Illustration by Kat Morgan
I knew I was middle-aged when I started to like smooth jazz. I hum along, slide $100 into a Caveman Keno machine, and sit with my legs crossed, exposing my hairy thighs like an embarrassing dad. I’m just 35, and childless, but aging parents and grandparents appear to be the casino’s target demographic. A few rounds in, I look to my left and see a little girl and her mother at a Video Poker unit.
Kids aren’t allowed to hang out in casinos. The actual law forbids it. I guess Binion’s quit enforcing that one, so the rest of us have to pretend this depressing atmosphere didn’t get even sadder. The woman pokes the touchscreen, selecting hold cards and slapping the “DEAL” button, while her daughter unzips a backpack and takes out a folder, worksheet and a pencil with a big, brain-shaped eraser. They must live in Vegas too. Now, along with her schoolwork, the child will absorb lessons on chasing four-of-a-kinds and royal flushes while lighting one cigarette with the tip of another.
I sip my drink. The perfume the casino pumps in fails to mask drifting odors of smoke, farts, and sweat. The plinky drone of bloops and beeps from the machines almost stifles the little girl’s loud reading from her schoolwork. I know casinos can’t be trusted with something as important as babysitting, but there ought to be a place kids can go study while their parents scratch their gambling itch.
I was about 10—maybe the same age as the girl—when I first watched my Auntie Carla play slot machines on a family trip to Las Vegas. I got the insane urge to play too, so I grabbed a quarter from her tray, plunked it into the next machine, and yanked the lever, immediately feeling that same rush I feel now as bells, cherries, and 7s spun in the machine’s gold-painted windows. “Mijo!” my auntie gasped. Knowing what I’d done was totally illegal made it all the more thrilling. But by the time the symbols stopped, a security guard arrived to chide my aunt: “Kids can’t touch the machines!” I’d lost, anyway.
To the little girl’s credit, she doesn’t seem tempted to imitate her mom’s habit so much as she seems ready to drag her out. The kid glares every time the woman talks to the machine: “I need an eight …. One more heart…. Why couldn’t I get this jack the last time?”
Where I teach, at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, most students grew up in the area and it’s not uncommon for them to write essays about a mom or dad whose gambling habit was so crippling, the other parent took the kids and moved out. Once, I received a poem from a creative writing student about a child who rescues his mom from a castle that sounds an awful lot like the Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine. Those students told me they’ll never gamble, and not for fear of inheriting the addiction but rather to spite an industry that devastated their early lives.
A flurry of automated applause, followed by the simulated noise of coins clattering into a metal tray, cling cling cling, signals that the mom won. She’ll probably cling to that machine for a while. The best way to turn $50 into a few grand in Las Vegas is gambling, specifically slot machine gambling. But the real draw is feeling that you might win. And when you do, even if it’s just enough cash to buy a meal, nothing beats that sense that Today I was a winner.
I started with $100, making one-dollar bets, and jump to $260 when five stone wheels and one dinosaur egg land on my lucky numbers. I then fall to $200, giving back over a third of my winnings. If I drop below $150, I’ll switch to fifty-cent bets to slow the bleeding. The Caveman Keno god giveth and she grindeth away, with one big win followed by steady losses and small, pity wins until you bust out.
But when I fall to $150, I break my rule. Instead of tightening up, I double the bet. Wager $2 per round. Now if the game throws me a bone I’ll snag the whole meaty mastodon. Tapping “BET” as fast as possible, I barely watch the wheels spin onto the number grid. Some casinos program these machines to tweaker speed, about one round per second, but right now I only get 15 to 20 bets-per-minute.
Soon I fall to $72. Two minutes later I’m down to $30. When I only have six bucks left, a bunch of wheels and eggs crack over my lucky numbers. I celebrate with a proper caveman grunt, “Aaahhh!” as the credit tally rises. I stand while my winnings keep climbing rapidly.
Someone tugs my shirt. It’s the little girl. “Mister, did you drop your wallet?” she asks.
“What?” I check my back pocket. It’s empty. I scan the floor. Did she already grab it? The kid isn’t holding anything. She twists a strand of hair and says, “A wallet was here on the floor, and someone kicked it and picked it up. They went that way,” She points.
“Little girl, what the eff? What in the effing eff?! Who took it?”
“He had white hair. Like an old man’s?” Why that’s a question, I don’t know. “He was a white man with white hair. You can catch him!” She points again in the direction of the next slot machine room.
I hurry past a row of Wheel of Fortune units. Three women sit hypnotized by the flashing wheel wedges and Vanna White says, “Take a spin!” I go to the next room and find more slot players. Amazingly, none are white-haired men. Out of the bathroom then comes a guy who’s at least graying. He finishes buckling his belt, having just pulled his pants up to his belly button, and wipes his hands on his shirt. I want to believe that’s not the guy because he was obviously occupied. I go back to my machine.
“Did you find him?” the girl asks. She’s sharpening the same strand of hair into a spear.
Adding to my fury is the fact that I can’t fling off curses like I do when I lose money the typical way one does in casinos. I scan again for anyone remotely sketchy. I realize the girl’s mother is gone.
“Where’s your mom?”
The girl’s eyes dart around. “You mean Colleen?”
“The lady you’re with, whoever, where’d she go?”
“Colleen had to go somewhere that, like, only grownups are allowed.”
“You’re already in a place where only grownups are allowed. I want my wallet back, little girl.”
“I don’t have it.” She nods no for emphasis, wide-eyed. “Colleen also said I should help you find your wallet. Or else I have to wait for her alone.”
“Are you kidding?” It takes incredible chutzpah to rip a man off and then coerce him into babysitting. I recheck my pockets to make sure I’m not losing my mind. I fall to my hands and knees and check under the machine, groaning to find nothing but crumbled ATM receipts.
“Hey!” my orphaned sidekick insists. “We’ll find him!” She gets down and slaps the carpet. “It was right here! The guy kicked it—”
“And then picked it up,” we say in unison. I stand. She cranes her neck at me. “Why did you wait till then to say something? My rent money was in there.”
“I thought you knew,” she shrugs.
“You thought I knew my wallet was out in plain sight on the floor of a casino?”
“I thought maybe you knew but you weren’t ready to stop.”
“Stop what?!” I rake my eyebrows with my fingernails.
“You know,” she makes a tapping gesture, “playing.”
I push “CASH OUT” on the machine. “I’ve stopped now,” I say. It dispenses a voucher that I slide into my pocket without bothering to check the amount.
* * *
I look for the girls’ mom and a white-haired white guy, in case the kid told the truth. The crowd in one corner resembles that of a senior center rec room. Their eyeglasses reflect the cascading symbols and zig-zag bet lines on slot machine screens, constellations that sparkle with comets for wins.
I see a guy with a white ponytail hanging over a black leather vest with no patches. The girl would’ve mentioned a wannabe biker. Heading toward the cashier, I pass a man with slicked-back white hair who sips a cocktail and reads the sportsbook odds. He looks mobbed up. I don’t want to mess with that.
I then see the security booth. The guard stares at his computer screen and is on the phone, which may explain how a child galivanted through like this was Chuck E. Cheese. I wave for his attention. “Hi there! Can you check some camera footage for me?”
He presses the phone’s receiver to his chest. “I’m on the phone with Metro,” he says.
“The police? Good. Someone took my wallet.”
“Sir, we have an incident out front. I can’t help you at this time.” His monitor shows a man on the curb in handcuffs, flanked by two guards.
“Okay. But you should know there’s a kid here alone.” Something in the security guard’s eyes suggests this doesn’t rise to the level of incident. “A little girl abandoned, on your property,” I repeat. “It’s an Amber Alert waiting to happen.” He turns to better hear the police dispatch. “But obviously her parent isn’t worried, and I just want my wallet back, so why should you care?” I knock coyly on the side of his desk and walk away wondering if the Nevada Gaming Commission ever holds resorts accountable to its world-renowned licensing standards.
While I return to my lucky machine if I can still call it that, I consider my options: Believe the girl. Or let her think I believe her until I can confront Colleen.
The kid is still standing on the same drab patch of carpet, hands tightly holding the straps of her backpack. She has almond-colored hair, olive skin, and purple jorts. I walk up and say, “So what’s your name, little girl?”
Immediately, I feel like the bad guy in a “stranger danger” PSA.
“Uhh, Dora?” she answers. It’s always when adults try to seem nice and normal that kids find them weird and threatening.
“I’m not mad at you,” I say. “I have to admit, actually, I need your help.”
She smirks and dons a bemused expression while drumming her fingers on her chin. It’s a clever, infuriating negotiation tactic. “If I help,” she says, “will you buy me a slice of pizza?”
“Well, that would require us to find the wallet. So yes! Pizza will be your reward.”
“My name is Julia,” she says. We shake hands.
* * *
Hunting for retribution in a budget casino can make you question your life choices. For the last few years, I’ve treated the cash in my wallet like a general pleasure fund, knowing that pleasure is fleeting and that I don’t have any savings. Honestly, every time I lose money gambling—or in this case just sitting awkwardly—I feel grief for real happiness squandered.
I have a girlfriend who let it be known that she’ll never marry me because I’m poor and in debt and I drive a 20-year-old Mazda that’s embarrassing and uncomfortable. If I can’t do better we’re done. It seems like having a big house with expensive furniture, 2.5 kids and 1.5 pets makes most people happy-ish but I worry that’ll never happen for me. That I’ll always drift on alone, grasping for a buzz. Every time I can’t afford another game or drink, this regret creeps over me like a loan shark collecting debt.
There’s a pamphlet in the corner of every casino called “When The Fun Stops”. I see it as I walk with Julia. The cover shows a sun setting on the ocean. I googled it once, realizing I should finally learn what the other half of that sentence is. First, I found a photoshopped version in which “When The Fun Stops” is followed by “Bet More So You Can Catch Up And Start Having Fun Again.” Which cheered me up. Enough so, in fact, that I didn’t call the number on the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling website. I regret that too.
“Cocktails,” a waitress says. She works the same slot parlor I was in before. I keep my eyes off her cleavage and legs as I order Tito’s and soda. She looks at Julia and asks me if I’m still gambling. “I am indeed,” I say. Otherwise, I’d have to pay. “Just on my way to the cash machine.” The waitress scribbles my order and keeps walking, repeating “cocktails” every ten feet.
Slot machines are programmed to give back about 90 percent of the money they take in. The hope is to hit “BET” on a machine with several weeks’ or months’ worth of payouts stored up that pour out in one fell jackpot. Instantly, I’d have enough for a down-payment on a house. I could pay off loans. A bet like that can change your life. I tell myself that’s what I’m after. Though it feels pathetic to be so statistically naïve. All the money I spend frivolously on top of the cash I’ve lost gambling amounts to several thousand, at least.
Julia and I stay on the lined walkways through the casino. As I understand it, kids are allowed to use these paths to access the restaurants, hotel towers and pool. “If you make your eyes blurry it looks like the arcade,” she says. “Except arcade games are so much harder because you actually do stuff like shoot aliens and dance.”
I don’t need to make my eyes blurry. I’ve already had a few drinks.
“Is there a movie theater?” Julia asks. We’re passing through the center of the resort.
“There’s a theater, but it’s just for comedians and magicians and they’re all old or not very good. Or both.”
“What are you?” she asks.
The sudden line of personal questioning startles me. “I’m a Latino, Hispanic, of Latinx descent. Or whatever you prefer in that regard.”
“Sure,” I say.
“But are you like a businessman? Or a policeman. Or like a construction worker?” Julia asks.
Yes, I’m a member of the Village People, I think to myself. What I want to say is, I’m a guy looking for his wallet, remember? I finally answer, “It’s complicated. I’m a writer and a teacher, but also a student.”
“That’s not complicated.”
“Good,” I say. Careerist children bother me.
“When I get old I want to be the person that plays the movies in the back of the movie theater.”
I laugh. “A projectionist? I’m pretty sure they’ve gone the way of the dinosaur.”
“What? Fine, I want to be the person that decides when a movie’s rated G, PG, PG-13, or R.” She grins as if she discovered some loophole in adult living. “That way I can watch every movie for free.”
Kids should be encouraged to pursue their dreams. However, I can’t resist telling her, “Be careful choosing your career just because it sounds fun.”
“Why?” asks the aspiring reelist.
“Because if a job is fun, people will do it for very little money. Some might even work for free. Then the companies don’t have to pay well, which puts you in a situation if that’s your career, where even something as stupid as losing your wallet can be a freaking disaster.” Julia frowns, looking vaguely sad or guilty, I can’t tell which. “I don’t know why I’m still here, I should go home,” I say.
“Wait! We’ll find it,” she promises. “We’ll get the wallet-grabber.” For a split second, the kid’s optimism makes me think she’s being honest about what occurred. But then I remember that optimism is a vital part of every hustle.
We keep walking, scrutinizing people seated at slot machines and table games. “I withdrew $380 earlier to give my roommate for rent,” I say. “Without it I’m pretty f—” I stop myself. One more f-bomb left undeployed.
“Frazzled?” she asks.
I smile. “What did you say?”
“You were going to tell me you’re frazzled?”
The bard of this pulsing, perfumed bacchanal is an elementary school girl.
“Yes,” I admit. “I’m frazzled. Thank you for understanding.”
* * *
Every casino is a big, cluttered hall with a few aisles that curve around, pouring people past table games and sloshing them into restaurants like streams finding inlets. We cross Binion’s from end to end, and back, repassing the same machines and tables with cowgirl dealers. The mood here feels like driving through heavy traffic. People stop and go, wait and tap, hit and stay, bust and re-up, absentminded and automatic. For her part, Julia skips along like a bright-eyed adventurer on a fairytale quest. I keep waiting for her to point at someone I can grab by the sleeve and pat down. I’ve girded for it. But she keeps saying, “No, not him.”
At a lounge by the sportsbook, Julia hops on a stool and whirls in circles. I tell her to stop. She has the energy and discipline of a drunken hummingbird. At one point, she drops down and crawls under an empty card table, then crabwalks out balancing a box of Winston’s on her chest.
Nancy Drew, girl detective, she is not.
“Give me that,” I say, making sure the pack is empty before I toss it on the table. “They will kick us out if you do that again.”
We take another lap, during which Julia stops to dance to a Santana song playing overhead. Rob Thomas sings, “It’s a hot one,” and she launches into a salsa move, two steps forward and back, popping her shoulders and shaking invisible maracas in a valiant attempt to amuse or annoy me. I can’t tell which reaction she prefers.
“All right,” I check the time. “Where’s your mom?” My anxiety about money is finally eclipsed by fear that I should do something about this child’s apparent neglect. I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling the police, though. And we’re clearly beyond the mission and authority of Binion’s security guard.
“I told you, Colleen will text,” Julia says. Opening her backpack, she takes out a cheap mobile phone and waves it at me. “I have an Obama phone! Did you know Obama made phones?”
“Let me ask you something. Does Colleen do this a lot?”
Her nervous tick is dancing. The carpet inspires the footwork, a hopscotch. She says, “Colleen is not my mom mom.”
“Colleen is my daddy’s wife, and she went to get medicine from her friend Angelo, but Angelo doesn’t let kids in his apartment. I don’t want to go in there, anyway. Colleen is also a showgirl.”
Medicine? Maybe I don’t want to know more. “You’re messing with me,” I say. “A showgirl? She needs Tylenol from those high kicks, right? Never mind. It’s none of my business.” As we move on, or rather stand facing each other in awkward silence, I have to admit that I don’t want to know about Julia’s home life. I merely want to have asked. This feels shitty, which is not how ambivalence usually works.
The casino got more crowded. Since we’ve stopped walking people have to maneuver around us, and some grumble to get out of the way. Julia returns the phone to her backpack and sifts through it. “Oh yeah!” she says. She gently takes a paper cutout of a cartoon boy from her backpack. “You can help me.” She holds him up. “This is Flat Stanley.”
“Actually, we’ve met.”
I take the paper cutout in my hand. The Flat Stanley project was practically designed for absentee uncles like myself. Children mail the cartoon boy to family and friends, and as Julia reminds me, Flat Stanley’s “hosts” photograph him in places that are interesting or meaningful to them. I flashback to when I lived in New York and took a selfie with Flat Stanley outside the United Nations. It was nice to feel useful as an uncle. Living away from home suddenly had an exotic value. Of course, the point was to facilitate a stronger connection, but I never followed up to see how the project went. I don’t even remember which nephew or niece sent it.
Julia’s Flat Stanley has green hair and a brown shirt, earthy tones from a well-grounded kid. “I’m happy to show him around. I just worry the photos won’t seem interesting to your classmates here in Vegas.”
“I don’t have anyone I want to mail my Stanleys,” she says with a sad grin.
“Let’s take a picture here,” I say.
* * *
Binion’s answer to the real golden nugget in the lobby of the Golden Nugget is a million dollars cash stacked on a poker table. I lead Julia there. It’s the best photo-op on Fremont. The casino takes pictures of guests with the money and prints them for free. I also snag my vodka soda when I see the cocktail waitress carrying it on her tray, apologizing that I can’t tip.
I stand behind the money and Julia smiles from the side as I hold Flat Stanley over its plexiglass case. I try to think of something she can tell her class. I’m smiling, but with the money stacked like an Aztec pyramid, all that comes to mind is sacrificing Stanley to the Almighty Dollar. The camera flashes. While the photo prints, Julia grazes her fingers over the casing and strolls around the poker table. “They’re all hundred dollar bills,” she says. Ben Franklins stare back.
“Not exactly,” the photographer says from behind his tri-pod. “The money’s owner only found 270 thousand in hundreds, so he filled it out with $688,000 in twenties and 42,000 one-dollar bills.”
I do the math. It takes a minute. “That means, you mostly used one-dollar bills.”
“Well, I didn’t,” the photographer laughs. “But yes. More one-dollar bills than any other denomination.”
“You put ones behind the hundreds?” Julia asks. “That’s so fake.”
The photographer shrugs. “A million dollars is a million dollars.” The printer spouts out our photograph and he hands it to Julia. “The way I think of it,” he adds, “is if you want to be a millionaire, start putting aside some ones.”
“That’s real,” I say, spilling my drink as I toast to his point. “Tell your class, Julia, if they want to make it big, every dollar counts.” We step away and I plop into the seat of a Persian cat-themed slot machine. Julia asks if I’m okay and my answer in a loud “meh.”
“Do you want Colleen’s number?” she says. “To text the photos with Flat Stanley?”
“Sure,” I answer, handing her my phone. She types the number. As soon she hands it back I fire off a text: “Did you abandon this child?”
“What would you do with a million dollars?” I ask Julia. “Me, I’d buy—not rent, not mortgage—buy a house. One of those cool mid-century modern ones. I also get a sensible hybrid. I’d put rooftop solar on the house too. I’d pay off my student loans and my credit cards and do the same for my siblings.” I turn to the slot machine. “I’d buy one of these Kitty Glitter units too so that every time I lost, I’d actually win. You know the house always wins, right?”
Julia says, “I’d buy my own casino and make millions more dollars.”
“Don’t be cute. What’s going on with you?” I ask. “Really.”
“I am being serious,” she insists.
I’m impressed Julia already sees the world through a lens of hustles, investments and potential fringe benefits. She’ll be very successful, but in a way that’s morally dubious and arguably illegal. I hope she learns by then that the only schemes people get away with are the ones rich people have arranged loopholes for. You have to dance to the song they’re playing, hoping all the while that they don’t notice if you’re better at.
I reach for my phone and feel a piece of paper in my pocket. It’s the cash voucher. I take it out and see what I won on my last bet. I turn it over. I hand it to Julia. “You can read, right?”
“Yes!” she says. “I’m almost 10!” Who can remember what 10-year-old brains are capable of? She did do her homework out loud earlier, and she’s obviously smart. She takes the slip and reads the text on the back: “Gambling Problem? Please call 1-877-770-STOP.”
“Don’t spend it all on arcade games,” I say. She giggles again, folds the slip, and puts it in her backpack. “Hide it from Colleen,” I tell her. “Save it for an emergency. A real one. You never know.”
Julia checks her phone. “She texted!” She shows me the screen: “Go to the big grasshopper.” She must mean the sculpture a few blocks away. Julia looks at me expectantly.
“It’s not a grasshopper,” I say. “It’s a praying mantis.” She gives me a what-the-fuck-does-this-have-to-do-with-anything look. I say, “Fine, I’ll walk you there. I need to leave anyway.”
On our way out, we get bumped by two drunk, slurry men. One shouts “Vegaaas!” because of The Hangover and Swingers and what happens in Vegas blahs blah blah. Tourists here act like they’re in some cheap, derivative remake of a debaucherous party movie. It begs the question of whether Vegas is really “cool again,” like people in New York and L.A. have deigned to say. Now Julia tells me she needs to “potty.” I guess she’s at the age where kids show off words like “frazzled” to impress people then revert to “potty” or “boo-boo” as they fade. I lead her to the nearest bathroom. While I wait outside, I realize I’m near the security booth. The guard looks unburdened by incidents, though he doesn’t look up when I walk over. I have to drum my fingers on his desk.
“It’s you!” he says. He opens a drawer and takes out my wallet. “A waitress found it in an ashtray.” He returns to his game of solitaire. I open the billfold. “In case you’re wondering,” the guard adds, “I checked the ID to make sure it’s yours.”
I try not to smirk. “Excellent detective work,” I say. The cash is gone but my credit cards are inside. “How about the cameras. Did you check those?”
The guard sighs. He opens the camera feeds on his monitor and asks where I was sitting and when, scratching his goatee like he’s allergic to work. I point to the area. With a few keystrokes, he finds footage of me at the machine and scrolls forward to when Julia tugged my shirt.
“Wait, go back. Can you zoom in?” I say. I watch my sidekick nudge the wallet underneath the machine with her foot. Once I take off running, her stepmom grabs it and gestures for Julia to stay there. The kid shrinks into herself, glancing around as if looking for a place to hide, squirming as she twiddles her hair.
“Let’s see if they’re still in here!” the guard says. He grabs his walkie-talkie. I look to the bathroom and see Julia scanning for me outside the doorway. When she spots me at the security booth, we connect eyes. She’s holding her breath.
“It’s all right,” I tell the guard, waving him off. “I know them.” I smile as I walk toward Julia and hold the wallet in the air as I shout “Good news!” Her eyes soften in relief.
* * *
Out on Fremont Street, people stare up with shinny purple faces at the LED awning. It’s a Prince tribute. “Purple Rain” plays through the corridor and the rueful, longing chords of Prince’s guitar transfix the crowd in a rare moment of wistfulness. “What would you be doing if we hadn’t met?” Julia asks. Two Chippendales dancers pose shirtless with tourists, and my instinct is to joke that I’d be shaving my chest to join their ranks. But for once I don’t deflect. “Right now, I’d probably be broke, heading home. Or else still gambling.”
That’s why I gave her the voucher: That money wasn’t leaving with me anyway.
“If you want to go back inside that’s okay,” Julia says. I recognize the tone of a kid used to offering excuses for people to ditch her. Instead of: It’s cool, have fun! I hear: It’s okay, I know I’m not fun. For once, I prefer the excuse to leave Binion’s. “I owe you pizza,” I remind her. A little shop sells slices at the end of the street.
She nearly jumps. “Oh yeah! Can we?”
“Yes, I have to keep my word. You also helped me get out of that casino, which isn’t easy sometimes.” Julia seems to feel sorry for me now instead of herself. Progress marches on. A few stale slices rotate in a pie carousel in a window off the plaza. I order cheese. Julia wants pepperoni. “Your stepmom has a similar problem.”
Julia thinks about it. She stutters and finally says, “Colleen can be very immature.” I laugh. She asks what’s so funny and I say “very immature” in a little girl’s voice. Julia giggles. In this way, we make fun of absentee parents and kids who look out for them. She doesn’t mention her wrecked school nights. I don’t tell her how abandonment issues can haunt people like us well into adulthood. We eat our pizza. When I crumble my napkin, Julia says, “If this were a movie, I would rate it PG-13.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
She pauses to organize her thoughts. “There are no bad words. No nudity or killing. But people still did bad things.”
“Is that a confession?” I ask. She drinks her coke, smiling as she gulps through the straw. I wait for an answer but all she does is burp. “You know,” I say, “if you love movies, you don’t have to play them for a movie theater or be a movie rater or whatever. You can make movies. You’d make good ones, I bet.” For the first time, I think I’ve said the right thing because Julia looks proud.
I’m still hungry so I order two more slices. Julia wants hers to go. She carries it on a paper plate on the way to the “big grasshopper.” At the intersection of Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard, I see the bars that my friends and I drink at on weekends—the Griffin, Don’t Tell Mama, Park on Fremont. Droves of people stand around smoking or waiting to get in. While we wait for a walk signal, I let out a sigh. “You never told me if you’re okay. I think I need you to answer that.”
The pizza splats as she runs into the street and I shout, “Wait!” Two cars slam their brakes and pound their horns. Everyone turns to see what happened. I should know better than to challenge a little girl on a sidewalk with traffic in both directions. She made it through, thank god. My hands are over my mouth and my chest drums. She looks back, but keeps running. Little lights on her shoes flash on the sidewalk as she sprints away with her backpack bouncing on her shoulders. I see her weave through a group and disappear.
* * *
I pass more bars and restaurants. The El Cortez Hotel and Casino advertises $10 prime rib and the “loosest slots in town” on its marquee. “GAMBLING” flashes red on an arrow pointing to the door. I’ll have to pass the praying mantis sculpture to get to my car, but I walk slowly to let Julia get away.
I only recently learned that it’s a praying mantis. I’d thought it was spelled “preying,” with an e. I’ll always assume the darker interpretation when there is one. At some point, I looked it up. The praying mantis got its name because it bows its head and touches its front legs while it stalks its prey. So it does kill. A grasshopper eats grass and a praying mantis eats prey. But I like the idea of a hopeful predator. I don’t see those traits as contradictory. I don’t pray—the notion of a God that only takes care of the people who solicit help repulses me—but when I was Julia’s age I was legit Catholic. I miss being able to pray for help when I need it. I miss telling people that I’ll pray for them too.
I take out Flat Stanley. The praying mantis sculpture stands forty feet tall and apparently first appeared at Burning Man. I hold Stanley up like he’s riding the metal beast. My arm shakes when flames burst out of its antennae. The propane burns loud and hot and the sculpture bucks like a mustang. I feel the heat on my face as I take the picture: A cartoon boy standing on a fire-shooting bug. I text it to the number Julia gave me with the message, “Stanley tamed the praying mantis!”