I saw the bumper sticker the first time on the back of a beat-up old Airstream in a Searchlight, Nev., casino parking lot, and I thought of one of my dad's favorite sayings: "Enjoy your money and your kids while you're alive."
He didn't, and died with that regret. I'm 59. Writing is not work from which you retire voluntarily, and if I died this second, my kids would inherit nine full bookcases, a paid-for 1990 4-cylinder Nissan pale blue pickup with raven wings painted on the doors, hundreds of audio tapes, and as many geodes, fire agates and slabs, chunks and chips of obsidian that fit in a two-room cabin.
I have 36 cents in my pocket, an obligatory $50 in my credit union savings account, $43.72 left in overdraft privilege, and more bills than I can think about. There is one reason, one reason alone for my financial condition. Not shopping. Not travel. Not good works. I am a slot hog.
Nickel machines. Super Sevens. Black Rhino. Kitty Keno. I read a checklist today which tells if you're a compulsive gambler. Four yesses and you better lock your liquid assets in the closet. I hit six out of 10, which in keno would win a lousy four nickels, and in real life means trouble.
I'm thinking hard about all of this, not because I believe I can quit, but because I spent three nights and two days of the holidays in a Nevada "gaming" town. Gaming is to gambling as "career opportunity" is to getting fired.
I was surrounded by old people, from the slot machine seat to which my butt seemed, too often, to be welded, to the near-empty benches outside the back of the casinos, where you can watch a colony of savvy feral cats who have gotten so fussy they turn up their noses at anything other than shrimp or steak.
Most of the old people are women. Most wear pastel jogging suits appliquéd with sparkly kittens, X-mas trees, dice, Aces and Jacks, and logos from Palm Springs, Scottsdale, San Diego and Atlantic City. They love to talk. Especially if their hubby is somewhere else, especially if he is dead.
They rarely drink the free watery booze the cocktail waitresses - most my age - bring around, and they almost never play off credits on the machines. Ching ching ching, one by one, they drop the nickels in the slots. When they hit, they cash out. When they lose, they pull another $20 out of their purses and holler, "Change!"
They tell me stories. "We just sold the place in Palm Springs. We've got a double-wide in Tucson and a double-wide in Columbus. When we're here, we stay in a little park model down near Topoc. We had to sell the house in Palm Springs. It costs a fortune to keep one of those places up, plus, you know you can't get decent yard work done for decent wages the way you used to."
Her husband plays Blackjack. She figures it costs them about $30,000 every winter. He won't admit it, but she keeps count.
I looked around. Old women, old men, Black, Native American, Hispanic, white, white, white and me. Our faces gray in the hectic light of our machines, our fingers placing into the pockets of a very few very rich people, what we believe we've earned, be it a fortune, be it next month's rent. This is our kids' inheritance.
I looked at the old woman's sweet face. She set her hand on my arm. "My kids are all over the country," she said, "I miss them."
"How much do you see them?"
She shook her head. "They've got such busy lives. Careers. My grandkids. We get together maybe once a year."
"Are you close to the grandkids?"
"Oh no," she laughed. "Kids are so different these days. I used to try, but once they got to be near their teens, I just gave up."
It was my turn at the counter. I cashed my points in for 12 bucks, considered leaving and didn't. While I lost my 12 bucks, I thought about the word inheritance. And the word elder. By the time the last cluster of losing flowers and nines and rhinos dropped into place, I knew the inheritance we squander in casinos is not just money.
Those of us hunkered in front of our machines, bent over the craps table, hunched over a losing hand are giving away our time, our knowledge and our stories. What we might once have passed on to our children, our children's children, remains locked in our hearts and minds. We gather in casinos, in gated communities, in exclusive golf clubs and leave the younger generations to piece together what they can. We never face the possibility that who we have become is ludicrous to them, disgusting, unnecessary.
I don't know how many younger people want to learn to write an elegant sentence, make Pennsylvania Dutch chicken soup, live on next to nothing, face down fear, see through a con, tell their heart's truth. I'm blessed to have children who do.
I don't know whether I can continue, as I have for a week, to wade through the disaster of my checkbook, admit this addiction to a few friends, and keep myself out of the little casino 40 miles south. I am blessed to be haunted by an unlikely ghost, a bumper sticker that reads, "This is our kids' inheritance."
Mary Sojourner lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.
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