As Luck Would Have It

by

I stand frowning at the old gas pump.  I stopped to fill up the Honda at the Royal Mart convenience store on the corner of West Broad Street and North Pickett Avenue in New Hope. Royal has cheaper gas than the service station over the mountain, closer to home. As luck would have it, they only take payment for gas inside, no credit at the pump.  Oh well, I’m thirsty anyway, so I walk inside to pay for the gas and grab a cold soda.  The temperature outside has topped ninety-eight and the humidity hangs on my shoulders. Even in the shade, taking breaths is like sucking in thick heat. 

As I walk back to the drink cooler, a tall, thin man staggers past me on his way to the front of the store. He brushes my shoulder. “Scuse me,” he slurs. The smell of beer on his breath is almost as strong as his body odor.  He grabs onto the display racks of cookies and potato chips, trying to balance on legs that are willing, but not able to hold him steady. He makes it to the front of the store, thumps the forty ounce bottle of cheap beer onto the wooden counter and asks for a pack of Marlboro’s.  He leans against the counter for support.

I look into the glass display case of bottles and see the reflection of the man who passed me. His back is hunched a bit as he searches pockets. I see the cashier frown, hear the concern in her voice. “Is that all the money you have Jack?  If that’s all you have, you better take it easy. It’s three more days ‘til the first of the month.”

I pick out my soda and press the cold bottle to my neck as I make my way to the cash register.  Jack hasn’t said anything to the cashier, but continues his search for money.  He’s a wiry man, mid-forties I’d guess, with long strings of wavy blond hair under a faded blue baseball cap.  His hands shake. Jack wears a nylon windbreaker over his tee shirt, dark jeans and a pair of worn New Balance running shoes. I drip perspiration just looking at him.

I join the line at the front of the store.

Jack had put several crumpled dollar bills along with a wrinkled lottery scratch ticket and some gray lint onto the counter. He slides the bills and the lottery ticket up next to the glass beer bottle. He fishes in the front pocket of his jacket, finds some coins and scatters them across the countertop.  A worn rabbit’s foot keychain falls among the metal pieces. Its fur is rubbed off, its sharp nails prominent. It reminds me of a horror movie I’d once seen. From the other pocket, he pulls a worn paperback book. I’m surprised. It’s a copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He lays it on the counter.

“Damn,” Jack says. “I had another five here somewhere.” He continues to reach into various pockets as the cashier removes a ‘closed’ sign from the other side of the register and  motions the next customer to bypass Jack.

The man who was behind Jack sets his Red Bull and a bag of pork rinds down, reaches into the back pocket of his khakis for his wallet and pays with a twenty. The cashier counts his change back to him.  He slips the ten and four ones into his billfold and lets the handful of coins drop into the plastic take-a-penny cup on the counter.

Jack keeps looking.

The whole line detours to the now open spot, and no one pays attention to Jack as he searches for more funds.  The woman in a smart navy business suit and low heeled pumps swipes her credit card to pay for gas, a candy bar, and a pack of Marlboro Lights. She signs the receipt and hurries out the door to the jangle of a bell.

I look at Jack. “A damn drunk,” I hear my father’s voice say inside my head.

When I was a little girl, we took walks on the downtown pedestrian mall close to my grandmother’s house.  Disheveled men leaned in doorways, sat with their backs against the walls of the tall brick buildings, and held their hands out for money. They had long hair and long fingernails.  Most were quiet, but some spoke up, asking for change. Some said, “God Bless” when a passerby handed them coins.

I remember feeling a little scared of those men, their smell, slurred words, and whiskered faces, but mostly I felt bad for them. They looked sad.

“Never give bums money,” Daddy said.  “You can buy them a sandwich if you want, but if you give them money, they’ll drink it away.”  My Daddy was a smart man. He knew what he was talking about.  Before I was born, his father had been one of those men hunkered in a doorway, drunk, trying to keep warm.

Sometimes on those walks, I’d find pennies. “Take that home and put it in your bank,” my Daddy said. “Pennies make dollars.” Once, I found a quarter. I picked it up, excited about my luck, jumping up and down, showing off the shiny coin. Half a block away, I wanted to give the quarter to one of those old men. I held the treasure over his cupped palm only to have my Daddy jerk my hand away.

“Put that in your pocket,” he said, pulling me away from the man. Daddy kept walking, tugging me with him. I looked back to the man and he smiled at me. I smiled back and mouthed “I’m sorry.”  He shrugged his shoulders, palms up, still smiling.  I turned back and that’s when my Daddy told me about buying and giving a sandwich.

We didn’t buy that man a sandwich though; we walked on to the drug store where we sat at the counter and I picked at a grilled cheese sandwich.  “I thought you were hungry,” my Daddy said.

“Not enough for both Jack,” I hear the cashier say, bringing me back to present. “Which do you want to put back?”

“Cigarettes I guess,” Jack says. “I thought I had another five.” Jack pats his pockets again, frowning.

“You ready?” the cashier says to me.

“Oh yeah,” I say, placing my soda on the counter. “I need twenty in gas too.”

She rings up the sale on the register. “Twenty-one, sixty-six,” she says.

I hand her thirty in cash and she counts the eight thirty-four in change back to me. I stand with my wallet open, deposit the coins in the change purse and slide the bills behind my driver’s license. I look at my picture. I look stern. They won’t let you smile at the DMV anymore. I go to zip my wallet and stop. Opening it back up, I pull out the five dollar bill and hand it to Jack.

He takes the five, looks down at me, and says, “God Bless,” just like the old men I remembered, only Jack is young. He pats my shoulder and smiles, showing even white teeth amidst more than a week’s stubble of whiskers.  “You’re a good woman,” he says.

“No problem,” I say, pointing to his paperback on the counter. “I like Mark Twain too. Tom Sawyer was my favorite.”

Jack picks up Huck Finn and thumbs through the pages. “Twain was a smart man,” he says. Then he stops three quarters through the book and pulls out a five dollar bill. “Well I’ll be damned,” he says, smiling. “There it is. Must be my lucky day.”

He looks at the two fives, then looks back at me.  He offers the one I gave him back to me.

“No, you keep it,” I say. “You need a bookmark.”

“Thanks he says, placing the five back into his book.

I turn and walk toward the door.

“Give me back those cigarettes Shirley, and while you’re at it, a computer pick mega millions ticket too,” I hear him say as the bell jangles behind me.  

 

 

 

 

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8 Responses to “As Luck Would Have It”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Love it as usual! Keep them coming!

  2. Virginia Phillips-Smith Says:

    Love this, Margaret. I was right there with you. Bless the man who reads.

  3. Steve Says:

    Great story, Train. Of course, you are a chronic enabler. And, lately, you’ve become the queen of poignant endings.

  4. OldMack Says:

    Sam Clemens would applaud you, Margaret, for using a Fin for a place holder while telling a good story. We can almost bet Jack’s got the winning ticket in his pocket along with his rabbit’s foot and Huck Finn. We know the narrator is less burdened by the heat walking back out to her car to pump gas. I enjoyed finding this tale in my morning mail. C is up and bustling behind my chair, or I might rave on.

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