I always forget that the clock in my car is seven minutes ahead. The only thing in my life that’s ever ahead. Every time I notice, I try to reset it, but I can never seem to figure out all the buttons on my ancient car. You’d think by now I’d have figured it out, but sorry, I just haven’t, okay? And you might say hey, seven minutes, not that big of a deal, right? The worst that could happen is that you’re a few minutes early for everything. No, that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is when I get there seven minutes too early so I’m literally waiting for the liquor store to open like I’m a fucking walking cliché. Seven minutes is a pretty long time. Of course I don’t realize that I’m early right away. I think I’m right on time. As I pull into the parking lot, the bottom of my car scrapes against the asphalt and the wheels jump their way up slightly onto the curb, and I pull into the space not-quite-straight. Good enough. As I get out, I assess my ancient car, with its missing gas cap, dented fender, and many scratches that reveal how many kids learned to drive in it before this piece of garbage made its way to me. Then, just as I think I can’t wallow in any more self-pity, I pull out my phone. And then I see it—7:23. Shit.
I couldn’t have gone last night, could I? Or I can’t just swing by after work? God forbid I actually go one day without spiking my coffee. I figure I can just wait in the car a few minutes, right? There aren’t many people around to see me. I mean, it’s 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. No, not 7:30. 7:23. But somehow this all just feels so sad. And maybe it’s irrational to think that showing up a few minutes too early is not any worse than showing up when the place opens, but guess what, I’m irrational. Something about that just feels fucking pathetic, literally waiting in the parking lot for the store to open because I’ve got nowhere else to go. I drove all the way out here, too, way farther than I should have, because I’m afraid that the guy at the store near my apartment is onto me. No sane person is buying the cheapest handle of vodka in the place on a weekday morning.
My eyes scan the parking lot for some sort of distraction from the seconds ticking by. Wait. Perfect. I can kill a few minutes in that dingy 24-hour convenience store. I’ll just stroll in, buy some coffee, maybe a magazine or two, some cigarettes, hang around until 7:34, 7:35. Like I’m taking my time. Like I’ve got no place to be. Then, I’ll act like the idea has just struck me out of the blue that I might stroll to the liquor store door to pick up some stuff for later: “Might as well grab a couple things while I’m here, right, while I’m out,” I’ll say to the guy at the counter, real casually. And he’ll nod along in agreement. “I mean, might as well,” he’ll repeat right back to me, maybe with a little laugh, “while you’re out,” and we’ll both know how much we’re kidding ourselves.
I take a deep breath and stride into the store. A middle-aged blond woman, clutching a coffee and a pack of cigarettes, blows past me just as I am opening the door and nearly impales my foot with her heel. And not even a sorry. But hey, at least there are other people out this early. People with real shit to do, probably, with real jobs that don’t pay crap, in offices with windows, jobs that are maybe as soul-crushing as mine but they’ve learned to cope with it better. People running errands, grabbing a gallon of milk before they run back to their families, returning to smiles and never disappointing anyone. I envy them. I hate them. But they’re other people nonetheless—just seeing others around is enough to prove I really exist.
I consider the snacks: I can smell the burnt coffee, and see the flies swarming the donuts, the fat congealing on the breakfast sandwiches. Disgusting. There’s all the packaged crap, too, the fluorescent-orange cheese puffs and the chocolate-covered diabetes in a box. No thank you. I’m starting to get a little antsy—it’s been too many hours since my last drink. It’s pathetic. I’m wandering the aisles, trying my best to avoid eye contact with the guy at the counter, when I notice the display of scratch-off lottery tickets—the ones where you need to match three symbols or numbers or whatever in order to win the prize. I remember how my dad used to give me the scratch-offs in my birthday card every year when I was a kid. Such a cheap gift—those things only cost a couple bucks, and he’d act like I should be grateful, like he was giving me the most expensive gift in the world. But you could win a million dollars, he’d say, think about that! Before I scratched it, I felt like a millionaire for a second. But the most I ever won was $7, and my dad even made me split it with him since he was the one who bought the ticket.
The colors of the tickets in front of me blur and swirl together. Do I really need a drink that badly, or am I actually getting fucking emotional? But now it’s all coming back. I was so dumb back then, somehow even dumber than I am now. Even though I knew I’d never win, I’d always get so excited for a split second. Maybe it was the cheap thrill of furiously scratching them with a quarter, and seeing all those shimmery silver shavings pile up. But then there was the money. As much as I didn’t want to, I always believed my dad for a moment: I might really hit the jackpot this time. Fuck the statistics, fuck the probability, this time was going to be different. It never was different, but every time I had that ticket in my hand and a quarter to scratch it with, I’d still get my hopes up. Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky! The anticipation is always better than real life, that’s for sure.
I check the time again. It’s 7:32. Well, I passed the time, now I’d better get going. I look up and immediately lock eyes with the dude at the counter. He’s looking at me expectantly. Like, what do you want? Can’t I just look for a second before forking over my cash? But then I realize I’ve been up near the counter for a while, staring into space at these lottery tickets, and I’m starting to worry that he knows. He knows that this whole visit into this nasty little convenience store is all a sham, that I’m a sham, that the only reason I’m in here pretending to pore over the lottery tickets like I’m a fucking English professor analyzing fucking Shakespeare is because I can’t admit to myself that I have a problem. God, “I have a problem”—even saying it to myself makes me feel like I’m on display, like I’m on one of those horrible A&E Intervention episodes. My friends tried that crap once—Dave said that Sara told him all about what happened at the office holiday party, and they fucking ambushed me in my apartment. I stopped talking to most of them after that.
I should just drop any pretenses and get the hell out of here. It’s 7:33 now anyway, and I have to get to work on time—I’ve been on thin ice ever since that stupid party. And I feel way too conspicuous in this place. Like they’re all watching me. Why are they watching me? The guy at the counter really won’t leave me alone. Or maybe he just wants me to buy something. I do a quick glance around at all the candy and packs of gum before I refocus in on the lottery tickets. Maybe I should buy a ticket or two—maybe a gambling addiction is just what I need. I remember how my dad used to say that this wasn’t gambling, that he didn’t gamble—gambling was when you had a problem, when you can’t stop spending money. He just bought scratch-offs or Powerball tickets or went to horse races now and then, just for a little fun, he always said. I force myself to look more closely at the little scratch-offs, barely able to read the squashed bubble letters. I just need to pick one—any one—but it’s a little overwhelming. Big Money Extravaganza! Lucky Day! $500,000 Frenzy! I just stand there, staring like an idiot, when another one of the tickets catches my eye. GOLD RUSH! says the shimmering letters. Change your life! the swirling script underneath beckons. A little too on-the-nose, don’t you think? Some screwed up cosmic sign I guess, as if one little ticket could solve it all.
But what if today were my lucky day? I’m sure due for one of those sometime soon. I look closer at the shimmering golden ticket, feeling like I’m in fucking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and in for the surprise of my life, where I won’t be stuck in a third-rate job in a third-rate town with my third-rate life. I start to look at the fine print—there’s gotta be something there, something written in tiny half-visible letters to make you realize this stuff isn’t magical at all, because nothing ever is, that it’s all just another way to get you to get your hopes up and dish out more of your money to lost causes. I squint. There it is: the largest prize that I could win is $200,000, and there are over twenty-eight million other scratch-offs out there. Not great odds, and not exactly “life-altering” money. But $200,000 is still pretty good; I could work with that. Maybe I’ll get my shit together, or fix up my car. Maybe I could look for a job that doesn’t make me want to throw myself through a plate glass window. Maybe I could move to an apartment that’s a little bigger, that’s not crawling with roaches I swear I see even though the landlord doesn’t believe me. That doesn’t sound too bad.
“Hey. Are you going to buy one or not?” I snap out of it again at the sound of the cashier’s voice, a little bewildered. God, I’m really losing it. I glance up to meet his eyes. I expect to see an angry look on the guy’s face, but he looks tired, more worn out than annoyed at me. “There are some other people waiting to make their purchases.” He gestures behind me, and I turn to see that a few other people are standing there, some old guy holding a newspaper and a few others holding donuts or milk. I am kind of blocking the counter. I look up at him and force a tight-lipped smile that even I don’t believe for a second.
“Yeah, uh, I’d like one of these,” I say, pointing at the gold ticket, trying my best to sound like I’ve got it together. At this point I kind of have that act down. I fish out my I.D. and slide it over to him. He removes a ticket from the case.
“Is that it?” he asks me. I nod, and hand him a few crinkled bills. I stuff my change in my pocket and I duck out of there as quickly as possible—I’m already inconveniencing the rest of them enough. I run back to my car, and dig out a quarter from between the seats. I just glance at the shimmery surface of the ticket for a minute, admiring how pristine it is just before I tear into it with my quarter. Then I pause. It’s always more fun before you scratch it off. I feel my heart beating a little bit faster in anticipation. Fuck, am I actually excited for this?
I don’t even realize until after I’ve gotten into the car that I’ve run right past the liquor store. Whatever, that can wait another minute. I just have to scratch this off first. Just as my fingers begin to press the coin into the ticket, though, I stop myself again. Why scratch it right now? The second I do, it’s all over. I remember when I got my college acceptance letter; I didn’t want to open it because I didn’t want to ruin it. It was like Schrödinger’s cat, I thought: if I didn’t look, anything was possible, and it was everything all at once. I kept it sealed in my drawer for a week, until my dad got pissed and just opened it for me. Then I didn’t care anymore; it wasn’t exciting.
The same thing will happen here, only instead of an acceptance I’ll find out I didn’t win, because of course I didn’t. Then I’ll just be sitting there wallowing in my own disappointment, feeling sorry for myself, waiting for the next thing to keep me going, just like I always am. I want to believe. Believe for half a second that this shit could really change in an instant, as if all my problems could be solved for me without me ever having to do anything besides scratch off some stuff with a quarter. If it were that easy I would’ve done it by now. I look down at the ticket again. The golden letters seem to taunt me, urging me to go ahead, get it over with and reveal whether or not I won anything. Someone like me would never actually win the damn lottery, but if I won, wouldn’t I want to know? But I’m not sure— if I won, wouldn’t I have to deal with all sorts of complicated tax stuff? I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I can handle my face being on TV and all the other people at the office whispering about me and pretending we were always friends.
Maybe I’m not ready to “change my life” yet. Maybe I just have to figure out how to deal. God, here I am, fucking psychoanalyzing myself over a goddamn lottery ticket. But I just know that I can’t handle that feeling if I wind up with nothing right now. I probably shouldn’t have bought this, but I guess if I was going to spend a couple bucks on something, this at least had the slightest possibility of doing something good for me.
I’m not doing this today. As soon as I look, I’ll know. But if I don’t look, I’m not a winner, I’m a winner, I won $200,000. I won $1, and anything is possible. Maybe I’ll scratch off a tiny portion of the ticket every day. Or maybe I’ll save it for sometime special. Give myself a little something to look forward to. Do these things have a deadline for claiming the prizes? I have no idea. Maybe I’ll never scratch it off, and when I die I can leave it to my kids or grandkids who knows whether I’ll even have, and they can determine its fate. They can preserve it in ice or amber or whatever for all I care, just hold onto it for a while. They can pass it on to their kids. Maybe it’ll be the last thing they have of me. This stupid golden ticket. It’ll be my legacy, my Schrödinger’s scratch-off lottery ticket. Who knows. I turn on the engine, but I still sit there for a minute. I tuck the ticket into my pocket, careful not to let it crease. At least it will give me something to hope for. It’s 7:47, and I drive out of the parking lot, past the convenience store, past the liquor store, without hesitation—I’ve got to get to work, and for once I might actually be on time.