I spent several years working in the casino business. Not to sound cynicle, but the illusion that is sold to the public of people laughing and having fun under the bright flashing lights is only part of the story. I also know a thing or two about compulsive behaviour. -DCC-
Millie Anderson left her job at the church office at 4:30 PM like she did every day. She thought about going home and eating something first but she wasn’t terribly hungry so she went straight to the casino. She could always grab a sandwich at the snack bar when she was ready.
It had been a hazy, muggy day and the late August heat was still beating down on the parking lot when she got out of her car and made her way to the side entrance. There were better parking spaces in the side lot, the only drawback was you had to walk by the smoking area outside the building. Usually the smokers wouldn’t go to the dirty tables and chairs that were set aside for them under the canopy, they would congregate right by the door and she had to hold her breath while she made her way past them. Today it wasn’t too bad, there was only one man there who nodded to her as she went by him.
“They got them damned machines screwed down pretty tight tonight,” he said as he exhaled a plume of blue smoke.
She looked back at him and smiled. “Well, you never know..,” she said as she reached for the door handle.
She went through the stuffy vestibule and opened the inner door and was hit by a blast of cool air. She had remembered to bring a cardigan and she pulled it on. She hoped she wouldn’t run into Alice, who always complained bitterly about how cold they kept it inside.
She walked by a young security guard who didn’t even look at her. Instead he stared vacantly up at a TV hanging on the wall. The guards on the day shift were much friendlier. They tended to be older, retired gentlemen who always said hello and would even hold the door open for people.
“Hello Mildred.” She turned around and saw Thomas, one of the floor attendants.
“Hello Thomas!” She smiled. He was one of her favorites, he always seemed to be there when she needed something or had a problem with a machine. She wasn’t sure but she thought Thomas might be gay. Oh well, she thought, hate the sin not the sinner. “Got any good vibes tonight?”
Thomas looked off and thought for a moment. “The Red Hot Sevens are about ready to pop,” he said with a smile. “But if I knew which machines were going to hit I’d be out there playing them with you.”
She tried a few of her favorites and didn’t have much luck. She had just sat down at the Pharaoh’s Tomb machine and was taking a twenty dollar bill out of her purse when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and saw Margaret, one of the cocktail waitresses.
“The usual Hun?” Margaret said with her pen at the ready. “Coffee, cream and Sweet and Low?”
Millie didn’t care to be addressed as “Hun” but she didn’t want to cause any grief with Margaret. The poor dear wasn’t that much younger than she was and here she was on her feet, in heels, all day scrambling to make tips from a lot of cranky old people in an uniform that was neither flattering nor appropriate for a lady of her age.
“That would be lovely dear.” She said
Margaret put a hand on her hip. “Are you sure I can’t put anything stronger in that for you tonight?”
Millie laughed and said, “Oh heavens no. I have to keep my wits about me in this place.”
Twenty minutes later she had fed her last twenty dollar bill into the machine and was about to give up on it. She was down to her last few credits and hit the play button. She wasn’t even really paying attention, dreading the thought of going to the ATM, but then the machine lit up and the lights started flashing. She had hit the bonus jackpot and the credits were rolling up and up until they stopped at five hundred. Her senses perked up and she felt a combination of relief and the exhilaration that happened whenever she hit a jackpot.
The lights were still flashing and the machine was playing a loud calliope song that sounded middle eastern. Millie remembered the first time she had been to the casino five years before with her late husband Walter. The machines seemed so loud then, she wondered how anyone could stand the cacophony. Now she considered it sweet music to her ears.
“Way to go, lucky.” It was Thomas again.
“Hah, I am just breaking even, “ She said looking up at him.
Over his shoulder she saw an older man. He was the man who was outside smoking before. He looked at her machine and grumbled something under his breath and then turned away. She cashed in her voucher and headed to the snack bar.
She was just finishing her tuna sandwich (the bread was a little stale) when she heard her cell phone ringing in her purse. She dug it out and saw her daughters number on the caller ID.
“Mom it’s Karen.”
“Hi sweetie, is everything OK?”
“Um yeah,” Karen hesitated briefly and then; “I stopped by the house...Where are you?”
Millie briefly considered lying to her daughter but then she realized that the background noise was unmistakable and Karen knew where she was. “I was just leaving the casino after I had something to eat.”
The line went quiet for a moment and Millie was starting to think they had lost their connection. Then Karen spoke, “Again, Mom? Weren’t you there the other night?”
Millie felt a knot in the pit of her stomach but then felt defensive. “I was just meeting a few friends here...” She didn’t think she had to explain herself to her own daughter. She was an independent woman, a widow, and could spend her time and her money any way she saw fit.
Karen must have sensed the displeasure in her mothers voice, she assumed a conciliatory tone. “Oh, I’m just surprised is all. I thought you said you would be at home tonight.”
Millie had forgotten she had told her daughter that she had no plans for the evening. She had come to the casino on a last minute whim. “Did I? I’m sorry sweetie, did you need something?”
Karen took a deep breath and started, “I hate to ask you this mom, but I need to take Devin school shopping and I am still waiting on a check from Todd...”
Todd was Karen’s ex husband and Devin’s father. Their divorce had seemingly come out of nowhere, Todd had always given the impression that he was a devoted husband and a loving father. Millie was shocked when Karen had called her last year to say that Todd had moved out.
“Of course dear,” Millie said, when Karen paused. “The three of us can go tomorrow night.”
“I’ll pay you back,” Karen said, sounding like she was tearing up.
“Let’s not worry about that right now. Besides I hit a little jackpot tonight. I can’t think of anyone I would like to share the wealth with than my beautiful grandson.”
After the conversation with her daughter Millie finished her sandwich and threw the wrapper away. She started to walk towards the exit and saw the machine she had hit on. On a whim she took a twenty out of her purse and put it into the bill acceptor.
Ninety minutes later the money was all gone.
Reverend Patricia Martin had only been at the church for two months. She was the first female pastor the church had ever had, a fact that some of the more traditional parishioners were still trying to come to grips with. She was forty eight years old and had never been married, another detail that had caused a bit of whispering among the congregation. She had been brought in to replace Rev. Janik who had suffered a debilitating stroke six months ago. The search committee had found Rev. Martin serving as an associate pastor at a church in Warsaw, New York that had grown so small that they couldn’t afford a pastor and an associate pastor so it was a good fit. Millie had worked for Rev. Janik for eighteen years and she had adored him. He was a gentle, kind man with a great sense of humor. He also trusted her implicitly.
“Millie.” Rev. Martin’s voice broke Millie’s concentration from the church bulletin she was proof reading. She looked up and saw Rev. Martin standing in her office door with a man in a sport coat and tie. He didn’t look like any of the parishioners she knew. He looked at her with a serious expression. Millie just looked up at the two without responding.
“Would you come into my office?” Rev. Martin said gesturing with her hand.
Millie’s heart sank, she had a good idea what was coming. She went into Rev. Martin’s office and sat in one of the two chairs in front of her desk. Rev. Martin walked slowly around her desk and sat down. The man remained standing off to Millie’s right.
Rev. Martin didn’t look at Millie, instead focusing on a sheaf of papers in on the desk blotter. They were photo copies of what looked like pages from a ledger. Rev Martin frowned and ran her hand through her short salt and pepper hair. Finally she looked up.
“Millie, this is Detective Brady from the Hamburg Police.”
Millie glanced up at the man who just nodded and then took the seat next to her.
Rev. Martin sat back in her chair and exhaled slowly. “I don’t know where to start...” she said. She looked towards Brady for help.
The detective cleared his throat. “Mrs. Anderson,” he started, “It’s come to Rev. Martin’s attention that there is a discrepancy between the amount of money being collected during Sunday service and what's being deposited into the church’s bank account.”
Millie tried to hold his gaze but his professional tone and probing green eyes made it hard. She looked down at her hands folded in her lap.
Rev. Martin picked up the thread; “One of the elders came to me about a week ago, Mildred. She said she was concerned that money had gone missing so she started making copies of the count from Sunday collections. She showed me six weeks worth of worksheets and none of them matched the entries in the ledger we keep here in the office. When we looked at the worksheets on file we found that they had been re-written with lower amounts for deposit.” Now She grimaced. “Millie, you were the only one who had access to the ledgers and the money, and the re-written worksheets are in your handwriting.”
The room fell silent. Millie had become short of breath and now a single tear rolled down her cheek. She knew who the elder was who had done it. Eva Sharp was the biggest busy body and gossip in the church. She had a lot of chutzpa calling herself a Christian. Rev. Martin sat forward in her chair and pushed a box of tissues towards Millie.
“Mrs. Anderson?” Detective Brady’s voice brought her back to the present. She looked at him and dabbed at her eyes. She couldn’t speak. “Mrs. Anderson, by all accounts there is a little over five thousand dollars missing...”
Had she really taken that much?
“...but Rev. Martin has asked that you not be charged if you can make restitution.”
Millie choked and sobbed and now her eyes were filled with tears. She shook her head.
His voice came back, “...is a felony. I think that Rev. Martin is being beyond reasonable . She explained that you lost your husband after a long illness a few years ago and doesn’t want to cause you or your family any added stress.”
Rev. Martin was looking at Millie sympathetically. She was a good person. Millie finally composed herself enough to speak. “I can’t make restitution,” she said, her voice shaking. “The money’s gone.”
The first thing Millie usually did when she got home from work was turn on the television in the family room. Not to watch it, but for the background noise. The house had seemed unreasonably quiet after Walter passed. This afternoon though she hadn’t made it past the kitchen, where she sat on a chair staring into nothing. The air in the house was still, Millie had turned off the window mounted air conditioner off before she left for work that morning and left the windows closed, they had predicted thunder storms. Now the closed air seemed to be pushing down on her, making it hard to breath. Still, she was unable to move.
Millie was angry. She was angry with Walter for leaving her, as irrational as that seemed. She had always considered herself fairly independent, not the needy, subservient type who would wither and die when she was left on her own. But they had been partners, they had made a home and raised a daughter. They complimented each other and always found a way to sort through life’s problems.
She was angry at Todd for walking out on Karen and Devin. She and Walter had treated him like a son and she knew that Karen loved him. It was heartbreaking to know they had all misjudged him so badly.
She was angry with Eva Sharp for being such a meddlesome know it all. Even before the money went missing Eva had always been questioning her honesty and her compentency.
She was sifting through these thoughts when she realized that none of them addressed the ache in the pit of her stomach. She was angry with herself. She had known all along what she did was wrong and wondered to herself how it had gotten so out of control.
Millie remembered the first time she had taken money from the safe. She took forty dollars on a Thursday night. It was the night before she got paid and Walter’s pension check was late. She had returned the money the following day. Her paycheck didn’t seem to go as far as it used to and Walter’s pension was never a lot to begin with. She found herself dipping into the church’s money more often and in higher increments. Sometimes she would pay it back and sometimes she found herself a little behind on her bills and couldn’t do it right away.
One week when she was due to make the deposit she realized that it was going to be a couple of hundred dollars short. She hatched a plan to make a dummy collection worksheet and throw away the original. She had lost track of exactly how much money she had borrowed but she knew she could pay it back with a couple of good nights at the casino. She would make everything right in the end.
But that never happened. Instead she got deeper and deeper into debt. She realized she was fifty seven years old and had nothing left but Walt’s pension to live on. Her checking account was overdrawn, she was a month late on the electric bill and she had lost her job. Before she had left Rev. Martin’s office the detective had mentioned the possibility of jail time. He said it could be avoided if they could work out a solution.
What could she possibly work out? She couldn’t afford a lawyer and even if she could she was guilty. She was not only out of work but her reputation was ruined. Who would want to hire a thief? And how could she tell her daughter? Karen had her own problems to deal with. Her daughter was a mature, rational adult, but how could Millie put this burden on her?
She started to cry again as she wondered how she had gotten to this point. Where had her sense of what was right and wrong disconnected and let her lie to herself and others that what she was doing was OK. She had always considered herself a decent person but certainly these weren’t the actions of a decent person.
She looked at the clock over the sink. Somehow several hours had passed and it was now after midnight. She glanced down at the table and saw a letter from the casino and she felt nauseous. She pushed the letter away.
She couldn’t go back to the casino again, going there the last few years had ruined her life. Then, at that point she realized what had happened. The whole time she had been sinking deeper into the machines and the lights and the noise, a tiny voice inside of her was telling her that it was wrong and someday she would have to stop. She had always told herself that she would stop when she got ahead, or broke even, or some other milestone that was in reality far out of reach. Now, she had to stop, she had been discovered and exposed and in that having happened, admitted to herself that it was time to stop.
She felt a calm come over her. She knew that her troubles were only just beginning but that the first thing she had to do was stop gambling. She had to stop lying, to herself and to Karen and everyone else. But who could she go to? Karen had her own troubles. Rev. Martin seemed sympathetic and caring, but she was too ashamed to go back to the church just yet. She thought of something and opened the letter and skimmed over the top part. It was a form letter that said that due to her increased rate of play she had qualified for a platinum card from the players club. She cringed when she thought of what that must have cost her. At the bottom of the letter she found what she was looking for:
Play responsibly. The Video Lottery Machines are intended for low cost entertainment purposes only. If you think you may may a problem with gambling please call....
There was a twenty four hour number for a addiction hot line. Millie would have scoffed at the idea a few years ago. How could something so benign as an electronic game be as addictive as alcohol or drugs and require some kind of outside intervention. Now it made perfect sense. There was something that had kept her going back again and again even though in her heart she knew the outcome would be the same. She wiped her eyes with a damp tissue, took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
Copywrite 2014 David Coleman