On a balcony overlooking the parking lot of the El Capitan Resort Casino, Rodney and Tatiana shared a cigarette while a red glow crept over the mountains. They’d been inside for hours, pulling slots and learning which waitress arrived fastest. Within the breast pocket of Rodney’s favorite flannel sat a small felt-lined box, and within this box lay an engagement band, a hoop of gunmetal titanium he’d purchased the week previous. He touched it nervously, glancing toward Tatiana when she looked away, the little plumes of smoke billowing into her black curls.
Their room was paid for one more night, but that night was ending fast.
“We’re floating even,” she said, “nothing lost, nothing gained.”
“We still have time,” Rodney said.
The resort sat within a mountainous bowl. A thin road wound between sheaves of granite and live oak, cresting a pass before descending onto the minor plain upon which the casino sat like a castle from olden times. It was flanked by an executive golf course, several pools, and the neon spike of a hotel. This sprawling compound was in turn ringed by sharp hills and canyons that ached for water in summer but summoned waterfalls in spring. Ranches dotted this landscape, and on some patches of flat ground crops would grow. Rodney didn’t care for any of that. He’d ridden a horse once, but the act had terrified him. What was to stop such a massive animal from kicking a person to death? Combustion engines were much more agreeable.
“You haven’t done well,” Tatiana said.
They stood among a party gathered outside, a ragtag collection in all manner of dress and affect. Truckers, vaqueros, and homecoming queens paying dollars on the cent for drags. Over the growing clamor, Rodney said, “Not really,” but Tatiana did not respond, nor did he repeat himself.
Earlier that evening a peculiar crowd arrived, a band of crewcut Marines, chisel-jawed and dopey, attending their annual soiree. They’d floated between craps tables and buffet lines, many holding a cavalcade of spectacular women hooked on their arms, dates for the military ball, girlfriends and wives and all manner of escorts. Others of the men sat by themselves, draining cocktails by the tray, and others still butted heads in the parking lot outside like stegosauri. All those big faces and crisp uniforms put Rodney on edge.
Tatiana ashed onto the shoulder of his favorite flannel, the one she'd bought him. She did this when the background noise of their quarrelsome love went quiet.
“You know,” Tatiana said, “I’m not having the worst time.”
By then it was deep midnight, and the military ball was in chaos. They watched the brawny young men stalk the parking rows, squawking each other down.
“Why is the sky red like that?” Tatiana asked, lighting another lung dart. The night clouds above their private wargames were tinting rose. Two leathernecks tackled a third.
Rodney had been drinking, that weekend and throughout his life. It took a moment to pivot and comprehend the crimson glow illuminating the valley, a burn some distance away that would surely spread. Smoke, apocalypse. A torrent of fire engulfing the land. With each new calamity, he maintained a tally, in continual anticipation of the gambler’s fallacy, that long stretches of bad luck prophesied a turn towards the good.
“If it’s a wildfire,” Tatiana said, “should we go? Are the roads still open?”
“I bet we’re safer here,” Rodney said, “surrounded by concrete.”
She smirked. “You bet? Aren’t you just trying to watch what’s left of your money burn?”
There was a time when this might have angered Rodney: her wanton disregard, her vocal contempt. Instead, he’d come to accept such treatment, even to love it. Tatiana, his junior by a decade, was much like a woman he’d known many years before: headstrong, irresistible, prophetic. The two women sometimes became confused in his dreams, a body from one angle suddenly turning to have the other’s face, or voice, or some other bizarre mutation of features, eyes instead of nipples, disembodied limbs, patches of wildly colored hair.
He’d met Tatiana during his longest and most recent upswing, a clearheaded time of intentions and early mornings. At first, he’d a sense he could do no wrong with her. Things fell into place that should never have worked. During their first dinner together, a waiter carrying a platter of banana splits tripped and hurled them across the room. A single cherry, spiraling through the air, landed neatly among the fine-edged ice of Tatiana’s rocks whiskey. She sipped and said ahhh. It took Rodney a long time to realize she was the lucky one, not him.
“Well, if we’re staying put,” Tatiana said, “we may as well get back to it. Last one inside is a –”
“Sack of shit,” Rodney said.
It soon became obvious that fire was bearing down on the valley. The roads would be thick with killing air, the surrounding ranches scorched in a deadly conflagration. Hill-dwellers rich and poor came to El Capitan with their animals in tow, as if in flight from an enemy army. All were welcome in that place of worship. Telephone poles burst into flame behind them.
There was a nervous row of horses on the casino floor, heads wrapped in T-shirts and towels to keep calm. Rodney considered sprinting down the line, snatching each covering as he went. What a sight it would be, the beasts kicking loose from their handlers, rearing above the nitwits hunched over the blackjack tables, the flailing hooves launching chips in great flurries like thrown roses.
Instead, he dropped another coin into the slot and pulled the machine’s long brass lever. The reels spun like turbines, and Rodney saw a bindle of grapes, a woman's face – the fierce Knave of diamonds – and the letters B, A, R, written in cartoon red beside the clanging lights. Nothing, bust. The dazzle played across his graying visage like the reflections on a grotto wall. He pulled the lever again. Somewhere, a shrieking animal stamped its hoof, the bloodshot eye circling.
Within his head fought two impulses: the heroic and the cowardly. The hero in him wanted to continue his string of rash decisions and present the engagement ring to Tatiana, his friend, lover, and sometimes-enemy. The coward in him winced at every improbable success she wrenched from the world and wanted desperately to give up and sink back to nothing. He didn’t think he could bear her refusal, if it came. Rodney counted at least four valid reasons his plan had already gone awry: the fire, the military ball, the fleeing horse ranchers, their thinning pocket change. And the more he counted, the more reasons he found.
Who's to say what that first reason was? Maybe the day in third grade when Rodney discovered a rip in his pants, standing before the class presenting a diorama on the historic Mission San Luis Rey. The monks of Capistrano could not save the Luiseños from their freakish illness, nor would the children of Lakeview Elementary stifle their honking laughter. Or had it occurred even earlier, in the unremarked dreamtime of young childhood, and Rodney had long forgotten the moment which soured his life? A dropped ice cream, maybe, boiling on the asphalt, or a balloon floating skyward? Not that it mattered.
A taupe stock horse clopped behind the slot machines. Rodney wouldn’t look. He finished the last salty gulp of martini and glanced around for a waitress, a lonely olive resting within the crater of glass like a meteorite.
“They’re so calm,” Tatiana said. “It’s amazing.”
She ashed into the tray between them, watching the horses, the nest of her black curls now trussed within a lilac kerchief. The whole room reeked of smoke, from many years of tobacco abuse and from the brush fire raging in the hills outside.
“This is the one,” Tatiana said and confidently pulled her slot.
The machine erupted into a fever of bells and flashing lights. The digits ticked up, nearly two thousand dollars. What luck. Her jumping and laughing startled the animals. Rodney held his head in his hands. The ring in his pocket was something so insignificant it might have been undetectable, just another quivering electron.
A waitress approached Tatiana’s blinking machine, alongside a spindly casino concierge with a mustard tie. In this, the age of gold, Tatiana’s tray overflowed with ducats.
“Mr. Champagne-taste here,” she announced, gesturing toward Rodney, “would like a glass of your finest bubbly to celebrate my victory. And I would like something... maybe with Chambord? On ice, with mineral water.”
Rodney accepted this new insult without remark. Instead, he considered everything he’d seen in movies that spooked horses. Snakes, loud airplanes, sudden gusts of wind. Perhaps if he threw his empty martini glass the entire caravan would stomp like monsters across the floor, clearing the last patrons from their perches and giving him victorious solitude. One by one, the line of snorting beasts disappeared into an adjacent ballroom. Each of their handlers looked drag-assed and grim, not unlike chimney sweeps. Rodney envied the horses their humility.
“We hear you’ve had the beginnings of a lucky run,” the concierge said. “I have your winnings here.”
He held, curled within a bundle of irregular knuckles, a stack of hundred-dollar bills.
“And I have something else to offer,” the concierge continued, making a sweeping gesture in reference to the surrounding bedlam. “As you can see, we have a full house tonight.”
“Good one,” Rodney quipped.
“The roads are closed,” he said, “and no one will be leaving this evening. We believe the lucky deserve reward, and are offering a suite, free of charge, all-inclusive, for the night, and for as long as your luck holds.”
“You won’t let us leave?” Rodney asked.
“I’m afraid that time has passed,” the man said. “The fire department is laying a perimeter now. We will be completely surrounded soon, if not already.”
Rodney watched the final horse’s shivering rump disappear into the ballroom’s double doors. Its tail whipped one last swish, as if waving goodbye.
“What about the jarheads?” he asked. “And the ponies?”
“The military ball has concluded,” the man said, twitching at his mustard tie. “And the livestock will... have to make due. Please, my friends, we insist. Accommodations have been arranged, here in the hotel. The room is ready for you.”
“I hope you’re prepared for us to move in,” Tatiana said, “because my luck… Honey, my luck is going to hold.”
The man bowed, very slightly, just as another slot machine began to panic, and during this chaos he slipped away. The waitress returned now with their drinks, handed a tumbler of carmine fizz to Tatiana, and to Rodney, a flute of golden-straw effervescence, only the finest bubbly. He took a slurp, quickly, and nearly shot the liquid from his nostrils, so sickly sweet it was. Whether through ill-will, or confusion, the waitress had brought him a glass of sparkling apple cider. Perhaps she was new to the job and distressed by the circumstances.
Or perhaps she disliked him too and wanted to make abundantly clear the extent and severity of his many failures. Rodney briefly considered shattering the long-stemmed glassware on the paneling of his slot machine and using the shards to gouge from their sunken sockets his own eyeballs. How they itched in this weather. Instead, he tilted the flute back until the cider was finished, dramatically wiping his chin with a greasy sleeve.
“Are we ready to see the room?” he asked.
When he first began calling after Tatiana, Rodney was conscious of himself as an older man, perhaps as a man who’d once been broken but had found some sliver of moonlight to illuminate his path. He was proud of that, to have emerged onto new plateaus. He’d felt lucky to visit her sometimes, where she worked as a hairstylist, and knew the other women who worked with her were examining him closely. Just who was this Rodney? Where did he come from? Where was he going? He hadn’t minded then. He was happy to be an object of interest once more, flattered. He’d brought bouquets and smiled broad smiles.
In the dim halls of the hotel, however, whatever flattery he’d once felt, judged beside this woman, became a miserable doubt. Here she was, resplendent, exuberant with riches she’d summoned, as if by sorcery. And him, a husk, a simpering shuck of a man, contemptible, deserving of scraps, maybe. He scurried behind her.
They navigated a labyrinth of near-featureless corridors, punctuated by octagonal mirrors and thin tables supporting singular ferns. Whatever powerlines ran through the Cuyamaca Mountains had melted, and the casino was now operating on reserve generators. In the half-light, groups of frenetic Marines passed with their dates, many of them still blitzed into a hooting frenzy. Molten rage boiled within Rodney when a particular gaggle of men whistled at Tatiana as she rounded a corner.
He stopped to confront them, both fists balled; he’d struck men before; he’d held his own. But once he squared his shoulders, they were gone, around another corner, whisked away on legs of hooch to whatever mysterious destination they could possibly be seeking. The hallway before him curled toward ominous, empty places. An alarm meeped somewhere, like an itch.
Tatiana had opened a door down the hall. “This is it,” she said, hanging on the frame. “Come inside!”
They had been promised a suite and, strangely, were not disappointed. Two beds, a separate nook with a dinette set, a deep bath, jetted and seashell pink, portents for an evening of romance. Tatiana flung herself onto the striped sheets while Rodney headed for the window. There was a warmth behind the curtains, not unlike what transpires during a summer’s day spent indoors, shutters drawn, in retreat from a world of burden and woe. Rodney pulled the heavy linen back, only slightly, and in the shimmering interplay of darkness and gleam beheld the mayhem outside.
Whorls of sparks rode a murderous wind. He hadn’t expected to see flames, but there they were, taller than buildings, lashing at the night. The casino complex, its radiating concrete, for parking, golf, and lounging poolside, was an island within a sea of fire. Yellow figures passed to and fro before the glass, firemen with axes and masks. A line of them broke from the building carrying a length of hose toward a fenced structure some distance into the lot. Rodney noticed the peaking white domes of tanks filled with propane or natural gas.
“There’s no point,” Tatiana called. “Why watch that stuff? We’re safe in here.”
Lugging their hose like a massive boa, the firefighters wove between rows of sedans and pickups. They looked like scouts advancing into an alien dimension.
Rodney had once seen a propane tank flare, though it had been much smaller. A friend had set a twenty-gallon tank onto a campfire in a fit of drunken bravado. From afar, they’d watched it gas off, sending a torrent of pinkish flame into the evening sky.
“In all seriousness, Rod,” Tatiana said, “we’ve been very lucky today. Wouldn’t you like to celebrate?”
He glanced at her in the window’s vague reflection. She fished a bottle of sparkling wine from the minibar and cradled it with both hands. For a long time, she rocked on her heels, holding the emerald vessel. Rodney sighed and closed the curtain.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s celebrate.”
Tatiana smiled. She snatched two tumblers from the dinette table while Rodney popped the bubbly, carefully withdrawing the cork. It launched from the bottle and rubber-balled off the ceiling with a fwap, ricocheting below a cabinet.
“Leave it for the cleaners,” she said. “Do you think we could order room service?”
At this, Rodney nearly laughed. It welled from the core of him, like a thermal spring, but at the point of emission, he tamped down the indulgence. He carefully poured each glass, the liquid perfectly even between the two, and set the chilled bottle on the tile floor of the dinette.
Tatiana raised her drink. “To our luck,” she said, “today and for the rest of our lives.”
“To our luck,” Rodney repeated, and they clinked.
Within the pocket of his flannel sat the ring, waiting. Sometimes he felt the little nub of pressure on his chest, dizzying with possibility.
At this moment, a searing explosion rocked the hotel wall. A burst of heat filtered from the window, the room's corners shook, and thunderous drumfire from an enormous combustion rollicked the structure. The tanks had caught fire and detonated, mushrooming burning gases into a hellish world.
Tatiana dropped her glass. Rodney watched its turning, the liquid spilling as the tumbler tilted, the thick glassware shattering, spreading a rash of tiny fizz as wine pooled on the tiles at their feet. Tatiana screamed and sat into a dinette chair.
Rodney knelt before her, watching rivulets slipping between tiles. Would he reach into his pocket and withdraw the little box? Could he focus enough to slip a titanium ring onto her finger? There were already so many reasons to quit. Would there be a better moment? Rodney took a sip from his own glass. Yes, he thought, there would be a better moment.
“We need to go,” he said.
Tatiana wiped her nose with the back of her hand, smearing lipstick. “Our bags,” she said. “What if we need to evacuate?”
“We need to be ready to leave. We’ll get them.”
“We can’t drive through fire,” she said.
“No,” Rodney said, “but we can’t say here.”
Through the halls they went, lost among wrong turns and windowless stretches. Strange sounds echoed around corners, distant howls and malfunctioning electronics. Beneath all of it growled the ominous rumble of the fire outside, the sound of a gargantuan consumption, millions of tons of drought-stricken flora converting into a stinking cloud of fumes, visible from the moon. They searched for the old room, but casinos are built like mazes on purpose.
At a dead end, where not one but three ice machines sputtered, Rodney held Tatiana by the shoulders and said, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
The box in his pocket pressed against his heart.
“Please,” she said, “we have to get through this.”
“It can’t wait much longer.”
“We’re almost back,” she said, “I’m sure of it. Just a little farther.”
He chased after her, sprinting halfway across the vast casino floor. Both were short of breath when they stopped, lost again. The front door was only a few steps away, but what lay beyond? As elsewhere, the lights were dimmed, and the machines deactivated, disappearing into the gloom in even rows. Dust hung in thin bands of tangerine glow creeping from the edges of pulled curtains.
Rodney put his hand to the brass handle of the great double doors leading outside.
“This way,” Tatiana said, gesturing toward another wing of the hotel.
He’d expected the handle to sear his hand, as if the fire were immediately outside, but the brass was oddly cool. He pushed it open, just a crack, and gazed upon a world ablaze. Everything beyond the parking lot had caught. A column of light pierced the room. The heat was unreal. Nothing could survive that.
A sudden drumming filled the chamber, echoing wildly from the broad walls and many metal surfaces, followed by a brazen, toneless hooting.
“Now what exploded?” Rodney asked.
A naked man, head-shaven and muscular in the manner of military servitude, galloped toward him on the back of a jet-black American quarter horse. Spitting and laughing as he spurred the animal onward, his penis flapped like a severed tongue. With one hand he wielded a dice stick, the hooked baton used by craps dealers, and with this saber swung at poor Rodney, scourging him, striking a glancing blow.
Rodney ducked below a roulette table, a welt rising across his face. He began crawling across the aisle, toward a line of poker tables forming rows too narrow for a steed to navigate. The rider circled back, urging his mount onward again. He would ride poor Rodney down before he could reach sanctuary.
From across the room, Rodney watched Tatiana grab an ashtray the size and shape of a tea-saucer. Without hesitation, she hurled it over the gaming tables toward the oncoming assailant. Cigarette butts spun from the glass in powdery spray as it whirled across the room like a frisbee, and in this moment it occurred to Rodney that she’d meant exactly what she said, about luck, that they could be lucky together. The projectile, heavy as a stone, struck the side of the rider’s head, knocking the failed cavalier to the ground and leaving the great black horse to gallop off, back into the depths of the gambling den.
Rodney couldn’t think of anyone he would be luckier with.
Minutes later, after they’d found their old room, Rodney slid the magnetic key into the lock and watched the light flash green. He pushed the door open.
“Help me pack,” Tatiana said, heading for the closet and their bags.
“Hold on,” he said. “Slow down, for a moment.”
He went to the windows and threw the curtains open. They watched the fire, that inconceivable thing. It had already taken so much. Heroic or foolish, there would never be a better time. Rodney went to one knee. From the breast pocket of his favorite flannel, he produced the little box. Coyly, he opened its tiny hinge. With the steadiest voice he could manage, he asked Tatiana, in all her splendor, if should would like to marry him.
“Rod,” she said, “you really do pick the perfect moments. Of course I will.”