Mornings in the desert are quiet. I slip outside with my purse over my shoulder and take the cement stairs down from the adobe complex where I have lived for nearly a year with my husband and our son, now twenty months old. I pass a rock garden, chain fruit cholla cacti with small bursts of fuchsia hanging like ripened fruit, and a row of palm trees sprouting from orange dirt on the edge of the parking lot. I climb into my Volkswagen, start the engine, and pull away. The sun has just climbed the mountaintops and everyone at home is still asleep.
Years ago, before our son was born, my husband and I dreamed of moving away from Illinois, where the world is wind and lakes and cornfields, where our parents, siblings, and friends still live. As teenagers we took road trips twice from Chicago to Mexico, stopping in Arizona along the way. We fell in love with the pink sunsets, orange mountains and saguaro cacti. I imagined us building a life in the desert. We’d buy a little adobe house with a fenced-in yard, a pool and a citrus tree. We’d focus our energies on our art and become the sort of people who leave their hometown and never look back.
When we learned of the pregnancy my senior year at Southern Illinois University, we agreed on two things: one, to wait until the baby came to get married, and two, never to lose sight of our dreams. Six months after our son was born, I earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology. Four months later, we married, and three months after that we packed up everything we owned and drove until the yellow cornfields of the Midwest faded in the rearview.
Now, the desert sky glows coral as I take winding back roads along the mountainside. I make a right into a dusty neighborhood where there is a high school, several small houses and trailers, a broken chain link fence, and a strip of single-floor apartments. After the move, it took longer than I’d hoped to find a job I could be proud of. I spent five months working as a framer before accepting my current position as a psychiatric technician. I make a left and park in the gravel lot in front of unit D, where my clients live.
I step onto the porch and knock twice before pulling the screen door open. The night staff, a short-haired, loud-mouthed woman named Kim, is already standing, gathering her things. “Slow night,” she says on her way out the door. “Have a good one.”
Inside, there isn’t much besides a couch, a television that rests precariously on a plastic crate, and a desk with a hutch pressed against the wall. It is already hot enough that my tee-shirt and cotton shorts weigh on my small frame. I’ve lost ten pounds since the move.
I greet Andrew and Bill, both in wrinkled clothes and cow-licked hair. They are roommates in this apartment owned by a not-for-profit organization, which provides housing and care for adults diagnosed with severe mental illness. Staff monitors the apartment 24 hours a day, every day. I am here on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and half of Sundays. I sit at the desk and read the daily reports written by other psychiatric technicians. This week has been routine: doctor appointments, chores, spaghetti westerns, poker games, sandwiches for lunch, burgers for dinner, a visit from a neighbor (another client), for a game of checkers.
Andrew leans against the kitchen door frame, hand in pocket. His stature doesn’t reflect the nonchalant ease one might hope to achieve by leaning against a doorway, hand in pocket. He is awkward in most ways. He hunches, stares, lumbers, and slurs.
“Can-I-have-a-cigarah?” he asks. It is his touch base question, like a nervous tic.
“Not yet,” I answer without looking at the clock.
I take the white envelope from the hutch and peel it open. Inside is a small stack of cash––what’s left of Andrew and Bill’s weekly allowance.
Before the accident, Andrew worked in a group home similar to where he lives now. “Welcome to the flipside,” my coworkers have said of this unlikely role reversal. It scares me to think about the prospect of caretaker becoming resident. What would have to happen to me in order to land on the flipside? A car wreck after a long day with the men? A verbal war with my husband that ends with me walking out the front door to wander the corridors of our apartment complex alone sometime after dark?
“I just needed some space,” I’ll explain later.
My mini-journeys never last long, but there are hundreds of apartments stacked around us, filled with people I don’t know. The risk is part of why I do it. Mostly, though, it reminds me of the freedom I had before the baby, the marriage, and the move––the kind of freedom that allows for a midnight stroll.
Most nights at home are uneventful. My husband makes music with his four track while I paint with acrylic on canvas––often for hours after the baby is asleep. Our crafts keep us busy when chores are complete and the night is idle. Still, the weight of our elected isolation influences everything we do and how we do it. There are days I eat too little and nights I drink too much. Entire weeks float past where I average three hours of sleep a night. I lay awake, silently tracing cracks in the ceiling with my eyes, listening to our baby breathe through the monitor, waiting for the sun to wake him, wondering if our decision to move was the right one.
Even in the event of a tragedy, I cannot imagine myself living in this apartment, where rights and needs are blurred and the careful balance of free will and safety aren’t easy to explain. There are rules for everything and my clients’ choices are limited. They sense this restriction, even if they don’t protest it. On the days I am with them, similar to the days I am home in our apartment with my son while my husband takes the Volkswagen to work or to attend classes at the university, I am focused on keeping everyone I am responsible for safe. Caught in the logistics of the day, and with little money for anything more than necessity, the importance of simple pleasures can get lost. Most days, both at work and at home, we are stranded in an apartment like cramped shipmates in a desert sea.
At home I take my son to the complex pool in the mornings before the sun heats the pavement to unsafe temperatures and we have no choice but to entertain ourselves indoors with coloring books and reruns of Teletubbies. At work I bring a portable radio from home and listen to the oldies with Andrew and Bill, who teach me how to play blackjack, blind man’s bluff and chess.
Sometimes Andrew talks about the teenage boys he supervised at the group home––how the school system had failed them, how their parents had been jailed or worse––and for a moment, I catch a glimpse of the man Andrew used to be, a man I’ll never know. “They-were-good-kids,” he’ll say. And then the light behind his eyes fades and he turns away.
He was drunk the day it happened. He’d been arguing with his wife. He wandered outside to check on the animals when a western diamondback rattlesnake appeared near the pigpen and threatened his favorite pet. He tried to remove the snake, but it struck him on the hand. Surgery and therapy fully restored his hand, but the hospital that treated him administered the wrong anti-venom, which ultimately damaged his brain.
For whatever reason, Andrew has never talked about his daughter to me, though I have read about her in his files. I wonder if he has forgotten, but never ask. I don’t want to bring him more pain than he already has, and besides, it doesn’t feel like my place.
By luck and circumstance the white envelope holds sixteen dollars today, which is more than I am accustomed to working with on a Thursday. I survey the apartment. There are plenty of groceries in the kitchen, the men’s shirts are clean and tucked into drawers, the carpet is stained, but vacuumed. I stuff the money back inside the envelope.
From the couch, Bill looks up from his handheld electronic poker game. “I’m about ready for a smoke.”
He places one hand on his walker and the other on the arm of the couch. He hoists himself up with all the stability of a one-year-old just learning to furniture surf.
On the porch, Andrew and Bill sit in plastic chairs facing the mountains. The thermometer nailed to a wooden beam reads eighty-eight degrees. The sun is tangerine and the sky is azure. The Catalina and Rincon ranges stretch across the horizon with cliffs so profound their details are visible from where we are, miles away.
I dole out cigarettes and each man puffs as I light them.
“What are we doing today?” Bill says.
Bill is a loquacious man. Eager and silver-haired, he shakes when he walks and talks with a faint southern drawl. Throughout the day, he dips into the breast pocket of his shirt, which harbors his favorite possessions: his electronic poker game, a 3×5 notebook, a pen, and a secret book of matches everyone knows about. A habit, he says, he developed back in Illinois, where he shared a truck driving business with his brother, just an hour, coincidentally, from where I earned my undergraduate degree.
“Good news,” I say, leaning back against the adobe. “We have enough money for an outing.”
Andrew takes a long drag off his cigarette and shrugs. His movements are slow, like he’s moving through water.
“I tell you what,” Bill says, shifting in his seat. “Been thinking about the casino. The one with slots.”
Though I haven’t been to a casino in years, I remember the energy: neon lights, glowing machines, the bright electric buzz of possibility. The closest thing to a casino I have ventured into lately is Chuck E. Cheese’s, where I chase my son through the labyrinthine chaos, watch him crash into games and slam plastic buttons. But lately, trips to Chuck E. Cheese’s are numbered. Most of our money gets eaten up as soon as it is earned. We have student loans, rent, gas, food, and twice a week, daycare. And although our families back in Illinois have enough money and generosity to help us out and often do, we are on WIC and I am without healthcare.
Here at work is another version of the same. Every dollar must be justified. It’s been a month, maybe more, since I’ve taken the men to a movie or dinner at Wendy’s (Bill’s favorite). I know the need for enjoyment and the ache for distraction in a difficult situation.
“Let’s do it,” I say. “Let’s go to the casino.”
Bill and Andrew sit in the middle seats of the van as we cruise I-19. The cloudless sky is an enormous blue orb, and the desert floor is perfectly flat, outstretched, colliding with the mountains. We relish the air-conditioned breeze, blast the oldies station as we soar towards the casino.
“I’ve got something to tell you, girl,” Bill says.
“Sure,” I say, “but first. My name is either: a) Amy b) Emily or c) Erin.”
“Emily,” he says easily. He gets it right when the question is presented in multiple-choice form.
“What’s up?” I ask casually, though I’ve already read the hesitance in his voice. I suspect he wants to tell me his story; a heavy thing he must unload every few weeks in order to stay afloat. It disturbs me each time, but I always let him tell it.
“It’s about how my legs and my head got to be, you know. Screwy.”
“Go on,” I say, turning the radio off.
“My wife, ex-wife now, told me she was sleeping with someone else. Well okay, I said. So she starts hollering, Come on out! At first, I don’t know who she’s talking to, then this guy walks out from my bedroom––where I sleep!––stands in front of me and I get to thinking. He looks mighty familiar. You know who he was?”
“Who?”I ask on cue.
“My old computer repair guy! He looks at me and says, Hey man, wanna grab a brewski and talk like adults? It’s on me. So I tell him, Well okay. The three of us go out to a pub on South Court and we’re drinking, talking, and things seem okay.” Bill leans forward, whispering loudly what happened next. “They stuck something in my beer! Next thing I know I’m left for dead! Someone found me in the dumpster the next morning, wrapped in barbed wire, naked as the day I was born!”
I watch Bill through the rear-view mirror as he leans back. He looks younger, somehow. Drained, but satisfied. His eyes settle on the desert whizzing by the van window––burroweed, cacti, the arid countryside bathed in yellow light.
You see me first––unnaturally blonde, petite, fidgety–– then two men old enough to be my dad following unnaturally close behind me. I have been taught to avoid this scenario by stepping to one side and waiting, then resuming stride once they are caught up. We enact this dance several times as we cross the bright carpet of the lobby.
The casino sparkles: peacock blue, flamingo pink, lime green. Bill nearly stumbles in his walker as he rushes to order a mug of O’Doul’s at the bar. I tell him to take a load off, though I don’t tell him the beer is nonalcoholic.
He takes his beer and selects a good machine––one with two cherries already lined up. He sits on the stool before the machine, and sips his beer, his walker close by.
I take half the money, eight singles, from the white envelope, and exchange them for quarters in the change machine. I divide them equally into two plastic cups––one for each. I place one cup on the ledge of Bill’s machine and hand Andrew his. He holds it stiffly, peering inside as if he’s looking into a cup full of aliens.
“It’s your money to gamble with,” I assure him.
An overweight Hispanic woman with long black hair sits beside Bill. I turn and find a seat at a table several feet behind. Andrew sits beside me and asks for a cigarette. “Don’t you want to play?” I ask.
He shrugs, eyeing my purse where the cigarettes are stashed. I decide that today is special, house rules don’t apply. I give him one and light it as Bill tells the woman about the time in Vegas he won a thousand dollars on slots. “It just kept coming out!” he says, shaking his cup.
Sweat dots Andrew’s upper lip. His face is like clay, features molded into it with thumbs.
“How are you?” I ask.
He gazes at the tip of his cigarette, turns it delicately in his hand. He takes a long pull, snuffs it in the ashtray and says, “Can-I-have-a-cigarah?”
I cross my arms and sigh, but pull a fresh cigarette out.
“Come on,” I say. “Bring your coins.”
We push our chairs away and walk to the end of the line. I sit four stools away from Bill and Andrew sits on the other side of me. Bill is far enough away that if he wants, he can pretend he doesn’t know me, the lurking caretaker. I give him as much freedom as I can, but not enough to put him in danger. The rules exist for a reason. He once started his mattress on fire in the middle of the night.
“Can-I-have-a-cigarah?” Andrew asks, crushing another butt into another ashtray.
A bald man with a potbelly approaches us, and stops to watch through thick glasses as I hand Andrew another cigarette and light it. Who knows what the man thinks of us. I could be Andrew’s daughter or his young girlfriend or even his wife. The man pulls a cigar from his breast pocket and sits at the machine on the other side of Bill.
“Well, hello there, need a light?” Bill says to the man.
I feign interest in something on the other end of the casino as Bill reaches into his breast pocket and withdraws the weathered book of secret matches. I go to Bill and stand beside him until he stops feebly swiping the match against the book.
“Here’s the girl,” he gestures.
“Thanks, Bill,” I say sweetly as I take the matches.
I return to my seat beside Andrew. What the man in glasses makes of me now, I cannot guess; a fire-holder of sorts, or an evil warden of men’s freedoms. On outings during my first couple of months on the job, the urge to explain our roles to people we’d pass on benches at Silverbell Lake or in lines at the Shell station was overpowering, as if our mere presence required clarification.
When my son was born I was twenty-two, but looked sixteen and attracted similar attention. Was I the sister? The mother? The babysitter? Sometimes, I still get the feeling people aren’t sure. They stop looking once they see the way we are together––the way he reaches for me after he topples at the park, the way he calls for me (“Momma!”), my quick reply, (“Right here, love”).
Bill is telling another story to the man, the one about cooking pigs in underground ovens with his brother, while Andrew hunches, clutching his cup full of untouched coins.
I open my purse and search my wallet for the five-dollar bill I have been carrying all week. I didn’t intend to play, but if I don’t, neither will Andrew. I unfurrow the bill and feed it to the change machine. Twenty shiny quarters gather in my cup.
I return to my seat, and for the first time since the move, feel the sudden rush of possibility wash over me. I imagine everything at once hovering above my head––the arguments over money, the sleepless nights, the trapped days that crawl by, nights drinking beer on the balcony beneath the same moon I lived under in Illinois––then imagine it all erased by one lucky coin.
“Let’s put one in together,” I say.
I hold my coin to the slot and sense the quiet fever of hope rise in my chest. I wait for Andrew to get into position before I say, “Now!”
We deposit our coins and pull our levers. Lights spin, dials roll.
“No matches,” I say.
“Hmm,” Andrew groans.
Watermelon, lemon, bar. Cherry, seven, bell. Plum, seven, Cherry. No matches, no money.
I start to wonder if timing matters, if eagerness affects outcome, if state of mind plays a role. I win two coins and lose them just as quickly. We play until there is nothing left. It doesn’t take long.
By the time our cups are empty, the quiet rush has left me. I think of my husband; of the inevitable fight that will blossom between us over five dollars wasted on something as foolish as slots. Just the thought of it exhausts me. I stack our three empty cups, place them back on top of the change machine.
Two weeks later, one sunny afternoon on the back roads of campus, my husband in the Volkswagen will be hit by two cars on his way home from class, seemingly out of thin air. The wreck will crush our car until it is half its size. He will leave the scene with bruising and a gash on his left forearm that will require fourteen stitches. We will be so relieved for his safety that our fights over money no longer carry the same weight. Instead, we will consider our options and make the difficult decision to move back to Illinois.
Before we announce the news of our return to friends and family, we agree on two things: one, to wait until he earns his bachelor’s from the University of Arizona, and two, that although our dreams may evolve to match our circumstances, we will never stop having them.
I light one last cigarette for each of my clients. I sit on a stool between them and turn to watch the stream of strangers glide through the casino’s lobby and cross the technicolored carpet––a tall man with grey hair to his waist, a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat, a pack of college students in university sweatshirts.
I wait until Andrew and Bill snuff their cigarettes into ashtrays before standing with my purse over my shoulder and the keys to the van in my hand.
“When can we come back?” Bill asks, shaking in his walker as he stands.
“Soon,” I tell him, and we shuffle together through the lobby, through the sea of hopeful strangers, towards the sharp heat of day.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/psyberartist