Charlie and Alan rubbed their Aussie eyes. It had been a marathon day in the desert, some of it now lodged in the back of their throats which were pleading for beer.
Kilometre after straight kilometre and cactus after towering, flowering cactus had gripped their interest for the first hour, but enough was enough.
With the beckoning lights of Vegas ahead, the sun had long retired, allowing its mate the moon, to take watch.
As soon as they turned their car into the main street, the weary eyes of the two likeable, larrikin lads from Australia flashed back to life. Edison’s own eyes would be spinning with ecstasy at the amazing vision of millions of flashing electric bulbs delivering their multi-coloured messages. If New York never slept, then Vegas was a chronic insomniac, thought Alan.
“Look there Charlie. Free breakfasts from seven to eight every morning. That’s for us,” he said pointing towards the one place he’d heard of, Caesar’s Palace.
If nothing else, three weeks on the American road had taught them thrift in the cause of pleasure. Save now, splurge later. Cosy rooms were banned while hostels and shacks were eagerly sniffed out.
“Your cheapest, smallest room for two please,” said Alan to the slick concierge behind the half million dollar marble reception desk.
“We can do a twin-share with ensuite on the ground floor for ninety nine dollars per night sir,” was the jolting offer.
So far, the boys hadn’t handed over more than twenty dollars for a night’s sleep. They also hadn’t showered for two days.
“D’ya have anything below ground?” asked Alan. “Basement, dungeon, cupboard. We don’t have a lot of money.”
All was agreed at twenty dollars; a smug-faced porter then guiding the guests two floors down to a storeroom; no windows and only one piece of furniture - a creaky wooden bunk.
The porter’s condescending swagger and supercilious stare earned a simultaneous response of sneers, but no tip. Who cared. The fun was just a few steps away, but a beer, a wash and a good sleep were first priorities.
Throughout their self-drive tour of the USA they’d had only three tiffs, all linked to Alan’s belief that he could sing.
He’d driven Charlie mad with bum notes and boring classics. A few hours out of Tulsa had brought repeated off-key renditions of Gene Pitney; then, as they’d neared Houston, a wobbly Major Tom took over. Near Memphis, attempts at Elvis were horrific.
The boys had been best mates since primary school. Red curly-haired Alan was demonstrative and although slightly overweight, his impish smile attracted women like bees to a honeypot. Charlie was skinny, good looking and possessed a wicked sense of humour.
With spindly ‘native legs’, he couldn’t use his physique to lure girls. He’d had to learn the art of ‘romancing the bone’ as he called it.
With the new dawn came smiling stomachs and wallets. Hash browns, two easy-over eggs, one sausage, a tomato, bacon, toast and marmalade and a bottomless ‘korfee pot’, all for nothing. To reach it they’d been forced to walk past a battalion of poker machines.
The aroma of sizzling bacon teased their nostrils as they trekked towards the breakfast room. With each and every step, one of those machines begged them to stop and play awhile. Like soldiers on a parade ground they stood proudly to attention in a bid to outsmart the others. They too were hungry and needed feeding.
Buzzers, bells, alarms, lights and tumbling money all did their damndest to break the will. It was all too much. By the last mouthful, Charlie felt himself buckling and counting the loose change.
“We must have a go Alan,” he said, rubbing two coins together by way of invitation. “Let’s commit ten dollars each for the day and see who wins.”
“It’ll be Caesar who wins mate,” smiled Alan. “But you’re right. We can’t come all the way to Las Vegas and not have a spin….come on.”
The psychology of selecting a particular poker machine defied them, but Charlie’s inquisitive mind found it an interesting exercise upon which to contemplate.
For no rational reason, he was subliminally attracted to one special machine. Attraction to a woman he could explain; not so to a piece of metal. As long as it wasn’t chemical!
Was it the pictures; the music; the number of rollers or the fact that someone else had just stormed away from it because they’d lost their money and the machine should now be ‘ready to pay?’ He had thoughts of a Phd.
The boys finally selected their soldier and commenced to lose. They were only there for half an hour but it proved one of the most valuable thirty minutes of their lives; definitely not in a monetary sense.
The fifty cent slot machine Charlie had picked to feed was two paces from the open doorway to the plush Craps Room, where he could hear some serious gambling going on.
To his right were the ten cent soldiers, one of which was being served breakfast by a tiny, hunched old lady who could barely reach the handle and who had to stretch on tiptoe in order to be able to yank the handle downwards.
“Hi there sonny. Where are you from dear?” she enquired with a disarming, grandmotherly smile.
“We’re from Australia….. in Vegas for just a couple of days,” smiled Charlie.
“Oh that’s nice. Whereabouts in Australia?” she asked with a sense of genuine interest as she strained to give her machine another handful of fodder.
“A little place called Paynesville in East Gippsland …bet you’ve never heard of it though. It’s a really beautiful place in Victoria….. have you heard of Victoria and Melbourne?
“I’ve heard of Melbourne and I think I’ve heard of Gripsland…. but I’ve never heard of Painful,” said the genial old lady. “Strange name for a town…but I bet its pretty.”
As her ten cents were greedily gobbled up, she managed to get her eighty two year old tongue around the name Gippsland, but Paynesville always remained Painful for her.
The boys fell in love with Ellen. She was an absolute darling they just wanted to pick up, put in their pocket and take home.
For a lady of her age she bore fewer wrinkles than most folks twenty years her junior, and those she did carry were happy ones, reflecting a positive, cheerful demeanour and eight decades of laughter and love.
As the boys played and lost; they also chatted and won. Ellen explained she’d been a widow for thirty two years and that poor Jack had passed away “much too early” as a result of complications from a piece of shrapnel that had spun into his chest in France, during the closing days of WW2.
“I come here once a month you know,” said their new friend, with a hop and a skip in her voice and with her glazed eyes focused entirely on the spinning drums. “I don’t live too far away and every month I put aside ten dollars from my pension. I come here to lose it. I don’t mind…..it’s such fun and I love it.”
Bless her, they both thought. There she was to their right, willingly and oh so happily losing her ten dollars each month; while from the neighbouring Roulette Room they could hear wealthy voices saying “Five thousand on black” and “Two grand on evens” with similar sounds drifting from the Craps Room.
Charlie didn’t know anything about Craps but he guessed it was a game where the noun was used by bad losers. They could both hear what Alan had predicted - that Caesar was most definitely winning.
As for Charlie and his allotted ten dollars, he was doing ok. Plus, thanks to that gorgeous diminutive widow from the hills of Nevada, he understood for the first time in his life how safe and pleasant it was to be in the middle of things.
Not rich or poor; not famous and yet not a nobody; simply himself in the centre where people didn’t seek to either tear him down or exploit him. If he ever were to be poor or struggling he’d want to be just like Ellen, he thought.
When she wasn’t looking, he quietly placed a handful of coins in her tray so her monthly pokie pilgrimage would be extended.
Another day and another free breakfast saw the lads heading off on the final leg of their American sojourn, to see the City of Angels from where Ellen must surely have been born.
Marching briskly past the legion of ever-hungry troops on their way out of Caesar’s realm, they performed a quick ‘eyes right’ to see if Ellen, their aging angle of the desert, was still at play.
No. She’d left and dashed back to the hills to happily scrimp and save for her next month’s ecstatic Vegas venture, while her special soldier stood hungry and waiting - a ten dollar smile upon his face.
It was a safe bet he adored her too…… but he was only after her money.
Copyright Spencer Ratcliff 2010