brouwer-cohen 550On the drive back from a friend’s cabin, on a beautiful pine tree-framed lake, on the edge of Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, we stop at a casino. Maybe we will have lunch. Play a few slots. We are not gamblers. I have been to Vegas twice, once on the way to somewhere else—neither time did I go for the purpose of gambling.

A lark, we think, the casino in Wisconsin; that is before we see the children waiting outside in the battered station wagon, waiting for their parents inside the casino, their parents who are presumably gambling. I recall the children sitting outside clubs and bars in Kent, Ohio, when I was in my twenties. The children, waiting in the dark neon-lit night, waiting on the sidewalks glittery from mica, waiting with coloring books, waiting for their young parents on the inside, their parents presumably drinking and dancing.

Inside the casino, I don’t see many people who look young enough to be parents of the children outside. I see obese people, people in wheelchairs, stooped people hobbling behind aluminum walkers, gray-haired old ladies, one with an oxygen tank. Many are Native Americans. The room is thick with cigarette smoke. The slots do not entice us. There is nothing decent to eat for lunch, though the casino does give away free coffee and mega-sized waxy paper cups of soda pop. Sugary soda pop. We decide to take a bathroom break and get back on the road.

In the ladies’ room, attached to the wall, is a large Plexiglas container crammed with discarded hypodermic needles, a massive nest of thin steel, glinting, like a cage of strange silver insects. Mechanical praying mantises. On the top of the container is a slot to drop in the needles. Seeing so many homogeneous items together, items usually seen singularly or in small numbers, is disconcerting, like seeing hundreds of oil-coated dead fish on a beach, or the piles and piles of chopped human hair in Holocaust photos.

When I ask, the security guard tells me the container is there so that diabetic customers can treat themselves without needing to leave the casino.

I recall when another friend, Sara, and I landed in Hanoi, tired and confused. We accepted the first offer of a cab for twenty dollars, and got in the white van even as we realized it was not an official cab. We didn’t jump out when an extra man jumped in to ride shotgun. The driver sped off down the highway as his jittery partner, apparently in need of a fix, demanded a toll of $200 each.

We don’t have two hundred dollars.

You have it. We saw you at the cash machine.

Not me, said Sara. True, I was the one who went to the ATM.

We take you to cash machine.

No, I have no money in my account. We are school teachers.

You have money. He twitched, growing more agitated.

We exited the expressway. The driver took us into Hanoi’s dark underbelly, weaving down tight streets, under viaducts. We passed slack-jawed Asians slumped against walls and beggars lying in the gutter. I gave the junkie all my money. He looked at Sara.

How you pay for fancy hotel?

We work for the government, said Sara. We came to see the schools. The government paid for our hotel.

I wondered how she came up with that. The men seemed to consider her statement. The driver did a quick turn and spun up a ramp, taking us back among tall buildings. The van careened through the packed and steamy city, people so crowded into buses that their facial features were lost in the fog of one another’s hot breath, making the long bus windows look like jars crammed with cocktail onions. The driver dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel, leaving us to drag our bags toward its neon welcome.

The next day, I recall wide walls of motorcycles and scooters at a large intersection, like swarms of buzzing giant flies ready to collide.

I link arms with Sara, and we take the chance. Closing our eyes, we step off the curb.

Garnett Kilberg Cohen has work forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday and Confrontation. She has published two collections of short stories; the most recent How We Move the Air, was a SPD best-seller. Some of her awards include a Notable Essay citation from Best American Essays 2011, the Crazyhorse National Fiction Prize (2004); and four awards from the Illinois Council of the Arts, including a 2001 Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist’s Fellowship for prose. Her essays and short stories have appeared in many publications, including American Fiction, Ontario Review, TriQuarterly, The Antioch review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Descant, The Roanoke Review, The Nebraska ReviewThe Antioch Review and many others. Garnett currently directs the Creative Writing—Nonfiction B.A. Program at Columbia College Chicago.

 Photography by Joel Brouwer