By Bettyann Moore
“Mom, you really should do something about your hearing.”
Rita Repnick peered up at her daughter over her reading glasses. She thought Marsha had said “Reaganomics is somewhere steering,” but she was pretty sure that couldn’t be it. For one thing, though it made sense in a strange way, Marsha wasn’t given to talking politics with her mother. And, for another, to say such a thing out of the blue like that …
“What was that, dear?” she resorted to one of her stand-bys.
“I said,” Marsha yelled across the kitchen where she was banging pots onto the stove, “Your hearing … you really should so something about it!”
When Marsha spoke up, Rita had no problem at all hearing her. Why couldn’t she do that all the time instead of mumbling so?
“There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, dear,” Rita said for the millionth time, “people just need to speak up!” Agitated, Rita buried her nose in her book while her daughter clattered around in the kitchen. She was pretty sure Marsha was mumbling something else, but Rita pretended to be absorbed in the text. In truth, she keep reading the same paragraph over and over again.
Life had been a lot less complicated when Rita lived in her own little house. She had Mitzy, her cat; her books, a market just blocks away and quiet, blessed quiet. But when her Martin passed on and the lawyers informed her that she didn’t even have a pot to pee in – Martin had even gambled the house away – she had no choice but to come live with Marsha and her 12-year-old son, Brad. Not for the first time, Rita thanked her lucky stars that Marsha had thrown out that good-for-nothing husband of hers long before that, otherwise Rita would be living in a cardboard box and learning the finer points of Dumpster diving. She shuddered.
Yes, she was grateful to her daughter, but embarrassed as well. Here she was, not quite 61 years of age – too young for Social Security and too old for employers – and forced to take charity. The pittance from Martin’s Social Security went to pay off his numerous creditors, clean-cut banker types in expensive suits and polished shoes, but they may as well be sporting shaved heads, nose-piercings and tattoos for all the sympathy they’d given her. Can’t get blood from a turnip, she thought, but they sure as heck do try. She sighed and set her book down on the coffee table; maybe Marsha would like a little help in the kitchen.
“Need some help, dear?” Rita asked Marsha, who was now stirring something that smelled rather like old shoes.
“All under control, Mom,” Marsha said. She reached for a spice bottle from an open cabinet.
“Sure, I’d be glad to,” Rita said brightly. “Where are they?”
Marsha stopped stirring and turned to stare at her mother. “Where are whom?” she asked.
“The rolls,” Rita began, “didn’t you say to get out the rolls ...” The look on Marsha’s face told her that wasn’t at all what she’d said.
“Oh, dear!” Rita cried, laughing. “I guess I got that wrong, huh?” She nudged Marsha, trying to get a smile out of her. Joking was Rita’s second line of defense. Denial was number one.
Marsha just shook her head and went back to stirring. They both turned – Rita a heartbeat later – when Brad, out of breath and sweaty from soccer practice, came bursting through the door.
“Hey ma, what’s for dinner, I’m starving! Hi Gram,” he added as an afterthought.
“When are you not starving?” Marsha asked, elbowing him away from the pot on the stove.
As the two jostled playfully, Rita slunk back into the living room. This was the time when she felt most invisible and useless. She tuned out the murmur of their voices and went back to reading her book until someone called her for dinner.
Dinner, though it still smelled odd, was surprisingly good – some sort of chicken and Parmesan concoction. Rita hated the smell of Parmesan, so that explained that. Brad, who only had two speeds, fast and frenetic, gobbled up everything on his plate while regaling his mother and grandmother about his day. He’d yet to become a sullen teenager, for which Rita was grateful. The boy talked a mile a minute, though, and with his mouth full. Rita ate slowly and daintily, as she always did, and listened the best she could.
“You shoulda seen the save the keeper made today!” Brad said.
His mother smiled and said “Great, huh?” so Rita figured he hadn’t said “Yoda sees brave, deeper days,” as she thought at first. Taking her cue from her daughter, she tried to look enthusiastic. Sometimes, the pretense was exhausting. She resented it when she would ask “Pardon?” or “What was that?” and the speaker would say, “Never mind,” and roll their eyes. Why bother saying anything, she wondered, if it wasn’t worth repeating?
Brad kept talking and Rita smiled and nodded, or frowned and shook her head … whichever seemed the most appropriate at the time. Thankfully, dinner was soon over and Brad leapt to his feet and threw his napkin down on his plate.
“Mr. Roi is gonna kill me if I don’t get that assignment done!” the boy declared.
Rita heard: “Hemorrhoids are gonna kill my ass before long.” She was shocked that he’d talk about such a thing, and at the dinner table no less. She decided to speak up.
“Brad, honey,” she said gently, “perhaps that subject isn’t appropriate?” She gave her daughter a glance, looking for back-up.
Marsha only gave her a quizzical look.
“Gram, what are you talking about?” Brad asked. Then it dawned on him. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he accused.
“I, I just don’t think hemorrhoids should be ...”
“Hemorrhoids! Oh my god, you thought I was talking about hemorrhoids?” Brad doubled over, laughing. “I said Mr. Roi! Hello? My teacher? Wait’ll I tell Josh! That’s a good one, Gram!”
Even Marsha was laughing. Rita’s blood started to boil. How dare they make fun of her! She got to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster.
“I don’t see what’s so funny!” she cried. “If I am a little hard of hearing ...” she hesitated. It was the first time she even came close to admitting such a thing. “Well, if so, isn’t that a handicap? Like having a broken leg?” Her face was turning red and her voice rose. “If I had a broken leg, would you make fun of that, too? Would you run ahead of me, leave me at the top of the stairs with no way to get down? And laugh at me? What’s wrong with you people?”
Jaws open, eyes wide, Brad and Marsha simply stared at her. Rita threw down her napkin and stalked off to her room. Maybe it was time to go see Belle.
“Are you sure I can’t give you a ride to Belle’s, Mom?” Marsha, who’d been overly solicitous, asked the next day.
Rita was pretty sure she hadn’t said “You’re in thalidomide hell, mon.” She assessed the physical clues, as she’d become accustomed, and surmised that her daughter was just trying to be nice. Sometimes, given enough time, Rita was perfectly capable of figuring out the words for herself.
“No,” she said. “And don’t wait up for me!” Still hurting from the night before, she wasn’t about to cave in the face of Marsha’s kindness, at least yet. Let her feel guilty for a while, Rita thought as she buckled herself into her 15-year-old car. The truth was, Rita was feeling guilty herself. She knew she might be a tad deaf, but what was she supposed to do about it? There was no money for hearing aids! She had no insurance and she was too young for Medicaid and, frankly, she felt, way too young for hearing aids as well.
She backed the car out of the driveway and headed to Belle’s, even though a person named Belle didn’t even exist.
The flashing neon signs, the acres of parked cars, even the valets in their red jackets immediately served to calm Rita. Inside, the seemingly endless room of whirling and flashing lights, muted music and people calmed her further. This was Belle, the Belle Plaine Casino, the biggest of its kind in Northeast Wisconsin, and Rita’s little secret.
Martin, of course, had spent hours here, and when she had objected to all his time away, he started taking her along, for a “night out.” They had nights out most every day of the week. Rita had been a reluctant player. He would hand her a cup full of quarters and send her on her way while he headed to the high-stakes tables. The clanking of coins, the bells and shouting when someone hit a jackpot were, at first, confusing and obnoxious. Gradually, though, as her hearing grew worse, it all mellowed into a soothing murmur that cocooned her in anonymity. Here, she didn’t have to talk – or listen – to anyone if she didn’t want to. Everyone minded their own business.
It was even better, Rita admitted to no one but herself, now that Martin wasn’t with her. She no longer had to worry about how much money he was losing, or bide her time when she’d run out of quarters – Martin was sure his next few hands would be winners and he refused to leave. Or the next few hands. Or the hands after that. She began bringing books with her. She made rules for herself. If she doubled her money, she quit, and found a corner on a cushiony sofa to read. If she lost her stake (which was never more than $40), she did the same. It was common sense, which Martin never had.
Even now, when money was tight, Rita saved up – a dollar here, a quarter there – until she had her stake; it usually took months. She liked the idea that in front of a slot machine, everyone was equal. The machine didn’t give a damn who you were, a millionaire or a granny clutching a few dollars; everyone had an equal chance at winning when they pulled the lever or punched a button. An equal chance at losing, too, but that was just part of the deal.
Nowadays, Rita played the penny slots. She knew the odds of winning were less than on the quarter or dollar machines, but pennies lasted longer. She was there to gamble, sure, but she was also there to enjoy the experience, the ambiance … even the free drinks sometimes (though she had a hard time hearing the servers calling “Drinks? Coffee?” over the piped-in music and the noises of the machines).
She was a little sad when the casino started replacing the coin machines with tokens, the sound wasn’t as satisfying, and even sadder when they went coin-free. It just wasn’t the same when the machine spit out a slip of paper rather than a cascade of coins. But she got used to it and came to love what, to her, sounded like muted music – the babble of voices, the silly songs the machines played with every spin, even the oddly-chosen Muzak tunes overhead.
Rita did her usual circuit around the grand room, watching the expressions on the players’ faces, which were universally bland, but focused, unless they were winning. By the time she sat down at “her” machine, she’d forgotten all about Marsha and Brad’s rudeness. She fed a dollar into the machine – a dollar at a time made it last longer – and pressed the buttons.
Several hours later, Rita’s small stake was almost gone, but she was enjoying herself tremendously. The machine had, as she liked to say, “let her play,” rather than sucking in the dollars with nary a penny paid back. The credit total went up, then down, then up, then down, but she’d never doubled her money, which would mean walking away. She stood and stretched a bit, then caught the eye of the young server who was making her rounds. The casino was always freezing and Rita wondered how these girls in their tiny skirts and low-cut blouses managed to stay warm.
“I’ll have a G & T,” she told the girl when she finally came over, “with a lime wedge.”
“Yes ma’am,” the girls said brightly and strolled away, taking other orders as she went.
Rita did a few unobtrusive leg stretches, even bending down as if to pick something up off the floor, just to work her muscles a bit. When she had to grab onto the stool to help her get back up, she figured she’d better not do that again. Finally the server came back; Rita kept a special stash of tip money in her fanny pack just for such occasions. So many people, she’d noticed, never bothered to tip at all, especially penny machine players.
Sitting back down at her machine, Rita took a sip of her drink and reached for the buttons again.
“Gah!” she cried, spitting the liquid back into the cup. “This isn’t gin!” Too late, she noticed that she’d hit the Max Play button on the machine, draining the credits and what was left of her stake.
Rita watched in amazement, though, when one, two, three, four – oh my word! – five wild symbols dropped into place. The machine’s bells, whistles and lights went wild as Rita gawked at the numbers flashing on the screen above it. Jackpot! She’d won a jackpot! People started crowding around her, something she’d never experienced before. She felt suddenly a little protective of the machine and just a little afraid. Five hundred thousand dollars and change. Who knew a penny machine could pay so much? Five hundred thousand!
The nice slot manager explained later that her particular machine was part of a vast network of machines at casinos across the country and each spin of those various machines progressively increased the jackpot. It took a couple of hours for the paperwork to be done and Rita was ready to head home, though the manager assured her that they would be happy to put her up in one of their luxury suites. She had a check stashed in her fanny pack, which made her nervous as all get out, but felt better when the manager insisted that two security guards walk her to her car. She tipped all of them well.
Her hands shook less and less as she neared her daughter’s house. Her mind was full of ways in which the money would be spent. There was one small thing she wanted first, but after that paying off Martin’s debts was at the top of the list – a small house (or maybe a condo instead), college for Brad, a new car.
Three weeks later, Rita had decided on a condo – who needed all that yard work? – and she was wearing, for the first time, a set of hearing aids. The tests indicated a lot more lost hearing than she thought possible, and still get along. But, gee, she thought as she left the otologist’s office, it certainly is loud out here.
It got louder.
Her first stop was the condo, where the Realtor, Mary Sue Peters, would be waiting with papers to sign. Rita loved the complex at first sight. It was fairly new, on a golf course and catered to “seniors.” Each unit looked out over a central courtyard and each had its own patio; Rita had chosen a lower unit.
The Realtor, dressed in a red Chanel suit and matching pumps, was pacing in the bright living room when Rita arrived. Business must be good, Rita thought, I didn’t know you could even buy Chanel in Wisconsin.
“Oh, Mrs. Repnick!” the woman bellowed, “I’m so glad you’re on time. Time is money, you know!”
Rita threw her hands over her ears. Was the woman always this loud? She wished she remembered how to turn the hearing aids down.
“Now, let’s get started, shall we?” Mary Sue sashayed over to the kitchen bar where papers lay waiting.
Rita went to join her, but what was that god awful noise? It sounded like a whole jungle of screeching birds.
“Hello, asshole,” a voice said. “Whatcha lookin’ at, bitch?”
“What the …?” Rita began.
“Oh, that’s just Mr. Riggs’ birds. Next door? Aren’t they cute? Now, if you could just sign here ...”
“I don’t remember any birds from the last time I was here,” Rita said.
“Oh, they’re perfectly quiet at night, of course. Nothing to worry about,” Mary Sue insisted. She hurried over close the open patio door.
“Hey, dipshit, what do you think you’re doing?” another voice called before the door was shut. Rita could still hear a lot of caterwauling through the wall.
“Now, where were we?” Mary Sue was all business. “Yes, I just need a few signatures ... and a check, of course.”
“Of course.” Martin had always handled the details of their lives and it made Rita nervous to be the one who did it now. Of course, she thought, look how well he did … we lost our home, our reputations. She sighed and reached for the pen that was offered, but jumped when something thumped overhead.
“My goodness, what was that?” she cried, as several more thumps shook the room.
“Oh, uh, that’s just Mrs. Godfrey … she’s, uh, learning to fence.”
Sometimes, it didn’t matter if you heard something or not. Rita pictured a woman dressed in a cowgirl outfit, stringing wire onto posts.
“Yes, you know, with swords and stuff? En garde? Like that.” Mary Sue was starting to look perturbed.
It sounded more like elephants to Rita – dancing elephants.
“Um, maybe I should give this a little more thought,” she said. “I’m in no hurry.”
“Goodness, whatever for?” Mary Sue’s eyes went wide. “Why, this place will be snatched up in a second if you don’t take it now!” She held the pen out again, but Rita backed away.
“I think I’ll take my chances,” she said, reaching for the doorknob. The stomping overhead continued unabated. “I’ll call, okay?” She didn’t give Mary Sue a chance to answer before she was out the door. Maybe a little house in the country was the way to go.
Marsha and Brad were already home when she pulled into the drive. She hadn’t told them about the hearing aids and couldn’t wait to see how long it took for them to realize that she wasn’t always asking them to repeat themselves. She smiled in anticipation.
The first thing she noticed when she stepped inside was Brad’s music. Before, it was always just the mild thump, thump, thump, of the base, but now … what was that he was listening to? It sounded like two mountain cats going at it with chimpanzees cheering them on. The TV was blaring in the corner. Marsha, oblivious, was talking on the phone, her back to the door.
“Oh, I can’t wait for that day!” she was saying. “She’s about to drive me nuts!”
Rita froze in her tracks.
“It’s not just the constant whining about how we shouldn’t make fun of her … what? … well, no, not really … it’s just her hearing is so bad and we keep having to repeat ourselves and you know how that is … exactly! … who wants to keep saying the same stuff over and over? … and get this, a few weeks ago Brad mentioned Mr. Roi, his teacher ...”
Rita had heard enough. She took a few steps backwards toward the door, then turned and ran to her car, leaving the door wide open.
“The nerve!” she cried, tears streaming down her face. “After all I’ve done for that child! Maybe I should break my leg and see how she likes that!” Rita paused for a second, thinking how ridiculous that sounded, but dammit, she was mad!
And pretty much homeless at this point … with money, of course. A small house in the country was sounding better and better.
She squealed her tires as she sped away from the house, hoping Marsha would look out the window to see her taking off.
She needed some Belle.
By the time she pulled into the parking lot, Rita was calmer, though still hurt and angry. She sat in her car for awhile, breathing deeply. She hadn’t been to Belle since she’d won and wondered whether they’d give her the high roller treatment. That might help a bit.
As she heaved open the heavy glass doors to the casino, though, her ears were assaulted. The cacophony of music blaring, people talking and laughing, the machines clanging and whirring nearly knocked her to to knees. She stood there, mouth agape, overwhelmed. The place was no longer a cozy cocoon of muted celebration, but a confusing and, yes, obnoxious Bedlam.
This was the final blow. Rita turned around, stalked toward the doors, yanked out her hearing aids and threw them in the garbage can that sat there.
Then she went to play.