Two hours east of San Diego lies the Quechan Casino, or simply, “The Q” as they’ve branded themselves. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, given how conspiracy nutjobs have ruined that letter, but The Q’s regulars probably don’t mind. Within five minutes of being on the casino floor, I see a man wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” hat. By the time I realize what the hat says, I catch the man’s stare. He’s fishing for eye-contact. When I give it to him, he nods. I, for some reason, nod back.
Technically, Quechan is in California, but they go by Arizona time. It’s a mindfuck. Step outside and you’re suddenly an hour behind. I’m certain they do this to trick you into spending more money. It’s like some Twilight Zone where time isn’t real, money isn’t real, so why not just spend both at the Buffalo slot machine? (Forever and ever and ever...)
(Caretaker from The Shining voice: You’ve always been a gambler at The Q.)
It’s sometime between Christmas and the new year, and my wife Jessica and I have driven across California to meet her dad at The Q. He lives in Tucson, so the casino serves as a halfway mark between us. Ending the year at the purgatorial midpoint feels like a fitting end to 2021—a year that was as tenuous as it was uncertain. If 2020 was the year Nature warned us to figuratively “fuck around and find out,” 2021 is the year that we found out. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was also the mantra of Quechan, a place where you’re constantly fucking around and finding out.
I sign up for the Players Reward Card, a little debit card thingy that I keep tethered to my body. When I play anything, I insert the card into a slot and the machine is supposed to give me points. What do the points do? Lord knows. The woman who signs me up says that I get $10 of free play with the card, but I never figure out how to redeem it. Instead, I sit at a nickel slot, betting one line per spin, connected to the machine via Players Reward Umbilical Cord. Not gonna lie: it feels pretty intimate.
A few minutes later, minus half of my gambling budget, I take my card back to the woman and ask if I have enough points to “do anything” with them. It feels like being eight years old at the arcade, dropping a handful of tickets on the glass counter and asking, “What can I get with this many?”
The woman says I don’t really have enough points to do anything yet.
“But you still have $10 in free play.”
I sit at a sorry black jack table. The felt on the table is discolored, faded, worn down. Same, black jack table. Same.
The dealer asks for my Reward Card. He then says, “Uh, never mind” because it’s time for a new dealer. I don’t get any points, and I quietly, but savagely, wish for revenge.
To my left, there’s a young man who looks straight out of the movie Spun. He’s playing recklessly—standing on stuff like 12 and hitting on 18, and he keeps winning. To my right, an older woman plays more conservatively, and we form an alliance where she tells me how I should play. She helps me win back the money I lost at slots and then I do that thing that people do when it’s time for bed where I stretch and say, “Welp, time for me to turn in.” It’s only 9:30 a.m.
Or 8:30 a.m. Who the fuck knows anymore.
There’s a sign outside one of Quechan’s restaurants—Ocotillo Cafe—advertising a $9 breakfast buffet when you have the Reward Card. That’s me! Unfortunately, you don’t get any points when you get the breakfast buffet.
It’s been over two years since I’ve eaten at a buffet. For most people this would qualify as a win, and maybe it would for me too, but the rollercoaster of the past year has muddied the part of my brain that can discern between winning and losing.
Ocotillo Cafe is a dimly-lit, carpeted room that looks like a makeshift Sizzler was stitched onto the side of the casino. The perfect place to reflect on bad decisions while making more of them.
I stop at a soggy tin of chilaquiles. “Oh, hello,” I say. The mountain of red slop stares back, much like a void when you stare at it for too long.
I pull the serving spoon from the mass like it’s Excalibur. I admire the tool—small bits of carnitas and tortilla stick to the tool like gore. “Ah,” I say aloud, and plunge it back in. I shovel a healthy portion onto my plate.
I move on. I tong through a stack of chicken fried steaks. They all look the same but I find the one that’s speaking directly to me. C’monnn, Ryan, it says. We’ve been sitting under these heat lamps all morning. Would love to be in your belly.
“You got it, old buddy,” I say, tucking one of the fried disks tenderly next to the chilaquiles.
I slop it together with some refried beans and a bunch of other shit. I also load up a small bowl of mixed fruit, which is funny because I have like three thousand calories on my plate and I’m thinking, but, fruit!
The food is edible? There is absolutely nothing vegan for Jessica. I mean, the fruit might be, but even that seems iffy. I clear my plate, but I don’t feel great about it. The food sits heavy in my stomach and heart.
After the buffet, it’s back to the slots to win more points. I’m still not really sure what they do, but that makes it easy to feel like I’m gaining even if I’m losing. I know I’m being deceived, but those points give me a sense of purpose.
We all have points—incentives to keep going despite the bleakness all around us. Don’t lose sight of yours.
January is when everybody wants to jump head-first into their fresh starts—dry months, exercise regimens, social media breaks—but I want to ease into it this year. I’m going to allow myself a few weeks to get fully into the grind of 2022, which means that these newsletters might be a little shorter than usual until then.
But I do want to point you to a piece that I had published in PACIFIC Magazine last week. It’s an essay about John Hughes’ holiday movies, and how I believe they’re secretly horror movies. I’m really proud of this one, and I hope you enjoy it!
Got a tip or wanna say hi? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @theryanbradford. And if you like what you’ve just read, please hit that little heart icon at the end of the post.
Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.