The rain seemed not released from the sky, but thrown from Atlantic City. It hurtled down the avenue, hard clustered drops like handfuls of coins, bouncing on the asphalt, clattering against signposts, spinning along in the wind. And every drop, it seemed to Sophie Weintraub, every hard-edged drop was aimed at her. She tried fending them off with her umbrella, but on its clear plastic she saw them flatten and roll from its ridge, to clink against her raincoat and slide down her legs into her boots.
Fifteen minutes of this was enough. Obviously, the bus wasn't coming, and Sophie knew she had to make a decision. She could return to the apartment and do nothing, or take her car to the casino and gamble. She decided to take the car. Better to go than to stay, she told herself. Head lowered, she began a stiff-kneed advance up the sidewalk, fumbling with her keys. Were someone to have seen her, she might have seemed to glisten; her boots, raincoat and bonnet were of the same clear plastic as her umbrella; and Sophie and her tennis shoes, pantsuit and orange hair glowed in the morning's sparse light. At the car, her wrinkled face quivered as she tugged open the door. Sophie stepped back, and the wind yanked up the umbrella. Rain slashed her face, and she raised her head and saw the rushing dark sky. She pulled the umbrella down, stabbed it half-closed into the car, and flopped behind it onto the seat.
With an angry blast, the wind slammed shut the door. For a moment there was silence; and then the rain-- as if whatever hurled it were enraged at her escape-- was even louder, beating against the roof and the windshield. Sophie sat trying to ignore the sound, her hand to her chest, the old car's damp upholstery-and-metal smell in her nose. Finally she turned on the ignition, but couldn't hear the engine. Pressing the brake, she engaged the transmission, and the car tensed forward and she flipped on the wipers. The setting, fast, seemed too slow. This was a storm, all right-- the big northeaster everyone had expected, blowing hard off the ocean and across the island, straight from Atlantic City where she intended to go. The trip was short, only a few miles from Ventnor, but Sophie never liked driving in bad weather. For a moment she wished Leon were with her. Then she frowned; her husband of four decades never went with her anywhere now. As she pulled away from the curb she knew just what he was doing-- hugging his pillow, asleep.
Sophie turned on the radio; static burst out; she turned it off. Her kitchen radio, she remembered, had said all the roads to the island were flooded. She didn't doubt it, and didn't care, as she hadn't left the island in years. Everything she wanted was here: the stores she passed now along Ventnor Avenue, the beach she sometimes looked at, the community center in Margate--
Suddenly a trash can rumbled out from an alley, and Sophie slid the car to a halt. Such a day! she thought. It was enough to make you wear a seat belt. She looked in her rearview mirror-- nothing. Her side window-- mostly nothing, except a screen flapping from a window, as if waving her on. She smiled a small thank you. Every encouragement helped. After all, she was 73, and the busses weren't running, and look at that rain. Plus, her bad heart. Not bad, actually-- just tired. Could it talk, it might have said, "A little rest, then I'll be fine."
Sophie eased down on the gas, and the car crept forward. A gust hit and shook it, and she thought of the bus. She missed the security of the other riders, even the loud old man.
"I steer clear of them joints," he had shouted at the driver yesterday. "As long as you lose, you can play till you drop . . . but win and they throw you out!"
He had glared across the aisle. "Ain't I right, lady?"
Sophie had nodded. She'd heard it all from him before.
"Lose small . . . or big," he said. "That's your only choice. And I don't want neither!" For emphasis he banged the floor with his cane.
Some people, Sophie thought now to herself. Some people didn't know what they wanted. The old man rode the bus, same as she, to Atlantic City every morning. Many people did, and it seemed that half insisted they didn't gamble, or they gambled because there was nothing else to do, or they just wanted to walk the boardwalk. None of it was worth her notice, she thought. Just so much wind. She knew why she went, even if they didn't. She was going to win the big one.
All her life she'd played bingo with the Catholics, bet horses at the track, played numbers, bought chances. Then, when the casinos opened, she discovered the slot machines and realized they were what she had been waiting for. Leon realized it, too. "You trust them," he said to her, and it was true. Inserting the coins, holding the handle, she trusted that all was possible.
For a while after his retirement, Leon had gambled with her. Initially he laughed when Sophie turned her head, eyes closed, and whispered to her favorite machine. But after days of watching her dip her body as she pulled the handle, and smile even when she lost, he stopped gambling, started sleeping. "Soph's took a boyfriend," he said to their friends, "and can't keep her hands off."
Sophie slowed her car at the intersections of Avolyn and New Haven. Looking out at the lakes of rainwater, she thought about the roads from the mainland, how high the tide must be. She thought of the storms she had seen, the piers torn away, the boardwalk ripped and twisted and the surf in the streets. She saw herself singing on a grey March afternoon, shoveling sand from her doorway. That was the way it was, she thought-- you could always bet on a storm. But as much as she knew a storm would always win, she hoped one never blew in hard enough to hurt her machine.
Sophie felt a bond with it. Her machine was a "progressive," in a circle with nineteen others. Each time one kept a quarter, which was nearly each time, half a cent went into a common jackpot. Over the weeks, sometimes months, the jackpot grew until a player inserted five quarters, pulled the handle, and saw, shocked, the five sevens. Photographs of moon-faced matrons and baseball-capped husbands lined the walls grinning madly, pinching their checks by the corners. Such behavior wasn't for her, Sophie thought. When her turn came she would show restraint. "Smile like you're presenting the check," a reclining Leon had advised, and she agreed.
Through the windshield she now caught glimpses of the soaked shop fronts and shoddy apartment buildings and saw up the side streets the first of the bright casinos by the boardwalk. So far so good, she thought. If only her luck could hold through the rest of the day. A good omen would be nice . . . and she recalled the old man on the bus yesterday smiling in her direction. He had lifted his cane, kissed the handle, and blown the kiss down the aisle. Immediately she had averted her face, only to realize the kiss was meant for the woman next to her. Sophie now claimed the kiss for herself, and let it float to her cheek. There's my omen, she thought. Just then a red light glided by overhead. She laughed, not sure if she ought to. A block later she saw her casino's parking garage, and drove inside.
The garage was empty. Sophie left the car near the entrance and carried her purse and umbrella out into the rain. She saw no one, and no cars, as she fought her way across the street, and there was no one in the casino as she entered. This was certainly unusual. Always, at ten when the casinos opened, she had to deal with the crush of players. She wasn't the only one who played daily or had a favorite machine. And it always seemed that the charter bus patrons, herded in from New York and Philadelphia, wanted each to be first inside. But today they weren't there. The only person she saw was herself, a woman in clear plastic staring from a mirror, her hair the color of sunset, and she suddenly knew the island was flooded worse than she had realized.
Pushing the thought away as she descended the steps to the casino floor, Sophie looked for a change person, or a guard, or someone. She gazed across the rows of silent machines, vacant tables, motionless big wheels. The room, in its absolute quiet, reminded her of home. She cleared her throat.
"Hello," she called politely. "Anyone here?"
She went to her machine. It was lit, like the others, its colors glowing behind the glass. At her waist the coin tray jutted like a sullen lower lip; she hung her umbrella on it. Above her on the electronic jackpot sign the payout had progressed from the day before to $289,473.25. A most satisfactory number, she thought. Her mouth forming each digit, she opened her purse and brought out a ten-dollar roll of quarters. It, and three others, were her "life savers," weighting her purse if she needed to hit someone, and she unrolled them now into a plastic change cup. She undid her bonnet, stuffed it into her purse, and patted her machine.
"How are you this morning?" she asked.
"Better, thank you," it answered in her mind, and Sophie felt assured. Yesterday it had seemed cranky, and took her money quickly. Today would be better. Her machine had from the start been good to her, her system working despite Leon's insistence that no system could.
"You don't lose every time," she had explained. "The machines are fixed so sometimes you win. So I put in a quarter till I think I've lost enough. Then I put in two a couple times. Then three, and so on. Usually I win early, and leave. But I always put in five at least once, because you can't win that big one on anything else." And Leon had waved at her distractedly.
She put in a quarter now. The "Coin Accepted" light came on and Sophie grasped the black ball at the end of the handle, turned her face slightly, murmured something, and pulled. Behind the glass the limes and cherries and yellow bells began spinning, a blur of fruit and bars and sevens. When they stopped, each of the five cylinders clicking into place, Sophie looked at the lemons and spaces and reached into her cup again. She shifted her weight. She hiked her purse strap over her shoulder. She inserted a quarter and pulled the handle. The fruit spun once more.
"Dear," she whispered.
Three more quarters were alternated with three pulls, and then she put in two. She pulled the lever. She put in two more, and pulled. Then she jumped ahead on her system and put in three. She took a piece of salt water taffy from her raincoat pocket and placed it on her tongue.
"Shevens," she slurred. "Shevens for Shophie."
Instead Sophie got a lemon and an orange. She looked at the empty coin tray. She shook her change cup and poured it into the tray. The quarters made a bright little puddle. She put four of them into the machine, and as they rolled through the coin slot Sophie thought she felt something move inside her. She held her breath, listening. The only sound was the rustle of soft plastic.
"Now," she said, reaching up and yanking the handle.
Two oranges clicked in, and Sophie clicked in five coins, and pulled, and five more and pulled. Four limes appeared, and the machine, its bell ringing, began coughing coins as if they were caught in its throat. "Thanks, Love," Sophie said.
She stepped closer, pressing herself to the machine as her purse slid to her elbow, and put in five. She pulled. She put in five more and pulled. Through her raincoat the machine seemed to tremble, the cylinders turning near her heart before they clicked in. Then Sophie heard the bell again, the coins pumping into the tray. She backed up. The white light was flashing. Five sevens showed behind the glass, and above her the jackpot sign blinked its row of numbers which her mouth formed again as she read. The bell kept ringing. The coins kept coming, the tray was filling with a splash splash splash and Sophie knew this was it. Here it is, she told herself-- the big one!
There was that moment, then, when everything was moving, the sky had opened and life was raining. Then a moment later the sky closed. The room grew dim as the bell, the light, the coins, all stopped. The glowing colors stopped, and Sophie stood holding the handle, her eyes fixed on the row of red sevens in the darkened machine. She thought she detected a shudder, the machine going limp in her hand.
In the quiet of the vast room Sophie turned and stared about her. The chandeliers gradually brightened. She listened, not knowing what she was trying to hear. She started to release the handle, then held it tighter. Minutes passed.
She looked up again. Protruding from the ceiling were dark hemispheres through which, she knew, cameras watched. Sophie waved at one now, did a little dance as if holding her partner's hand. She made a point of not looking distressed. She was a happy winner, and smiled the way Leon had told her. She pointed to herself, then to the machine. She turned away and leaned on the handle. Inside her again she felt something move. Her breath caught in her throat. She shivered.
Her heart, she thought. "Please," she said. "Slow down."
She would have to stay calm. Think pleasant thoughts, she told herself. She couldn't think of any. All she could think of was her fat doctor saying, "Your ticker, you know . . . could be a biggy next time."
She tried to think of a song. Songs were pleasant. She thought of one. In it a heart was breaking, and she was seeking a different song when she heard a voice.
"Here I am," she called out. There was no answer. "Here I am," she called again. At the end of the aisle appeared a dark little man holding a long-handled dust broom and pan.
"What took you?" Sophie said as he approached. "You see I won," and she pointed at the electric sign above her.
He stared up at the sign. There were no numbers; the lights were out.
"Well, that's the problem," she said simply. The little man watched her as she explained what had happened. Then she asked, "Where is everyone?"
He did not answer. Sophie continued holding the machine's handle tightly, pressing her other hand to her chest. Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling.
"They're supposed to see . . ." she said as her hand left her chest to flutter upward. "The security is supposed to look down on us. How could they let me win, then make me wait here?"
Placing her hand on her chest again, she kept speaking, trying to show restraint, ending with, "And now my heart."
The man said something in Spanish.
"It hurts like hell," Sophie said.
He spoke again, and swept a coin wrapper into his pan.
"Now find someone," she said to him. "A floor person or someone. I couldn't leave. It was too much money, a jackpot like that." She was quiet a moment, before saying, "My machine must have shorted. The storm must have caused a surge. You comprende . . . an overload?"
As if he did comprehend, the man returned a lengthy reply.
"Thank providence," Sophie said, sagging against the handle. "If you hadn't found me, I don't know what. The whole time I kept telling myself, don't let go." She rubbed her free hand above her breast and tried to smile. "I knew if I fell, that was it."
"Sí," the man said, smiling with her. He pointed at her machine. "Muerto," he said.
"Exactamente," Sophie said quietly. "Gracias. . . . Muerto to you, too. Now hurry."
With a small wave of his broom, the porter left the woman standing beneath the unlit sign. He walked down the aisle, turned, and was gone.
So polite, Sophie thought. Certainly he had understood her. It wouldn't be long now. Soon someone would arrive with a key and apologies. All she needed was patience. "Don't get into an uproar," she said, searching for another taffy. "You're not alone." As she said this, the room seemed to grow quieter. She tried to think of herself being quiet, like the room. But she could feel her heart beating faster now, her blood rising. Her eyes began to tear and she felt cold. She kept standing there. She was out of taffies.
"I'm happy," she finally said. The ball of the handle pressed against her. "Very happy," she said, and it seemed as if something inside were pressing out. A while later, she pulled a tissue from her sleeve and wiped her eyes. Wiping her nose, she knew she had to decide.
It was as plain as two cards on a table-- she could stay or leave. If she stayed she might die, but she also might win. If she left she might live, but she also might lose. Now, while still able, she would have to choose. The man on the bus had been wrong. Not choosing . . . that's how you really lost. But she didn't want to choose wrong, and she wished there were someone to ask. She remembered Leon saying, "You make your bed and lie in it." And your bet? she wondered.
"Tell me what to do," she said suddenly to the machine. It sat unmoving, and she saw in its glass her reflection-- herself staring back from the sevens. "Insert Coin," she realized, was all it had ever advised. She looked away.
"I'm alone," she said. She knew now she had always been-- on the buses, at home, on the crowded casino floors. And if she stayed or left, she would stay or leave alone.
"Then the choice is easy," Sophie said. "Better to stay." For a moment the storm inside her seemed to calm, but she knew it would surge again.
On the videotape, when the security guards studied it, the woman did a little dance. Then, for a long while, she stood there. Often she appeared about to leave. Once she looked at the camera and smiled; other times she wasn't smiling. Twice she shouted. Twenty minutes after the porter left, her knees gave way and she released the handle.
"How about that?" the one man said. "We're in for trouble. Someone here's going to have to pay."
"Too bad she can't pay for us," the other said. "Man, she hit a big one."
|"Ski the Beach," by Sterling Brown jerseyworks home poetry interview|