Travis, known to one and all as the Toll Collector, tapped a coin against the white enameled facade of a Quad-7 slot machine in the Flamingo Casino. Flecks of paint, dislodged by tapping, dusted the front of the machine in and among his neat little stacks, each four coins tall. He held his breath while the reels spun behind the heavy tempered glass.
As soon as the first wheel stopped and revealed something other than a 7, his blackened hand, grimed from hours of play, reached for the next stack. With ritualized dexterity, his thumb and fingers launched four more coins, and the reels spun again. Four reels would decide his fate. Four 7's and his agony would be over.
Travis pushed a hand through his unwieldy gray hair and rubbed black circles under his bloodshot eyes. He leaned on his elbow and watched the blur of silver and primary colors spinning behind the glass. Four bars clicked into position and a stream of quarters clattered into the tray. Almost upset by the interruption, the Toll Collector snatched his pack of cigarettes and scanned the casino.
His long-time companion, Bryll, hearing the commotion, smiled, extended a hasty "thumbs-up," then turned back to his own machine.
Travis lit the cigarette. A wall of white smoke escaped his nostrils and crept along his face, twilling with his gray hair. He stretched a hand into the silver rope of flowing coins. He watched each quarter collide with his wedding ring, a simple gold band, and fall with indifference into the tray. And he mumbled, "One million, six hundred, three thousand, four hundred, two dollars."
Bryll, known to one and all as the Bee, moved from machine to machine, deftly and systematically playing each three times, no more, no less. Any winnings, collected. Any losses, regretted. He had a system and like his nickname, migrated from one machine to the next. At each stop, he plunged his hand into a bucket of coins, then, after three plays, gathered whatever payoff had accumulated. Often, he was just dragging his hand through the black dust in an empty tray at the base of the machine, but on occasion, when the reluctant slot had tinkled a few coins, he would show an expression of great surprise as he gathered the bounty. It allowed him to savor his good fortune twice; first when he won and then second when he actually collected.
The weight of the bucket was never too great and Bryll could easily carry it to the next stop until eventually he pulled a crisp Franklin from his wallet, approached the change girl, and refilled his bucket.
Travis, noting another 7 gone by, stubbed out the Marlboro in an overcrowded ashtray by his elbow and grasped his beer before the other wheels stopped. There must be a way to beat these machines, he thought. Beat them, just once, and he would be content. He whispered his mantra as if it were written on a check, smoked cigarettes, and fed stacks into the Quad-7.
Bryll's circuit brought him closer, and he stopped to size the Toll Collector's pile: more than 500 quarters.
Travis looked down at his watch, almost five in the morning. "Bryll," he said, "you drove last. Give me the keys."
"Had enough already buddy-boy? Wait until I tell everyone back at your shop that the Toll Collector couldn't make it past five." He floundered the few coins in the bottom of his bucket.
"The keys to the wagon?"
"But you're on a roll now! Don't quit. Besides, what are you going to do with all those quarters?" He eyed Travis's tray.
"Give me a Franklin and they're yours, Bee."
Bryll's eyebrows arched. "You could cash that in right now for at least one twenty-five!"
"How many times do I have to tell you? The Toll Collector never cashes in." Travis stared at Bryll. The singsong of machines and the babble of neon lights on the Quad-7 made him want to stay, but he was tired. He stuck out his palm.
"Whatever you say." Bryll pulled out a hundred dollar bill and, along with the car keys, slapped them into Travis's hand. He bent forward to sweep the coins into his bucket.
"Whoa! Bee." Travis put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't you have anything a little more used? This bill looks like it's still wet!"
"What don't you trust me, buddy-boy?"
"Absolutely. I trust you." Travis held up the bill against the casino lights and then added, "Now give me something without the FW mark?"
"Fort Worth! You're telling me that you don't like Fort Worth? You're telling me that you have a problem with our hometown, our beautiful Fort Worth? Now how long have you lived there? Twenty years? No, thirty five ye--"
Travis wrapped the bill lengthwise around his grimy middle finger, poked it toward Bee's chest. "Cut the crap. I don't want new bills, especially not a Franklin printed in Fort Worth."
Travis squirmed for a more comfortable position in the backseat of the station wagon. A beach towel, draped between the windshield visors, made a kaleidoscope of the rising sun's light. After a few hours of sleep and he'd go back in, fresh and ready to beat the Quad-7. He scratched a two-day beard sprouting from his narrow jaw and looked through the window at the casino parking lot.
How long had they been coming to Vegas? It was a rare weekend when the station wagon wasn't clearly visible in the Flamingo parking lot. But how many years had it been? Travis Jr. was five, no seven years old now, and they had started coming when Sheila was still pregnant that first time.
Most weeks, through the judicious use of four-day schedules and trading shifts, they were able to leave Fort Worth on Thursday night. Travis and Bryll piled into the wagon and, taking turns, drove the twenty hours without stopping for anything other than beer or gas.
Travis lit another Marlboro and watched the smoky cloud collect on the interior ceiling of the wagon. Eight years of driving with Bryll. Eight years of feeding the Quad-7.