Lucky Ticket

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An exquisite stench of body odour burnt itself into the nostrils of the Lotto kiosk clerk before the poor man ever saw Stubby Pete lurching towards the counter. The clerk glanced up fearfully at the shambling bum, whose fashion was made complete with ancient overcoat stuffed with newspapers and a wool toque that had weathered countless nights on soggy streets.

A mask of dirt and grime half an inch thick in spots hung from Stubby Pete’s grizzled face. His mouth was mercifully closed for the moment, disguising graying teeth bathed in tobacco oils and baked beans and a tongue that lolled about inside like a lazy seal.

How had Stubby Pete gotten his name? The few who had ever got close enough to find out had never been brave enough to ask.  He had no obvious shortening of limbs or digits. He did move in a shambling sort of way on account of his addiction to various glues, inks and cheap booze, but he did not appear to be in need of any prosthetics for his lower limbs. Perhaps it was something more central to a man’s identity — some awful tragedy of the reproductive organs. Whatever it was, Stubby Pete was silent about these matters, as he was with most matters not involving UFOs, dental implants and Jews.

The clerk, Anwar, had first noticed Stubby Pete coming around about six months ago — just two months after he’d got this soul-crushing job. Sometimes when Stubby Pete came around, he imagined this lurching figure to be the physical embodiment of his own crushed dreams, but he couldn’t quite go there. No, Anwar might have been badly off, but he was certainly better off than the side of his family still stuck in Pakistan, or even his own brother Parwan, who was divorced and possibly facing a prison term over income tax fraud. Anwar was under no illusions about his own future prospects — but on paper, he did have a job, an apartment and a shot at getting that job over at the insurance office in a month or two, if his cousin Tarek came through.

Stubby Pete didn’t have any of that.

“Lotto ticket,” Stubby Pete slurred through his broken teeth. “That one,” he said, pointing to the “JACKPOT” ticket that promised the winner thirteen million dollars. It was a lot of money for someone who could beat the odds comparable to getting struck by lightning on a clear day while sitting in an insulated basement.

The ticket cost three dollars. Anwar always felt a bit guilty taking the money from people like Stubby Pete — a “tax on the poor” is what Anwar’s English as a Second Language teacher had said during one class. Anwar’s English hadn’t been so good at the time, but he’d gotten the meaning. It had stuck with him. Something about that phrase… it had come back to him all of a sudden when he’d got this job about five minutes after applying (The owner knew him and his cousin). He felt a little awkward about it, but again, it was a job.

Stubby Pete counted out his change on the counter as another customer lurked about ten feet back — about as close as he wanted to get without taking in a full whiff of Stubby Pete’s natural aroma. One dollar, then the rest in quarters, nickels and dimes. There were even five pennies in the pile. Anwar didn’t have to take pennies anymore, but he wasn’t going to make a fuss with Stubby Pete. The quicker he got the transaction over with, the better. He could practically feel the grubby man’s rotten scent clinging to him with funky tentacles of pure smell.

For a second, Anwar thought about what it would mean for Stubby Pete if the man actually won. What would he even do with the money?

There was a rumour among the security guards in the mall that Stubby Pete was actually a guy named Bob Buntley — he’d applied for one of the mall security jobs but got rejected on account of the plume of beer on his breath. His resume said he used to work at the old mill on the North Shore that went tits up about two years ago. If it was the same guy, he looked a lot more presentable then, with the kind of irascible dog-like cunning in his eyes you often get with those old-timey working stiffs. If it was that guy, maybe he still had something to come back to — family? An old neighborhood where he’d grown up? Or if he’d had those things, would he have ended up like this? Maybe. Or maybe it was a completely different person. No one knew. Either way, with his watery eyes and far-gone look, maybe it was too late for any kind of money to save him. Stubby Joe could not be redeemed.

There was a problem with the ticket. Anwar ran it through the machine twice — it was supposed to give a response right away, either with a happy melody typically announcing a win of ten dollars or so, or more commonly with a quick combination of beeps that let the ticket purchaser know that they’d got bupkis for their bet. But the machine just wasn’t responding.

It was silent. Its screen had gone blank.

“Yer doin’ it wrong,” Stubby Pete drawled, a bit of saliva falling from his cankerous lips and spattering on his damp-soled boots. “Just run it through the thing.”

“Sorry sir,” Anwar said. “Just give me a minute.”

“Trying to steal my money,” Stubby Pete growled, levelling an accusing finger. The customer standing far back from the kiosk started backing away from the situation, perhaps deciding it just wasn’t their day to win the mega-jackpot. Meanwhile, Stubby Pete leered.

Anwar sweated as he tried to fix the machine. There wasn’t much to it. These technical hurdles did pop up from time to time, but that’s what the reset button was for.

In another minute, the digital bells and whistles of the machine were ringing. Anwar was relieved. He felt brave enough to look back at Stubby Pete, who was still looking suspicious at him. But it was a different melody from what Anwar had ever heard before. The bells were louder. The whistles were higher.

Anwar stopped. He stared at the machine.

“We’re in the money! We’re in the money!” the machine sang in its robot 1980s commercial tune. “13 MILLION DOLLAR JACKPOT!!!” the Las Vegas-style electronic reader blared.

Stubby Pete stared at the machine with bloodshot eyes, clutching at his soiled scarf with gnarled hands that twitched nervously.

“We’re in the money! We’re in the money!”

The customer behind Stubby Pete cocked his head, his eyes open wide.

“We’re in the money! We’re in the money!”

Stubby Pete gasped.

“We’re in the money! We’re in the money!”

Anwar stared at the ticket glowing the sickly pale light of the lotto machine. He couldn’t hear anything except the happy jingle.

“Glaaaaarb!” Stubby Pete exclaimed, his knees buckling, his foul-smelling form nearly breaking the glass on the kiosk counter.

Anwar’s face went stony as he alone could observe the damned message appearing behind the lotto machine’s interface: “ERROR. RESTART. ERROR. RESTART. ERROR. RESTART…”

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