Welcome to nonfiction Wednesdays!
Why did I choose to talk about nonfiction? Well, for one, nonfiction is particularly special to me. I took Nonfiction Writing at Northern Illinois University as an elective for my English Minor back in 2002. At the beginning of the semester, I was dating this guy who I met on one of those free dating sites. It was actually sort of a new thing back in 2002, and he was the second guy I’d met through it. He was, well, a pretty decent boyfriend. However, as I’d find out though some of the weeks before spring break, he was turning out to be sort of a basketcase. We were happy and things were good until he became distant and shady, and then he decided to break up with me right before spring break. Nice guy, eh? Well, it was college.
During that spring break I had to write a paper for my Writing Nonfiction class and read it to everyone when classes resumed. I was so distraught that I couldn’t think of anyone else but my ex. I tried writing my paper about him – in a notebook and on the computer. Nothing I wrote was good. It was all awful, and as I wrote I found myself sounding completely pathetic. My feelings seemed real, but they just weren’t real to me.
I’d soon realized that writing about my ex was just purging. I was releasing myself from the relationship through my words. They were valid, at least to me, but to share them with a class seemed horrifying. Not only that, I didn’t want to seem like a complete loser in front of my writing peers. As some people know, when you take an English writing class, some people can be pretty harsh (and rightly so).
So I scrapped everything I wrote and decided to write about someone else besides myself. I didn’t want my paper to have anything to do with me that had any sort of depth.
I wrote about my job. I didn’t care at the time. I wanted to disconnect myself from my broken hearted misery and write about something that I knew I could write about without really thinking. I wanted to write about a place I was pretty comfortable sharing with others, something that came easily.
At the time, I was working at a gas station. I’d worked at a couple different gas stations for 2 years at that point. I’d worked at one back home, and then I’d found a really well-paid cashier position at a busy gas station in DeKalb near the college.
I decided to write about my job at the gas station back home. I was feeling homesick, and even though it doesn’t sound like the most luxurious jobs, I enjoyed the people I met there. Trust me when I say that gas stations bring in a variety of people from many different backgrounds and social circles.
I’d served the blue collar types, like construction workers and auto mechanics. I’d served the mayor, councilmen, police officers, and clergy. I’d served people on welfare and homeless people. I’d served college kids, high school kids, and even little kids who came in to buy a candy bar while their mother watched from outside.
Probably my favorite people to serve were the lottery players. I had a love-hate relationship with them. When you worked at a gas station, you had regulars, and you had the same folks buying lottery too. So, for my paper I decided to write about the regular lottery players I’d like to call The Lottery Club.
Consequently, my decision to write about these lottery people was a good one. Many people in my class were impressed, even the biggest critics. One person was not entertained, but he was known for finding fault with everything and never being satisfied. It felt good to hear the teacher of the class knock down his criticisms to defend me.
Not only was this one of my proudest writing moments in my lifetime, but the Writing Nonfiction class would forever change my life in a different way.
In this class, I met another student writer there that would someday become my husband. When I’d fretted over what to write after my breakup with that other boy, I’d searched inside myself and expressed something deeper, a part of myself I was delighted to share with others, rather than drown them in my personal suffering. In the end, a bad relationship had ended and another was soon born – a better one.
So I am pleased to share with you that story I wrote, complete in its original form:
The Lottery Club
(HK Rowe © 2002-2015)
Normally, my six-hour shift never changes. I work at a small, obscure little gas station that attracts the lowest class of people. The same people come into the gas station to get the usual things they did on previous visits. After awhile of repeat visits, regulars are known by first names to us employees at Phillips 66. The people who are normally the regulars are the lottery players. They play Midday and Evening lottery. They never hesitate to spend lots of money either. They constantly consult each other about numbers that they “feel” are right. They’re in tuned with the lottery and number gods. Or so they think they are even if they lose repeatedly.
At Phillips 66 in Freeport, Butch is the great sage of lottery. Not only does he spend over a hundred dollars a day on numbers, but also money seems to be no object to him. To the others who play lottery, he’s the Messiah. They always look up to him and await his advice.
Unlike the other lottery players, he seems different. His demeanor and appearance seems to be cleaner and more refined then that of the others. He definitely has money to spend, for he is the owner of Mrs. Mike’s Potato Chips.
I’m often curious to why the other lottery players look up to Butch so much. He’s won several thousands of dollars on lottery, but he’s lost just as much. For some reason, the numbers he picks seem to influence the others enough so they play the same.
I always know when Butch appears on my shift. I can see his curly white hair, pink face, and round torso sitting in his blue Jeep as he pulls into the station. His golden presence is radar, and shockingly other lottery regulars seem to come to the station simultaneously when he’s there. He walks into the station and usually some are quick to greet him, inquiring about his numbers and their miraculous origins.
“I saw this license plate number 4-7-6, and I have a feeling it’s going to come in soon,” Butch says when another lottery player asks about his numbers.
“Oh, yeah. I saw that one too. I saw 6-4-7 on the address of a house when I was walking Bogart the other day,” says Ed.
Their chatter warms the dullness of the gas station. They socialize, talking about numbers with passion. They are in their own worlds, and they don’t seem to mind being slowly forced into the corner with the candy and 12-pack sodas by the bustle of other customers.
Butch hands me his long list of numbers. He always tells me to not hurry. He’s going to talk to Ed about his failure at Midday numbers.
“I almost had it too!” I also hear him say, “I second guessed myself again. I had a little feeling about that number but didn’t play it.”
I snort unhappily at his long list. He always plays his numbers the same way every night. For Pick 3, he has about eight or so different numbers and I have to type in each number and play them as a Strait Box and a Strait for a dollar five times. His Pick 4 numbers are played about the same way, only instead of a Strait Box for each number, he wants a 50/50, which is 50 cents Strait and 50 cents Box.
After I type in the first four numbers, my fingers become robotic and seem to move on their own. I push the bright blue, green, yellow, and red keys of the black machine… 4-5-7…Strait Box… Send…Last…Strait… 1 dollar… Repeat…05 times…Send…”
The process seems to take forever. Whenever I punch in his numbers, the redundancy seems to slice my brain out of my head and turn me into a zombie. I don’t usually like getting interrupted during Butch’s numbers by other customers. Because the routine is so ingrained in me, I sometimes hiss like a monster after other customers interrupt me.
Once I get his numbers played and paid for, the rest of the night seems like a reprieve. But I still get annoyed as more lottery people come.
Ed is Butch’s second-in-command. Butch and Ed wait for each other to show up most nights so they can discuss numbers. Like Butch, Ed drives a distinctive vehicle. When he pulls up in his rusty, dull maroon van, he moves out slowly, gliding into the station like a phantom. As his master leaves the van, Ed’s hound dog Bogart barks at all the other customers coming into the station. Ed has a routine usually every night. He gets about four dollars of gas in his van, buys a bag of cheap Cheetohs for Bogart, and disappears into the bathroom. Usually he’s so quiet I forget he’s still here. When I look out the window, and I still see his van and a hyper Bogart, I know he’s around somewhere.
Eventually, Ed slinks around the corner from the bathroom to my high counter. If Butch isn’t here, he’ll inquire if he has been. Whether Butch has been there or not, Ed will stay, usually for a very long time.
Ed can seem a little scary at first. He could be mistaken for a little homeless man. He wears a ratty old navy overcoat, full of dark spots of unlimited amounts of dirt, smoke, and any other filth. He always wears a blue knit hat, and I’ve never seen him without it, even in the summer. His face looks hard and tired, and without being touched I feel his face is rough and bumpy like beef jerky. His beard, a style stolen from Abe Lincoln, makes him look a hundred years older than his actual age. His eyes are teary and wet, and they remind me of eyes of an aging dog. One eye doesn’t seem to work very well, constantly flooded with tears and moving erratically.
Despite his homely appearance, Ed has a sharp and cranky tongue. His voice has the intimidation of a strict old-fashioned grandfather. He usually looks at me intensely with his erratic blue eye and says to me, “What number is that bingo on?”
Whatever number I say, he steps back in intense thought. Nothing on his body will move except his erratic eye. Suddenly he opens his mouth full of brown rotting teeth.
“Give me it. And don’t disappoint me.”
After about five disappointing bingos, he plays his Pick 3 numbers for the evening. First he wonders about Butch’s numbers, and then he reluctantly plays them, but in a different order. He never spends more than ten dollars, but he’s adamant with me that HIS numbers should be picked because of the money he’s spent. Before he leaves he gives me a slow, piercing look with his wild eye.
“You better pick my numbers tonight, not like the last time.” Then he floats out of the station to his van; Bogart is jumping, shaking the van in jubilation at his return.
PeeWee: Public Relations
Upper middle class customers seem to leave immediately upon PeeWee’s arrival. PeeWee is a short middle-aged man, appropriately labeled the Pimp of Freeport. Well, I guess he used to be. For sure, he now puts his shady salary into the lottery system.
He always wears his white plastic-like hat (it looks like a miniature cowboy hat) with small black feathers held together by a black satin ribbon. He’s wearing his green and white striped polo shirt, stained from coffee and other unknown substances. He wears gray trousers and scuffed alligator shoes. His skips into the station with a grin full of mistreated teeth. His charcoal face and deep brown pupils contrast with the intensity of the whites of his eyes.
He hands me his list of tattered notebook paper. It’s scribbled in writing that resembles a child’s. After I hand him the completed tickets with his numbers, he has suddenly thought of more. Through his strong distinctive lisp, I hear about two more numbers. After paying only about four dollars, PeeWee’s vivid presence dances away. He drives off in his dusty blue convertible with some scantily clad and terribly ugly middle-aged woman in the passenger seat. Not only do the customers sigh in relief when PeeWee leaves, but the store itself seems to be more comfortable as well.
Members of the Board
Butch, Ed, and PeeWee only make up small amounts of the regular lottery players that come in during a night at Phillips 66. Usually more familiar faces linger into play the numbers.
Russ, a spirited look alike to Bill Cosby, comes in and shoots out numbers to me before he walks into the door. Thus, he’s affectionately called Dr. Huxtable among my co-workers. Without vision, we can easily recognize him as he yells out his commonly played Pick 4 numbers: 3414, 1947, 1923, and etc. He wears his tan overcoat, has a smile on his wrinkly freckled chocolate face. Sometimes he smoothes out his dry curly gray hair, and squints his eyes to look at my appearance, expecting me to have a new hairstyle. Then he always asks me, “Are you still in school? Do you still do all that drawing?”
He has a brother, Othar, which is a slimmer version of him with wilder black hair. Othar doesn’t only play regular lottery; he also plays instant tickets. He normally buys a pack of Merit Ultima 100 and about 30 dollars in instants with his winnings and crumpled bills. He takes his smokes and tickets and camps out in his clean white van, only leaving once in awhile to cash in tickets. He leaves with me a stack of old Pick 3 numbers to check for winnings. If he has a winner, I’m supposed to give him a “thumbs-up” through the window while he waits in his van. When Othar comes to the station to play, he usually never goes until close. He plays and plays until he runs out of money, and the money is always being found somewhere.
Eyes roll and people inhale when Dick walks in. Dick, an unkempt moldy old war veteran, walks all over town, and finally he stops into Phillips 66 for company and free coffee. His thick-framed glasses are always spotted and greasy. His back is hunched, weighted by his tummy. He seems goofy to those who don’t know him because he usually wears nice dress pants, a pair of tennis shoes, a raggedy bright red coat, and a frilly pink knit hat. He always announces he’s going bankrupt, sometimes in a mournful blues song he made up on the spot. After getting a cup of free coffee, he buys ten dollars in lottery tickets and cheap smokes. He goes outside and stands in front of the window to light up and gaze at the traffic outside. His eyes always look so sad, and I can’t help feel sorry for him, as his life seems to be hanging on by a thread. He’s excited when Butch comes, and doesn’t hesitate to corner him in a conversation about the same topic.
“The boss-man had no right to fire me.”
I don’t know what brings all these men together. Some nights all of them will circle together by the candy and talk colorfully about numbers and luck. They’ve all had that “feeling” about a certain number. They’re always sure the feeling is prophetic. If they win, they can better their lives. They all listen to Butch, who wins and has it better, but he still plays. Maybe it’s just considered an addiction, but I see more magic and color when these men talk about lottery then I see when smokers talk about cigarettes. They all seem to be caught in some life cycle, and they don’t mind. They wait patiently, twirling around in a machine with random circumstances. Someday, they believe their number will be picked.