looks happy now.

Story goes like this. He was engaged when he was 18 years old. Marilyn was 16. Her parents told them they had to break it off. They did. He went to the navy, he came back. That’s what ya did in those days. He met my grandma, life ensued. Married with children. The children had children. (That’d be us). Then he got that phone call. That was all it took. He told me later that he had wasted fifty years of his life on that couch. I see him now, happy. I suppose I can’t really judge. But he’s still just watching it spin. Mike and Marilyn, eh? Isn’t that the most romantic shit you’ve ever heard? I’ll be damned. Fifty years, a young love reunited, an old alcoholic picked up and plopped into a new life, a new wife, a new state, a new chair to sit in all day. So romantic I wanna throw up. So romantic I’d like to tell him that it’s not real nice to waste fifty years of someone else’s life. I suppose I can’t really judge. Nine lines is all ya need I guess, that’ll keep you alive. Just some shred of hope, watching it spin away. Whatever makes it more bearable, whatever machine steals the time away from you the slowest. He writes my grandma letters still, like a damned fool. She doesn’t respond. He probably feels guilty or some such bullshit, but not so guilty that he’ll take a drink. No longer feels any inclination toward it he tells me. Good for him.

They go home. I can’t stay there all night. I leave. One night stand in some shithole Arizona desert town where the only thing people dream of is having dreams. She’s a sad person, we talk about that a little bit, but not too much. I come back at 4 am, lose thirty bucks of "fun money" playing blackjack in about ninety seconds flat. My keycard doesn’t work. I go to the front desk and ask them to fix the keycard. “Sorry it looks like you’ve been locked out. There was an issue with the payment. I have to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” “Ok, the room should have been paid in full already, you should have a card on file, it’s 4:30 am, I’ve had a few drinks. Can I do this in the morning?” “The system is saying that I have to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” “Ok, but my debit card is in the room, my cousin is asleep in the room currently, so obviously we are staying the night there regardless.” “I’m sorry sir, but I’m not supposed to reassign the keycard.” “OK, you can either give me a fucking keycard, or I just have to go wake my cousin up in the middle of the night to let me in the room.” “Ok, one moment, let me see…… the system is saying that I need to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” I walk away. Wake up my cousin. Sleep a few hours.

When I get up in the morning and come out onto the floor, he’s back at it. Sevens sevens sevens. A whole army of senior citizens letting their hard earned pension slowly slip, 27 cents at a time. How did it happen? Spins spins spins. Marilyn says “Mike, let’s go to lunch.” “Ok let me get it down to fifteen.” He turns and looks at me with a knowing grin; he’s a nice old man, but for a second I forget what his name is. He looks smaller than I remember somehow. “See, all ya need is nine lines.”