Here’s a game where you run around the casino asking for change, security hot on your tail. You weave your way through the bachelorette parties, hide in the clouds of chain smokers. It’s tricky. Even if you shake the guards, you have to watch the shame meter—it maxes out after too much begging. The game’s called Meth Head, which, eh—if you’re really at the point of panhandling for crystal meth, the shame is probably a non-factor. Not that you’ve transcended it or anything. It’s just a constant, like tinnitus.
And here’s a game where you’re the security, and it’s your job to run after the Meth Heads. Revenue goes up whenever you clear the floor, but each wave is bigger than the last. Without upgrades, you can only give chase. Sometimes they just run in circles to tire you out. You earn a pinch their of their respect when you emerge with a baton.
In truth, when you take cover in the men’s room, you might bump into that nerd from the food court who’s always hunched over his laptop—the youngish guy with glasses who never gives you any change, only offering a tangerine here or there—and if you catch his glance in the mirror as he washes his hands, tell him how tired you are from all this running, and how he’s looking like a snack—there’s a chance that the rejection that follows, that particular face of pity, will register on the shame meter. So there’s a little truth in it, somewhere. The meter.
An earpiece feeds you intel, a taser boosts your attack. It’s never enough. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of things, your enemies swarm the floor with new vigor, drive coveted demographics to rival casinos. The old white ladies disappear. Your progress lay in ruins. And to be fair, this was how it worked in all the old games. Everything just got harder and harder, until you ran out of quarters. You knew the machines were unbeatable, but that just made you want to beat them more.
When security kicks you to the curb, it’s time to add up your change—fail to reach your target and it’s back to the casino, only now you’re muted by shame, unable to beg, and so you have to start casing purses. Thieving. Everything revolves around patience now—not a Meth Head’s strong suit. It’s so heavy-handed, this game and its agenda. How gladly it revokes your voice. Tells you what to feel. One purse, at least, puts you over the top. You can finally buy a crystal off the guy in the rooming house strewn with loose mattresses, and this part’s real enough. It even plays out as a cutscene, which is how it always feels—once you can afford the crystal, it’s a forgone conclusion. A thing you watch yourself do. Only as the warmth of that first hit courses through your limbs do you reinhabit them.
Here’s the thing about those old games, though: There was always the chance that some master would emerge from the shadows, pat you on the shoulder, and ask you to step aside. A teenager who worked at the arcade, maybe. He’d slice through the hoards who’d mocked you for years, demolish the bosses before they could take their first breaths. Try to study his technique and you’d find everything was beyond you. But look him in the eye and you might glimpse something you understood: focus. You knew you had that in you, that laser-focus. You still do. So as the next wave of Meth Heads crashes into the floor, you study their movements. They all must have a weakness. You learn to lure the Spry Heads into the tight corners they usually avoid. How the Hard Heads lose their cool if you brandish your cuffs. You focus, caffeinate. You ascend the ranks, from Ankle Biter to Knight of Industry. The old white ladies return to their machines. Rival casinos fall behind yours. Only one more promotion to unlock new modes of gameplay, date-ability, your parents’ respect: Security Supervisor. It’s all within reach.
Incredible, you think, that you get to have a body. That you get to stroll this pulsing, neon island in your own labyrinth of nerves. You marvel anew at the grind of sex work, drug work—You all right? they ask. I am! you say, But thank you for asking. Like the first time you got high, one in three dudes becomes the man of your dreams—but unlike the first time, or the hundreds that followed, you don’t need any dream-men. You don’t need to catch or be caught. You’re already flush with worth.
One night you clear back-to-back waves without error, so focused on cinching your promotion that you don’t notice the bladder meter maxing out. All of a sudden it’s going to shatter. You can’t use the bathroom until you find someone to cover for you, and you’re certain that peeing yourself will devastate your score. So where is everyone? No staff in sight. The only person who could be reasonably mistaken for an employee is the guy in the food court on his laptop. You never see him on any machines, or at any tables. When he catches your glance, a new option appears in the text box above his head: Ask Him to Do You a Solid. You can probably trust him, you think. The guy’s been typing away for years without causing a problem. He accepts your request, packs up his computer. He says something about camaraderie as you trade hats in the corner that the cameras don’t reach. In the bathroom you’re a blur. You relieve yourself in record time, probably, and stride back to the floor to find no signs of a missed apocalypse. Thank god. When you ask your comrade if he saw anyone sketchy, he replies, Just one, and points towards the penny slots. Saw him go that way. Following his lead, you feel your panic fade into memory. Your score is safe. You arrive at the penny slots and do your thing, scour the aisles. Only there’s no one here asking for change. And there’s no exit but the way you came. Something’s wrong. You reconsider this new friend of yours. His help had come too easily, hadn’t it? Indiscriminately. He could have seen a sketchy party head the other way, towards the high limit room, and lied to you out of some misplaced pity. Yes, you think now, turning around. A writer or something. He would try to play both sides, as if they could be reconciled.
Sorry to interrupt, ma’am. Just a dollar and I can catch the bus…there is no déjà vu…Even a quarter will help…like the old white ladies around you, the only memory you need is muscle memory. You crisscross the high limit room, undeterred by their hostility, because you’d be cranky too if you’d clawed your way out of bed for such a thankless grind. Everywhere you look they swipe their cards, pull their levers—clocking into work, again and again. Supervised by their machines’ indifferent mascots: Cleopatra, Teen Wolf, Jade Dragon—whether you’re up or down, each strikes the same, stupid pose, over and over. Forever. You’re insulted on everyone’s behalf. The ladies could all be your grandma, after all. Oh god, is one of them your grandma? You try to scan the faces, but it just makes your head spin. The room’s wall-to-wall mirrors project infinite grandmas—when one of them glares at you in disgust, her legion of sisters glares along with her. You even catch yourself doing it—glaring. At yourself. You glare until you can hear what they’re all thinking: Look at those sunken cheeks. That nose ring is doing him no favors. Not enough makeup in the world to hide those blotchy sores. You feel your arms sweating through your sleeves. You can’t take it anymore. You’re only flesh and blood. But as you turn to leave, the ecstatic chimes of a payout ring. For a second, you forget the shame. You feel the rush as if it were your own.
You imagine how you’ll wield the casino’s power, once you’re on top. You’ll need to get all those rooming houses condemned, for starters. Mount cameras atop the poles, patrol the district with vans. Striding towards the high limit room, your head spins with these visions. How you’ll wash this whole island clean.
Follow the noise and you find—surrounded by her jealous rivals—the oldest, whitest lady of all. You could trace her web of blue veins through her tissue-paper skin. Her younger peers joke, I think it’s my turn at that machine, Are you sure that wasn’t my card you swiped? Ha, ha. She flips them all the bird. I play with cash, she squeaks. Can’t stand swiping those damn cards. Your eyes land on her wrists, wrapped in ACE splints. As her machine prints out a slip of paper, she reaches for the flowery purse on the seat of her rollator, no doubt brimming with fresh bills—what better time to ask for a dollar? Surely there is none. But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out. The damn shame meter. You see the security guard marching your way, finger on his earpiece. You try again—push the air through your vocal cords, mouth the words, Just a dollar—nothing. The oldest lady fiddles with her purse, the voucher dangles before your eyes, and now you feel it again: that rush that isn’t yours. Because it could be yours. It taunts you—how this place could breathe so much worth into a thing so flimsy. A slip of paper with a barcode, redeemable at unmanned machines. The absurd amount of crystals you could trade it for. When you glance back at the guard, who’s nearly on top of you, you’re struck less with fear than pity. That dead sincerity in his eyes—he’s forgotten it’s a game. You’re the villain, sure, snatching the voucher from the lips of the machine—but he’s the failure. He’ll be flung back to level one for this. I’m sorry, you think, pivoting away. The path ahead clear. You barely feel it when, behind you, he reaches over the oldest lady, grabs you by your shirt—you try to break into a sprint, only to be pulled backwards. No, you think. How is this happening? But it happens: You crash into the lap of the oldest lady, feel the ancient bones snap beneath you. The sound is so ghastly, all the machines fall silent. You can see the ancient curse you’ve unleashed on the casino: the chandeliers stop glittering, the carpets erupt in stains. All the old ladies jeer. As you scramble to your feet, the oldest still looks to be in shock. You just stare for a moment, mouth hanging open. But you need to run. You run. Without the clamor of the machines, you hear your feet slapping the tiles beneath you—and then the guard’s doing the same behind you. He fires his tasers, misses. All around you, the mascots bury their faces in shame. In the pit of your stomach, you feel the casino’s ranking plummet. The whole thing could come crumbling down at any moment. But the exit is within reach. You clutch the voucher so tight it turns your fist gold.
Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City. His stories are featured or forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, Driftwood, Heavy Feather Review, Cleaver Magazine, matchbook, New South, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Atlantic City, where he proudly emcees the AC Story Slam series. (storyslamac.com/nees)