“Wheel! Of Fortune!” A Las Vegas Story

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An unnaturally tan woman with metallic blond hair and garish makeup has hit a bonus. Automated applause, bells, whistles, whoops, and all manner of artificial sounds ring out. Flashing in the acrid, recycled air, pixelated explosions of light refract off of the woman’s painted face, glistening and oily underneath all that goop.

Sighing, smiling with crooked and stained teeth at no one in particular, the woman reaches into her worn but still violently red leather handbag. Effortlessly freeing a cigarette and pulling it to her lips, she lights it, and swiveling in her chair, takes in the swath of the casino floor. Not seeing anything or anyone that can save her, she takes a deep drag, and reflexively pulls her machine’s lever. Not a winner (this time), she still smiles – — sickly sweet, still at no one — and exhales.

Luxor Resort and Casino
(Claudia Gestro)

Mechanically, maniacally, a nearby machine exclaims (and explains?) to the woman, and to anyone else who’ll listen: “Wheel! Of! Fortune!”

Two giggly and pale swim-suited young women with high-pitched foreign accents, a swan-headed swim ring encircling their lithe, still-dripping bodies, stumble by. They’ve had too many jello shots. Happily, nimbly, seeming to notice no one and no one seeming to take any notice of them, they do an exaggerated shimmy down the gleaming, just-shined imitation-marble floor. Later, at night, they’ll sell their flesh, but it’s daytime still despite the dreary, omnipresent nighttime feel of the casino.

Nearby at the entrance to the richly appointed “high limit slots” room, a middle-aged Latina woman looks up at them knowingly from the floor. Made to look matronly in her uniform’s unflattering cut, she’s possessed of a proud and regal bearing even now, on her hands and knees; she’s extracting gum or candy mashed in the carpet she’s responsible for keeping spotlessly clean – cheerfully and efficiently, eight to ten hours each day, six days a week, for minimum wage, maximum stress, backbreaking toil, and no benefits. This woman survived civil war, crushing poverty, violent crime, all manner of physical and mental abuse, while single-handedly raising five children. Her eldest son lost a leg fighting for the United States in combat. Still, just last week, her legal aid lawyer gave her the news: She might be deported soon. “And there’s nothing I can do,” he said.

The sports book at Caesar’s Palace, like all the casinos in Las Vegas, will take your bet
(Claudia Gestro)

“Wheel! Of! Fortune!”

It’s not a refrain, it’s shorthand for the story of that struggling freelance writer over there – you see that guy? The squirrelly looking fellow, the one who’s nursing his drink, alone, at the bar — the one who looks like any other sappy writer stupidly sitting in a casino — looking desperately, oh so desperately, for material. Or salvation. But he’d settle for material.

“Life. Civilization. Humanity. It’s all here,” a bartender says mellifluously as he tops off the freelance writer’s drink. He’s a dead-ringer for that creepy, long-faced bartender who served cocktails to that lunatic writer terrifyingly played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Don’t you know what Thoreau wrote about this in Walden?,” the bartender asks the writer, winking and gesturing at the casino floor: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

Excalibur Resort and Casino (Claudia Gestro)

“Now I know that one can easily be made to feel depressed by this,” the bartender continued dolorously. “Before you fall into that, remember always the enduring truth Jack London proclaimed in his novel The Sea Wolf; for this more than anything has the potential to unlock a keen insight into everything you’re observing here, in Vegas, and also, I dare say, in many if not most other places in the world, too: ‘Life itself is unsatisfaction, but to look ahead to death is greater unsatisfaction.’ ”

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About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq

Photos by Claudia Gestro