Before we even left the station, I fell asleep underground on a Peter Pan bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with my head resting on the shoulder of a line cook named Abraham who was returning to one of the casinos in Atlantic City. He was headed home from a wild weekend in NYC with his brother-in-law.
“My brother-in-law is a photographer,” said Abraham. “He does weddings mostly, but then during Christmas he takes pictures of kids sitting on Santa’s lap. He is always trying to get me to work with him, but I hate Christmas. Double shifts. Fuck that. I think Santa Claus should be illegal. He teaches kids to trust fat pedophiles.”
“Which casino do you work at?” I asked him.
“The Classic Club,” he said. “It’s the worst one. You should stop by if you like to see bad things.”
He looked at me aslant. I returned his slant gaze.
“I do like to see bad things,” I said.
Abraham tried to sell me “gambling cocaine” and, embarrassed, I told him that I was a lawyer. He took my business card and asked if I would watch his back on the way to Atlantic City so that he could sleep. I asked him what would happen if I also fell asleep. He said that we didn’t have to be paranoid about it, just keep a basic look out.
I took the aisle seat. Abraham took the window.
“What kind of lawyer are you?” he asked while we waited for the bus to get going.
“I do all sorts of things,” I said. “I take criminal cases, but I also do nursing home defense.”
“What’s that like?”
“It is horrible,” I said, very used to this question by now. “Nobody ever gets out of nursing homes alive. That’s where we put the lost causes and the totally doomed. We turn them into drug addicts and turn on the TV really loud and when they say they are scared we up their dosage of awesome opiates. ”
“I guess nursing homes get sued a lot, huh,” said Abraham.
“Not as much as you might think,” I said. “Anybody who is going to dump their parent in a shitty nursing home, knowing full well that it is criminal and dirty, isn’t going to get all agitated when their unloved parent finally dies due to neglect or outright abuse.”
“What was your last case?” he asked, just making conversation.
I stared at my knees.
“This one nursing home lost power and hadn’t bothered to keep their generator gassed up. It was the middle of summer. The patients were boiling in their beds. One of the nurses in charge got so freaked out that she had a panic attack and left.”
We were by the bathroom, sitting right over a wheel well. Nobody was around us. Somebody on the bus had a pacemaker. I could feel it in my fingertips. I played a little game, trying to figure out who it was based on the vibrations in my fingers as people passed by to relieve themselves and make antics.
“That is horrible,” said Abraham.
“One of the nurses who stayed was an ex-con who had just got out of prison for armed robbery,” I said. “She was really nice. What you said about Christmas reminds me of something she said. She said that one of the old women kept asking over and over again for Santa Claus before she died. She wanted Santa Claus more than anything else in the world. The nurse kept telling the old woman that Santa Claus was coming until the old woman finally had a stroke. It took the ambulances three hours to take the old folks to a proper hospital. There were ten casualties.”
“And you were defending the nursing home?”
“No one on staff knew how to put gas in the generator. Can you believe that?”
“Did you win the case?”
“The nursing home didn’t win exactly, but I won,” I said. “All ten families sued, but we settled out of court. The nursing home is going to shut down and reopen under a different name. Standard procedure. I got paid extremely good and well.”
We sat there in silence for awhile. My eyes got droopy and then they closed.
I woke up three hours later in the parking garage beneath the Classic Club Casino. It was like the bus ride never happened. I woke up because Abraham jostled me. I got up and stretched. Abraham and I shook hands. My fingers were drawn to his big metal wristwatch, but I managed to keep them from flying to the steel links of his band. I waited a beat, and then I followed him off the bus.
If he was right about the Classic Club Casino being the worst one in Atlantic City, then it was perfect for what I had in mind.
My fingers twitched as I passed the driver. The vibrations coming from the driver’s chest told me that he was the one with the pacemaker. I wondered if the Peter Pan bus lines knew that they were employing someone who was such a risk. My lawyer-mind immediately calculated how much you could sue Peter Pan for if something went wrong.
As I passed the driver, I gave him a menacing look that said “I know your terrible secret.” He ignored me.
I didn’t have any bags. Just my wallet, keys, phone, and a return ticket to New York for the morning. I stumbled off the bus, not bothering to fight the other riders for my free comp card that would give me 10 dollars worth of casino money to throw away.
I already had plenty of money to burn. I took the stairs out of the parking garage and up to the casino.
I wandered around the casino for awhile, just watching people. I was still wearing my rumpled suit from my latest meeting with the Kellerman Rest Care Facility, the nursing home that had burned up all its residents. I was definitely not the only person here in a rumpled suit, though I noted that my rumpled suit was cut significantly better than the rumpled suits of the other gentlemen. I tried not to feel superior about this.
I had a light lunch at one of the casino restaurants while I waited for the sun to go down. Chicken fajitas. I peeked into the back of the restaurant, looking for Abraham. He was flipping burgers in his kitchen whites and he waved to me. I paid with my credit card. I tipped 200% on my meal.
Then I went to the front desk and bought myself a card for the machines.
“What’s the maximum?” I asked the teenage girl who was simultaneously working the card desk and flirting with a guy with sideburns in a flared shirt who was carrying a guitar case.
“You can put a thousand on there if you want,” she said, not even looking at me.
“Then go ahead and put a thousand on there,” I said.
She did as I asked without once looking away from the bare-chested mariachi. I felt invisible, which was a good feeling actually. I was relieved. Atlantic City seemed to be merely an extension of New York instead of a separate place where people wanted to get to know you.
Unlike all the other big luxury casinos, the Classic Club didn’t have much of a theme, unless you considered bottomless despair a theme. Abraham was right: it was certainly the shittiest casino I had ever seen. I could help but think of it in Monopoly terms. If you landed here accidentally, you would not even consider buying it, even if you had the money. Better to save your money and buy a railroad or pay rent some place nice, like St. James Place or Marvin Gardens.
There was no dress code, there was no minimum on drinks, and people from all walks of life were welcome to dump their money into the machines here, which seemed right. There weren’t even any comfortable chairs or attractive, roving bartenders. There weren’t any table games and the whole place smelled like bleach and fried oysters.
The Classic Club in Atlantic City had one thing in abundance: slot machines. There were hundreds of top-of-the-line arcade-style slot machines, with touch-screens, giant display screens, and the possibility to win money by merely pushing a button over and over again, like playing a video game that you didn’t know how to play.
I walked around looking for the right machine to start on. I had been practicing for months. I could feel the electronic vibrations coming off of the slots in the same way that I could smell the loser sweat steaming from the desperate crowd on the bus.
I took my casino card out of my pocket and kept it in the palm of my hand, like an ace that I was going to flourish at the right time and surprise everyone. I also played with my apartment keys, tapping them with the tips of my fingers and letting them slide off, an obsessive little habit I had acquired ever since I got the magnets put in.
I passed by the Star Wars slots and the Super Mario slots. I paused briefly at the American Idol slots, making a note to go back to them eventually. But something in the corner caught my eye.
“Aha!” I said, standing with my arms crossed in front of the Cougarlicious slot machine. The machine featured three women with hard jaws and fierce brows who were exposing cleavage that looked as firm as brand-new kickballs. These women were predatory and yet alluring. I sat down on the stool in front of the Cougarlicious machine and put my fingers out, trying to figure out the contraption’s electromagnetic baseline.
I first learned about finger magnets while I was defending a locksmith named Sticky who was also a safecracker and a Metro card scammer. I asked him where he got his nickname and he smiled and put his fingers over a paperclip on my desk. It leaped into his hand.
“Old safecracker tradition,” he said. “Magnets. I got these from my old man when I turned 18. They were my grandfather’s magnets. My old man tore them out of his fingers the day he died. Broke into the morgue. There never was a lock that could stop my old man.”
“Magnets?” I asked.
“Yeah, but these days you can get really good ones,” he said. “Those rare earth magnets are sick as fuck. I’ve been thinking about upgrading. My papaw’s magnets have sentimental value, but they don’t really get the job done anymore. Got to stay modern.”
“What good is it to have magnets in the tips of your fingers?”
“It’s a whole extra sense,” he said. “You can feel electromagnetic radiation, man. You can feel transformers in the street and you can feel trains pass under you. You can feel tumblers in locks. You can feel microwave ovens and cell phones and just about anything with a magnetic pulse. It is critical for my chosen profession.”
“Does it feel weird?”
“It hurts like fire under your skin. It is a squirmy feeling. I can’t really describe it. No MRI for me. I come from a long line of locksmiths, though. Maybe I am just predisposed to it. We’ve been doing this since Victorian times. If you ever meet anybody with magnets in their fingers, you better watch your shit. I like being able to feel things that other people can’t feel. It is like having a superpower. Magnetic waves are all around us. Doesn’t it bother you that you can’t feel them and I can?”
I thought about it.
“You said you wanted to get new ones put in?” I said.
“Yeah, they make crazy thin powerful little discs these days,” he said. “They even curve around so they fit more comfortably around your fingerbones and don’t have sharp edges. They wiggle but they don’t flip. I think it is time for a whole new set.”
“If I get you off, will you help me get a set of magnets for my fingers?”
He stared at me shrewdly.
“What are you going to do with them?” he asked. “I would hate to be helping my own competition.”
“No no,” I said. “I’m a lawyer. I steal the money that criminals steal from other people.”
“Good on you,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll take you around to get some pads put in. No big deal. I know a sick grinder named Tambo.”
I got him probation and a tiny fine. He gave me a business card with an address on it. A grinder was a street surgeon who specialized in quasi-legal body modification.
The grinder named Tambo was covered in chains and tattoos. He worked out of the basement of a dingy little place on St. Marks called “Fuck University.” There were t-shirts for sale in the window that said “Fuck U.” He was perfunctory about the whole procedure.
“You know how the tips of your fingers are the part you use when you stroke your lover and touch her warm little asshole?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, that’s the part we are going to slit open and fill with cold magnetic steel. It is going to hurt like nothing you could ever understand. Imagine having your pee- pee skinned.”
“I am not happy about that,” I said.
“Also, it is illegal for me to offer you any anesthetic. If I give you anesthetic, then I am guilty of practicing medicine. So no anaesthetic.”
“Are we really worried about the law here?”
“You are the lawyer,” he said flatly. “You tell me.”
His eyes glinted.
“Never mind about the anesthetic,” I said.
I had taken a handful of Oxycotin and washed them down with whiskey in the alley beside the grinder’s shop. In fact, I was already starting to feel nauseous and sleepy.
“If you pass out, I also have to stop cutting on you,” he said. “Thems the laws.”
“I will not pass out,” I said.
It took three solid hours. The surgeon kept asking me what I was going to do with my new powers, but I kept quiet. The pain was enough to keep me awake. The Oxy kept me sane. When he was done, I couldn’t press my fingers together without making myself queasy. My fingers snapped apart, repelled by the magnets in their tips, squirming against the new sutures. I threw up at the grinder’s shop, again on the train, and then several more times that weekend.
And now here I was in the Classic Club casino, ready to lose some money.
I stuck my card into the Cougarlicious slot machine and waited. My thousand dollar credit showed up in blinking digital glory. I cracked my knuckles and put my hands up, massaging the vibrations in the air with the magnetic discs hugging my fingerbones.
I had illegally purchased several different slot machines from China over the past few months. I had been keeping them in my apartment to practice on them. I had a “Wheel of Fortune” machine, a “Star Trek” machine, and a “Kennedy Assassination” machine. The Kennedy Assassination machine was the most fun. If you got a bonus round, you got to try and pick off JFK from the book depository by clicking the “pull” button at the right time and blowing his pixelated brains out for real cash.
These slot machines gave off electromagnetic radiation like tidal currents. These currents could not be directed, but they could be understood.
Slot machines are designed to return about 98% of everything you put into them. They do this slowly, over time, paying back in multipliers that are not randomly generated at all. They always pay back a little bit, and they are designed to repay 98% of what you put into them over the course of a 24 hour period, meaning that if you have the money to sit there and play a slot machine for 24 hours, you will walk away with 98% of what you shell out.
Most of the time the multipliers operate at 1:1 or maybe 2:1, with an even chance to pay out at these low odds. But every 2,000 or so plays the machines paid out at 50:1, and once every couple hours or so of continuous play you get the much sought after 150:1 payout. Whether you win or lose is random, but how much you win or lose is not random. The machines are required to pay back this much by law.
I was not able to stroke the electromagnetic waves of the slots in order to influence the outcomes. But I could learn to read them by establishing a baseline and noticing changes. I had trained myself to be able to recognize when the multipliers were amping up, and therefore know what the payoff would be on each individual pull. My goal was to dump money into the machines, learn how they worked, and learn when the 150:1 payoff would be.
I plugged away at “Cougarlicious,” matching tits to asses to legs. I got three sets of smoldering eyes and went up a couple hundred. I put my palms out to the machine before every pull as if I were warming my hands on it. “Cougaerlicious” worked like my “Wheel of Fortune” machine at home, and before long I was able to figure out its patterns. This didn’t mean that I would be able to win any extra money on it. Basically, my skill was useless except insofar as I was capable of one thing.
Priming the machines.
When I figured out what the 150:1 payout felt like in relation to the 1:1 and the 2:1, I waited for the machine to realign until it was right there, poised and ready, primed to payoff big and give me my money back. But I didn’t hit the “pull” button. Instead, I cashed out, four hundred dollars down.
I got off my stool and went over to the bar. I stood there, watching the machine, waiting for the next person. Totally curious.
The woman who had been sitting next to me playing the “Wizard of Oz” slots got up, looked at me, and then sat down in the seat I had vacated. She knew how this worked. Unless somebody pays out big and walks away, you always grab the machine that another person has been dumping money into. Winning at the slots is a social endeavor.
She hit the “pull” button and licked her lips. She was about fifty years old, but she was wearing white platform shoes and a low-cut blouse that showed off most of her bountiful mom-cleavage, veiny and robust. Her hair was fried into a powerful helmet and I admired her dedication to physical fitness and nail care.
The machine clicked and flashed and then it paid out to her. Bigtime.
She jumped out of her seat and gave the machine a high five, slapping the video screen.
“Yeah bitch,” she yelled. “Who is Cougarlicious now?”
She pulled her card out and saw me watching her. She grinned.
“That has to really, really, really suck,” she said. “If you had just played one more time, you would have won all your money back!”
“I can deal with it,” I said.
“Listen, do you want some of this? How much did you put in? I’ll at least pay you back out. I’m up. Way up. I have to make-up for what my husband loses at poker.”
“Ha, no,” I said. “You won it fair and square.”
“Okay then,” she said. “At least let me buy you a drink.”
I shrugged. She saw me hesitate and swooped in.
“You have nice shoes,” she said to me. She was hitting on me, and I needed to get rid of her. I didn’t need the distraction.
“Handmade,” I said. “I like to imagine some poor blind little child sewing my soft, perfect shoes together when I am feeling blue. It cheers me up.”
I was trying to seem as repellent as possible, but it wasn’t working. I think she liked repellent.
“Where’d you get all your money, dood?” she asked.
“I’m a lawyer,” I said. “I defend crooked nursing homes.”
“That sounds hard,” she said.
“Not really,” I said. “I mean, I am good at it. It is only hard…you know…morally. But I find ways to justify it. In my mind.”
“How do you do that?”.
“Every loophole I find, every injustice that I help perpetrate, makes the system better,” I said. “When I piss off the state prosecutors by fucking over old people, this makes the prosecutors more creative and better lawyers. This makes them able to close the loopholes that I find. I believe in the system. I believe in this process like some people believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I believe in healing the legal system by being a flagrant evil inside the legal system that obviously needs to be healed.”
“I believe in the sun,” she said. “And the beach. I thought lawyers were too smart to gamble. ”
“I’m not here to win,” I said. “I’m here to lose.”
“What does that mean?”
“I am here trying to get rid of all the money I made off my latest case,” I said. “It isn’t sitting well with me. I don’t intend to leave with anything. I want to lose it all.”
This finally turned her off.
“Why don’t you just give it away to charity?” she said. “Why waste it in a casino?”
“Because I really like gambling,” I said. “I think it is funny.”
She stared at me.
“A casino is full of truly desperate people,” I said. “Giving money to them is better than filtering it through some organization run by graduate students with surprisingly strong opinions about meat and deodorant.”
“Whoa there,” she said. “I don’t need charity.”
“Then give all that money you just won from me away,” I suggested.
“Maybe I will,” she said.
“My point is that I like to help people out directly, but I don’t like them knowing about it. When people win money in casinos, they thank God or whatever. That is better.”
“You like playing God? I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“I like playing Santa,” I said.
She walked away from me, shaking her head. I drank the drink she bought for me, then I went back out onto the floor.
I spent the whole night priming slots. I primed the “Monopoly” slots and the “Spiderman 3” slots. I primed one that was like a voting booth, where the slots cycled between the democratic donkey, the republican elephant, a question mark, and a picture showing Supreme Court justices. I primed the “Sex in the City” slots and some slots called “Mr. Cashman” that just showed a guy with a sack of cash for a head. I liked the “Mr. Cashman” slots. There was something primal about good old “Mr. Cashman.”
Every time I got the slots to the 150:1 payoff, I got up and went on my way. Somebody sweaty and desperate always took my place. There were some that didn’t win, but almost everyone in my wake cheered for joy, greedily raking in the cash and running to the desk to swipe their card and replenish their bank accounts. I wasn’t doing anything illegal and I wasn’t doing anything that casino security would give a shit about. I was strategically losing my own money so that other people had a better chance of winning. The house was still getting their 2%.
I ended my night at Christmas themed slots called “Merry Slotsmas” that were right next to professional wrestling themed slots called “Smackdown Millions.”
A woman with hollow eyes and twitching, wrinkled lips walked by, carrying a kid who looked like he was about six. A callow-looking teenager trailed them both.
“Mom, play that one!” said the kid in her arms. “Play the wrestling one!”
She smiled at the kid and then veered toward the wrestling slots while her teenager sulked.
“You know,” said the teenager with a cruel leer. “Wrestling isn’t real.”
“You hush,” said the woman, swiping her card and hitting the “pull” button.
“It IS SO real!” said the kid in her arms. “Mom, tell Kieran that wrestling is real.”
“You kids both hush your faces,” said the woman.
“It’s all fake,” said the teenager named Kieran. “They are just playing pretend. You can’t smack somebody with a chair for real. It will kill them.”
“But that’s a submission move!” said the kid’s younger brother, near tears.
“You can look it up online,” said Kieran. “There are videos where they explain how they do it. It is special effects.”
The teenager looked at me and also at the “Merry Slotsmas” machine.
“You know what also isn’t real?” said Kieran. “Santa Claus.”
“MOM!” shrieked the kid in her arms.
“Both of you hush,” said the woman. “Kieran, you hush your mouth or you will get NO video game from Aunt Sarah.”
“Yes I will,” he said. “You can’t stop her from giving me a birthday present.”
“I will take it away and give it to some poor kid who deserves it,” she said. “As soon as we get back to Georgia.”
Kieran mumbled to himself.
“You can look it up online if you don’t believe me,” said Kieran sullenly, knowing he had gone too far.
We played the slots side by side for awhile. I primed the “Merry Slotsmas” slots until they were ready to pay off big. By this point, I had lost about twenty grand. I felt loose and free.
“You should play this one,” I told the woman
“Can I do it, mom?” asked the kid in her arms. She hesitated, then nodded.
I walked away fast. I heard shrieks of glee behind me from all three of them. Their troubles and animosities were momentarily forgotten. Kieran would get his birthday video game from Aunt Sarah after all.
The sun was coming up, so I made my way down the street to the bus terminal. The bus back to New York was there, idling. It was a different driver. This one didn’t have a pacemaker, though he did have tear tattoos that said he was once a murderer or at least wanted people to think he was.
I got on the bus and relaxed, waiting for the bus to start. I felt drained, but happy. I was the only one on the bus so far but I knew that other people like would be lining up soon, headed back to the city to their jobs and bad lives.
I checked my email and my Facebook on my phone. There was nothing interesting. I opened Google. I had to type with my first knuckle since the magnets in my fingerpads wouldn’t work with my touchscreen.
“Is Santa real?” I typed into Google.
The top result was one of those Yahoo! Answers pages.
“Is Santa for real?” some kid had asked. “I know my mom bought some of the presents I got this year that were supposedly!!! from Santa, because I found them in the bottom of her closet. My mom says he is real and so do my nanna and sissy, but some of the kids in school say he is a lie. My nanna said to ask the internet.”
My heart fluttered. I scanned down the list of answers.
“No, Santa isn’t real,” said most of them. “Santa is a Nazi faggot” said one answer.
I sighed deeply, and then I began to make Yahoo! Accounts. I made thirty of them. The bus was going by now, but I had plenty of time. I downvoted everyone else’s revelations about Santa and then added one of my own.
“Santa is totally real. Sometimes he leaves presents with your mom before Christmas because he wants her to know what you are getting just in case you do something at the last minute that is bad. If he isn’t real, then why would smart like me and your Nanna believe in him? Don’t listen to any of the other people on this page. Most of them are drug addicts who never get presents from Santa. You can tell because they don’t use proper punctuation. Only listen to people who use proper punctuation. Merry Christmas, and don’t forget to leave carrots out for Santa’s reindeer and pixie stix for Santa’s elves!”
I leaned back in my chair, sighing, letting my fingers repel each other in my lap and listening to the sound of the roaring bus engine, a sound like soft laughter from a giant who was holding me so tightly that both my ears were covered and all I could hear were the vibrations in my own head.