Hitting It Big

by Emily Cogan

***

Chuck bursts through the door two minutes after I’ve counted my drawer and checked the amount in the safe. Above the sound of the dinging bell he booms, “Hey, Rhonda, how you been?”

In three long strides he is in front of the counter, plaid shirt unbuttoned at the top, hair sticking up slightly in the back. He smells like sweat and pipe tobacco and desperation. “Fine,” I say, but he isn’t listening.

He’s staring behind me, at the rows of scratch tickets, trying to decide which one to choose in his never-ending quest for instant riches. “Gimme two of those ‘Strike It Rich’, and a ‘Lucky Wild’ to start.”

I tear the tickets off the book as Patti walks in, rolling her eyes behind Chuck’s back. I grin, and she says hello to Chuck. Chuck grunts at her in return, eyes focused on the tickets still in my hand. He reaches out for them, but I pull them back. “Uh uh, Chuck,” I say with a teasing smile. “If you wanna play, you gotta pay. That’ll be five bucks.”

When Chuck is safely deposited in his usual spot next to the coffee machine, whistling and scratching away, Patti joins me at the second register. “Hey,” she says as she punches in her code to sign on. “Looks like Chuck beat me today. Sorry I was a little late—I was trying to finish one last chapter in my Anatomy book before work.”

Before I can reply, Chuck tosses his losing tickets in the trash, and a woman walks up to the counter carrying a bottle of Evian. She has a designer bag, and nice sunglasses in a little leather case, and I wonder what she’s even doing here.

I say hello to her, and give her a friendly smile like we’ve been programmed to, but she won’t acknowledge me. “Just this,” she says to the counter, shoving the water at me, and my stomach lurches.

I ring it up and tell her, “$1.59.”

She looks up at me, her eyes hard as she fixes her mouth into a sneer. “$1.59? Um, no, dearie, that is not right. The sign over there says $1.09.”

The woman is wearing a necklace that probably costs more than I make in six months while she’s bitching me out over fifty cents, and I’m not at all surprised by this. “Ma’am, the Icy Springs water is $1.09. The Evian is $1.59.”

We go back and forth about this for a while, the woman acting more and more like my seven-year-old daughter when she won’t get her way, and then it happens. She breaks out the big guns: “Is your manager here?”

“You’re looking at her,” I say, pointing to my “Assistant Manager” nametag with mock pride, while she gapes at me.

Chuck slinks up behind the woman, taps her on the shoulder, and gives her fifty cents out of his pocket. The woman stares at the two quarters in her manicured hands, looking Chuck up and down, taking in his dirty fingers and faded clothes. She tosses the quarters down onto the counter. “I am never shopping here again!” she exclaims as she stalks out of the door.

While Patti and I exchange wordless glances, Chuck picks up the quarters, dusts them off, and puts them back in his pocket. “These are unlucky,” he says.

In the next few hours, Chuck wins $50 but blows it on more tickets. Four customers complain about our lack of vanilla ice cream. Three of them fume and then explode when we tell them that no, we don’t have any more in the back; everything we have is out on the floor, and they’ll just have to pick another flavor if they want to buy our rip-off six dollar ice cream that costs three bucks at the Wal-Mart up the street they’re too lazy to drive another two miles to. Chuck finally leaves to go wherever it is he goes when he’s not scratching tickets at the EZ-Mart. One elderly woman comes in wanting to buy gummi bears for her pet bird. Patti gets roped into cutting two pounds of shaved chopped ham at the deli. I catch a nine year old trying to steal a lighter. And both of us sell dozens of packs of cigarettes.

When the six o’clock slump comes around, and all of the white collar folks are at home eating dinner with their families, Patti pulls the macaroni salad out of the bottom of the deli. I grab a couple of plastic sporks out of the basket in the cooler. We dig into the salad, filling the emptiness inside us, sharing a hard-earned meal like soldiers after a long battle.

Patti’s only four years younger than me, but she doesn’t have any kids. She has two cats, and a boyfriend. She goes to community college part time, and she’s studying to be a nurse. I look at her, pretty and petite with a nice straight smile, and I wonder what she’s doing here. How does someone like her fall into my world?

“How are Kelsey and Ashley?” she asks me, because she knows I adore my baby girls. Kelsey’s ten now, and would never let me get away with calling her my baby these days, but to me she always will be.

“Oh, they’re doing just fine,” I say, and I tell her of their latest adventures—how Kelsey has a crush on some boy in her class, and how they tease each other, and he pulls her hair. How Ashley wants me to buy her a horse, and how much I wish I could surprise her with one. They’re staying with my mom right now, because I have to work, and I’ll miss tucking them in at night and reading them stories. I miss so many things.

Sometimes I hate my job. Sometimes I wish I had studied harder at school. Sometimes I wish I had never met John my senior year of high school, but then again, I wouldn’t have Kelsey if it wasn’t for him. Sometimes I wish he would have stayed to see what a fine girl she’s growing up to be. Sometimes I wish Ashley’s father would have stayed too.

“How’s school going?” I ask her.

Patti’s funny about questions. She doesn’t like to talk about herself very much, and that only makes me wonder about her all the more. She pushes away the macaroni salad and focuses on my face. “Hard,” she says. “It’s really hard, you know?”

I nod, because I know hardship too. It’s something all of us who work here share.

“I’m working thirty hours a week plus going to school plus having to keep up with the apartment . . . Sometimes I worry Mark will leave me, ‘cause I never see him anymore. I was so stupid,” she says, hanging her head, and I lean forward, because I’ve never seen Patti break like this and it fascinates me.

“I was so stupid,” she repeats, and the story tumbles out of her mouth. How she grew up in a nice, suburban house on a quiet street. How she got good grades all through school, and everyone said she had a bright future ahead of her. How her parents paid for her college education the first time around, and she didn’t take it seriously. How she ended up dropping out after her freshman year.

“They’re so ashamed of me,” she says. “Everyone else in my family went to college . . . Both my brothers, and all my cousins. And I didn’t finish. I quit. And I wound up here.”

“Oh, honey,” I say, because even though Patti’s a grown woman she needs a mother right now.  “I’m sure your folks are proud that you’re going back to school. I know I would be, if you were my daughter. It’s not an easy thing to do, and we’re all proud of you here. That’s gotta count for something, don’t it?”

She gives me a small smile, and I put my arm around her shoulder. She sags into me and sighs, just like Ashley sometimes does when she needs comfort.

“You’re lucky, you know?” I say. “At least you’ll make it outta here someday.”

“You could make it too. You like kids . . . you could run a daycare or something.”

I snort, and stare at the knot in one of my shoelaces. “Yeah, right. That’s about as likely as Chuck actually hitting it big.”

The bell above the door rings, Chuck strides in, and Patti breaks away. She straightens her polo shirt, brushes off her vest, and says hello to Chuck. Chuck demands more scratch-off tickets, but I come to her rescue. “Why don’t you go work on getting that cooler stocked?”

“Thank you,” she whispers to me as she passes, and I wonder if I should be the one thanking her.

“Gimme one of those new ones,” Chuck says. “One of those ‘Hitting it Bigs’.”

I take his dollar and think of Patti in the cooler, stocking milk and beer. She doesn’t belong here with us, and she’ll make her way back into that safe suburban world she grew up in. She’ll move on, and I’ll be left behind, because that’s just the way it is, no matter what she thinks.

She saw how that woman treated me today, like I was some dumb servant who was somehow beneath her. Like because she had money it meant she was better than me. Sometimes I see customers treat Patti that way too. It must hurt her extra hard, because those people who look down at us are her mother, her father, her brothers and cousins.

I hope she doesn’t forget. I don’t want to be left behind like I always am. I wish I could get out of here too, but how can I? If Patti’s struggling this much, when she just lives on her own and doesn’t have any kids to worry about, what hope do I have?

Over by the coffee, Chuck yelps like someone stuck a pin in his butt. “I won!” he says, running over to me, ticket held high in the air.

Chuck “wins” a lot, because he plays a lot. One time Patti kept a running total of how much he spent versus how much he won, and how it was just a big waste of money. She showed it to Chuck, and he got so mad that he disappeared for the rest of the day.

“So, how much did you win this time, Chuck?” I ask him, expecting his usual fifty or hundred bucks.

“Fifteen hundred,” he says.

“Fifteen hundred dollars? That’s amazing!”

He sighs, the high of winning falling off his face as whatever passes for reality in his mind sets in. “It’s not enough,” he says, shoving the ticket into his pocket. “It just ain’t enough.”

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