The Blobs of Menominee Casino
In Wisconsin, they're too lazy to name most of their roads; they're either letters or numbers for the most part. I drove down B with two friends, Trey and Gavin, all three of us headed for the Menominee Casino in the middle of nowhere, in the state where nothing happens, with Gavin to perform as the Bob Dylan tribute for the night and Trey as his not-entirely-necessary bass player (though a great addition nonetheless). The car pushed past 70 when it shouldn't have gone above 55, the motor roaring in the darkness with full confidence despite the occasional layer of fog obscuring the pitch dark road ahead. It got to a point where I lost track of any speed limit and only bothered to slow when identical rows of streetlights on Main Street signaled for me to do so. It was the single longest Main Street I'd ever seen and it was amazing how there was absolutely nothing on it worth glancing at on either side. Every shop reeked of “little town” and ignorance one step from the edge of the Earth. We were in the middle of a place with no answers to anything other than what had happened to the people we never see.
There wasn't a soul walking the streets and so I had no clue as to what these people, these entities out here, looked like. They could have been walruses, dark creatures who never knew an ounce of sunlight in their life and absorbed everything else, but every business told us exactly what we needed to know. There were electronic stores with no purpose sitting plainly by; we weren't quite at the Native American reservation yet, though not far, and yet a gas station nearby to the right carried an ironic Spanish nomenclature.
I took the car up to eighty once we passed the town again and parted walls of forest surrounded the road. Eight minutes away, my iPhone's GPS read. Trey was asleep with his headphones on, I could see in the rearview mirror, head leaning back with his mouth hanging open just enough to let audible, hoarse breaths roll out. Gavin sat in the other seat, the glow from his own phone illuminating the back seat.
Four minutes, my phone read. We weren't far and yet the ride felt like an entire venture. We'd been driving for five hours all the way from Illinois to Wisconsin for this gig, a gig Gavin would have to recuperate from at seven in the morning the next day so he could get to work at Pet Smart by eleven. It was eight o'clock and we were alone on a road where no one else seemed to exist. A single pair of headlights shown in the distance, but they quickly turned to reveal the red specks of tail lights and disappeared at the next street over. What a small town if you only need to drive one street over to get to a destination you could have walked to just as easily.
Then that sign, the obvious sign reading “M” in front of the casino, sat there like the road signs for W or B. Only it was enormous, the pine trees on the left giving way to a plateau of brick buildings. On a closer look, the digital display below the “M” showed the other headlining imitators for the night, including Robby Johnson as Elvis, Henry Menkam as Johnny Cash, and a Beatles tribute band. That night's gig would be an alternation between the Beatles and Dylan, both knowing each other, being from Chicago. Pulling into the lot, it was apparent snow had fallen sometime earlier before Illinois ever saw a flake, given there were muddied chunks of old piles gathered toward one corner.
We parked at the entrance and unpacked the acoustic guitar and bass, the amplifier as well, and then we walked through the doors which painfully let us know in several signs that bringing a firearm was not allowed, just in case we couldn't understand. They also plainly let everyone know that no one under twenty-one is permitted to enter, which concerned me slightly because Trey was nineteen, though with a thick No-shave November growth over his jaws and mellowed eyes, he didn't look it. Gavin didn't have that luck, nor did I for that matter, Gavin having a short stature and a face still bearing what looked like baby fat; he didn't look like a Dylan imitator ever could, but in every other respect he was better than any I could imagine. Trey wanted to smoke a cigarette, but only outside even though of all the signs to be hung all over the place “No Smoking” was not one of them. Even though Gavin and I assured him it was fine to smoke inside the casino, he smoked outside for a moment while we stood in the threshold between the lobby and the chill evening.
On first entry, it was a hellish plethora of smoke and fat. Normally I don't mind the smell of cigarette smoke, and I even smoke myself on occasion, but the sight of men and women with not a visible care in the world about their appearance began to swarm to the seats by the stage, readying for a show while sucking through straws their Coconut Vodka Tonics and Old-Thompson-Whiskey-and-Cokes. The chubby guard with the slicked back ponytail didn't even bother to check our IDs as we entered and in fact guided us to the stage where I carried the amplifier for the two performers. Trey began plucking at the bass a little, Gavin fiddling with the guitar and prepping his harmonica.
While the two played but still had yet to perform, I decided to try my hand at gambling, and I walked down the aisles of slot machines, looking for the blackjack tables with my hands in my pockets, watching as these sad--some decrepit and crippled--rural Midwesterners with their beat up faces reached with their mechanical arms for those of the taunting machines. Not a sound of “jackpot” sat in the thick smokey air, beneath the harsh fluorescents watching over it all, making you want to shut your eyes altogether. It was an adult arcade filled with colorful games where the only goal was to win back whatever you put in. People filled their faces with smoke, most carrying a secret spite for these Indians, only tolerating them as their sole benefactors for wasting their money on dreams they never really had.
I finally reached a blackjack table, completely empty, and the Native dealer, Brandon, asked me if it was my first time playing at the tables. I told him it was. He went over the rules and laid out the cards once I laid out my forty bucks and first five-dollar chip. He got a blackjack on the first try, slick asshole. I played and lost a couple more hands and then a security guard appeared beside me.
“I'm going to need to see some ID,” he said, jaded with a face of smokey lethargy himself.
I showed it to him, watched him scrutinize it like they always do. Then he handed it back to me with a single “Okay”. I played a few more cards. I won ten bucks before I pulled out and went to the cashier. I could've sworn that dealer had it out for me, and almost wanted to see if he'd loosen up on whatever trick I subconsciously deluded myself into believing he pulled if I just let him know I was one thirty-second Cherokee.
But I gathered my winnings, surprised I made any, then went back to the bar in front of the stage to blow it on drink. I ordered a Whiskey and Coke, noting the discount on Old Thompson, and took a seat to the left of the stage toward the ramp to get on it. It was almost eight-thirty, time for Gavin Dylan and Trey to start their set.
“Well, these guys are from Chicago, I hear. I know that Beatles group is,” a toughened, rugged old man said to another beside me, who was only different from his friend in that he had darker hair both on his head and in a scruffy beard that indicated he probably didn't even care whether or not it was November.
“Yeah?” the dark-haired one asked.
“Yep,” the other answered.
“Saw the Beatles guys the other time they were here, a few months back.”
“Yep, they were pretty good.” The white-haired one stood up. “I'm getting another drink.”
“I'm good,” the other said, holding his whiskey-and-Coke.
And that was a conversation.
Everywhere I looked around me were people who looked as if they'd crawled from the trailer parks and backwoods to see a live TV show, most of them dead and unenthusiastic, permanent scowls pasted on their many winded, toothless faces. The fact these two beside me had enjoyed anything that was on stage was a shock to me, and I could tell that behind their kind demeanor they concealed nothing I'd be interested in seeing. And to think these people were valid voters sent my eyes to the floor, my mind to the bar once more. These were the people I never saw. They'd look over at me on occasion as well, even if I wasn't trying to garner their attention; they knew I wasn't a local or even close and they both saw and smelled it on me, just the lack of musk and cigarette permeation. And as Dylan sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Maggie's Farm” and as those masculine men and women with their tired, drawn faces stared with no real indication that any of what was projected from the stage was registering, I knew why I never saw these people. They were the kind who never spoke, never said a word outside of their small circles, and never heard a word from or beyond their seas of crops and livestock, or hunting trophy taxidermy collections, or local ballots and gun stores. It's no wonder Ed Gein emerged there.
When the sets ended and we packed up, driving in the early morning hours with tired souls and a desire to get as far away from the discomfort that place caused, I never wanted to go back to that blip on the map. In the local paper the next day it was filled mostly with a mix of ads for strip joints and jokes. One of these jokes said everything anyone could ever need to know about the place: “I bought a rifle for my wife. It was the best deal I ever made.”