By Sally Bellerose
“Hey, Mac.” Jackie has called the Hawaiian guy who owns China Express Mac for as long as she’s known him. It might be his name, but she doubts it. She has heard others call him Ho and Sam as well as Mac.
“Hello, Jackie,” Mac says. “Where’s your better half?”
“Home, waitin’ on her anniversary dinner.”
“Congrats.” Mac scratches his chin. “How many years you been together?”
“Forty. Minus a few months in the late eighties when she threw me out for bad behavior.” Jackie’s not telling Mac anything he doesn’t already know. She orders spring rolls and fried rice with shrimp and chicken.
While the new kid with the limp makes up the order, Jackie inquires about the poker game going on in the back room. She has forgone poker for the last few years, but always asks who’s sitting at the tables.
“Only one table tonight.” Mac pushes the bowl of free pork crisps toward Jackie. “Bet you can guess who’s parked there.”
“Henry, James Junior, Old Man Chaffee, Bad Madeline?” Jackie takes a pork crisp. Mac nods. They listen to creaking on the back stairs.
“Old Man Chaffee checking on his wife. Swollen ankles. Too much Chinese food.” Mac grunts, as close to a laugh as he gets.
“Might want a fourth ‘til he comes back.” Jackie runs a chapped hand across the top of her buzz cut.
Mac cocks his head. “Thought you swore off?”
“Yeah.” Jackie fingers the twenties in her pocket. “How much is the food?”
Mac tallies the order in his head. “Eighteen twenty-five.”
Just the thought of taking a seat at the folding table makes Jackie feel more alive than she’s felt in a long time. Bad Maddie will cackle like the crazy old bird she is if Jackie walks into that big back room. Jackie can already feel the edge of the table press against her belly as she pulls up a seat. She can see the shine on the cards, a new deck every time. She can feel the slide as a card slips between her fingers. She can feel the ridges on the circumference of the chips take their tiny love-bites as she rakes in her winnings. Even her ass hitting the too small seat of the metal chair would feel good.
“Eighteen twenty-five,” Mac repeats.
She hands him a twenty. What’s to lose? Three twenties and change from a fourth, that’s all she’s got. None of them will stake her, not since she lost the tax refund. None of them wants Regina in here making another scene. Sixty dollars should have been enough to get Regina the CD player at Wal-Mart. But they were sold out. The rain check in her back pocket would make a shitty anniversary gift. All she needs is to win thirty more dollars, plus tax, so maybe forty, to get the next model up, which, what a surprise, is still available. But even if she loses, since Old Man Chaffee lives twenty steps above the place, she probably won’t have time to lose the whole sixty. What’s ten minutes? What kind of a loser can’t buy her mate of forty years an anniversary present? What the hell? Jackie’s got enough will power to take a seat for ten minutes and not get pulled back in permanently. It could mean a gift that would make Regina smile. She has to wait for the food anyway. And she could win.
Mac hands her a dollar seventy-five.
“Still five bucks to get in?” Jackie holds out another twenty.
“You sure?” Mac shakes his head. “Well, none of my business.” He gives her back three fives. “Bad Maddy will be happy to see you.” He turns to the kid and says, “Put the order under the lights when it’s ready.”
The feeling she gets when she walks in the back room is as good as Jackie remembers. Madeline flings her arms around Jackie, steps back, holding Jackie at arm’s length, taking the liberty of passing her red fingernails across the top of Jackie’s close-cropped grey hair, pretending, as she always has, that they’re both interested in more than the theatrics of the moment. Jackie wonders, for the hundredth time, whether Madeline ever did have any real attraction to her. Unlikely. Just part of the sport. No matter, Jackie appreciates the effort. And to make things more interesting, there are three whiskey sour glasses in front of Maddy’s spot at the table. When Maddy loses, it’s usually to whisky sours.
Henry and James Junior offer Jackie nods and tight-lipped smiles. She’s as comforted by the familiarity of their silence as she is by Maddy’s chatter. James Junior has a big pile of chips in front of him, mostly blue. Jackie counts and does the math. About $400 dollars worth. Not the most Jackie has seen on the fake leather table top, but enough to make her put on her poker face and decide not to mention that she’s only got fifty-six dollars and change on her.
“I’m only in till Old Man Chaffee comes back?” she says, as if she’s considering how many chips to start off with. She asks for twenty blue chips, forty dollars’ worth.
“You know the rules. Chaffee comes through the door, we finish the hand and you’re out,” Henry says. Four at a table has always been the rule. Jackie remembers when there were five tables of four playing at the same time and people holding numbers waiting for their turn for a seat.
The shades are drawn. Tonight the only overhead light with a working bulb is above their table. The big room seems like an abandoned warehouse with just the one table set up near the back window. Until the cards are dealt. Then the room seems full of life.
Jackie notices every nuance, every shadow passing over the other players’ faces—the change in James Junior’s color as he labors to get a lung full of air, Bad Maddy’s powdered face held a little stiffer to block an expression. The green tarnish under his wedding ring shows on Henry’s finger when he spreads his hand on the table. Something skitters in the wall. The bell dings up front, sounding far off. Jackie’s heart speeds up and slows down, depending on the cards.
Old Man Chaffee’s wife must have needed more than ten minutes worth of help with her swollen ankles. Jackie wins fifty-five dollars, loses twenty, wins twenty-five. In between hands the players relax for a minute at a time, eat a few chips, sip a drink. Jackie drinks the warm free water. Maddy tells Jackie she looks good with a few extra pounds on her. Jackie doesn’t return the compliment. After twenty minutes, Jackie’s up by one hundred eighty dollars. Then the worst and best thing that could happen does. Old Man Chaffee is back and watching as she wins her biggest round yet, one hundred five dollars on her “last” hand. Two hundred eight-five bucks. Might be enough to calm Regina down about gambling. Or more likely Jackie will keep the thing to herself.
She’s glad for the rules of the game. The rules will save her, get her home on time, in enough time anyway. She rises to leave. Old Man Chaffee says, “Sit your ass down. I ain’t gonna steal your chance to give some of that back.” Her heart flutters, steadies, and squeezes out her better judgment. She sits. She could kiss Old Man Chaffee.
She doesn’t kiss Old Man Chaffee and she doesn’t give a penny back. Jackie keeps winning. She wins like the heart attack that hasn’t happened, knowing sooner or later this could kill her, but not right now, right now there is the pure rush of it, her arms wide, raking it in, stopping only to allow herself a half-smile at the other cardiac cases witnessing her glory. Even James Junior, who has lost most of his winnings, gives her a grudging nod.
It’s Bad Maddy who finally says, “Go home, Jackie. While I still got cab money in my bra.”
* * *
Jackie pulls up to the curb in front of the house and takes a quick glance at her watch, 8:38 p.m. She left at 5:30. At most Regina would have expected her to be gone an hour. She might have stretched it to two hours without causing a brawl, claiming she had a hard time finding an anniversary present, which she did, but three hours on their anniversary is far beyond forgive and forget time for Regina. Jackie pats the CD player, a shiny purple thing. Maybe Jackie will hold off presenting it until she’s sure it won’t get smashed. Regina’s a smart old girl. Even without the evidence of dried-out Chinese food, she has probably already figured out that Jackie is late because she’s been gambling. Maybe she should have ordered fresh shrimp and chicken, but she didn’t want to spare the extra ten minutes.
Only thing to do is walk in and tell the bald-faced truth.
Jackie tries the kitchen door, not bolted. Good. “Baby?” she says, opening the door slowly. She expects Regina to be standing there, hands on hips, fire in her eyes. If Jackie is lucky, Regina will be worried enough that a minute or two will pass while the fact that Jackie isn’t dead in a ditch settles over Regina, giving Jackie time to do some fast talking. If only Jackie had remembered the damn cell phone the Senior Center gave them she could have called Regina with some bullshit about a flat.
“Baby?” she calls again, tentatively, softly, placing the grease-stained bag of food on the counter and walking into the living room, thinking maybe she can still use the flat tire excuse. No, that would never work. Regina would march out to the car and see that the tire hasn’t been messed with. “Regina?” She whispers the question. Has something happened? Has that heart pill Regina takes failed her? Has she gotten a ride or taken the bus somewhere without leaving a note? Wouldn’t be the first time she tried to teach Jackie a lesson by taking off and leaving no word where she went. “My own medicine,” Jackie says, walking down the ten foot hall to the bedroom.
She opens the bedroom door and stops dead in her tracks. Regina is flat on her back on their bed. Jackie can’t see much of Regina’s face, just the bottom of her chin and nostrils, her frizzy white hair a cloud around her shoulders. She’s wearing something old and impossibly tight, some kind of lingerie that makes her small breasts look larger. Jackie stares. It seems important that she retrieve the word for the garment Regina is wearing. This forgetfulness gives her the creeps, feels like something outside of herself, alive and willful that she can’t control. Her mother became forgetful before she lost all memory and then all speech. Jackie holds her breath to see if she can hear Regina breathing. She cannot. Her intellect tells her that this is Regina, her partner of forty years, asleep, sprawled on the bed, wearing some old fashioned sexy undergarment. Foreboding gathers in her chest and expands to Jackie’s throat. She’s bewildered by the sight of her lover after all these years. She knows she’s being irrational, but is afraid to take a step closer, afraid the breasts that skew her view might not have a beating heart under them.
“Some sign of life.” She mouths the words inaudibly. Dead or alive, Regina does not oblige. If she is trying to give Jackie a scare, it’s working. It feels like a scene in a bad movie. Whatever this is, it looks staged, which is some comfort, a staged tragedy being much more desirable than a real one. Still, the thought that it may not be Regina’s face beyond those hoisted breasts runs through Jackie’s mind followed immediately by the thought that her gambling may have finally killed Regina, who has always claimed it will be the death of them both. Jackie has to stop herself from running out of the room.
“Regina,” she whispers, forcing herself to move to the side of the bed, where she stares directly down at what is unequivocally Regina’s face. Jackie rubs her head which is staring to pound. Maybe she is losing her mind. Come home too late, gambled one time too many, and lost everything. She concentrates on Regina’s swell of belly. Is it moving? Jackie is hopeful that this is the case, but is not certain. She kneels and strokes Regina’s warm dry cheek with the back of her hand.
Regina’s mouth is slack, until she wakes with a start and her body jerks, one quick tremor. Her eyes open for a brief second and close. Her heart pounds wildly. Her dream of Jackie coming home safely and on time merges with the reality of Jackie’s hand on her cheek. Before anger comes relief as a tear settles in the corner of her eye. In the second it takes the tear to make its way down her temple, dampening her hair, Regina is furious.
“Regina.” Jackie’s voice is all tenderness. She sees Regina’s wrinkled cheeks become pink with fury and removes her hand. Regina sucks in a deep breath, opens her eyes and sits up. She does not look at Jackie. She looks through the open bedroom door. Jackie stands but otherwise doesn’t move from the spot. “I thought you were dead,” she says. Her knees hurt from kneeling.
“Because you’re a fool. Alive, no thanks to you.” Regina had not meant to fall asleep, had not meant to be in this get-up when Jackie finally made it home. “Stop staring.” After an hour and then two went by Regina had meant to be in street clothes, sensible shoes, with her purse near in case she got a bad phone call and needed to be ready, ready to do whatever needed doing to take care of Jackie. In case some legitimate misfortune had happened. “Give me my robe,” she yells. Then, with a break in her voice where the last of the relief squeaks out, she adds, “You really are a god damn fool.”
Jackie is relieved, too. Relieved that her fear of death, at least for today, was unfounded, she almost smiles, almost welcomes the tongue lashing to come. She vows silently that this is the last time, the absolute last time she will gamble. The lottery is exempt. She does not vow to give up the lottery.
The robe is on a hook on the back of the door. Jackie says, “Baby, I’m so sorry,” and touches the robe’s hem. She doesn’t look up, because right under her expression is a smile. Regina is not only alive, she’s wearing a corset. And behind Jackie’s shame, before and after the fact of her addiction and loss of control, Jackie won. She won big. She won going-out-to-dinner-and-a-movie-and-a drink-after-with-plenty-left-over big. “Corset,” she says, handing Regina the robe. “I couldn’t remember the name for it. That was your mother’s. I remember now.” She nods with her eyes closed. “Our little apartment, a walk-up on the fifth floor.”
Regina scowls, how dare Jackie call up past sex acts, as if she had the right to mention making love at this moment? Simultaneously, Regina is thinking what Jackie is also thinking—sex on the kitchen floor, witch hazel on the scratches from the cracked linoleum on Regina’s back and Jackie’s knees.
Regina spits out, “Grandmother’s corset,” as if the mistake about which dead relative was the original owner of the corset is another transgression to be thrown in the black hole of Jackie’s sins. She will not let herself be moved by the fact that Jackie, who once had an almost photographic memory, has started to forget the names for things. Regina is suddenly mortified to be wearing this ridiculous piece of clothing. She ties the robe’s belt in a double knot. She stamps her foot. “How much did you lose?”
Jackie is careful not to let the pleasure she takes in seeing Regina stamp her foot, a gesture full of vigor, bleed through her expression of sincere remorse. Years ago Jackie was made to understand that you’re beautiful when you’re angry is a cue for Regina to pack Jackie’s bags.
“Over five hundred,” Jackie says. “Won,” she adds quietly, because trying to speak over Regina is futile at this point. Regina needs to get it out. Jackie tries to tamp down the elation, the after-a-win mania building up in her. How quickly the world turns sometimes, despite how badly she has messed up, if Jackie plays her cards right, if she lets Regina see how sorry she is, despite every time she has ever fucked up, if she can show her honest feelings, like Regina is always trying to get her to do, because she is, Jackie is sincerely in love with Regina, after all these years, as much or more now than she has ever been, because she’s genuinely sorry and ready to do better, ready to quit altogether, really, now and forever, if Jackie can hold out, hold back her increasingly good mood, let Regina have her well-deserved say, let her vent, do what she needs to do, if Jackie can hang in and not blow it by trying to make everything all right too soon, there will be a celebration, eventually they will have their own little party. It will be after , Jackie understands, after Regina calms down and realizes this time it really is just a one-shot mistake that somehow turned out okay. After a while Regina will smile at Jackie again.
For the moment, Regina has murder in her eyes. “You lost $500 dollars,” she really belts it out. “Five hundred dollars you piece of…”
“Won,” Jackie says quickly. She’s not sure if Regina hears over her yelling, but Regina stops short of calling her “shit.” Jackie is pretty sure the window is open behind the drawn shade. Well, they’ve heard worse from the neighbor’s house come in through that window.
Regina looks like she might explode, which she does, screaming, “You lost five hundred dollars on our fucking anniversary. Where did you get the money? You piece of,” she throws up her arms and screeches, “shit.” Her head shakes, her face contorts. She takes a deep breath. She takes several more deep breaths. Jackie takes a step toward her, but Regina’s puts a hand up to stop her from getting any closer. Regina’s head stops shaking and her face becomes blank. “I give up.” She sits on the bed. Speaking slowly because the words hurt she says, “After all the time and money we spent on rehab, money we didn’t have, time…” Her voice is barely audible. She gives Jackie a look that breaks Jackie’s heart. “We’re running out of time.” She looks at the wall for a long moment before turning back, looking old and tired, looking directly at Jackie. “Do you get that, Jackie?”
Jackie forces herself to look Regina in the eye and nod before she sits on the bed next to her. She bends forward, head bowed, hands clasped between her knees, so she doesn’t have to bear Regina’s look. “Won,” Jackie says softly. “Won,” she repeats.
“You stayed away from this thing for three years. Why now? If you think I’m going to take on more hours so we can eat and have electricity…” In mid sentence, Regina cocks her head, and says, “Won?”
“Won.” Jackie nods. “I’m so god-damned happy you’re alive.” She would take Regina in her arms, but knows this is not possible, knows that her own post win optimism will be short lived, knows that Regina’s anger may well escalate for hours or days before it settles down, knows that experience gives Regina every right to fear that winning is no better than losing when it comes to satiating Jackie once she has felt those cards in her hand. Still, Jackie wishes she could hang on to the rush of the win for just one evening. She sits and cries, lets her tears fall on the grey, once blue carpet. It’s all she’s got, tears and five hundred bucks. Regina stands over her, hands on her hips. Above and below the double knot of its belt, the sides of her robe separate. She looks down at Jackie with pursed lips, eyes pinched and trained like the scope of a shotgun on Jackie’s forehead.
Jackie’s tears are mostly real. She hopes they work. Hopes the undignified sobbing and sighing makes Regina see how much she loves her. Hopes at some point she can tell Regina how happy she is that Regina put on that corset for their anniversary. Because Jackie is grateful that Regina has put up with her, stayed with her all these years. Also she’s tired and hungry and all she can think about is how to get Regina to forgive her as quickly as possible. The smell of the German chocolate cake Regina was putting in the oven when Jackie left bolsters her resolve to get them both to the table. She reaches for her handkerchief, feels the money, and pulls the roll of bills out of the back pocket of her chinos, a big bundle, mostly fives and tens, more money than twice the combined weekly income from both their part-time jobs. She offers the wad, open-handed, to Regina. She has blown a chance to show Regina how good she looks in that corset. Blown the opportunity to feel Regina’s soft flesh and listen to the pounding of their hearts. Tonight will not be a night when sated, pleased with herself and Jackie, Regina will sit up in bed and carry on about TV commercials selling youth by making old people ashamed of their skin and hair, their minds and teeth. Jackie won’t get the wrinkles on her face and neck kissed tonight. Jackie shakes her head and accentuates the sorry in her expression. She places the wad of money on the mattress next to her.
Regina waits a few minutes before she snatches the money, and points a finger at Jackie’s chest. “Stay seated on that bed. Do not move an inch.”
Jackie listens as Regina goes from room to room, slamming doors and drawers, flushing the toilet, banging windows. She allows herself a smile, knowing Regina is hiding the money, taping it to the bottom of the silverware drawer or putting it in a plastic bag and sticking it in the urn with her mother’s ashes. Regina is gone, making clattering noises, for a long time. Jackie hears snippets of a short phone call, words spoken softly that Jackie can’t make out. It gets quiet. It stays quiet. Jackie would be wondering if Regina left, but Regina wouldn’t leave wearing a robe and corset.
Jackie retraces the steps she took to get to the bedroom, walks down the ten foot hall, saying, “Regina?” several time, switching to “Baby?” as she rounds the hallway into the kitchen.
Regina listens to Jackie’s approach. She has a plan, Gamblers Anonymous and her personal version of shock and awe, which she’s already given Jackie a taste of by playing a shrew, that’s Regina’s plan, her only plan. She closes her eyes to conjure up the face of gambling. She has her own definition of poker face, it’s not neutral or impassive, it’s the smarmy smiling face of Richard Millhouse Nixon, arms and shoulders raised in his obscene split fingered victory salute as he debarked from a jet coming back from who remembers where. Regina doesn’t care that this image is ridiculous, doesn’t care that she has never, not even once, met a gambling buddy of Jackie’s who had any resemblance whatsoever to this picture. Not a disgraced, smug-faced politician among them. She can’t even pin this image on the people who make money off gambling. As far as Regina knows, Jackie has never been to a casino or horse race owned by some greedy millionaire leeching money from lower class losers. No, her Jackie has always been lured into over-heated back rooms of local restaurants or cheap hotels. Her consorts have always been the poor dealing to the poor, seated at a folding table. No matter, the image of Nixon doesn’t have to make sense as long it fuels Regina’s resolve.
Jackie finds Regina sitting at the kitchen table, her robe wrapped tightly around her, eyes closed, sitting up straight, but relaxed in her chair. She looks serene, more like a Zen Master than an aging lesbian meditating on her beloved’s bad habit.
Jackie sits opposite her without speaking.
“Here’s what’s going to happen.” Regina opens her eyes, slowly deliberately crossing her arms over her chest. “That money is dead to you. We will not go out to eat, go to the movies, buy me a new dress, order cable. You will not get one iota of pleasure connected to that money.” She holds up the sales slip she has removed from the Wal-Mart bag. “Nor will you ever see me get one iota of pleasure from that money. The CD player is going back.”
Jackie nods, feeling any chance that she can salvage part of this evening to savor the win slip away. “Smart of you,” she says. “To kill the buzz.” She reaches across the table and Regina let’s her take her hand. She wonders how many gallons of bad Gamblers Anonymous coffee she will have to drink before this is over. “Have I worn you out?” She means will you throw me out? She looks at their entwined hands, knowing that this could be Regina’s last gift for a long time.
“We’ve been wrestling with this miserable addiction our whole lives.” Regina wonders if she is completely worn out. Or does she have one more round of tough love in her. “We’ve lived through rehab too many times, scrounging from friends and relatives to pay for it. They’re used up, some are dead, My Love,” she says wistfully. “The days of tapping our friends are gone.”
“My Love,” Jackie repeats like a prayer. “We can beat this thing without rehab.”
“We? No.” Regina shakes her head. “Maybe I could to it one more time, beg or borrow the money, get you into rehab, go to Gamblers Anonymous with you, listen to endless hours of sobriety talk, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to. You can do it without me or you live without me.” Regina pulls her hand away.
It’s only after they eat the cold Chinese food, Regina puts the uneaten German chocolate cake in the refrigerator and says, “Let’s go to bed,” that Jackie realizes for sure that she is not getting thrown out of the house. Not tonight.
They lie back to back and fall asleep hoping the same thing – that Jackie’s need to sleep with her body curled around Regina’s and her desire to see Regina in that corset again win.