Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Two Dollars Can Buy

            Aaron was leaning over, pencil in hand, when he stopped. “Concentrate.” He said to himself. “This is important.” He cleared his mind and drew a deep breath that he held. The first number that popped into his head would be a keeper, then the next one and the next until he had the six he needed. He carefully filled in each correlating space on the betting slip, making sure not to mark outside the lines. When he was done he examined his work. It looked good, he thought, and he was feeling confident when he handed it to the cashier.

Ticket in hand he read the numbers. He wanted to see if they sang to him. People who have been extremely lucky always say that they had a sense things were going to go their way. Whether they survived a plane crash or found a million dollars they always knew it was going to happen. Aaron wanted to know if he was lucky and as he peered at the black ink drying on shiny paper he thought that just maybe he could hear something.

Twice a week for the last six months Aaron has purchased a two dollar lottery ticket at the same gas station and mailed it home to his girlfriend Jenny. He always encloses a little letter with news about what he’s up to and whatever ridiculous musings he might have. He tries to woo her too, just a little. Jenny is not the kind of girl that likes too much mushy stuff and if he went off the deep end she would think he’d lost his mind. That being said, she does like to know that Aaron loves her and he doesn’t mind saying it.

He calls her too, nearly every day. Everyone in America has a cell phone. The thing is he doesn’t have cable. He can’t afford it. It’s not that he would spend money on it anyways. What some people call frugal other people call cheap. Aaron is one of those. So, he has all the time in the world to write. Also, it’s the only way he can send her the lottery tickets.

He promised Jenny when he left that he would send one before each drawing and that she could check to see if they’re winners when she gets them. It’s a little dream whose cuteness should have waned some time ago, but as long as Jenny likes getting them Aaron is going to send them. Hope is like oxygen. You can’t live without either one.

Aaron and Jenny both grew up in the same Midwest small town. They didn’t really start fooling around until after high school. It was the best thing ever, but after three years Aaron still lived with his mom and Jenny still lived with her sister and her kids and life seemed to be going nowhere.

Neither one of them could keep a job, not that there were any to speak of. There was seasonal stuff that was alright. The rest were just minimum wage crap jobs that wouldn’t be so bad if only people realized that when you pay seven dollars an hour you’re gonna get seven dollars an hour’s worth of work.

Eventually, Aaron got frustrated. He used to joke that Nebraska was an Indian word meaning both shit and no shit, as in “There ain’t shit in Nebraska, but shit.” He decided to make a run for it and begged Jenny to come with him. Although she wanted to, the thought of leaving her sister and nieces was too much. He sold everything he owned, borrowed as much cash as his mother was willing to part with, and moved to the city.

Aaron decided to go it alone. He figured if he could get settled in and start making some good money Jenny would change her mind. If he couldn’t give her a future in Nebraska then he would do it somewhere else.

The first job he found was driving a taxi. He knew he was never going to get rich doing it and looked around for other work on the side, but he liked driving a cab. He worked as much as he wanted and he got to spend most of his time sightseeing along with his fares. He never got tired of it.

It did have its ups and downs. There were fare jumpers and a couple of guys threatened to rob him. There was a whole assortment of freaks too varied to mention individually. There were nice people and assholes. Sometimes they’d tell him stories he didn’t want to know. Sometimes he didn’t want them to stop. Some nights he made hundreds of dollars. Some nights he barely paid for gas.

All the while he saved like a miser. He lived in the smallest apartment in the worst part of town. He ate nothing but ramen and oatmeal. Sometimes he would steal fancy teabags from hotel lobbies, but other than that he only drank the cheapest coffee. He wanted to make sure that he had enough money when Jenny moved in.

He had it all planned out. They would get a new place in a nice neighborhood. She could take some time to get adjusted and feel out the place without having to worry about getting a job right away. They’d be together and it would be perfect. Jenny always said that there would be heaven on earth if people just spent a little time trying to ease each other’s burdens. He didn’t want her to have to worry about anything.

It was her worry that had him out so early on a Tuesday morning. He was on his way open a bank account. Since his arrival, Aaron had saved up over five thousand dollars that he kept hidden in a shoebox in his apartment. A couple of nights earlier he got home and found someone had broken in. They didn’t find the money, but Jenny freaked out all the same when he told her and he thought she was right to do so.

He got off at three in the morning, but couldn’t sleep. At home he tidied up his place, finished his letter to Jenny, and counted his money. For some unknown reason he could not unwind. That’s why four hours later he was back behind the wheel of his cab. It’s also why he was feeling lucky. There were forces at work in the universe. He felt it. Aaron decided to run a few errands and pick up a few fares along the way.

Aaron sat in his car and tucked the lottery ticket into the envelope, which he placed on the dash. He’d mail it from the bank. The money was stuffed under the passenger seat with some fast food wrappers and an empty mountain dew that had always been there. He never bothered to clean them out.

With a couple of hours to kill until the bank opens he thought he might get some early morning traffic. There’d be a bunch of businessmen in a hurry to get some place or another. They were lousy tippers, but he didn’t have to worry about them getting gangster with him. Aaron tries to be selective about who he picks up but cab drivers are horny guys at a bar. When they’re desperate they’ll take anyone home. At least in the daylight he doesn’t worry so much.

He barely even noticed the two guys get in the back of his cab. Perhaps it was because they looked so ordinary. He didn’t even glance at them when he asked where they wanted to go. This occurred to Aaron as strange and he paused for moment to wonder who he had let in his cab.

Aaron would say later when recounting this story that he knew that they had a gun before he ever even saw their faces and it was true. He claimed that he could feel the gun’s presence as the man behind him withdrew it from his coat pocket as if he had some kind of sixth sense. It is certain he knew it when he felt the hollow end of a pistol in the back of his head.

Aaron tried to stay calm and obliged when the men directed him to park in a tall dark alleyway. Although outwardly serene, inside was a tremor growing with intensity. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he began to feel himself leave his body. He imagined that this is what daredevils must go through. It was a powerful high. He was kind of numb, but also super aware at the same time. In a weird way he had never felt so alive.

He handed over his wallet and lied face down on the concrete next to his car just as they asked. He didn’t make a sound as they tore through the car looking for anything valuable. He knew he was going to be alright. This is what the bizarre premonition had been about. He was going to be lucky. He just had to figure out how to land the plane.

After much commotion one of the men came over and kicked Aaron on to his back. He knelt over him and put the gun in his face and demanded, “Where is the money?”

The other man counted up their haul, “I only have nineteen dollars here.”

“I don’t have any more money.” Aaron pleaded. He knew they hadn’t found his savings. He weighed the odds. They may not kill him for nineteen dollars. It wouldn’t be worth it. They’d probably have to kill him for five thousand.

“Fuck you!” said the man with the gun.

“I just came on shift.” Aaron tried to reason. “It’s 7:30 in the morning. Who do you think I picked up before you?”

It was a logical argument and one they had not thought of while planning their caper. They guy with the money began to curse and beat the side of the cab. The man with the gun had a twitch. He looked to his partner and said, “I’m going to shoot him.”

“Wait, no!” Aaron pulled his hands in front of his face as if his fingers could somehow miraculously stop bullets. “I have something.”

They ceased their machinations for a moment, intrigued by what it was that Aaron might have tooffer.

“I’ll have to get it for you. You’ll have to let me up.”

The man with the gun said, “It better not be a gun.”

This struck Aaron as being funny and there was a lilt in his voice when he replied, “Man, if I had a gun in there don’t you think you would have found it? I mean you tore my car up. It was a mess to begin with. It’s definitely a mess now.”

The guy without the gun told him to shut up and get it, whatever it was. Aaron leaned in through the driver’s side door. He saw the trash poking out from under the passenger seat. He was still tempted with the thought of buying his freedom. Instead he reached for the envelope on top of the dash.

Most people who are killed by guns are killed by someone they know. That’s why they want to kill them. When a stranger kills it is because he doesn’t know the victim. Aaron was smart enough to realize that if these guys knew who he was as a person that they would be less inclined to shoot him. That, of course, is supposing that they do not get to know him well enough to want to shoot him.

Aaron held up the envelope. “It’s in here.”

The guy with the gun said, “We don’t take checks.”

Aaron smiled when he reached in and presented the red, white, and black ticket before them. “This is what I got.”

“It’s a fucking lottery ticket.” proclaimed the gunman’s sidekick, not amused.

“Yes it is.” proclaimed Aaron. “It is a ticket for the upcoming drawing. You wanted everything I have. With this you have everything.”

Aaron kept talking. “I buy a ticket every drawing and mail it back to my girlfriend in Nebraska. That’s where I’m from. We’re poor. We buy lottery tickets. That’s what we do. I came all the way here just to find work. I haven’t made any money. It’s tough for everybody. You know it is. The whole world’s gone to hell. This ticket cost me two dollars. Maybe it wins and it’s worth fifty million. Maybe it doesn’t.

The thing is you have got to believe in something. Right now what I believe in is going home and seeing my girl. It’s funny. Today is actually my last day in the city. I tried, but I can’t make it here. Not like this. My mom’s wiring me a bus ticket and by noon tomorrow this place is in my rearview mirror. And, I’m going to marry Jenny. That’s my girlfriend’s name. Rich or poor is not that important, not really. Family is and I can’t wait to see mine. That is if you let me go.

Keep the money and the ticket. I don’t care about any of it and I’m not going tell anyone. Do you think I want to hang around and deal with the police? Over nineteen dollars? Take the ticket. Take it. You need it just as bad as I do.”

The guy lowered his gun and reached out with his hand.

His friend tried to stop him, “You can’t take his ticket.”

Aaron placed the ticket in the gunman’s hand and said in an almost gentle voice, “I want you to have it.”

The gunman had a gracious yet bewildered look on his face as he thanked Aaron. The two men walked out of the alley at a casual stroll, as if nothing had ever transpired between the three of them to cause any concern.

Aaron kept his word to the robbers and left town the next day. He had been lucky just like he thought he would. He didn’t win a million dollars, but when he told this story during his first job interview back home in Nebraska he got hired. It was a good job too, with benefits and everything. He married Jenny. They have their own place and a family together. Aaron would often say that two dollar ticket saved his life and provided him with a future still unfolding, so it was a winner.

He never did check to see if anyone had won that week’s drawing. Every now and then he would wonder if the two thieves had claimed the jackpot. Either way, it was alright with him.