Every Saturday is lotto day and every Saturday we buzz the morning long, comparing numbers, marking trends, and reliving those great close calls in history, like when JoJo's hairstylist got five numbers ("And pissed all the cash away on rugs!" JoJo still complains. "Fucking rugs!") or when I managed three and the Powerball and paid down a chunk on my Amex. The time Bobby hit the first four takes the cake because we just sat there each in our dingy apartments across town, clutching our tickets and thinking of old Bobby, equal parts hoping he'd win and equal parts hoping he'd lose. Not that I think so poorly of him, but no one wants a person to win a thing they don't deserve, not unless that person is themselves.
JoJo calls such philosophy pessimism and says, "Barb, you're just a bitter old hag." She's joking. Jo's meaner than I could ever be. She daydreams meanness for fun and conjures ideas that make me pale. She's got two divorces, eight years, and eight million white hairs on me and she's already claiming hot flashes. "Whoop!" she cries from the bathroom stall. "This one's a 2-F, honey!" As in, too-fucking-hot. We hide in there and sometimes she'll rustle up a little nose powder and it's nothing special but a way to get through the numb afternoons and we go out to hoist platters of waffles and patty melts, smiling at our secret, and Manager Andy says, "What's gotten into you old ladies? Nipping at the whiskey again?" Though of course there's no whiskey at Mel's. Sometimes I'm afraid he suspects the truth but he just winks at me and says, "What's your numbers, JoJo?" because he knows damn well that the lotto's about all any of has to look forward to.
Most days are the same as any other days except to say that last week Manager Andy ended this little side thing he and I had going. I knew the end of our magical tryst had been approaching and I damn well knew the reason: Lurleen. But while it's true I've spent all week blaming her and getting even in various vicious ways, the worst part is that deep down I know it's a good thing, me and Andy calling it quits. Andy's just a dumb kid. Awful pretty around the eyes, though. He's all sex and positive thinking and I had to catch myself from being negative when we were together. No more making fun of the weather girl's outfit or the way the detectives on "CSI" say "NevAHda" (and they live in Vegas, supposedly?). It's my tendency to be critical. Not Andy's. He's the hotel assistant manager's nephew, just twenty-one, and he's studying hospitality down at Vegas but all summer he's been here in Reno trying to wrap his head around running a restaurant. His first day he assembled us—Bobby, JoJo, me, and Lurleen—and said, "I want you all to try this great new hospitality trend: say 'darling' to the women, say 'gentlemen' to the men. Then sit right down at the table to take the order. Customers get to know you. It's a level of comfort. Like small towns. Post offices and kids mowing the lawn. That's the secret right there. That's how customers come back."
Bobby got all nervous about this—he waits on people with usually no more than four words: "Drinks? Order? Okay, thanks."—because of his social issues. He's like any stereotypical vet and comes to work in his Army jacket and camo pants, usually has what we've heard him refer to as "the thousand-yard stare," and simply has crazy eyes. The problem is that he's nineteen, in good health, and never been within any whiff of any war. He said to Andy, "Well, I don't, see, I think," and then sort of went blank and stared at the floor.
Andy considered this and nodded. "Interesting. Any other thoughts?"
Lurleen, our percolating Christian who is roundabouts my age (not forty yet!) but acts like a schoolgirl, beamed and said, "I do think a little kindness never hurt anyone in this world, did it everyone? Right, Bobby?" she said, patting his arm. "It'll be just fine."
Andy smiled and clapped his hands. "Well then. To our first day!"
First person Bobby sat beside was a blue-hair lady and he was jerking and stammering so much that the lady yelped and swatted him away. Then Lurleen sat with a Mexican family who looked at her like she was alien and started saying words even JoJo doesn't know. The experiment ended shortly. It didn't faze Manager Andy much—he kept coming at us with strange ideas, like singing "May I Take Your Order" or wearing Hawaiian shirts on Fridays or even, once, trying to get us all to have a picnic down by the river "to build team character." No one showed but I watched him from across the street as he sat there and ate five sandwiches, tossing crusts to the brown ducks. He didn't seem too dispirited.
All summer we made fun of him behind his back, called him College Boy and such until JoJo came up with Andy-cass, which stuck. He probably felt lonely here in Reno but what did we care? He's young and in shape. He has college and a future.
As JoJo says, "You can't feel sorry for folks you'd swap lives with."
One Sunday night Jo son took her up to Tahoe for Music Under the Stars starring James Taylor and I covered for her. During my last break, I sat in a back booth and thought how nice, James Taylor and Lake Tahoe, and I ate a whole basket of french fries. Andy sat down and passed me a strawberry shake. "Misfire, want it?" I thanked him and we sat there quiet-like and he said, "When Jo's not around, you're quite nice, Barb," and put his hand all soft on mine and I felt my blood quicken and thought this here is one of them moments. An hour later shift ended and he was outside leaning against his Camaro, smiling. I thought hell why not and said could maybe he give me a ride? For three weeks it was our little ritual. He's sexually eager and sometimes I had a little soreness but his body is just such a miracle. We even go to a motel just for the thrill of the affair, though we both live alone. He'll walk around our room naked and his pecker a little glistening, still a little hard, sucking on a beer, his stomach all lean and strong and his legs and arms just so many ropy muscles like he's a boy fallen off the farm. Mostly he talked about his grand future as a restaurateur of a chain featuring Cajun food. Called Andy-gators. I never listened much. I just liked looking at him.
It was just enough to keep getting through it all.
Last week he sits me down on the little bed at The El Mirage, our motel, the last downtown motel standing. Everything else around is demolished. The papers say "renovated" but mostly it's ruins, piles of slab and rebar on every corner except those brand new buildings by the river. And Andy sits me down and starts pacing, "I mean, I can't do this, it just doesn't feel right," and with thumb and forefinger starts worrying the little cross around his neck.
He said sorry and all that and I said I had to pee but really I didn't want to cry in front of him and when I came out he was gone. I sat in the room and had myself a real cry then, mostly for being so upset over a yokel like Andy. I walked home through downtown, thinking Just you try to mug me, meth-heads. I even stopped at McDonald's for chicken nuggets and as I was eating, Skateboarding George skated past the window. He's got Tourette's and dresses like Superman only with an eyepatch and comes to Mel's at least twice a week for french fries. I knocked on the glass and said, "Hey George!" and he didn't miss a beat, just kept skating as he sang out, "Barb-fuck-hello!" Which made me feel a little better.
With the lotto, everyone has their own system: Andy picks the numbers on the dollar bill he uses to buy the ticket. JoJo rotates family birthdays and anniversaries. Bobby adds up the number of dead soldiers that week and keeps doubling or dividing. So far his system works best. We all got our tricks though we all know that no way of picking is the right way. Me? I just scratch in the boxes that feel right to me. Like I'm a teenager and my hands are on a Ouija board and the spirits are guiding me toward great riches.
Some guides. The assholes led me here to Mel's, itself stuck inside the worn old Sands—nice on the outside, bright flashing lights and everything, but dirty and human on the inside. Porn channel on all the hotel room TVs, half-naked thirteen-year-old girls lying out by the pool during Hot Summer Nights, their hot pink tops undone. Leering bikers and meth-heads buzz around like flies outside the pool fence. Trains rumble under the casino. Sweaty sad people come in pleading for ice-water, emanating waves of desperation and despair. The once-gray carpet is black and coming up at the seams and tourists keep tripping over a bulge by the nickel slots just outside the entrance to Mel's and our famous hamburgers.
Well, no system's perfect. Not even Lurleen's, who thinks God is on her side because after all she's just the most moral Christian woman in the world, even if she did steal my man.
One time Andy tried sticking up for her. He had a couple fingers on my thigh and his lips were sort of plucking my chest-bone like I was an instrument he was playing with his mouth. I was in that bad habit of mine, going on about how stupid Lurleen is with her holier-than-thou this and goody-two-shoes that and Andy looked up with his pretty browns and said, "Aw, she's just a good Christian." I said, "You sitting there sinning with a cross on your chest and you stick up for her? You go to church, I know you do, Andy, and here you're the biggest liar of all!" I don't know why I said that because I don't care one way or another what folks do with their souls. Andy already had his pecker out in his hand and looked at me all guilty and I said how sorry I was, I didn't mean it, reassuring the boy. We made up nicely indeed. But sure enough the next day at Mel's I heard Lurleen talking to him about Jesus. She says, "I saw your crucifix An-dee and you aren't Catholic, are you? Cause I'm not Catholic but I feel deeply the spirit of Jesus in me and I always do like to find a fellow Christian!"
He told me during break he had some thinking to do. I keyed Lurleen's crappy Hyundai which didn't matter because it's been keyed over so many times that the lines look like whiplashes. But it made me feel somewhat better, at least until later that night, when Andy sat me down and ended things.
My first morning after the breakup I went in the bathroom and started crying and JoJo said, "Barb, I've got eyes, don't I? Can I not see? That goddamn church-whore stole your sorry ass boyfriend and believe me she'll pay in full. You just let JoJo here do the work. Take a snuff, honey," she said, and passed her compact and soon I felt someplace else, floating and faraway. Soon Lurleen was trying to take an order from a table of stoned snowboarder boys and JoJo slapped her on the back and said, "You fellas here got the best waitress in all the city!" and they cheered and Lurleen giggled and when she walked to the kitchen I saw the sign on her back, Cumbucket Central!!! it said and the boys howled and Lurleen didn't understand. JoJo and I grinned wickedly and so did Bobby and the cooks but Andy tore the sign off her back. He said, "Anyone gots a problem with Lurleen gots a problem with me," looking more or less in my direction, but I felt big and strong with Jo squeezing my hand.
That was Monday. The next day JoJo called up Lurleen's message machine saying she was her doctor and that they'd found cervical cancer at her most recent pap smear. Lurleen started crying halfway through shift and didn't we just laugh to ourselves. Skateboard George came in for fries and said, "Shit-fries!" and Lurleen started bawling right then and there and asked if she could go home early and Andy let her. Then on Tuesday she came very composed and wouldn't speak to any of us and hardly said two words to Andy. Twenty minutes into her shift an officer of the law came in looking very stern behind his mustache. He asked where he could find a Lurleen Davids and Jo pointed dramatically. The cop pulled Lurleen aside and we didn't hear much but JoJo whispered, "Someone's been reported a sexual predator," and only after Andy intervened did the cop agree not to arrest her and Lurleen started sobbing yet again. Andy glared at us and they left right then and there.
The next morning Andy pulled me and JoJo aside. "This has got to stop."
"How dare you insult me!" said Jo, outraged, which she says is the best way to lie.
Poor young Andy. He worried his hands and looked from me to Jo. He was overwhelmed by us two women. I remembered him saying once he didn't have a mother really, that mostly his uncle raised him. He looked at us like we were creatures he'd never be able to comprehend. He just stammered, "Now dammit, Jo, dammit, Barb, you both, you know what, I'm—" and then the door opened and Lurleen came in, hair dyed bright green.
Jo didn't even crack a smile.
Friday night neither Andy nor Lurleen came in to work. They had to attend the big Jesus-gathering at Rancho San Rafael Park. JoJo has an RV she got off an ex-husband and she drives it around and tailgates with the good people of Reno, where tailgating is the most time-honored pastime of them all. We sat out drinking beers, JoJo, her boy, and me, watching the march of the good Jesus-lovers into the park. So many it astounded me. It's like there's a shortage of water in this city and everyone's dying of thirst, screaming, Quench me! Quench me!, only wanting Jesus instead of water. Serious couples in suits and tired lonely women and Hispanic families and graybeards and ordinary families and crotchety old men and teenagers with black hair who looked meaner than any Christians I ever saw. Even George skateboarded past and we said, "Howdy, George!" and he said, "Fuck Jo, fuck Barb," and we tilted beers at him. Jo's son said, "What a retard," and Jo snapped him on his forehead and he shut up quick. He's almost thirty and plays computer games. A few other people-watchers came by and chatted with us, folks from the neighborhood who were Catholic and Jewish or just ordinary like me and Jo. We all drank beers and in the distance the Jesus-thumpers started singing Jesus hymns and JoJo was whipping up margaritas when her boy whispers to me, "You ever want a good lay, give me a call, Barb," and presses a card into my hand and I flush and I'm about to cuss him when I look down to see it's just a Trivial Pursuit card. JoJo starts howling and cackles, "Got you, sweetie!" and I laughed, too, happily buzzed as I was, and for a moment the whole Andy thing seemed like naught but a faded memory.
A couple bike police pedaled over and said we oughtn't be drinking in public but JoJo offered margaritas and they said sure but only in paper cups. And we all sat there, us and the Jews and the Catholics and the police, watching our fellow citizens doing the work of loving God, happy that someone was doing it just not us. Then, like a great shining light, Lurleen walked onstage. We couldn't hear her words because the PA system was crummy but her hair was still neon green and we could certainly hear people booing her like she was an outcast. Maybe they thought she was a punk rocker. And I felt low for all we'd done to her because the truth was she wasn't that bad a person, Lurleen. I even remembered how once there was this grand conflagration out on Fourth Street. Skateboarding George had been mugged and he was yowling and his arms were shooting every which way and his eye patch came off revealing a pink mucusy thing and some kids were laughing and mimicking him. Lurleen went out there and scolded the kids and pulled George into Mel's and gave him the fattest sundae I've ever seen, gobs and gobs of hot fudge and marshmallow sauce. She said to us in the back, "Oh, he's just a good fellow, like any of us, someone picked the wrong numbers on him is all." That was years ago, when she used to be more like me, when we were friends, before she went to one of these God parties and showed up to work one day newly converted.
The booing kept on until someone led her offstage. I must have been too quiet because Jo gave me a funny look. "Don't you feel guilty, Barb." I looked away and sipped my beer, and finally when I went to bed last night, mouth dry from too many cigarettes and beers, I dreamt of riding George's skateboard, wind in my hair, a big patch sealed over both my eyes.
Today the lotto is at Three Hundred Million Dollars, a very pretty penny. Days like this which only come along every few months we usually fantasize our winnings. Lurleen always says she'll give her money to Christian charity. Bobby wants to buy a secret compound. JoJo wants to buy one of the buildings in Disneyland and move in. A cabin on that island. Usually I just listen and smile at everyone's dreams. It's a nice way to escape.
But today is different. No one's dreaming. It's a gray and lonely Saturday. Depressing and cold, a Reno specialty, and the diner's almost empty. No hungover college kids asking for water. No couple in the back booth, husband pleading with his bride. No misguided tourists thinking it'd be nice to breakfast at Mel's while on vacation. Not even Skateboarding George.
Around eleven a.m., Bobby says, "Weird day." The restaurant is empty save for an old man doing crosswords and drinking coffee. Andy's late. We're all moving slow. No singing. No smiles. Behind us the casino says, Wheel. Of. Fortune! Bobby guzzles white zin from a coffee mug. "It's downright creepy. Awful quiet out there. See? Look at that." He points out the window. In the parking lot, Andy and Lurleen are arguing. Arms waving. Shouting. Bobby says, "Didn't figure those two. Isn't Lurleen Christian? What's Manager Andy?"
"A dickhead, I believe," answers JoJo.
We all watch. Andy and Lurleen are going at it: Andy is sitting inside his Camaro and shouting through the window and Lurleen is outside the car, pounding the windshield, screaming. I've never seen such a showing of emotion from her. Even JoJo whistles. "She's gone off the rez, poor gal. Think our good Christian lady got herself used up by that boy?" She nudges me and waits for my laugh. Mostly I feel sad. I turn away and wipe down the counter. And I imagine if I won the lottery.
It's simple. I'd quit this job. This restaurant life is too much in me, in my cells, in my skin. You become where you are, what you do. Bobby said that our bodies replace themselves over time—like snakes shedding, only we do it slowly, less dramatic. So I'd get massages every day until I felt like my muscles and skin were pulled pork, ready to flake off the bone. I'd prime myself to change. People say you can't change? Bullshit. Put me on vacation and I'll stop hating the world. Give me books and magazines by smart people and I'll start feeling sorry for all the poor sadsacks as opposed to wishing they'd just suck it up and quit whining. Give me time and money to eat good food and I'll develop taste and culture. I'll care about my health. I'll go to the d-o-c-t-o-r. I'll walk ten thousand steps a day with my little stepper clicking away on my slimming hips. I'll read Oprah books and learn the Internet and participate in forums with worldly women. I'll vote. I'll contribute to progressive campaigns until taxes smack my ass and then I'll contribute to conservatives. I'll drink green tea instead of Almaden. I'll sleep on a good mattress rather than one makes me fight all night until my hips are sore in the morning. I'll stop dreaming terrible dreams about meth-heads in alleys.
And if I do dream, it'll be like those Corona commercials. Quiet and peaceful.
Doesn't that just sound nice.
The diner door swings open and first Andy comes in but he doesn't look at any of us, just sort of wanders downcast toward his office. Then Lurleen marches in. She's fairly composed if you ignore the splotches on her face. "What?" she says to me and JoJo and Bobby. "You all just mind your own business. Don't sit there and squawk at me all day like you know me." She glares at us desperately, as if daring us to talk back. I feel sorry for her. In my back pocket a little slip of paper sits folded over. The night's lotto numbers. If I win; if I become a rich woman; maybe then I'd have had the patience to go to Lurleen, hug her and tell her that whatever the problem is, everything will be okay. Maybe then I'd give a shit.
"Fuck you, Lurleen," I say, and disperse my own self back to work.