What I’d heard was that the casino’s owner had held this great big dream of making the place themed to space travel, but it really only went as far as the solar system print on the carpet and the empty astronaut suit that greeted you at the entrance, gloved hand raised up like it was going to give you a high five. Then there were pot plants sitting around, the smell of blow-dryered hair, the feeling of sand under your shoes when you walked on the tile.
‘That’s not a real spacesuit,’ Max said when we walked in.
‘There’s supposed to be a roller coaster in here,’ I said. ‘I mean they were going to make one but never got around to it.’
‘I suppose there’d be room for one here.’
I looked up at the domed roof above us, and then further out to the sky. Max’s father, and my stepfather, Joel, had left us and gone over to the bar. On the casino floor there were mostly old couples walking around, thin men in tan jackets and shorts, women with chains to stop their glasses from falling from their heads.
‘There’d be a lot of red tape to get a roller coaster going,’ I said.
‘It’d be a pretty great sight.’
I shrugged and nodded at the same time, because I knew what Max was talking about even though he was twelve years old. He made me nervous. He was already getting letters from universities, offering him scholarships. I’d never once seen him laugh.
‘I ordered us both a mango daiquiri,’ Joel said, when we walked over to join him.
‘I didn’t plan on drinking anything,’ I said.
‘They were on special.’
There was the sound of joyful machines, and sometimes people calling out. Large men in black casino vests kept walking past, putting one finger to their ears, receiving instructions from some hidden room. I felt uncomfortable in the casino. Napkins were placed on the bar in front of us, and then our drinks.
‘Is he okay in here?’ I said to Joel, nodding towards Max.
‘I think they bend the rules for the convention. Besides, he’s got his lanyard on.’
‘I left it in the car,’ Max said.
‘He’ll be okay.’
Joel had driven into town to take Max to a key-note given by a hypnotist. It was happening in one of the sub-ballrooms at the casino. There were a few signs for the talk, instructing you on where to go and what time, and a bored-looking woman standing around to make sure you’d read the sign.
‘We’ll be late,’ Max said, ‘if we’re waiting for you to finish those drinks.’
‘We can pound these down in a flash,’ Joel said.
It was three in the afternoon. The martini glasses felt like they were made from plastic. I was worried about seeing a hypnotist, but Joel had invited me in a way that felt like I couldn’t say no. My mother would have called it bonding. I was wearing my nice shirt. I’d never been alone with just Joel and Max and when they came to pick me up I’d met them out the front so they didn’t have to walk inside my house. When we’d driven off I’d felt embarrassed at the brown dead Christmas trees, three of them in a pile, that had been dumped on the corner of our street.
The drink tasted like chemicals. I wasn’t very used to alcohol and had to force myself to finish it. Joel seemed to empty his glass in one hit and thumped his glass down.
‘During my twenties I used to think these places were great,’ he said. ‘Now I think they’re about as fun as a crucifixion.’
‘They’re pretty depressing,’ I said.
Joel frowned at me and I thought he was about to lean back and hit me.
‘I guess it was in my early twenties,’ he said.
Inside the ballroom there were rows and rows of fold out chairs, all different colours, on the dance floor and a podium had been set up in front of them. There were groups of people sitting about and maybe half the seats were taken. I let Max lead the way.
‘This is an okay setup,’ Joel said. ‘How much do you think a room like this would cost to hire?’
‘No idea,’ I said.
Joel looked around, moved his head at odd angles. He liked to speculate about how much things cost, and seemed to only relax once he’d attached a value to everything around him. Otherwise he’d end up looking like a caged bird.
We sat awkwardly until a short man in a suit walked up to the microphone. He looked out over us and introduced himself as Dr Harold Utter. He looked like he was around eighty years old. The lights dimmed, apart from a spotlight, illuminating Dr Utter’s white hair.
‘How many of us have brains?’ he said. ‘The answer is everyone. But how many people can we genuinely say use their brains? Not just that they’re stupid, but the full capacity of their brains and, specifically, the space around their brains, which we call the mind?’
Everyone clapped, including Max, who was leaning forward in his seat. Joel had his arm resting on the back of Max’s chair and would look down at him now and then to see if he was enjoying himself, in a way that looked like love. In front of us Dr Utter said, ‘I hope what brings you here tonight will be the first step in harnessing your own mind,’ and then a rotating pyramid, drawn in neon-red by a laser, was projected on the wall behind him.
The talk was impressive, filled with bursts of applause, and almost entirely incomprehensible. Now and then Dr Utter would slip into a meditative-like trance, brought on by nothing other than his own voice. I had been afraid of audience participation, that he might get me up on stage, spin a watch, and get me to spew forth all sorts of confessions, but instead he almost ignored us completely, looking up at the roof, his palms held out. I was surprised he had the energy for anything.
‘I’m surprised he has the energy,’ I said, quietly, to Joel.
Max turned and looked at me and I felt guilty for breaking his concentration. I thought things were wrapping up. Dr Utter was talking about the minds of fish, how they know about migration even though all they have is the sea around them. Who can read water? I checked the time on my phone and my phone illuminated my face in the dark room.
‘Is there a problem?’ Dr Utter said.
I looked up and around the crowd to see if the question was rhetorical. People had turned around to look at me, and when I realised what was happening I coughed once loudly, turned my phone off, and went to find a bathroom.
Stepping back into the light of the casino floor was like being dunked into tepid water. In the bathroom I messed with the taps for a while, which activated by a sensor, and I found a great pleasure in flapping my hands in front of them. By the time Joel and Max had come out I’d been waiting around in the hallway for twenty minutes and twice someone had come to ask me if I was okay. They were in the middle of a group of people and I waved to them, even though they’d seen me.
‘Too much for you?’ Joel said.
‘I felt sick,’ I said. ‘I think I ate something bad.’
‘I’ve seen him give a better talk on YouTube before. This one wasn’t so good, or as good,’ Max said.
‘That’s a shame,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, it was still good,’ Max said. ‘You missed out on something pretty special.’
Joel said he thought he was going to gamble, but now didn’t feel like it so much. On the few occasions that I’d been in his company, I’d always end up looking at him, trying to guess at how he ended up so wealthy, but I never brought it up and felt embarrassed whenever he caught me staring. On the drive to the casino he’d asked me how my PhD was going and I’d said good, but nothing else, because I wasn’t studying anything and I felt like this had snapped an important branch of conversation between us.
‘I had a friend who got kicked out of every casino in town,’ I said. ‘Actually he was a friend of my dad’s.’
‘How many casinos are there here?’
‘Four. He could count cards and eventually he’d be sitting down and someone would come and throw him out.’
‘Typical,’ Joel said.
I nodded. I knew that now he was living somewhere else, teaching delinquent teens how to play chess, but I didn’t know for sure and didn’t elaborate. Neither Joel nor Max seemed that interested in what I was talking about anyway.
Joel left us in the casino’s entrance to bring the car around. It was warm and not yet dark and bats were flying about erratically, swooping down from the palm trees. Everything outside gave off the feeling of electricity.
‘I heard you’ve had some interest from the uni here,’ I said.
‘A few of them,’ Max said.
‘That’s a pretty good start though.’
‘Dad thinks it’d be best to hold out for something else, I don’t know what. The military, I think. He’s trying to get them to hire me.’
‘You’re a smart kid.’
‘No, it’s more than that, he thinks I have superpowers or something. Like I can lift things with my mind.’
‘I don’t think he thinks that.’
‘He’s been testing me out on different things, pattern recognition, reflex ability, and stuff with animals.’
‘Has anything happened so far?’
‘No,’ Max said.
We hung around the entrance to the casino for a while longer, watching cars arrive and leave, people stepping out of them and constantly smiling like they were at an award night. Dr Utter came out eventually, followed by a small troupe. He looked at Max and nodded at him once in a meaningful kind of way, before climbing into the back of a taxi.
A few minutes later Joel arrived in his station wagon and leaned over the seat, smiling at us through the passenger side window.
‘Hop in, amigos,’ he said.
We drove down to a seafood restaurant that was beside the beach and built above a pool. It was in a big white modern building that looked expensive, and was expensive, but every now and then the smell of chlorine would drift over the tables. Joel ordered us each a lobster. Three of them.
‘There’s nothing like eating seafood while staring at the sea,’ he said, after our menus had been collected. ‘It’s like showing all those fish who’s really in charge.’
Max hadn’t spoken since we left the casino and this seemed to knock Joel off-kilter a little bit. He made up for it by snapping his fingers at waiters and breathing deeply to take in the room. I had no idea what had him so spooked, but maybe he was just as wary of Max’s smarts as I was.
‘It’s not so often you can do that. It must be how lions feel.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said.
Joel looked over at Max, who was completely involved with pulling a dinner roll apart into pieces.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Joel said, eventually.
The food came and was good, but the whole dinner was mostly a disaster. Joel finished a bottle of wine on his own, became morose and, when it came time to pay the bill, flicked his credit card into a waiter’s stomach. I said it was probably time for us to go. Max had cleared most of his plate, though both Joel and I hadn’t put much of a dent into our meals.
In the restaurant’s car park, as we were walking to the car, a waiter trailed us out. He wasn’t the waiter that had served us.
‘Which one of you is driving?’ he said.
‘I am,’ I said.
‘He’s not driving my car, that’s for sure,’ Joel said.
‘We can’t allow you to drive,’ the waiter said.
‘Who’s we?’ said Joel, but like he was about to pounce. I knew what would happen next. Joel lunged at the guy, and they both go knotted up together, wrestling with their shoes scraping on the bitumen.
‘Max, don’t just stand there,’ Joel said, when he managed to free himself for a moment. ‘For god’s sake do something.’
I stood there watching Max, who watched his father get punched right in the jaw. I waited for something to happen.