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June 21, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Holly Hagman
The Atlantic City summer tastes of salt and stale cigar smoke. On the boardwalk, the flat rusted nail tops press into the bottoms of my sandals as the breeze toys with the fabric of my dress, which is drawing far less attention than Dad’s Seinfeld “art of seduction” t-shirt. As we walk closer to the water, the aromas of fried foods beckon, and I contemplate asking for funnel cake. Instead, a blinking bulb highlights our reflections, and I say we must play the crane game.
“Okay, you pick which machine.” Dad says, squinting through his transition lenses. I choose one that contains mystery boxes; while many contain ride tickets or game tokens, others can hold a $500 gift card. It’s a gamble.
I choose two crisp dollar bills from my wallet and feed them into the slot; the machine gobbling them in a mechanical whir. I move the claw over a golden Chinese takeout box and push the glowing red button. The claw lowers, grasps the sides of the box, hoists it into the air, and plops it into the winner’s slot.
“You open it.” I tell Dad. He hesitates, but he grabs the box and pulls. Three amusement park tickets tumble out.
“Ah, that’s beat,”
“Let’s try again,” Dad feeds two more dollars into the machine’s slot. This time, I aim for a blue box, but the claw prongs slide against the material, and it slips back to the bottom of the machine.
“One more time,” Dad feeds two more dollar bills to the ravenous game, grabs the control stick, hurls the claw back towards the metallic blue box, and smashes the large, blinking button. The music seems to speed up as the crane descends upon the box, and I see his eyes reflected, recalling a look earlier that day when, as if by accident, he sat at the Wheel of Fortune slot machine, entered a twenty, and mashed the button repeatedly. He only stopped when I informed him he’d won $242, which surprised him because he thought it was a quarter machine.
He aims for that blue box, and the claw complies by lacing its metal digits tightly around the perimeter, lifting it from the pits of the game, and dropping it into Dad’s hands. Inside the box are three more ride tickets, so we abandon our machine in search of a ride we can afford with our winnings. We find the carousel, singing that classic tune as the once white horses trot towards an ever-moving finish line.
We sit on a painted swing, the green finish chipped to reveal the light wood underneath. The ride begins, and I look out as we move closer to, then further from the sea. The salt air hits my face, and I look at Dad. His wrinkles are more pronounced, and his beard is turning white. The lenses of his glasses seem thicker than they used to, but I ignore this as we spin.
Later, we will go to dinner, and I will glance at the bar menu, but I will order a Pepsi instead of a cocktail. I will wonder what Dad would have ordered in his youth. When our burgers arrive, we will eat them and discuss the irony of him winning on a Wheel of Fortune machine when Jeopardy is his game show of choice. I will watch his eyes as he looks out over the carpeted casino floor at the rows of slot machines, see the vibrant lights flicker off the lenses of his glasses, and determine that this is the healthier vice for him.
As the carousel twirls, a queasy knot forms in my stomach. The morning Dad left, I didn’t know why. I thought I did because we were learning about alcoholism in seventh grade health class, and the pieces fit together better than a jigsaw puzzle. He took me to the farm at Holmdel Park, where we pretended not to be sad as we threw breadcrumbs into the pigpen. When we sat in his truck before he drove me home, he explained that he wouldn’t be home for “a while.”
“Why can’t you stop drinking?” I asked.
“It’s not that simple,” He looked at me with water shimmering in his eyes, a dark, solemn brown I’d never noticed before. The steam from his coffee sitting in the cup holder fogged his glasses, another addiction creating space between us.
That same week, I wrote an essay analyzing alcoholics in shaky cursive on loose-leaf paper. My health teacher gave me an “A.”
When we pass the sea again, the carousel music fading into seagull chirps and crashing waves, I notice that I’m dizzy. Slowly, the ride comes to a halt. Dad leaves the ride first, descending the stairs to the boardwalk. I follow, and as I come down, he offers me his hand. I grip the railing instead and step onto the pavement. Although the ride is over, it is clear that we are not where we began.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in Creative Writing and an MAT in Secondary Education. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the Nonfiction Section Editor of Causeway Lit. Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog and in The Nightingale.