The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, 3rd Place
As I sip my grimy, soiled, defiled, dirty spiced chai with oat milk, a middle-aged couple sitting at the windowsill scratches scratch-off tickets. We are in a New Haven cafe’s conservatory with used books in two of the four walls that are not glass. I surmise their life story based on their outfits. They do not dress in cafe wear. You know what I am referring to: the thrifty, chic look. To appear effortlessly put together after staring at the array of clothes for thirty minutes that morning. The choice to look bummy is aesthetic whereas not having anything else is very much not. I find it noteworthy because it means their purpose is unaligned with ours.
He, Bill, wears the denim—but they are distressed and bleached baby blue from work out in the sun. They rise to his ankles, but he calls them his bad pair of jeans because of it. His wife got him them for Christmas ten years back. She went to Marshalls and saw Levy’s on sale. The only pair left was a length thirty. It was an unholy good deal that she would not forgive herself for passing on. She figured he could suck it up. He mildly resents the purchase because it shows his faded-white Hanes socks. It was in fashion to show a little sock during the fifties. He was born in the wane to figure out the world; he figured he did not like the look. They went out of style during his formative teenage years. The onset of capris ruined the entirety of his worldview on short pants. His mantra is ‘showing ankle is reserved for women.’ It might be considered ironic depending on the reader’s background. He would wear jeans to the beach if his wife would not reprimand him with the silent treatment. His bad jeans are for toiling in manual labor. His boots cover his faded-white Hanes socks. He is wearing white bottom skater shoes that you see joined by a plastic hanger in bins. He hopes they rip on a particularly intensive day so he can buy himself a right pair. But they are Levy’s—she knew she was getting high-quality denim when she chose Levy Pants. The only other reason he wears these jeans is when his wife does not do his laundry for the week—as is the case this weekend. He pays her per load of laundry; it was a rough week at work. He is in the business of shoveling when people will pay. There was a blizzard on Thanksgiving, so all of the trucks were prepared, but it has not snowed since. He had to hurt his pride by taking back his off-season job as a freelance hand at his mutual friend’s construction company.
She, Judith, wears the knitted beanie—but she knitted it when everything finally clicked. Her head was cold for thirty winters before. It would be cold until she addressed her attire. The fancy-dancy L.L. Bean-ies are overpriced for something she can make. It now droops flaccid around her head and spins every which way when it winds. Clumps of her hair stick out of moth holes. They nibble on it while it hibernates during the off months in a big box up in the attic. Bill is always reluctant to haul it and only after the first snowfall at a minimum. It contains the sum accumulation of their family’s winter clothes—snow pants, jackets, earmuffs, scarfs, woolen socks, boots, et cetera. Funny how they have an abundance while always needing something. There is no cohesion—nothing matches. They are from different times. Sizes vary from the smallest any of them had been to the largest any of them had been. Now they are somewhere in the middle. Their children’s old winter clothes clutter the mix. It was an easy purchase for her. They looked so cute wearing them and a single photo made it worthwhile. He, however, refused to support her follies because they outgrew the clothes overnight. She will not donate them. It is ambiguous whether they are hers or her children’s. Her fully grown children do not want them. It means nothing to them, but it means the world to her. Would she give it to them if they wanted it? They lost claim when they grew up. However the wind blows, it is clear they are not his. Therefore, he has to ignore the clothes which now lack a utilitarian use—I promise they are not there for aesthetics either. There is a bright pink puffy jacket with faux fur lining the hood, a bike helmet that was bought for ski lessons, a single black glove that was always too tight and itchy. None may lay permanent claim to anything in the box once it is there. It becomes the family’s. They may wear whatever fits, but it is not theirs. It’ll go back in the box at the end of winter. All articles of clothing special to them are kept on their side of the closet. The most practical reason he resents bringing the box down is its weight. Although it is easy to control the weight down—unless he is mad then he lets it slide to a crash—it is implied he will have to bring it up towards the end of winter. Lifting it onto the first step is the most difficult step. A few years back, he threw out his back at the end of winter. He still does it for a load of his laundry. Judith paid for her ticket to the show.
They have been scratching every Saturday since their first child was born. They purchase them from their local Shell gas station. The burden weighs heavily on them. They do not talk finances because that is reserved for people with money. What they have are loans and debt. They paddled out too far in the sound with their oars of imaginary money ever since they signed their duplex’s lease. The secret they do not want you to know is it does not carry over beyond death. They sit in silence on a dinghy. Their line is cast for something to bite. At another time, they wanted to do everything right. Their communication pattern was out of a textbook. But now avoiding the topic is the singular reason they have stayed together. She is a cashier at Target. If either of them do not have money, and still desire to live, they take out a loan in their name. Life goes on the same. There are no alternatives to their situation. It is not a question of necessity or desire—it’s just to keep the boat afloat.
She prefers to buy one of her ten dollar Cashword tickets. It makes a game out of the rather menial task of scratching—looking from the bank to the intersecting rows and columns, applying the letters, building a word. She claims it’ll keep her mind working when she is old. It marinates the possibility of… The niceties of the game can annoy her after a rough losing streak. She imagines the fish swish against the bait to fin-deliver a note that she lost ten dollars—always just one letter off at that. It taught her to not ask what could have been—to become a graceful loser. There was a time in her life when she was fixated on that question. If only I had this letter… A game implies a degree of control over the outcome when the results are decided when bought. She would not touch the ticket. The cashier would scan it. The words lost their effect. It was the lowest point in her life. She still secretly resents scratching. She just can’t act like an addict or a sore loser.
Judith scratches with her lucky 1965 San Francisco quarter—the year after she was born. It is lucky merely because she’s had it for a long time. She imagines what it could represent, she imagines putting her quarter on the end of the line then casting it into the water. It has not yet retrieved her a noteworthy fish—it eventually has to. The most she’s won was one hundred dollars.
Bill is not loyal to any type of ticket in particular. He bases his purchase off of a gut feeling. However, he does not buy the crossword tickets because it takes too long and Judith never wins. He uses the quarter he receives as change from the twenty-dollar bill he hands the cashier. He also treats himself to a small black coffee which embarrasses Judith because he walks into a cafe with an outside drink. The most he’s won was fifty dollars. He believes he has won more than her. She repressed her enthusiasm five years ago when the third word spelled ‘Luxury.’ They do not talk money. The first two were ‘Tiger’ and ‘Aghast.’ He questioned her repression, but she told him she thought she won big only to be left one word short. They understand the feeling well. He showed her his ticket—he won ten smackeroonies. He quadrupled his money! She smiles; they do not talk money. With a ten dollar winnings, he saunters, with a smile, over to the Shell gas station to trade them in for half the bait he could get; he saves five for laundry. He repeats the process until he loses which makes him destined to be sour.
She shows him every other ticket she wins and only those that yield less than twenty-five dollars. He nods once as if to say ‘I see it.’ They do not talk money. She pretends to enjoy the game—she pretends to try really hard at a game she never wins. Luck just has a special spot for Bill. She puts the money towards her loans. A stroke toward shore is an acquired pleasure. It is more akin to entertainment than finances. She cannot come home with a brand-new purse from Payless. He will assume she scratched off without him and also won too much. Both are terrible in their own respect, but at the same time it just might ruin his worldview. He will be sour. She knows he has scratched off without her and also won. He comes home buzzed and shows her what is left, like a child that brings the corpse of the first goldfish he caught to show-and-tell. It is usually around ten dollars—a small portion of something that was much larger. He thinks showing it to her makes up for his infidelity. She also knows when he has scratched off and lost—he is bitter when he gets home.
Back in the cafe, they scratch in silence. I glance back and forth from them to a used book I grabbed from the wall. I believe I hear a harmony from the on-and-off quarter scratching, but it is soon lost. She spends too long analyzing her ticket. She outbursts.
“Oh, dear Lord. I won, I won. Bill, look at this. One hundred thousand for ten words. See: conclude-dry-occur-nickname-chosen-etiquette-endure-kid-happy-remove. I earned it.”
He goes to hold it—for a better look because she’s shaking—but she flinches it away. He squints to match the letters to the words. He is not going to take her word for it. In fact, he analyzes the scratch-off multiple times over. His dyslexia whoops his ass. The letters and words are completely scratched which makes it a pain to ascertain she did not mis-scratch.
After his second opinion aligns with hers, he says, “Huh. The only way to be certain is to scan it, but, assuming it is the real deal, I can only imagine the taxes. They are going to be astronomical.”
“Two thousand and eighty-eight weekends of scratching. I kept every single one of my tickets under the floorboards. They have to give me a massive tax break. The claw machine grabbed me. Don’t you understand? It is not personal; just one toy can be brought up. Keep trying. You’ll eventually get picked.”
I like her claw machine analogy more than my fishing one.
“But the taxes,” he tries to tell her.
She stands up, collects her backpack, and walks away. A person rounds the corner with two coffees. She dodges as if he is an oncoming car. When another person opens the door to the cafe, she clutches her ticket to her chest and takes the right of way. She suspects everyone since her outburst. Bill follows her with his eyes while she walks past the window. A homeless woman says good evening to Judith. She says ‘No thank you’ and runs away like she is a middle-aged woman. It is sad to know she is running for her life when all she can muster is a lopsided waddle. Her beanie bounces in sync with her jowls and chafes the hump of her neck. The homeless woman continues on her route. She says ‘Happy holidays, can you spare a few bucks for some warm clothes?’ or ‘Good evening’ if she is not expecting much. When Judith leaves Bill’s view, he goes back to scratching. I decide to follow her. My intention is not to rob her. I want to see how it plays out for my story. It is suspicious to say, but the subtext is inherently there, like a cash register left open. I could overtake her in a saunter. I stay behind to admire how aerodynamic as a kite she is; I am on her radar as the guy that fakes reading to watch her scratch. She enters the local Shell gas station.
Her beanie is waving around at the far corner of the refrigerator aisle. She paces back and forth. I walk down the aisle next to the refrigerators to apparently peruse chips. They have UTZ, Takis, Ruffles, Snyders, Doritos, Lays—I can spend the rest of the word count listing their selection of brands and flavors, but you understand the sheer amount of options. I am going to buy Takis, or risk leaving without anything except a suspicious glare at the back of my noggin.
A few guys are chit-chatting with the cashier. They are contemplating if it is wise to buy another scratch-off. The cashier recommends they leave with their losses. Well, that prompts them to discuss which one to buy. The incessant interaction is heavy on her. She opens and closes the fridge doors without an intention to buy a drink. The cashier must see us acting suspicious on the round convex mirror that illuminates the secret nooks of the store. Judith is waiting for them to finish speaking and I am stuck waiting for her.
They scratch off—win nothing—but they scan it just in case. They have the debate again. One guy says “The two dollars for life tickets are a waste of money,” but the other guy says “You need to spend money to make money. The ten-dollar crosswords are good.” The other guy says “They suck the money from you and you only have one chance of winning.” He has the best of luck with the Christmas tickets because, if you really think about it, “They would be more generous during the holiday season.”
Judith exhales and taps her feet. She is viewing herself in a liminal space of being grabbed and safely in the basket; there can still be a malfunction that puts her right back with the rest of the toys. She looks over the aisle. We make eye contact. My cover is blown. It is time to take my leave. I open the door. The beep alerts the cashier. He tells the guys to wait a second before they repeat the process. He asks me if I have anything. I told him no then open my coat to prove I am not smuggling treats out. He did not watch me as closely as I thought. He says OK, lacking the motivation to proceed with a cavity check. Although I did not steal, numerous nooks and crannies where I could have hidden them came to mind. Turning around to get a last look at the lucky girl’s past, Judith pushes through them to redeem her ticket. She understands the pattern.
While I turn towards the cafe, they ask her in jest if she won big, but she does not interpret it as such considering the pretense. She defensively says “No,” then adds, “I don’t think so”—just in case she has a winner. The cashier goes to grab it as I cross the road, but she runs it through the scanner herself. Cars are bullies though they will always stop before hitting you. The cashier watches the number appear when I am on the other side. Thoughts about his next actions occupy his attention. The guys are not yet a part of the joke while I walk past the window where Bill was displayed. He is gone. I did not pass him on the street. They go to get a better look because the cashier’s reaction is different. He is not dismissing a loser ticket. She knows free will is in effect. It is a moment like this when people feel the freest. Everyone in the store realizes she hit the jackpot. They all consider, but they begin to bargain (three words against one). The ticket is worth one hundred thousand, or is it? It is worth less because of taxes and much less if it is destroyed. They are wondering what they have that would be worth a trade. Nothing. The cashier wonders if he can trade his gas station to her. He made enough to buy a gas station across the street and a passive income would be nice for her. The two guys are thinking about buying lottery tickets until they also win. They ask her if she bought the scratch-off from here while I order a virgin chai. She replies, “Yes.”
They have not knocked her out and stolen her life from her. She feels more comfortable. Their imagination became coy. One guy asks if she can buy them a bunch of scratch-offs as repentance for her good fortune. The holiday guy is salty because she sapped all of the luck from the joint. She only has fifty dollars and a ticket. The cashier decides his approach. The woman had obviously been through it. It would be different if one of the guys here wins. He recommends she gets a lawyer to reduce the taxes. They do not have the liquid cash to give her her winnings. She has to go to the CT Lottery headquarters and there she would receive a check. She can put the check in the bank and symbolically receive one hundred thousand dollars, but she would never be able to see it in its entirety. The bank would not have the liquid cash to pay it out, but also the taxes trim down the tenderest part of the meat. The concept of working with money they do not have sparks an idea in the other guy’s head while I receive my virgin chai. He offers her his bodyguard service to protect her and her ticket. He proposes a five thousand dollar wage for unlimited work while I sit down. Five thousand is much too large of a number to work with. She never had such money before. It seems like a ridiculous offer, but five thousand to ensure she gets ninety-five thousand is not obscene. She turns him down when I crack open my book. He asks her if she saw that guy that was eyeing her just now. She says “Yes.” ‘Well, you’ll need someone to protect you from people like him.’ She is still not sold. He contemplates demonstrating why she needs protection; he does not. She queries for the CT Lottery Headquarters location while I read—the pages have much more resistance than a new book. I do not know where it is either so I fold the corner to search for the answer. It is in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. How much does it cost to get there? A train does not go through Rocky Hill, so she would have to go to Union Station—around ten dollars—and then take a bus or Uber. Forty dollars is enough for an Uber, but it is out of her character to splurge—or she does not have money to splurge.
The itsy bitsy details begin to bore me. She will get the money while I am rock climbing. She will try to redeem all of her scratch-off tickets at the IRS while I am at school during the spring semester. The first thing she does while I rip skin is book a trip to The Bahamas—it is her favorite word in “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys. The rest will go towards her debt for fun. One cannot go back to Target after winning the jackpot though.
Wearing a two-piece bikini on Christmas morning is her image of luxury. She strolls the gated resort’s beach with a terrible mix of jet lag and hangover—she’d never flown before and alcohol eased her nerves. Sunlight bounces off the white beach. She finds an empty spot to sunbathe. A waiter asks if she wants anything to drink; he calls her “Señorita.” She orders a piña colada in a coconut… with a wink of an extra shot. He gives a light-hearted chuckle. He says ‘Of course.’ She closes her eyes so the sun can tend to her body. The waiter silently places the coconut next to her and walks away.
I am wearing matching pajama pants with my family while she takes a sip. The proximity of my statements are not intended to critique her. She has been through it. Her children are grown. They are living with their spouses. They called on behalf of Bill. I unwrap a scratch-off ticket when she stretches a mile. It reminds me of her. I tell the story to my family in its entirety. They fill in their narrative where I supplement mine. They are less charitable than me.