Me, Bill and Magi

Peculiar things, casinos. They’re smelly, loud and their inhabitants wear  expressions drained of joy, hope and probably money. Everything you do is furtively watched as you slurk around with a dirty-ass plastic cup filled with an ever-decreasing jangle of quarters. I’ve always felt somewhat guilty going into one. Maybe that’s just my personality makeup. I feel guilty for all sorts of things; drinking a late-night beer in the tub; not always dropping a coin in a collection kettle; saying the word “ass” earlier in the paragraph.

MJ, my intern, listened to me as we drove to our nearest casino. I ranted about the baggage weighing me down. She is a transitory being, assigned here for only a few months, sandwiched between stints in Alaska and Costa Rica. Her insight into my issues was unique and appreciated. She kept commenting on how up tight our office feels and how important it is to keep distances — emotionally, between work and myself. I loved hearing her spin on my circumstances.

The Soaring Eagle Casino was stuffed on a Thanksgiving Friday night. There were a passel of women strutting in tight, black, exciting leather. But there were also scads of folks from the olden days, parked and perched atop stools in front of slot machines, donating money to the Chippewa Indians. I commented that I should just go to the reception desk and hand them 20 bucks, my usual loss, then leave. But the whole of humanity and the cacophony in the electric hall was too brilliant and alluring. And, of course, there were those leather pants.

On a packed casino night, you wander around looking for slots that someone just pried themselves away from after depleting their money and luck. The machine is then ripe for payout, supposedly. For some reason, we stayed away from the one where the young guy was actually attached to the slot with a coiled rubber cord clipped to his shirt connected to some kind of cash card inserted into the machine.   

“Rodney, do you think that man has a problem,” MJ asked, as we watched his dangling cigarette shoot quivers of smoke into his glazed eyes.

We meandered along the aisles, taking in the pageantry. And as we tried to decide where to donate our remaining coins, I was stopped by something strangely familiar, yet completely unexpected. A man — whom I recognized instantly even though I hadn’t seen him in 17 years — was standing without coins or bucket, watching another guy play.

“Bill!” I smiled.

He looked and recognized me as quickly as I remembered him.

“I can’t believe it,” I said and gave him a big hug.

“MJ, this is my favorite college professor,” I said feeling rather strange calling him by his first name, as opposed to the former formal one I used to address him with through my four years as a student.

As sometimes happens when you run into a person you haven’t seen for sometime, you tell them things about themselves that you remember, in order to show that you do — in fact — remember them well.

“This is Rodney,” he said to his companion. “Rodney used to go out to the airport and think that people would give him rides in airplanes and they actually would.”

MJ laughed when she heard that; she had recently gotten a free airplane trip in a four-seater, just by hanging out on assignment and talking to an old pilot.

After a few moments, Bill’s buddy wanted to get back to gambling and MJ wanted to follow him. He was apparently a very lucky gambler and had just won $500 a week or so earlier. He works as a custodian; Bill is a college professor. Bill has his PhD in English; his companion is illiterate. I looked around to see if I could spot the poet writing this particular poem.

We dragged a couple of stools together, Bill and I, and began catching up. Bill told his friend we’d stick around right here and I poured the rest of my quarters in MJ’s bucket. She followed him into the light.

Instead of reminiscing about what we both remembered, we wanted to find out what had passed since the past. I’ve found that at times when I run into people I’ve known, my first instinct is to just rehash old ground. With Bill, I didn’t want any old hash. I needed to hear what’s happened since he launched me 17 years earlier. He and I had been exchanging Christmas greetings on occasion and in the latest card I said we should meet sometime soon. He had written back, like Dr. Seuss saying, “I will meet you at the Scot shop; I will meet you at the snack bar.” And although he didn’t rhyme it with pot shop or cash bar, he did end it with, “I will meet you at the casino.”

Coincidences seem to rule my life and I remarked that we were just keeping a pre-arranged agreement. He did that thing he always does, tilting his head to one side and nodding in the affirmative, while thinking about it, then verbally agreeing. It’s a small detail, but since he was the one that taught me the importance of small details, that particular nod has always been a joyful gesture.

The rest of the bells and yells in the place seemed to mull together like some type of holiday mélange in the background. We continued to tell our stories. Bill’s story was dark and light, angering and encouraging, fascinating and compelling.

After I left college, Bill moved up the ranks, getting his doctorate, a lot more pay, became the English Department head and was named the department chair allowing prestige and limelight to surround him. Stories in the Wall Street Journal surfaced about how he’d take his freshmen composition class down into the Life Sciences lab and look at dead bodies so they could write about them. Composition/Decomposition I thought to myself.

His celebrity was on the rise, which brought a glow to Alma College. He was published in the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Detroit Free Press, became friends with internationally acclaimed poets and spent time on the airwaves and bandwidths sharing his writing and enjoying the light.

There were darker moments too. Sometimes you find yourself humping Curious George like the title of his famous poem states; sometimes Curious George humps you.

At this point in his storytelling, I noticed his friend motioning to us from a dollar slot machine a few banks away. We strode over to see coins clanking out into the tray — one hundred smackers — freshly deposited into his temporary account. He needed a bucket to make the withdrawal. We slapped his back and offered to cash some of his winnings in for him. But he was feeling pretty confident, so we left him there with his bucket of ducats.

Bill and I noticed people were hitting it big on their slots all around our confab. Bells behind us alerted a woman that she was a big winner and across the aisle, an ancient lady was looking delighted with her silver scores. Luck seemed to be in the offing in our vicinity. We then allowed each other to get mystical and reveal our more secret understandings of life forces.

He told me that back when I was his student, he began to study the magical side of reality. I told him that my own searchings and learnings were a direct result of his encouragement and enthusiasm. He was a mentor for me back then. Best of all, he didn’t think I was weird as I tried to explain my then-burgeoning, neo-magical, illusion-busting, coincidence-following spirituality.

Man, by this point in the conversation — as MJ appeared and gave us each a Coke — I was feeling lighter than the thick blue smoke hovering low above the room. The angst that’d been clogging my cognitive arteries sloughed away. I realized that for some time now, I had been forgetting the childlike wonder I viewed the universe with. This man remembered the me I used to be. He validated it and stamped it with his professorial seal of approval.

His companion motioned again. Bill and I walked over to see he had hit again for another hundred dinero. We both realized that this was a natural break in the conversation. After traversing the past 17 years, we had come right up to this point in our narratives. He asked if I would email him some of my writing and he promised to send me some of his. We made tentative plans for me to come speak to his composition class and tell them how I sometimes used words to make money. He also said he’d look over the first draft of my great American novel.

We again exchanged big hugs and MJ gave him two big high fives. I think she wanted to hug him too, but felt mildly inappropriate, even though she sensed from the beginning what a momentous occasion this was for me.

As we floated out of the casino, my soul was lit up brighter than the slots inside. I yelled “Jackpot” toward the universe, knowing I’d rediscovered a treasure that time had tried to bury.

Keeping our word, Bill and I began corresponding regularly.  His first missive told about how quickly his buddy lost all his hundreds of winnings soon after we  parted that evening.

It’s been 18 years since that night and we’ve kept in contact continually. Bill’s helped me birth four books into the world; one of which is dedicated to him. He visited me in the hospital when leukemia tried to put a period at the end of my sentence. And he is one of my closest, dearest friends.