The red convertible sped through the barren highway that weaved through the red and tan landscape of the dessert. I was young, perhaps too young to take such a trip on my own. A 27 year old girl far from the rocky coastline of New England, exploring a land that she was enchanted by.
It was my first time traveling totally on my own. I had been here briefly for a conference a few months earlier, but workshops prevented me from seeing all the state had to offer. And so, much against the wishes of my parents, I booked a flight, rented a car, and returned, wanting to fully enjoy the sights and take in the energy this land promised me.
I drove though the deserts outside of Santa Fe and was awe struck by the beauty of the mesa that sprung up above the flat landscape. Every now and then, I pulled over, got out of the car, and just took in the view, breathing in the air, the sand, the heat, and the incredible energy they produced. “If I die today, I will die in complete happiness,” I whispered within my head.
Despite my being enthralled with the land, I was very much aware and cautious of the fact that I was in fact a single young female traveling alone across the country. I had only a map to guide me in the days before GPS, and the archaic cell phones worked on reception that was limited at best. It was probably very foolish of me to venture out on my own so far from home, and looking back, I’m probably very lucky no harm befell me. The speeds of cars on the desert highways scared me as they wizzed by at what seemed like the speed of light, and as night fell and no street lights to illuminate my way, I became more and more timid behind the wheel.
It was when a torrential downpour hit that I became too frightened to continue my drive. The monsoon blinded me and my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. Cars sped my me so fast that my car shook as I crept through the sheets of rain. Snow I could handle, sleet I could trudge through, but this diluge of water was more than I could handle. Fortunately, I soon saw my destination, a casino located in the middle of the desert. When I first saw the advertisements for the place and found it on the map, I had no idea it was so far in the middle of nowhere, stuck there as if it had fallen from the sky and landed there. My approaching the tiny building in the middle of the vast expanse reminded me of when Janet Leigh first saw the sign for the Bates Motel through the rain pounding her windshield in Psycho. In my mind, the memory of my driving into the parking lot is even in black and white.
I’m not a gambler, but the casino seemed as good an excuse as any to ride through the desert. At least I could say I had a destination. Now, however, it was also a shelter from the storm.
The casino was amazingly small and crowded with slot machines and table games. It was a single room, a warehouse really, and I later found out that many of these types of casinos were all over the state. It was far different than the Vegas style casinos we have on the east coast, like in Atlantic City or Foxwoods. It was like trying to compare a university to a single room school house. The machines were jammed together with little breathing room between and people sat so close they often knocked elbows as they pulled down the levers of their slots.
And so I sat down at a machine with a theme that appealed to me, and dug into my cup of coins. After a few momentary glimmers of success, my luck began to run dry as the machine ate my coins and was miserly with returns. As I was playing with the last of my silver pieces in the bottom of my cup, the man seated next me cheered in triumph as his machine once again clanged, whistled, and lit up.
“You are my good luck charm!” he proclaimed to me. “I wasn’t winning until you sat down. Please, don’t move!”
“Glad someone is lucky,” I said.
The young man was about my age, donning a worn tan baseball cap. He wore tattered tan pants and an old beige tee shirt with its sleeves cut off. The design on the front of the tee was faded and unrecognizable. His long blonde thin hair continued to his neck when his cap ended.
As I began to get up, he implored me to stay seated. “Sorry,” I said. “But after this I’m out.” I showed him the last two tokens in my cup.
His response was to put more quarters into my cup, again begging me to stay as his “lucky charm.”
A smarter girl may have been very suspicious of a stranger who puts money into her hand, and to be certain I did question his intentions, but something in his voice convinced me that he was just a man looking for company on his travels. I protested and attempted to give him back the bribe he gave me to stay next to him, but he insisted, saying he was “doing very well” and giving me all the credit for his good fortune.
So, I sat there, although I didn’t play the coins.
He continued to hit, the machine continued to sing and spit out shiny new quarters. We cheered his good luck as if each hit were a home run, and we lamented the loss of each coin that died within the belly of the metal beast, yielding no profit. After a while, he got bored of the slots. I saw he was a thin man, and just a shade taller than me as he stood up and began directing me to the tables in the center of the room.
“Ever play roulette?” he asked me, hands deep in his pockets and his winning tucked beneath his arm. When I responded I had not, he said he’d teach me.
“No, I couldn’t.”
“Oh come on,” he urged me. “I need you to sit next to me. You’re my good luck charm.”
I took a seat next to him and soon my resolve faded. He handed me some chips and instructed me how to play, walking me through it step by step. I placed a chip on the board and soon was caught in the excitement as the wheel spun. His winnings continued for several more hours, and with each victory he handed me more chips and asked me to pick my numbers. I cheered, we laughed, we won, we lost. We watched the spinning. It was like a scene from any Vegas or mob movie you could name, a guy with his lady luck on his arm, handing her over some of his winnings to better their fortune and thank her for good mojo. My “mobster” was wearing a baseball hat rather than a fedora, and lady luck was wearing a tank top instead of a feather boa, but the feel of the scene was exact.
It may have been 2 hours, it may have been 8, I don’t recall. Eventually, however, his luck began to run, and once he felt the tide turning against him, he cashed in his chips and walked away from the table.
When we walked out of the clambering casino into the quiet warm damp desert night, I commented that the rain had stopped, although it was obvious to both of us that it had. The parking lot pavement was shiny and wet with the remains of the shower. Once again he walked with his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders slumped, his head down. We spoke, although I cannot recall what we said, but I imagine it was small talk. Whether it was because we were “talked out” or because we noticed the late night hours were turning into early morning, it was apparent that the time had come for us to part ways. For a moment, there was awkward silence, like the anticipation a new couple feels as their first date comes to an end. I wondered what would happen next. How would this wonderous night end? Two strangers, meeting as we did, in a desert – this is the stuff great stories are made of. Would we share a magical kiss? Would a romance bloom? Or was he really Norman Bates to my Marion Crane? I was awaiting the end of our story tonight….
“Have a nice night,” he said, extending his hand for a handshake. “Thanks for sitting next to me.”
We shook hands, and I watched as he got into his truck and drove off.
As I climbed into my rented convertible, I exhaled as if I had been holding my breathe all night long. Driving back out toward Albuquerque, I replayed the night in my mind, trying to remember every detail until I could get back to my hotel and record it in my journal. It was a classic tale of strangers who met one night, shared a moment, and then unceremonially parted ways.
I never did get his name, nor did I give him mine, yet I can remember every feeling from that night, even if some of the menial details are lost in the fog of time. And on occasions life finds me in a casino, I always make sure I play the roulette wheel, and I think of that rainy night in the desert of New Mexico and the stranger in tan who made me Lady Luck for a night.