Jimmy set his blue-and-white-printed Styrofoam cup of soda down on the bright red counter. Next to it, beside the register, he laid a dollar, three quarters, a nickel, and two pennies.
The clerk behind the counter scowled and gave a small sigh. “Which one?” she grunted.
Jimmy looked at the big plastic panel with the tickets spread out beneath it. There were twenty-seven different kinds that he could get for his dollar, and each one had its own number. Jimmy closed his eyes and thought very hard about which one he wanted.
The clerk sighed again, louder, and pushed some buttons on the cash register. Jimmy heard the sound of the drawer sliding open, followed by the thunk of his change dropping into the tray and the slap of the clerk’s hand punching it shut. “Come on already,” she said. “I’ve got better things to do than stand around and watch you drool.”
Jimmy opened his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. He hooked his upper lip over the bottom one and sucked at the saliva trickling down his chin. Jimmy’s mouth fell open sometimes when he was trying to make a decision, and sometimes, when he was thinking very hard, he forgot to swallow.
“Just pick one,” the clerk said. “You never win anyway. What difference does it make?”
The clerk sounded unusually grumpy today. Jimmy shifted his gaze from the ticket board and looked at her face. She looked tired. The corners of her mouth were all wrinkled from frowning, like the covers on an unmade bed, and there were dark, raccoon-mask circles under her eyes.
Jimmy wondered how often the clerk got to sleep.
He knew that the Quick-Strip was open late at night, because he could see the lights on the sign out front through his window at Harligen House. If the clerk was here all that time, she had to get awfully sleepy. Being sleepy made Jimmy grumpy too, but he didn’t usually get sleepy because lights out at Harligen House was at nine o’clock sharp. And if Jimmy wasn’t in his bed asleep at lights out, Mrs. Schumiester wouldn’t give him his dollar and eighty-two cents for the week. And then he wouldn’t be able to walk to the Quick-Strip on Thursday afternoon to buy his soda and his ticket. And Jimmy liked soda. And scratching tickets was fun. And besides, the clerk was wrong. Jimmy won all the time—almost every week, in fact.
The thought made Jimmy smile, and when he did, he noticed the clerk was glaring at him. He realized he still hadn’t picked a ticket because he’d been staring at the circles under her eyes. People usually didn’t like it when Jimmy stared at them.
“Sorry,” Jimmy said. “It’s not nice to stare. I’m sorry.”
The clerk’s face got really red—the same color of red that Jimmy’s roommate Eddie’s face got when he had a seizure—and she banged her fist on the counter. Hard. Hard enough that it made the little pieces of ice in Jimmy’s soda rattle against the inside of the big Styrofoam cup.
“Just pick a goddamn ticket you fucking retard!” the clerk screamed.
“Sorry,” Jimmy said. “I’m sorry.” He ducked his head and turned his body away from the clerk, like she was a bomb that might explode at any second. He peeked at the big board out of the corner of his eye and pointed one of his thick fingers at number twenty-three. “That one.”
The clerk ripped open the cabinet behind the display, tore the ticket loose, and slapped it down on the counter. “Now get the fuck out of here, you goddamn mongoloid,” she swore.
Jimmy edged up to the counter like he was about to reach into the mouth of a hungry lion, one arm stretched out to pick up his soda and ticket, his head held as far away from the clerk as possible. The instant he had a grip on his purchases he pulled them tight against his torso, hopping back a step from the counter and pausing to gauge the clerk’s reaction. When she started to open her mouth again, Jimmy bolted.
He dropped his shoulder and barreled out the swinging door, setting the little bell mounted over the door frame jingling like mad and drowning out the clerk’s shouts. He moved as fast as his stubby legs would carry him, dashing around the corner of the store past the yawning mouth of the car wash, and he didn’t stop until he reached the trashcan at the opposite end where the clean cars rolled out. When he got there, Jimmy crouched down and took cover behind the grey bulk of the big plastic can. He slurped the soda that had leaked from around the straw off the lid of his cup, and then peered around the side of the can for any sign of pursuit. The coast looked clear, but Jimmy figured it wouldn’t hurt to lay low for a bit, so he stayed hunkered down, taking occasional sips of his soda and frowning at the sour, yeasty smell of the trash.
When more than half his drink was gone, Jimmy decided to risk popping his head up over the top of the can. He eyed the front of the store from his new vantage point, waiting to see if the clerk came out to bop him on the head with a hammer like a mole, but no one came out except for a little old lady with a pack of cigarettes. She didn’t seem very tough. If an old lady could remain unbopped by the angry clerk, Jimmy figured it was probably safe to scratch his ticket.
He stood up all the way and set his cup down on top of the trashcan, then reached into his shirt and pulled out a key on a chain around his neck. The key was Jimmy’s lucky charm; it was very old and very special. Jimmy’s Mom had given it to him a long time ago, when he was just a little boy and they lived in the big white house on Mulligan Street. It was made of thick brass—like the big handle on the front door had been—and it gleamed like warm butter. His Mom had always let Jimmy use the key to unlock the front door whenever they went anywhere, and opening that door had always been his favorite part of any trip. But then Jimmy’s Mom died, which meant that she went away on a trip without him forever, and Jimmy had to go live at Harligen House. His key didn’t open any of the doors there, but Jimmy still never took it off, just in case Mom decided to come back. Plus, when Jimmy used the key to scratch a ticket, he nearly always won.
He wasn’t feeling very lucky today, though, so he gripped the key extra tight with one hand and set the ticket down next to his soda with the other. The ticket was crumpled where he’d accidentally squeezed it in his fist while he ran, and he pressed down on it with his palm to flatten it out. If it was crumply, the grey scratchy stuff wouldn’t come off right, and that would make the ticket hard to read, so Jimmy ran his hand along its length to smooth it like he did the sheets of his bed in the morning.
When the wrinkles were finally all gone and the ticket lay perfectly flat, Jimmy leaned in and put his face down close to it so he could figure out how he was supposed to scratch. The rules were different for every kind of ticket, and Jimmy knew it was important to obey the rules. This one had the instructions printed on the side, but Jimmy wasn’t very good at reading. He recognized some of the words: ‘barn’ and ‘pig’ and ‘prize’ were three of them, but the rest were a meaningless jumble. That was okay though, because tickets were a lot like Candyland; you could figure out the rules of the game even if you couldn’t actually read them.
This ticket had three red-and-white barns sitting at the top, and six smiling pink pigs standing in a mud puddle at the bottom. Jimmy liked the look of the pigs: they had squinty eyes and funny smiles. He didn’t think the pigs were supposed to be playing in the mud though. They should probably be inside the nice, dry barn. But there were more pigs than barns. Which pig went in which barn?
Jimmy smiled—the ones with matching numbers, of course.
He lifted his key and began scraping away the film beneath the three barns. He scratched with great care, using long, deliberate swipes from the flat part of his lucky key, and the barns soon disappeared in a cloud of grey crumbs to reveal two numbers and a word.
The numbers were 250 and 1,000, and the word was ‘TICKET.’
Jimmy recognized that word. It meant that if any of his pigs wanted to go in that barn, he got to go and get another scratcher without having to give the clerk a dollar. Ordinarily that was Jimmy’s favorite result. The only thing better than scratching once was scratching twice. And the only thing better than scratching twice was scratching three times, which had happened to Jimmy only once before. Today though, the thought of more tickets to scratch made Jimmy nervous. He really didn’t want to have to go back and ask the clerk for another ticket. Today it might be better if he just matched the numbers.
Jimmy took a deep breath and moved his key down to the pigs. He scratched them with the same careful method, and one by one the grinning swine disappeared. Jimmy paused after each one to check the number hidden under its belly against the barns above. The first five were a disappointment. None of their numbers matched, and Jimmy thought those pigs must really like playing in the mud. The sixth pig made up for his friends though, because he was hiding the number 1,000 beneath his round pink belly. Jimmy saw the number and smiled, pleased that one of his pigs was smart enough to go into the nice dry barn. And 1,000 points was pretty good. It wasn’t the best he’d ever done—once he got 25,000—but it was more than usual.
Jimmy held up his lucky key and rewarded it with a kiss before tucking it back under his shirt. Then he fished around in his back pocket, eventually pulling out a battered notebook and the stub of a yellow number two pencil. He flipped the notebook’s cover open and turned past the first several pages. Each of the pages he skipped was precisely divided into three columns, a row of numbers in tight script marching like soldiers down the right-hand side. Those pages belonged to Reggie. Reggie was a girl that lived downstairs from Jimmy at Harligen House. She was really, really good with numbers, and Jimmy let her keep track of his score for him. Reggie didn’t like it when Jimmy wrote on one of her pages though, so Jimmy wrote his scores down on a different page and she added them up later.
The last number written on one of Reggie’s pages was 257,445, but Jimmy flipped past that to the page he used. It only had a few small numbers written on it, but Jimmy’s wide, looping hand seemed to lend them extra weight. He licked the tip of his pencil and slowly added a one and three zeroes to the bottom of the page, glancing back-and-forth between the ticket and the notebook to make sure he didn’t make a mistake. Reggie hated mistakes. When he finished, he bobbed his head in a quick nod and flipped the notebook closed, then tucked the stub of pencil into the spiral of wire running across the notebook’s top and jammed it back into his pocket.
Reggie was going to have her work cut out for her tonight.
Jimmy grinned and picked up the ticket. He tapped it on the lid of the trashcan to knock away the last few stray bits of grey film, and then blew the wispy fragments onto the ground. He considered taking the ticket inside and showing it to the clerk just to prove that he did win sometimes, but then he thought better of it.
She’d probably just yell at him some more.
Besides, he still had nearly half a soda left. Jimmy shrugged and poked his hand through the springy flap covering the mouth of the trashcan. He let go of the ticket and watched it drop to the bottom of the bag next to a broken beer bottle and a dirty wad of paper towels.
“Bye, little pigs,” he said.
He gave the ticket a wave and pulled his hand out of the trash. Then he grabbed his soda, took a sip, and started walking back to Harligen House.
He smiled the whole way.