Joyland

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Lucky Frank

by Jenny Xie

First Place, Open Border Fiction Prize 2017

My parents, who had all day nursed an injured silence between them, united to teach me a lesson. I had lost my miniature koala bear, the one with the demented face covered in patchy gray felt. Lucky Frank, as I called him—though admittedly he hadn’t brought me any luck—had fallen out of my pocket somewhere in Las Vegas. Now, Baba, Mama, and I occupied a booth at the Emperor’s Buffet in the Imperial Palace Hotel, a monumental structure on the Vegas Strip with eaves outlined in blue neon and the name written in tapering strokes meant to resemble Chinese calligraphy. I stabbed at the depraved plate I had made of orange chicken, French fries, enchiladas, and beef stroganoff, the food threatening to swell back up my throat in a glob of stomach acid.

“If something is important to you,” lectured my father in Mandarin, using a fork to pry a length of meat from a crab leg, “you need to take better care of it than putting it in your pocket.”

My mother used the back of her hand to push up her glasses, since her fingertips were gleaming from coaxing shrimp out of their fried coats. “That po lan bear,” she said, grimacing. “Didn’t you pick that up from the playground? You have better toys than that.”

Most of my “better” toys had also been fished from the garbage bins at our apartment complex or donated by the Isaacsons’ daughter, who lived next door, but I was too devastated to argue, picturing a toddler retrieving Lucky Frank and putting him in its mouth.

“Maybe I left him in the hotel room,” I said. I wanted them to agree, to use their oracular adult powers to make it so.

They were intent on making their separate, conflicting points, however. “You should have left him at home, like I advised you to,” said my father.

“Frank’s never been to Vegas,” I reasoned.

My mother smacked her lips, swallowing and starting to speak in the same breath. “It’s about developing a better taste in things. Look at your plate. That’s all cheap stuff.” She pointed to her dismantled shrimp, her sliced ham—a slab of beige meat coated in slime. “We paid to sit down, you know.”

“Well, we half paid,” said my father in a tentative tone.

After checking in at the front desk this afternoon, we had ridden the elevator to room 206, where my father had taken a shit in the bathroom and called the front desk to report the outrageous stink. He had left the door open while he strained on the toilet, his thin face growing taut as something rotund plunked into the bowl. The concierge, after he’d assessed the situation, had upgraded us to a suite and left us with coupon books that included two-for-one buffet vouchers.

The turd had punctuated the inaudible argument my parents had carried on in the car, which was something about money, as it always was. My grandfather, Baba’s father, needed to fund an operation that had to do with his heart, I gathered, and Mama begrudged him the money on the grounds that it was the man’s own fault for eating so much pork fat. My father was not usually a crass man, but his dump did a spectacular job of reminding us that he was in charge, that it was his money to send.

He had had a two-year head start on being American, and occasionally he’d make a flourish of demonstrating it—such as how to milk the hotel management for free upgrades. The Imperial Palace Hotel was already a bargain for the location, which was another thing we had learned through my father, though this wasn’t our first stay.

For some reason that had to do with our foreignness and hopefulness, a classic weekend getaway for my family was Las Vegas, Nevada. At least six times in the two years they managed to stay together in Southern California, my parents drove me through the flat red desert to the heat-warped city, where themed hotels competed for attention with white tigers, lava-spewing volcanoes, circus acts, and staged pirate mutinies. The whole thing had a cadence and ritual to it, from the moment I was pulled out of my first grade classroom to beat the Friday traffic to when I would pack up the miniature toiletries from the hotel bathroom.

My father’s advice, his shocking postures, might have been his attempts to replace our memories of his desperate long-distance calls to Shanghai with new shows of street savviness and assimilation. Living in China with my mother, I was too young to grasp the loneliness, fear, shame, and fatigue of living abroad, but she must have parsed the conversations and found them buried there. Or maybe he was truly knowledgeable through outings with his lover, and really, his homesickness had been the act. (I can’t help but think it, though I have tried not to let that single disaster define my father.)

“You’re an animal,” said my mother, and her lips suggested a smile, though she had screeched at him in the hotel room while he shat. She had not put on the weight of anger and abandonment yet, and her body was pleasantly round, her hair a series of brown loops from her spirited perm.

Playing along, my father grunted and gnawed on the crab leg like a mongrel, and she came up with a few buoyant notes of laughter. Work had chiseled him into sharply edged facets that, by turns, caught the light and declared themselves in gleaming planes, and I was relieved that my mistake struck his lighthearted side. He could have a carefree charm that was positively boyish, which in turn made my mother girlish, and me an infant for whom the world was dim and diffuse, the space between each particle dilated so that something marvelous could pass through.

***

By the time we sauntered back onto the casino floor, we were taking short breaths with the pain of digestion, and I had been thoroughly chastised. We stood near a half-empty blackjack table, getting our bearings. The dealer was a blond man wearing a gleaming silk tunic with a mandarin collar; when he saw us, he angled his hand toward the empty stools with a solemn expression.

“Let’s play a couple rounds,” said my mother. “I’m feeling lucky.”

Hao,” agreed my father, cracking his knuckles in mock determination. They looked at me as though waiting for me to excuse myself. “Kathleen, why don’t you go to the arcade while we finish a game?” With his chin, he indicated the dark cave of the arcade nearby, its flickering squares of phosphorescent light. He passed me a fistful of quarters, instructing me, “Guai.” Be good.

Begrudgingly, I went in. I was used to the arcades at Treasure Island and Circus Circus—expansive rooms filled with children clutching bales of yellow tickets—and this one, a perfunctory size and manned by one preteen girl unenthusiastically shooting zombies with a plastic gun, was an insult. I watched the lurching corpses explode in bouquets of blood for ten seconds before she sneered at me, “What are you looking at?”

I shrugged. I went to the change machine, which converted American currency into game tokens. It was next to a claw crane, and I gravely checked its contents in case Lucky Frank had traveled through a miraculous Rube Goldberg contraption and landed in the bin, where his doleful eyes would be peering out from behind the tail fin of a stuffed dolphin. The back wall of the glass box was a mirror, multiplying the sea of prizes and reflecting my concerned frown. Considering the dozen quarters in my hand and the machine’s glowing red coin slot, I considered it an omen that this game took money instead of tokens. I hadn’t spotted Lucky Frank, but I could conceive of a world in which the claw jostled the toys in such a way that they would reveal his body, like shaken leaves in the canopy allowing passage of the sun.

I relinquished one quarter. The claw trembled to life. I guided its three prongs to the center of the box and let it drop; it grazed the head of a penguin before retracting, shivering with the effort. I put another quarter in, and it made another half-hearted grab, this time dragging a clear vinyl backpack a few inches in the air before letting go. I groaned.

“Hey, stupid. You’re gonna run out of quarters before you get squat out of that machine,” said the girl. “It’s rigged.”

I looked over my shoulder to find her still fixated on the screen, one hand in her pocket while the other fired at gruesome images. It occurred to me that I was in the perfect setting to duplicate my remaining quarters. The idea clicked into motion somewhere inside my ribcage—golden gears, flashing teeth—and I left the arcade.

At last, I could examine one of the clattering slot machines up close. I limbo-ed under a garland of smoke that trailed from a woman’s cigarette and wandered down the aisle, watching the adults in their rapt observation of falling cherries, sevens, and crowns. One man, hunched to scrape the shower of quarters into his plastic bucket, looked up from the din as I passed and pretended to swallow a quarter, a magic trick I dimly believed back then. He next held a hand to his throat, eyes white and fluttering in a mimed death. I hurried past him and climbed onto a chair at a carousel of abandoned machines. Above them, a spinning neon sign spelled 25¢ in pink tubing. The game was called Genie’s Treasure, illustrated by a woman wearing gold jewelry and a gauzy pink top that barely obscured her cleavage; her body evaporated from the hips downward in a ghostly trail that led to the spout of a golden lamp.

I looked around, slumping down so that the seat back covered more of my body. I gingerly inserted a quarter and listened to the metallic digestion of it before grasping the black knob on the lever and yanking it down. The digital reel spun, becoming a blur. The activity felt at once illicit and familiar, like cranking the arm of a music box. A collage began to form out of illegible runes: camels, gold coins, an elaborate letter G, gold lamps, a ponytailed female. Mysteriously, the machine spat a clatter of quarters into the trough. I straightened up. I slipped another quarter in and set the reels in motion, feeling like my pupils were spinning on their own axes. This time, the payout was even more generous. I laughed and squeaked at the magic of it.

The man who had pretended to choke on a quarter was walking away from his machine. He paused beside me. He was wearing a green windbreaker with athletic stripes over a yellow polo that seemed yolkish with his belly. White curls sprouted around his ears, though his hair was otherwise black. Slinging his arm around the back of my chair, he used the resting hand to point at the reels. “That’s pretty lucky,” he said. It sounded as though he had a cold. “You’re a pretty lucky little girl. What are you going to do with the money?”

I knew I wasn’t supposed to speak to him, but shyness made me pliant. I was also pleased that I had a witness to my escapade. “Probably use them at the arcade, where I’m supposed to be.”

“The arcade?” He seemed astonished, hanging onto the chair as his knees dipped. “That’s just a con. You never win enough tickets to, to trade to get the, the doodly-wads and what-have-yous. You throw basketballs and whack moles all day and what do you get?” He rubbed an imaginary marble between his fingers and stiffened his upper lip. “You get a little green pencil eraser. You get that, and you know what? It’s useless. ‘Cause pencils, they already come with erasers.”

I nodded.

“So what you do, is you get yourself something you don’t have.” He pumped the plastic bucket in his hand so that the quarters clanked once. “For me, that’s a car. My last one didn’t work right—drove clear into a fence and gave me this.” He pressed a thumb into the side of his nose, which had a disjointed look. “You got your license?”

I shook my head.

He laughed, the pink body of his tongue undulating like a seal. “You’re real earnest. I can tell you’re going to be an honest person if you’re not already. You’re probably going to tell just five lies in your life—but they’ll be awful, nasty ones, I’ll bet. Yeah.” Something behind his face rearranged itself, and he leaned close enough that I could smell the rot of the food between his teeth. “What’s your name?”

“Ingrid,” I said, using my cousin’s name.

“Where are your parents, Ingrid?”

I pointed, vaguely, at the blackjack table. We couldn’t see it from where we were. I was still having a hard time drawing breath and I couldn’t tell whether it was because this man’s presence was oppressive or because my body was dense with food, like a blow-up clown whose body swayed and tilted on its weighted haunches.

“Go on, then, Ingrid. Play your, your quarter. Nothing to do here but win.”

I slid the coin in, pulled the lever. He called out the symbols as they dropped: “Oh! Genie lamp! Gold! Gold! What’s it gonna be—?” I couldn’t see how I would win anything with him crowding my luck, and I was sure that his careening would draw attention to me and place me back under sensible adult supervision, but I tried again. “Yes, there it is,” he said, clenching my shoulder and letting it go. I looked down at it, imagining that it would bear the imprint of his fingers as though my body were made out of clay. “Genie lady, genie lady, genie lady. Oh, out of luck!” His mouth leaked a green smog.

“I’m going to try another one,” I said, and slid down the seat to gather my winnings from earlier. I couldn’t fit all the quarters in one hand, so I shoveled them into the cradle of my shirt.

“That’s a wise idea, Ingrid.” He reached into his jacket and scratched his side. “I know all the hot spots. I can tell just by looking at ‘em which ones are ready to blow. It’s like clockwork, you see. It’s a, a science. It’s all been built by engineers, and they put in this fancy carpet to make you forget where you’re at. But I always got my feet pointing north, so to speak.”

Now that I was standing beside him, I realized how tall this man was, and how real. I glanced around, but no one had noticed us. I began walking towards the blackjack table in the hopes that the direction would discourage him, but as I approached, I realized that my parents had moved elsewhere. Only a couple in matching aqua fanny packs slumped at the table now, with the dealer standing over them beaming a deck of cards from one hand to the other. Each ribbon of color in the wildly patterned carpet muscled past each other with nauseating slowness as I stood there, holding up the corners of my shirt, the thin fabric sagging with quarters.

The man stood behind me and clicked his tongue. “You’re not telling me those are your folks, Ingrid—those Ohioans?” He blew a blubbering sigh through his lips. “Well, it sure seems like I am going to have a hard time extricating myself from this pickle. From now on, until we find your mom and dad, you’re my ward and I’m your responsi-billy-buddy.” His voice descended into a register of exaggerated grown-up concern. “You sure they were here? You sure this is the table?”

My eyes skimmed the adjacent tables. I remembered the feeling of recovering my mother from the crowd in department stores and flea markets, the warm bath of relief, and willed the divine faucet to run now.

“This is exactly what the bigwigs want!” continued the man. “They create this maze—this, this pinball machine that gets you pinging from corner to corner and spending your hard-earned money. Hey, Ingrid, what is it you do for a living, anyway?”

“I’m just a kid,” I told him in exasperation, tired of his games.

“Watch out! She bites!”

I walked closer to the blackjack table—as though at a certain distance, the bodies encased in fanny packs would warp and dissolve, revealing my parents underneath. I got a better look at the couple and scowled at the man, the oily bulb of his chin, until he felt the heat from my gaze. The anger was for my parents, however: it was they who had left me in the casino, who muttered their adult secrets, who dismissed the loss of Lucky Frank. They had always taught me to stay put if I got lost, but I was going to teach them a lesson. I would find them in some huddle around a gambling table, and this man with the distended stomach and fractured nose would be in tow.

A solid red swath of carpet delineated a path. I merged into traffic, marching alongside a woman with an expensive-looking bag hooked in the crook of her elbow. I looked for my parents’ faces, but they never appeared on the Asian couples that filtered past, who seemed to offer alternate lives: the elaborately dressed pair with hair singed a shade of orange, the husband who sulked behind his wife and carried her purse, the man raising a camcorder while his partner kept up an animated narration.

“What do they look like?” asked the man. “Are they skinny, fat, tattooed, three-legged? Who are the suspects here?”

“They’re normal,” I said, aggravated at this cheerful tone. “My dad’s tall and he has black hair, and my mom’s short with black hair. They both wear glasses.”

“Okay, that’s a start,” he snickered. “You’ve really narrowed it, narrowed it down now. Now, do you remember what they were wearing?”

I rewound the evening until my parents and I were back at the buffet. Their heads floated above the banquette, attended to by two disembodied hands that brought forkfuls of food to their mouths. When I tried to imagine their clothes, the man’s yellow polo and green windbreaker hung on their translucent frames.

“I’ll know them when I see them,” I said.

“You know what you should do? You should dump your coins in here, and I’ll take care of them for you.” He rattled the bucket. “You look a little loopy, walking around like you’re picking them off the, the bushes.”

In my reproachful fantasy, the winnings would be a defiant flourish, but my arms were growing tired. I said, “Okay, but we’re counting them.”

“Fair enough.”

We stood to the side and dropped them, one by one, into his bucket. Each coin I relinquished deepened my anxiety, and there were 88 quarters in all.

“Now, do your people play poker? Could they be playing craps? Or would they be at the slot machines like the two of us?” He twisted the white tuft of hair behind his ear and gestured erratically with his other arm.

We had wound up near the glass doors that opened to the Strip, and each time they swung open they let in the warm night air and a raucous arrangement of music, traffic, conversation. I was tired. My parents and I had spent the day wandering through different hotels and buying cheap souvenirs: magnets, postcards, shot glasses I would later use as a tea set. At this point in the night, my parents usually deposited me in the hotel room and returned after I had fallen asleep to something on the television. Had they forgotten that I was in the arcade? I seethed with fresh anger and something more acrid, like fear.

“What do you say?” prompted the man.

“Craps,” I answered, only because I remembered my surprise at my father pronouncing what I had thought was a bad word.

“I once saw a woman roll eighty two times in a row,” he said. “One after another after another. It’s this way, darling.” He indicated where the carpet branched in another direction. “I wasn’t kidding—I know my way around this place.” His warm, meaty palm grasped at my own, the calluses expressing an alien topography. I jerked my hand into my chest.

“Come on, Ingrid, you got to take my hand. Minors in a casino get thrown out like day-old bread around here. You want to end up in some lost and found with a load of, of crunchy swim trunks and cracked sunglasses?”

He stuck out his hand and quickened his pace so that it became a challenge to reach up and grab it. “You can call me Frank,” he said. His firm, curt handshake turned into a steady pressure as he led me to the craps tables, and the radiant name that he had pronounced gave me renewed hope. This was part of the mandalic plan of the universe.

But it was clear, and became clearer as we got close, that my parents were not there. A sour pressure built behind my eyes, and a pebble clogged my throat.

“Hey, okay, don’t be upset.” He waggled our joined hands and bent his knees so that his face drifted closer towards mine, leaking his hot, sour breath. “They’re around here somewhere. One thing I’m one hundred percent certain of—and that’s a conservative estimate—is that they didn’t poof into thin air.”

We were drawing other people’s eyes, the small white movements like bulbs flickering on.

He idled, emitting a nervous, puttering energy. “Forget it, I need to visit the john,” he said. We made for an illuminated sign that read Men.

“Well, I don’t,” I snapped. “I want to keep looking.”

When he laughed, his whole mouth went awry as though he were crying. “Miss Ingrid, you didn’t have six scotch-and-sodas like I did.”

His hand, which had been gripping my four fingers, now forced its digits between my own, and I understood that he meant for me to accompany him inside. The carpet seemed to thicken under my feet, becoming plush enough to sink into with each step. I was too young to understand what might happen, but I could sense its large, jagged contours. I forfeited my indignation towards my parents and wished I had stayed near the arcade, where the girl would now be playing skee ball, lifting one foot behind her like an ice skater as she lobbed the stone.

“Let go, Frank,” I whined. Twisting my body to the side, I tried to free myself, but he only tightened his hold, wringing pain from each finger.

“Can’t have you running loosey-goosey through the place,” he said.

Now we were at the dark threshold, and the trashcan outside was topped with a brass ashtray, its gray litter sprouting a fungal growth of cigarette butts.

“There you are, you rascal. I have your drink.” It was a cocktail waitress, and she was trotting towards us in a snug casing of blue satin and fishnet tights, trailing plumes of dark eyeshadow. Her lips spread in a wide, glossy smile as she switched her gaze to me. “And who are you? You’re cute as a button.”

“She’s my four-leaf clover,” said the man. He seemed exhausted. “Watch her for a sec, would ya, Jill? I need to take a leak.” He waddled into the bathroom.

“What were you doing with Frank?” Jill set her tray of drinks on the carpet and used a black cocktail napkin to dab at the hot tears caught in my lashes, which had come as suddenly as a sneeze. “Are you lost? What’s your name?”

The dark line of her cleavage and the spice of her perfume embarrassed me. I said in a shuddering voice, unable to shed the situation, “In—Ingrid.”

Her brows twitched. “Okay, Ingrid, don’t you worry. I’m going to help you find your parents, okay? This happens all the time. Let’s go get my manager and sort this out.”

I nodded. Frank emerged and bent over the water fountain, noisily sucking at the faucet before claiming his drink from the tray table.

“Fiend,” said Jill, but with affection in her voice. “You’ve been dragging this poor girl around the casino?”

A dark veil descended over his face and lifted just as quickly. “Just doing my duty as a good Samaritan.”

“Come on, to the office we go. Let a real adult handle this.”

We followed her through a door marked Employees Only. The other side of the threshold was bare and corporate, lined with gray lockers that gleamed under fluorescent lighting. Frank seemed comfortable here, tipping the glass back into his mouth and placing it back onto the tray, landing an echoing smack on Jill’s behind with the other hand. It was a scary, thrilling sound that resonated down the hallway. She laughed and said, “I’m on the clock, you know.”

“You never let me forget it, Jilly.”

“Spare me the dramatics,” she said over her shoulder. Seen in profile, her false lashes obscured her eyes, lifting and closing like the wings of a black moth. She made me aware of my eyelids and the weight of each blink, a thing I had never considered before.

Her heels clapping with metronomic precision, she led us to what appeared to be a break room. A dreary gray table held a cluster of empty beer bottles and a box of donuts, and there was a kitchenette with a coffee maker and a microwave.

“Oops,” said Jill, placing the tray on the table. “He must have gone home.”

“Oops, my ass,” said Frank, pawing her closer. “This was your plan from the beginning. Admit it, Jill Marie Reynolds. You wanted to get me alone.”

“My middle name,” she said, placing a hand on his chest so that her back arched, “is Ramona.”

“Like I give a, a half a damn what your middle name is.” He slid a hand over her ass, lifting the lustrous fabric just enough to reveal the swelling of flesh there, neatly divided into squares by her webbed tights. “Ramona, Ramona,” he said lowly, his face angling towards hers in the fashion of a seedling growing towards the sun in a time-lapse video, all jerk and quiver on its pale green stem. When they met, their mouths made slow, suckling sounds, and the breath hissed out of them in humid exhalations. I recognized some of these noises from my mother and father’s bedroom. It was an association I did not want to make. Watching them grip each other with a sidelong gaze, I felt a desirous muscle tense and twist in some unknowable corner of my body. I envied Jill, though I never wanted to be touched in that way—I envied and pitied Jill.

“Frank,” she eventually gasped, as though just remembering, “there’s a child in this room.”

Frank halved his eyes with his lids and said to me, “Young Ingrid, this is where we part ways.”

Despite everything, his dismissal hurt my feelings. I felt strangely inadequate; for what, it was unclear. In the sting that built in the wake of his words, I decided to leave with something to show for myself. As the adults returned to their reptilian groping, I grasped the pail of quarters where it sat on the table and ran out the door with the bounty outstretched between two hands.

“Little bitch!” I heard him shout as the door shut. I ran back the way we had come, the quarters clapping against each other like bells on a sleigh. I heard his thudding footsteps behind me as I barreled back onto the casino floor, clipping someone’s arm as I cut through the slot machines. I kept on, tracing the frenetic path of a housefly, until a hand wrapped itself around my upper arm. Panting, I looked up into the disapproving face of an older woman.

“Slow down,” she said. “You’re going to hurt somebody. Or yourself.”

“Do you know which way the arcade is?”

The edges of her frown grew more pronounced, and she indicated a direction with her head.

“Thank you.” It couldn’t have been more than forty feet away. Taking long strides, I made for the sign. Foot traffic obscured the entrance. Now that we were on the cusp of night, girls in dresses cut at regulation mini-length grew in density on the casino floor, their bare legs lofted on slender heels. In the space between passing bodies, I saw my parents waiting by the door.

My father spotted me first. “Where have you been?” he barked in Mandarin. His eyebrows seemed to grow denser and darker with anger.

“Why weren’t you in the arcade like we said?” said my mother. “And this!” She ripped the bucket of change out of my hands. “Where did you get this? Did you steal this?”

Ni tou de?” my father interrogated.

It was impossible to explain. I shook my head desperately. “I found it,” I said. “I had to go the bathroom, and I found it there.”

Frank had been right on one count—I rarely told a lie, but the daunting truth made me believe this one. I could picture myself rubbing a dollop of soap between my palms, tiptoeing to peer into a bucket that someone had left on the countertop. I let my face reflect this version of events; my eyes project the flickering image.

My mother grabbed my father by the crook of his arm and said, slowly, as if trying to tease out the truth in pronouncing it, “She found the money!” I noticed then the splotches of heat at her throat and realized that they had been sipping cocktails, the same cocktails that had wavered in their glasses as Jill and Frank had struggled against the table.

“If she found it, then she should turn it in,” said my father.

My mother clicked her tongue, smiling deviously now. “Look at you, always trying to be the hero when it comes to cash. Why can’t you take this as a sign from shang di? He’s trying to reward you for helping your old man.” She pressed the bucket into his chest. “You earned it.”

“Alright, alright,” he relented. “Don’t overdo it with the flattery.” It pleased him, however, to think that the universe had repaid him kindness for kindness.

Maybe they recognized that they needed this to quiet whatever restless thing they had aroused between them, but they said nothing else. We rode the elevator, rising with the feeling that we had really won our share. In our hotel room, the curtains were drawn, revealing the brightly freckled city. I fell asleep as soon as I rested my cheek against the pillow, it seemed. I only woke once, in the de-saturated hours before morning, and I could just make out a hump in my parents’ bed, evolving by the second, forming and melting as if trying to escape the burden of shape once and for all.