As published in the literary journal, Acta Victoriana: Volume 142, Issue 2.
“How about this one?”
My brother, Rick, points to a lone slot machine nestled between the ATM and coffee station.
“I have a good feeling about this one.” He nods approvingly and makes his way toward the neon-lit monstrosity, glowing indigo blue. The image of a luminescent coyote fills the screen, a full moon rising behind it.
A sense of relief washes over me. I was tired from the half hour spent casing the floor of the prairie casino, searching for Rick’s elusive “lucky” machine. My feet, already sore from a full day of waiting tables, had begun to ache.
Rick slips in a twenty and the machine flickers to life. I watch as he selects a line sequence. Then another. And another. Oscillating between three lines or five; five lines or seven. I’m tempted to tell him it doesn’t matter much—he’s strategizing moves in a game based on chance. A game where tactics are as much an illusion as the machine’s faux-gold exterior. A more favorable approach would be to rub and tap the machine just so, or to say a short prayer to the gods of luck and superstition; imploring them for a streak of good fortune.
Instead, I hold my tongue. It’s his birthday after all; my younger brother’s one request as a newly legal adult was to visit the local casino and place a few bets. Win big, maybe. Rick motions to the empty chair alongside him and I take a seat. The machine he’s playing is a fully automated, twenty-first century edition. Absent of slots, there are instead a series of illuminated buttons displaying different line options. A new-age monstrosity stripped of the charm and nostalgia of its predecessor—those archaic behemoths with their ball-tipped levers and plastic cups brimming with coins.
Somewhere along the way, the casino culture had lost its sheen; the tacky and enticing patina that drew me to movies like Casino and Good Fellas—my dad’s favorite films. I had envisioned dry martinis served by busty waitresses in fishnets and Joe Pesci lookalikes casing the floor, while a jazz singer crooned sweet melodies before a ruby-colored curtain. Instead, there are waxen-faced gamblers nursing tall boys and bar staff who look like they haven’t slept in days. The space stinks of stale smoke; the stained burgundy carpet is tacky beneath our feet.
Glancing around, I notice the glassy-eyed stares of gamblers fixed on the spinning images of neon-lit sphinxes and plump cherries. Their fingers poised on the “bet” button, ready to administer the next hit. Perhaps charm didn’t matter, so long as the promised rush remained the same.
Rick taps a sequence of buttons and the animated coyotes are set in motion. An intricate network of lines emerges and Rick wins a whopping $3.50. I watch a few rounds, trying to make sense of it all, but the motion makes me dizzy and I turn away.
“Hey Em, can you grab me a coffee?” Rick asks his eyes locked on the rolling imagery. I pour two cups of house blend from the no-frills coffee station, which is absent of Coffee Mate. Returning to our seats, I rest Rick’s coffee in the machine’s cup holder. “Black OK?”
There was an accident on the Trans-Canada Highway, on the outskirts of Regina. It happened in late spring, when conditions were clear. Our father, aged fifty-two, veered off the road and flipped his car into a ditch. He died on impact. The police report stated he’d been speeding, about fifty kilometers above the posted limit. A conclusion drawn from the tire marks examined at the scene of the accident. It seemed there was an awful lot one could determine from tire marks—their tread and trajectory—a revealing sequence of lines.
Months later, I drove to the scene of the accident—the place where he died. I pulled onto the highway’s shoulder and stood for a long while, examining the lines, only slightly faded, that veered sharply to one side before disappearing into the ditch. I studied their appearance, trying to interpret some meaning, hoping they might hold answers still. Vehicles sped by, some slowing, others honking, no doubt with irritation and surprise at the strange woman standing at the roadside, staring fixedly into the center lane. But the marks revealed little else apart from the glaringly obvious—a loss of control. In the end, I wondered whether the details really mattered, when knowing them or not, the outcome remained the same.
I remember the calls. The initial outpouring of support from friends, co-workers, relatives from out east—peripheral figures I barely knew. They called, checked in, cast their concerned tones across the phone line like inquiring bait: an invitation to meet for coffee, an offer to stop in with groceries. And the casseroles. Dozens of them. An unending assortment of casseroles: tuna, chicken, potato gratin, macaroni coated in a medley of cheese—which we stored in our deep freeze. For months we ate casserole, more so for sustenance than to appease any real appetite. To this day, the memory of chicken and broccoli with rice nearly makes me retch.
For the most part, I dodged such kindnesses. Dreading the sympathetic and searching expressions that probed the tender places I wasn’t ready to touch upon. I resented their expressions—the same pitying glances I grew up with, but never fully knew how to deflect. The looks of people who presumed to know the full story when in fact they knew a mere fraction of it. The CliffsNotes version. An abstract that skimmed the surface of my family’s history.
A dead mother.
An alcoholic father.
Two kids, a brother and sister, with little hope of doing any better in life.
I wanted to face those outsiders with the defiant stance that it hadn’t been all bad. There had been moments—happy refrains when we went on road trips and camped in the prairie hills, which bordered Buffalo Pound Lake—a body of tepid water spanning thirty kilometers in length. Run off from the adjacent banks percolated in the summer heat until the water thickened to an unnatural opacity, so that swimmers emerged with a distinct green film coating their skin.
There was a summer road trip when we drove out to the Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta, before continuing on our way to Calgary. We went tubing down the Bow River, a spine of water extending through city limits, and stayed with a friend of our dad from high school—a man named Gary. Gary had long, stringy hair and a casual air about him. As though he could give or take the life he led. He owned a 1947 Chevy, which he had painstakingly restored and talked about endlessly during our stay.
Temperatures that week soared to record-breaking highs, and it being too hot to play outside, my brother and I took refuge in Gary’s unfinished basement, which functioned as a rec room; furnished with a threadbare sofa, old movie posters, and a television mounted on an overturned milk crate. There was a pool table set in the far corner and a dartboard, which hung on the far wall—the cement pockmarked from stray darts.
During a heat wave in mid-August, we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on VHS—my brother’s favorite movie. The picture was garbled with big wormy lines that wriggled across the screen, distorting Chevy Chase’s features. But having watched the movie a hundred times before, I simply reenacted our favorite parts, conjuring scenes of humor and wit with memorized ease. I remember my brother, eight years old, rolling around on the floor with laughter, as I played the role of Cousin Eddie, pumping trailer waste into a sewer.
Laughs always came easily when the jokes were scripted. When I had Chevy Chase to help lead me to the punch line.
The drive home from Calgary had been my favorite. As we approached Medicine Hat, Rick caught a glimpse of the Saamis Tepee, rising two hundred feet high in the distance. He pleaded to stop and take a look, and my dad, in a rare concession, pulled over, even agreeing to pose for a picture beneath the structure’s steel heights. I have the photo, framed upon my mantel; the image grainy. My brother smiled brightly, wearing a faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt; a highly coveted Goodwill find he had discovered while in Calgary.
Dad stood just behind, his broad shoulders framing my brother’s far narrower ones. Hands in his pockets, his expression notably more subdued and set within the wide angles of his face. Angles, which over time would sharpen as his fleshy, more wholesome parts retreated from the dark excesses of addiction.
Skimming past acres of prairie field as the summer light faded, we drove in silence. Open space unfurled for miles around, punctuated by the distant forms of clapboard houses and shadowy herds of cattle. Our father was the first to break the silence. He told a story from when he was eight years old; he and his cousins had decided to hike into the prairie hills to camp overnight.
As darkness fell, the coyotes began to howl, and too afraid to sleep, they had decided to pack it in. Having forgotten a flashlight, they stumbled through the dark, catching glimpses of the trail as the moonlight shifted in and out from behind the clouds, before parting entirely, to reveal a crescent moon in a sea of shimmering stars. “Up until that moment, I thought for sure we were dog meat.” Dad winked into the rearview mirror at us, wedged in the backseat between our bags. The flats of homebrewed beer Gary had stocked our station wagon with, stowed safely on the front passenger seat. The car trunk teeming with tools from dad’s primary occupation, doing odd jobs around town; fixing people’s toilets and clearing rain gutters for beer money. We leaned over the centre console, eager for the rare opportunity to hear our father impart more than a few words.
After dad died, I sheltered us from others. Life details were provided only when necessary, as a formality to teachers and counselors during scheduled meetings where we discussed Rick’s progress in school. Although he had been stripped of both parents before his twelfth birthday, Rick, always a diligent and promising student, continued to thrive.
“He seems to be adjusting quite well. He’s excelling in all his classes. He’s well liked amongst his classmates.”
“How?!” I wondered, as I retreated further inward.
I spent the first few months after Dad’s death in my room, barely leaving bed as I wrestled my depression into submission. Anxious for Rick when I could barely care for myself. I kept waiting for him to act out, to devolve into a problematic youth. Instead my brother deviated from bad behavior. Instead, he flourished. Still, I waited for the similarities to emerge. The sordid ones I had become accustomed to mediating. That I had become reliant on making right. But beyond possessing the same dark eyes and angled features, which broadened in his adolescence until he resembled our father entirely, he remained unfalteringly his “own.” Gradually, over time, we made room for a future less burdened by our past. However, on nights when he couldn’t sleep, my brother would ask to hear the story of when our dad was guided home by a crescent moon, chained to the stars.
I watched my brother slip another twenty into the machine. It spurred to life, the coyote’s lithe form illuminating once more. Lines connecting, disappearing, and reemerging with renewed significance. Their meaning unclear but concrete all the same; a random pattern, yet their relationship still real and fully intact, filled with hidden meaning and infinite possibilities.