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Monday, October 25, 2010

Deal or Draw

The woman stared at the video poker machine, transfixed at the electronic cards she was dealt.  On her display was 5 cards in hearts-- a king, a jack, an ace, a ten and a four.  She was sitting on a flush, which would pay a tidy sum of $25.00, with her maximum bet on this quarter machine. However, if she hit the deal/draw button and the machine was kind enough to give her a queen of hearts, then her investment of $1.25 would turn into the progressive jackpot of $1,326.75. Should she take what she was dealt or risk it for the big money?
She let this question tumble in her brain. She was enjoying this feeling of anticipation.  She was mistress of her own destiny, at least for a brief moment. She started to picture two different scenarios. The first thought was to push the corresponding hold buttons on all of the cards and take her winnings—after all it was a good rate of return.  Then this scene evaporated and the second scene came into her mind’s eye. In this image, she held only the cards for the royal flush, discarding the four. She hit the deal/draw button and pop! The queen of hearts exploded on the screen, with the flashing words “WINNER! CALL  ATTENDANT.” The jackpot alarm goes off and the change person shows up, verifying the win, calling her supervisor who will come with the wad of cash. Then the supervisor would ceremoniously hand over the sum to the change person who then makes a big production to count out the money for all to see.
 She was relishing this second scenario, letting it replay in her mind.  If her husband was here, he would surely have a spreadsheet written on a cocktail napkin of what could be done with the winnings. He was the ultra practical partner. That was why she was pleasantly surprised that her husband offered out of the blue to take this week end trip to Las Vegas. In their 11 years of marriage, he was never spontaneous like that. Things at home were predictable, until a few weeks ago. Little things that he did, like plan out his wardrobe for the week, now seemed to bother her. She figured she was just tense and this get-away should do the trick.    
Once their plane touched down on the hot desert of Las Vegas Airport, they were on the move. They barely saw their hotel room, just enough time for her to conclude that there must have been a sale on drab green fabric. It was everywhere—the comforter on the bed, the billowy drapes and the two upholstered chairs. They dropped off their luggage in this vintage looking jungle and away they went. 
They had visited 6 casinos at what she considered at a manic pace. They all gelled together into streaming lights, binging noises and well worn carpets. She was glad that this last casino her husband found a slot machine that was fair to him. For every three pulls of the handle, he would hit at least a row of cherries, giving him his money back. Slot machines were never her favorite, so she had wandered down the aisle to the nickel slot machines. They were very popular and she managed to wedge herself in between two senior citizens. Unfortunately the machine she was playing was the only machine not programmed to deal anything that would pay.  The little old lady to her right squealed with delight as she hit for what seemed like the hundredth time a four of a kind.  The woman thought this octogenarian was about to cash in hundreds of dollars, but she was only playing a nickel at a time.” All this excitement for twenty five cents!” she thought with exasperation.  Then the elderly winner leaned over her and cackled to her friend sitting on the left hand side that the buffet would be her treat. The woman had lost her twenty dollars, all the money she was going to donate to this machine.
“Honey, don’t leave!” the tiny white haired woman pleaded as the woman turned the squeaky chair sideways to exit. “You’re my good luck charm! Would you like to join us at the buffet?”
“They have a nice roast beef there,” her friend chimed in, adjusting her cat-framed glasses. “Very lean, no gristle!”
“Thank you ladies, that’s very kind of you, but no thanks,” the woman declined, slinging her purse over her shoulder.
“If you change your mind—oh look Mildred! I hit another one!” the white haired lady shouted.
“What a relief, now she’ll stop thinking I’m her good luck charm!” the woman thought as she made her escape.
To get any quiet gaming time, he had moved up to quarters. She had her pick of any machine, this section was practically deserted. She chose the progressive jackpot since their seats looked the most comfortable. They were crushed red velvet high backs which she sank into gratefully. The nickel poker machine seats barely had any padding.  She had only put in $1.25 when this winning hand appeared. 
Comfortable seat, no one around promoting the buffet, potential for a large winning—she could live with this!
“Honey!  Did you draw into that?” a familiar voice thundered behind her. She turned her head slightly to her husband, who was peering over her left shoulder.  “That’s a damn shame, being so close to the royal!” As he looked closer, he revised his statement, “No, you were dealt that! Great! Hit the button and see if you can fill in that royal! Come on queen of hearts!!”
For some reason his presence took all the excitement out of the moment.  She couldn’t place why she felt so annoyed. “Or, I could hold all the cards and take the flush.”
“True, you could do that,” her husband agreed, his voice playful.  “Or, you could gamble and hit the deal/draw button. I’ll chant for you, get the right vibe going! Queen of hearts! Queen of hearts!”  He added to his cheer fist pumping and jerky hip wiggling.
She stared at him quizzically—who was this man impersonating her husband? She was sure he would have agreed to her taking the flush.  He was acting out of character. Why was he doing this? What was he up to?
“Come on, babe! We did come here to gamble, didn’t we?” he smiled, stopping his gyrations. He put his hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay, really.” 
He figured she was used to him always bringing up the value of a dollar. However,  he really wanted her to enjoy herself. She had been very distant and upset the past couple of weeks. He assumed she would tell him what was wrong, but she just grew quieter. When he told her to pack her bags for this spontaneous trip, it was the first time he saw her genuinely smile, which meant the world to him. Typically he was the one who was reserved, but he wanted to keep the mood light and make her laugh with his ridiculous chant and dance. By her cold stare, he knew the dancing was a mistake.
“Oh, so now you’re giving me permission?!” she snapped, spinning the chair around. “Thank you so much, because I had no idea what to do, not until you showed up!” The past few weeks were very difficult and she wanted to forget her troubles. She had hoped the casino would drown out her worried thoughts-- slot machines blaring, constant pages on the overhead speakers, and now the lounge band was starting their set. Now her husband was pretending to be someone he was not, and it was upsetting to her. It took all of her strength to stay seated. All she wanted to do was to get up and leave.
“Whoa, where did that come from?” He took a step back, holding up his palms in front of him. Maybe if he told her how he saved up for this trip, she would calm down. “Don’t worry about the money—“
“There you go again telling me what to do!!” she fumed, turning away from him with tears burning in her eyes. She was tired--physically from all of the running from casino to casino, and mentally from the continuous haunting thoughts running through her head.
He was stunned, no matter what he said, he made her angry. Dejectedly, he sat down next to her at an empty machine. He too was physically tired. He wanted to surprise her with tickets to a Las Vegas extravaganza. Unfortunately, he didn’t book ahead of time, so he had raced through the casinos trying to buy tickets. They had started at the top of the Strip, where their hotel room was and worked their way down. Six was his lucky number and he found seats to a Broadway show she had wanted to see.   He wanted to show her the tickets, but was afraid since he bought them, he was telling her what to do again. He let out an involuntary sigh.
Over all the noise, her ears picked up the sigh, which she interpreted to mean he thought she was being unreasonable. “What?!” she snapped, her eyes flashing.
“Huh?” he crinkled his eyebrows, shaking his head. He would keep the tickets until the last possible moment before the show started, giving him about a couple of hours. Hopefully by then she will have calmed down and they can go back to being happy tourists.
“What is with the sigh?” she insisted, staring intently at him.
With the music and the dull roar of the craps table, he misunderstood her as saying “What is with this fly?” He didn’t see any buzzing insect. He wasn’t sure if Las Vegas’ climate would be suitable for flies, he would look that up in his spare time. However, he was certainly not going to provoke her any more. He shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to display agreement.
“That is so typical of you! You make these demands, I speak up for myself and you totally shut down!” she raged. These past couples of weeks were difficult for her because she was trying to spare his feelings by keeping the news to herself. Now she realized he was as considerate as she thought and didn’t deserve this special treatment.
Usually when she went off on a tirade, he let her vent. In a few minutes, she would calm down  and apologize. He knew she had a temper when he married her. That was actually one of the things that he found attractive.  His family couldn’t figure out what he saw in her—he was cerebral while she was too emotional. The answer was simple to him--she had qualities that he didn’t possess. Her fieriness blended well with his calmness. 
However, she was getting a bit carried away, with no signs of calming down. He had come to the end of his patience. He had had enough of her yelling, she was being an ungrateful brat. (He almost thought of another B word, but he kept his temper in check) He could have spent this money on himself and she would be none the wiser. He felt like a fool and was tired of being her whipping boy.
“Okay, fine, you don’t want me to shut down, so let me lay it all out for you! ” he said through clenched teeth. “All I have done is trying to have fun with you!”
“Fun? Is your idea of fun running from casino to casino like a chicken with its head cut off?” she barked. Her throat was parched and scratchy, just like the rest of her body from all of the emotions tumbling through her.
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out the tickets. He slapped them down on the arm rest in front of her. “There!” he growled, pointing at them. “That’s what I was running around trying to get for you! For you!”
She stared at the tickets and saw they were for the Broadway play she had wanted to see. How did he know? Could he have remembered a conversation a few months ago when she had casually mentioned she would love to see this particular Broadway play? She wanted to crawl under the seat, she was so embarrassed by her behavior.  He was genuinely a sweet guy, kind and considerate. She hated herself for thinking otherwise. She couldn’t look at him, not yet.
“I have tried to be patient with you, I’ve put up with your not talking to me, giving me the cold shoulder all of these weeks. But this rage has got to stop!” he demanded, letting his anger course through his veins. He wasn’t holding back, not now. There was a question that had been burning in his mind for the past few weeks, but he had to ask it in a whisper:  “Are you not happy with me anymore?”
“It has nothing to do with you, you are great,” she answered in the same hushed tones, still staring at the tickets. She didn’t want to touch them, she didn’t want to disturb their magic.
“I’m great? I’m great?” he threw up his hands in exasperation. “Then why are treating me like something you’ve scraped off the bottom of your shoe?”
“I can’t tell you,” she bit her lip. If she uttered the words, it would make it too real for her. When it was floating in her mind it was safely contained. 
“You can’t tell me? ” he repeated.  When she wouldn’t meet his gaze, he was about to give up and walk away. However, that’s not what their relationship was based on, these silences were killing him.
“It’s complicated,” she offered, avoiding his  question. Perhaps she could turn the conversation around, like the times he got too close to finding out. “Listen, I was out of line, I’m sorry. Please let’s drop it. Now about these tickets!  I can’t believe you remembered. That’s so sweet—“
“No, no, no! We are not going to drop it!” he pointed again. “What is wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk abo—“
“What is wrong?!”
“Please, not here.”
“What is wrong?!”
“They found a lump!” she blurted out the words before she realized it. She had been terrified to hear the diagnosis aloud. Yet, she was relieved she finally let go. She exhaled deeply. “They found a lump.”
He sat stunned, utterly shocked. He knew she never lied, this was no attempt to gain sympathy. She was honest to a fault, another trait he loved about her. Now it began to make sense—her sudden silent treatment and testiness happened around the time she had went to the doctor.
“What is the next step?” he asked, gearing up to problem solving.
“The doctor wants me to go get a biopsy.” She answered flatly, finally lifting her tear-filled eyes to his. She saw his concern in his light blue eyes. She had missed looking into his eyes these past few weeks, seeing the man she fell in love with.
“And what were the results?” he asked, he had to focus on fixing the problem, not the knot that was forming in the pit of his stomach.
“I couldn’t go, I just couldn’t,” she admitted, letting the tears flow. The band had stopped playing,  the nickel poker players had left for the buffet, and for a moment there was silence.
He wanted to yell at her for being so stupid , why didn’t she go to get this test? With the biopsy, then the options would be clear. Why was she gambling with her life?
“You really need to make that appointment soon,” he grabbed her trembling hand.  She nodded. “I’m sorry, I’m telling you what to do again.”
 “I know it sounds crazy, but I felt I was given a death sentence.” She whimpered. “I could barely hear the doctor telling me the chances were good and don’t panic. I figured if my chances weren’t good, then what was the point?”
“I really wish you had said something and not kept this to yourself.”
“I didn’t want to burden you, you’re so busy at your job.”
“I’m a payroll manager, not the President of the United States!” he said, touching her cheek with his free hand. “Don’t accept the deal. Not on your exam and not on this machine.”
She couldn’t help but smile through her tears. “You’ll go with me to the appointment for the biopsy?”
“To the appointment, and beyond.” He raised her hand to his lips.
She exhaled, and dabbed her tears with the back of her free hand. “Well, you’re right, I’m not accepting the deal. Let’s see if there’s a queen of hearts on the next draw.”
He let go of her right hand, but she grabbed his hand back. “Let’s see what the cards hold ,” she smiled. He put his hand over hers as they reached for the deal/draw button together