Ticket to Nowhere – Spencer Holbert
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Ticket to Nowhere - By Spencer Holbert
A SlagDrop Story
Ticket to Nowhere
By Spencer Holbert
The benefit of sleeping in your clothes is that you’re ever-ready to roll out of bed and face the world. But ready to face the world I was not. I felt hungover in that morning haze kind of way, my eyes frosted with Loctite and the film of yesterday heavy upon my skin. My roommate was bashing the keys of his laptop and talking to himself, or maybe he was on Chat Roulette, sizing up the competition with other lonely blobs of smells. I grabbed the slight amount of fat buildup that adorned my own formerly flat stomach and resolved to do something about it. I didn’t want to be a blob of smells, that’s for sure. The cot moaned as I rolled over the edge and landed on the floor, then I slid army-prone fashion across the peeling linoleum into the living-dining-bedroom. I flipped supine and started to thrust my hips in the air all Richard Simmons-like, counting one two three four, then did ten crunches. I repeated this several times until I noticed that my roommate was filming me with his phone. I mimed a theatrical air-jerk and threw the false aftermath at him, washed my face in the kitchen sink, grabbed my backpack and left.
Judging by the noise of evening rush, it was half-past six. I headed to Mack’s and ordered a shot and a beer, then a burger. And then several more beers. Times like this were reserved for idea creation. A few ounces of alcohol can lubricate the generator wheels better than most would imagine. Ideas flooded my synapses, collided with the slight impairment of dicarbon pentahydride hydroxide, and I scribbled and wrote and drank and ordered some more food and texted my girlfriend Rachel who was in California visiting her family and drank some more. It was going on ten when a gruff man with huge arms started telling everyone to shut up.
“Gawd damnit, I said quiet!” He boomed and slammed his mug on the counter. “I got this tinglin’ tellin’ me I won, so shut up won’t ya?” Angry drunks make me uncomfortable. I never understood why people wanted to fight when they drank, why they looked for excuses to beat the shit out of each other. Avoiding physical confrontation was an innate reaction to these situations, and the man, his denim vest exposing years of manual labor and regretful tattoos, had curdled my creative juices with his violent gesticulations. I paid my tab with an overdue credit card and gathered my stuff as numbered ping pong balls roiled on TV. The bartender brought the receipt, which was tacked to a chunk of two-by-four, and I left a tip I couldn’t afford. The announcer called the first number, 48.
“Fuggin’ hell,” Mr. Denim Vest yelled and drank the rest of his beer, “Barkeep! Hey, Barkeep? Another’d be nice, any day now.” The bartender rolled his eyes and thanked me. I threw on my backpack and headed for the door, but stopped for the next number before I left. 14. “I got one!” The man yelled and held up his ticket. The hurricane of balls swirled and the next number was vacuumed up and a beautiful blonde twisted a 33 ball in the rack as the camera zoomed in. “Whoa! Another!” He yelled and looked around the bar for responses. The 01 was sucked up and twisted into place. “I’m on a roll!” the man yelled and stomped. 56 popped up and he yelled “Shit, fuggin shit man!”
I sat down at the bar.
“Back for another round?” The bartender asked and wiped the counter in front of me.
“Yeah, I guess so. A glass of Macallan, highest shelf you got.” I recognized the numbers. I knew, without looking, that they were the right numbers, but I hesitated to double check. I grabbed my wallet from my backpack, pulled out the ticket and placed it face down on the counter. I had $11 cash, two credit cards that were overdue and close to their max. I pulled out the wrinkled insurance card that was eight months expired, pulled out a giftcard to Grindhouse Coffee that had less than two dollars on it, pulled out a photo of Rachel. Everything was scattered about, everything lay strewn atop the counter. The bartender looked at me and cleared a spot for the Macallan.
“It’s the 25. $11 won’t cover it. I’ll need a card.” He said and looked at the pile I had created. “It’ll be $47 or so.” Did he say forty-seven? Shit. Ok, which one should I put this on, which one. I handed him the card with slightly more financial wiggle room and took a sip of the Scotch. Damn it was good. But $47 good? Rent was overdue, I had to sell my car months ago to pay off student loans that still needed paying, I ate shit food and wasted what little scratch I managed to borrow on cigarettes and beer, and there I was drinking a $47 toast with money I didn’t yet have.
“And the final number is, 42,” the announcer exclaimed with false excitement as the blonde twisted the last ball toward the camera. I looked at the TV, at the numbers –48 14 33 01 56 42– lined with finality. Six feet off the ground hung a cloud of smoke, an LA smog of cigarettes and burnt food. Despite the smoking bans that went into effect last year, Mack’s was in a part of town that no one cared to police. The bar had become a refuge for those who missed the days when lighting a cigarette indoors wasn’t taboo, a place where communal nuts still loitered in dirty bowls. I lit a cigarette and cooled my throat with scotch between puffs, the ticket still facedown on the counter. The man in the denim vest was still there, still ranting at the end of the bar, but everything had gone mute, save for the ring of tinnitus and jukebox vibrations. I took a deep breath of smoke, contributed to the cloud haloing my head, and flipped the ticket over.
33 01 14 56 42 48. I looked at the TV where the winning numbers 48 14 33 01 56 42 were displayed. Ash dropped on my ticket and I brushed it off onto my lap, not on purpose of course, it’s just that my hand palsied without consideration. I lit another cigarette off the end of my first and my cheeks flared with each deep inhalation as my eyes flicked up and down, up and down, from the ticket to the TV, TV to the ticket, to the bartender, yes I want another Macallan, to the TV, to the bartender, Thanks man, I appreciate it, naw just put it on my tab, sure I’ll have another, yeah the same, to the TV and those numbers, which I counted like a solemn vow, forty-eight fourteen thirty-three one fifty-six forty-two, to the bartender hey thanks, yeah go ahead and close it out, wait, two more beers then close it out, to the TV, which no longer displayed the numbers and had moved on to a story about volunteers at the No Kill Shelter, to the bartender, who dropped the two-by-four in front of me –receipt tacked atop it—and then to my phone, which buzzed and flashed with a text message from my bank: Unfortunately, Account XXXXXX0287 had insufficient funds to cover your latest transaction…
I called Rachel twice and reached her digital self twice, Hey guys, you know who it is and you know what to do, and texted her to call me. I called my mom with the same result. I couldn’t think of anyone else to call, so I called my job, yes I understand it’s last-minute, no I haven’t found anyone else to cover my shift but I won’t be able to come in tomorrow, no I’m sorry I know, I need to have the day off, really, just like that, well ok, I apologize for this but, ok ok, no I’m sorry I didn’t think that it would be that big of a… ok, yes, I understand. Goodbye.
So be it. I drank my beers and signed the receipt, added a tip that put me into further insufficiency and rubbed my hands together until little snakes of dirt rolled up and down my fingers. A pile of fear and anxiety fell on my chest and I lit another cigarette, that makes three in eight or nine minutes, to help calm my nerves and open up my airways, something a Frenchman once told me helped him breathe. Yes, Fear –the nervous flit of eyes who’s that guy walking toward me, he looks sketch, and the wallet shift to a front pocket—was an emotion I had never felt while residing among the poor slobs of Ashbrook. As I said, there was nothing to steal even if someone wanted to harass me. But now that fear, which the upper middle class feels when traversing downtown streets late at night, overwhelmed me with such a tight embrace that I could hardly operate my cigarette, and I puffed with the insecurity of a social smoker, unable to exhibit my normal panache or urbanity. The ticket, peppered by a few flakes of ash still clinging for dear life, was amid the pile of crap scattered before me, accompanied by the useless credit cards and expired insurance. My phone burped two succinct vibrations and told me Hi baby I miss you! Call ya tmrw, stuck with granpas long winded tales. Rachel’s picture smiled at me from the bar, the top half of her face obscured by a coaster ringed with scotch-glass sweat.
Denim Vest Man was occupied with a substantial brunette in a sort of sloppy grind against her girthy leg, his metronomic tongue thrust between his lips. His annealed arms, tempered with skulls and several tribal bands of weathered ink, glided along her rolling flanks in slow exploration. She giggled and swatted at his hands in affected decency, an I want you but I don’t want to make it that easy kind of inebriated Spiel that ends in nothing but regret. Their charade kicked into overdrive when the jukebox blared George Thorogood, and the two declared their bone-deep badness in off-key exuberance as they gyrated in a synchronous penguin waddle.
But that fear, the hand-wring worry of something valuable, was tearing me apart. I ran my finger along the edge of the ticket, wishing it would slice into my skin and announce its reality, and in the process knocked it over to where the perspiring glass of Scotch had dribbled a sufficient amount of moisture that the ticket readily gulped and allowed to spread throughout its top left corner. I grabbed the ticket and shook it, as if that were going to help, picked a few flakes of ash from its face and flipped it over. The Scotch and the beers and the fear left me hungry and jittery, and I stuck another cigarette between my lips. My thumb wasn’t working and wouldn’t cooperate even after several attempts to talk it into submission, and I slammed my lighter on the bar. Then a thick hand slammed into my shoulder.
“Gawd I hate these frackin’ child safety lighters.” Mr. Denim Vest loomed over me and I could smell the smoke on his breath despite all that hung in the air. “Gotta get one of these bad mothers,” he said and stuck the blue flame of his butane lighter to the tip of my Gauloises. I inhaled as much as I could and exhaled a thanks that bounced off the bar and rustled the ticket.
“Ya play the lotto?” He asked and his hand tightened around my shoulder, squeezing an answer out of me.
“No, no, don’t play, I mean, I’ve played the lotto, but I didn’t buy a ticket this time around, nope, probably should have, but I didn’t,” I said and puffed mendacious clouds into the air. The ticket was right there, face down on the bar and it was obvious that the little rectangle with the water-grayed corner was a lottery ticket. It was screaming and my fear was doubly present and oh shit the guy is right there I know he can see it it’s right in front of him and look at the dude he is frickin huge he’s going to kick my ass and take it the most valuable piece of paper on earth is right there for the taking but I can’t move it not now he will see me reach for it and know what it is and then beat the crap out of me damnit just act calm just act normal but I couldn’t act normal, because here was this guy who not thirty minutes earlier was telling everyone to shut the fuck up so that he could validate a tingle that told him he had won the lottery.
“Right. You normally so antsy?”
God damnit no I’m not normally like this you just have your sledge hammer paw on my shoulder and you’re staring at my ticket. “Nope, why do you ask? Do I seem nervous? Just a little drunk, but nervous? No, not at all,” and I whimpered a laugh and smoked and picked up a beer but only managed to seduce a little drop to come out, I mean of course, the damn thing was empty. I set the bottle down with too loud a bang and Denim Vest picked it up and shook it and said looks like you need another and then yelled at the bartender hey, hey man, two more beers and all I could think about was great, fucking great, now he’s going to hang out and I couldn’t breathe because that middle-class fear was honking every horn and blaring Bone Thugs at those inaudible frequencies that can only be felt yet rattle every window in the house. And my brain, which had shifted to the bourgeois state of salving everything by way of threatening to call the HOA if the neighbors don’t start acting like proper god-fearing Americans, was flicking the front porch light on and off with past-ten-on-a-Wednesday timidity.
But then the house alarm really went off when he had the audacity to touch my pile of crap, a component of which was worth more than the GDP of Micronesia, which isn’t saying much but my God he was actually touching my lottery ticket, and began to swirl the constituents of the pile in playful, yet in-the-current-state-of-the-union torturous, circles. “Check that mountain of love,” he said jerking his head toward the brunette, who leaned on the bar with out-stuck ass, “I’m gonna climb all over that.” His laugh rattled with years of smoking and he slapped me on the back. “So, what is this, show and tell?” And he flipped over a few credit cards.
“Needed to clear out my wallet,” I said as I, blood pressure in the red, watched his hand move from item to item. It fondled the credit cards, caressed my insurance that didn’t assure a single thing and landed on the ticket. His fat, nicotine-stained fingers were peeling the edge of the ticket from the counter, bending it up, I mean come on anyone could see that it’s a lottery ticket so just get it over and beat the crap out of me and run off with your beached whale and celebrate your lucky fucking night, what the hell could I do about it, call the cops or something, say that this dude stole my lottery ticket, the winning lottery ticket, and then what? But then, just in the nick of time to use one of those old man, mow your lawn on Sundays expressions, the bartender brought the two beers. And, while Denim Vest was fumbling for cash after he insisted on paying, I slid the ticket from the counter and shoved it in my pocket, then went out the door as fast as I could.
The brick façade of the bank building across from Mack’s was cold. Leaving my wallet and pile of useless cards was something I failed to consider in my haste to flee the bar. I didn’t realize my mistake until I was already outside, and the only conceivable option I could think of was to hide in the little alcove where the ATM was located. The last thing I needed was Randy –fan of denim vests, man who becomes angry because a bar is too loud– to see me running off. This wasn’t Pemberton, Kenilworth or Hewlett Neck, places of wealth and safety. This was Ashbrook, where people don’t run unless it’s from the cops or from someone trying to collect money, and in a strange technicality I did owe him, even if it were simply a friendly conversation after a beer. But there I was, the richest person in the entire neighborhood, hiding next to that steel chasm from which I was barred of all monetary access, imprisoned by my fear and in desperate need of a cigarette. This was the stuff of fiction.
Sure enough the noise of the bar bellowed into the street and there stood Randy, confused and a bit pissed off, searching for the asshole who ran off without staying long enough to make up for the free beer and stupid enough to leave all their credit cards and IDs behind. He stepped outside and lit a cigarette. The ATM flashed behind me, exclaimed the great CD rates and offered stamps. And, what’s more, it was throwing a shadow of me into the street, a stretched wraith that lay juxtaposed some ten feet long. It was only a matter of time before he noticed.
Was he looking at me? I couldn’t tell, but he was definitely looking at the bank, maybe at my shadow. My breath was rattled and forced, my pulse popped with each jerky fibrillation and I felt a rivulet of sweat trickle down my sides, the sweat of anxiety and fear that smells of nothing and everything. I started to hold my breath and count backward from thirteen, but lost track in my strain to focus on my pursuer’s movements. Randy, whose name I learned when the bartender asked if he wanted anything else, was standing there, looking right at me, or at the alcove. Was he waiting for me to come out of my nook, toying with me until I had to piss or move? He looked furious in that calm sort of way, when someone has come to terms with what happened and was now patiently running down the clock until he could make the next move.
All of a sudden he took a giant step and started walking toward me, or toward the bank, or toward the shadow, long strides of determination in my general direction. I pressed against the ATM in an attempt to block the light that was projecting my shadow for all to see, to flatten myself enough to hide behind the thin brick lip that was hardly hiding me, and, of course, my backpack pressed against the ATM buttons, which started beeping and exclaiming Para español presione por favor el número dos and I let out an ughh or maybe a fuckin’ shit that stopped Randy mid-leap in the center of the road. What the hell was I doing? No matter what I’ve incriminated myself of some wrongdoing, why else would I be hiding? Why didn’t I just say thanks man I really appreciate the beer, I’ll hit you up next time and shake that damn vise-grip paw of his and be on my way, why hadn’t I just acted cool? But you can’t go back and reevaluate the inane actions of duress and pretend that you would have done anything different, it doesn’t work like that. The reaction I had was exactly what anyone would have done, the only thing that could have altered it would be knowledge of the future.
Despite the attempt to reassure myself of all of this, I was fucked. I wasn’t handling the situation properly, nor could I. I had lost control, not only of the circumstances, but of myself. Randy stood there, down-to-the-butt cigarette bouncing between his lips, head cocked in calculation –thank god the overhead lights were burned out—and listened. Then holy fucking shit he reached into his breast pocket and fumbled for something fuck no fuck he’s got a fucking gun or a knife or fuck me some cudgel he’s going to use to mince my brains and pulled out a phone.
“What? Yeah, I’m outside. No damnit I didn’t take off, I’m right outside. Ok, ok, I’m walking in now.” He shoved the phone in his pocket and dragged on his cigarette, then flicked the smoldering butt with surprising accuracy into the alcove, and walked toward Mack’s.
My bladder was bursting, the ring in my ears sharp and irritating. I was frozen in place, trapped in a Peter, Paul and fucking Mary loop of Puff the Magic Dragon or Blowin’ in the Wind. More than a minute had passed since Randy slammed the bar door, and still I was stuck, cemented to the spot where his cigarette tattooed a black smudge some six inches from my foot. I told myself ok, move to the next corner in ten seconds then I counted to ten and not a muscle flinched. Hyper-viscous blood pumped into my head, my legs a heavy coagulant of molasses and potassium nitrate, ready to explode and run but no catalyst to get started. I was in a dream and something was chasing me, ready to eat me, and I couldn’t get away. The ATM yelled at me again, please press 1 for English and it was time.
My knee creaked like I was 80 and my backpack slapped my back, a heavy-brick slam of pavement on boots, those things I used to love but now hated because they were slowing me down, their weight dragging the molasses into my feet. But I ran, I rounded the corner, the keys and change and books and pens clanging in my backpack with fire-engine alarm and the slap slap-slap-slap-crunch of my boots, rounded the corner and grabbed a street sign to sling my mass and propel my movement forward, ran some thirty feet along the wall of Mack’s, then popped out on Stratford and ran. Down Stratford I continued when all of a sudden there was a group of guys, bandana-adorned, swathed in Pitt Bulls, huddled around a maroon or black Impala. If I had seen them earlier I would have maneuvered in a calmer, more normal manner. Instead of slowing and crossing the street, minding my own business, I ran straight into them, dodging them at the last second. I pushed off my right foot as if I were juking a tackle and fell into a chainlink fence that bounced me upright, all within a split second, and continued running.
Someone yelled “Yo mutha fucka!” but I didn’t slow down, didn’t wait for more, just kept running, and the dogs’ barks dopplered in frenetic indignation with every step I took. I imagined that this was what it was like to be on crank, to be jacked to all fucking hell, heart cracking in two, mind and body a fucking blur.
I threw my weight across the street and my shadow kept pace, arcing like a sundial to the right. I jumped the opposite curb and landed, almost rolled my ankle, stiff-armed the side of a building and kept running, now down Linden, which housed a row of abandoned machine shops and light industrial complexes. I was almost to Wurth. I ran and ran, took a right down Wurth and all of a sudden hit the wall, that ethereal thing runners tell you about. My legs gave out and I fell back against the corrugated metal siding of whatever building was on that corner, unable to take another step. I wanted to keep going, to get home and pack my bags, to run somewhere safe –I knew where Rachel kept her emergency key, it would only take an hour to walk to her place, maybe thirty minutes if I jogged, but no, I would be ballasted by luggage and it would probably take more than an hour to get there—but I couldn’t move. It wasn’t fear that froze me to that spot, it was exhaustion. Maybe I was home free. The realization gave me a quick shot and I felt elated, I actually felt excited, and my legs started to work. As quickly as they had frozen, my legs thawed and I walked a few feet, then jogged. I laughed, a maniacal, deranged howl. It seemed so easy, now that I was in the clear, as if this were a perfectly normal night and I was just out for a stroll. I paused briefly to light a cigarette, a celebratory smoke, then jogged down Wurth.
Just as I picked up speed a motorcycle, loud and angry and hiccoughing with over-cammed ferocity, rolled out in front of me.
On the motorcycle sat a fat brunette, her arms wrapped around a man with tattoos and a denim vest. “You fuck-ing Shit!”
It was Randy.
“Look Randy,” I explained, my back against a wall, “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Kid,” he interrupted, “Shut the fuck up.” He reached into his vest, and threw a wallet at my feet. “You left this. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I stared at the wallet, flopped open at my feet, and picked it up. I looked at Randy, at the fat brunette, at the pulsing cycloptic eye of the motorcycle.
“You owe me a beer,” he yelled, “You god-damn cunt-stick!”
Then he roared off, the motorcycle sagging from the weight of his barroom prize.
The sound of his motorcycle faded into the night, and I reached into my pocket. Yep. The Ticket was still there.
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Ticket to Nowhere - By Spencer Holbert
A SlagDrop Story