Xenology: The Gambler

Vic works all night at the Denny’s across the street and comes in on my shift about twice a night, weather permitting. He’s a lean man who wears button-up shirts with sleeves that never reach his elbows. His avian eyes have two speeds: dart and rest. Those eyes take in the world with the astute speed of a House Finch, never pausing on one object longer than absolutely necessary to comprehend it.

Vic loves two things more than anything else, as far as I can tell: Mexican jokes, and big honkin’ piles of two-dollar Scratcher tickets. The former passion probably stems from some sort of rupture of self he had as a wee mijo, something he never patched up. The logic behind the latter is a bit more self-evident: two-dollar Scratchers have the best odds of winning per dollar spent, if you’re just looking to win.

Some people aren’t looking to win. Might sound bizarre, but it’s true. Some people are addicted to the act itself. (Not everyone copulates to procreate.) They just want to feel the thin resistance of an obscuring layer as they slide the penny across the ticket. To them, Scratchers are a compartmentalized vacation. And when that vacation ends, they touch back down to that little Lotto kiosk off to the side of the checkout counter, and sigh or shrug and walk away. I always wait until they’re out of sight before I go over and wipe up the half tin, half eraser dust.

Now, you’ve got your Crossword Scratchers, your Bingo Scratchers, and your bastardized crossbreeeds of the two—these types of tickets are the ones folks buy when they plunk down the three dollars per. Those people are not here to procreate. They are here for the thrill of the hunt. Sure, they might say, “Just the winners, please,” when you ask them which tickets they would like to buy today. But they don’t really mean it. The free ticket here, the five or ten bucks there, that’s all just icing on top to them.

But that ain’t Vic. Vic is either an incredibly lucky man, or knows something I don’t. In fact, he might be the only man in the golden state who can rightfully claim to be gaming the glorious California state-sanctioned gamble card system.

He’s in early tonight, over staring thoughtfully into the Frito-Lays endcap display. He picks up a bag of Chester Cheetah’s Flamin’ Hot Flavored Fries and cocks his head at it. When he understands the bag he returns it to the display and sidles up to the checkout counter. He hums low and taps his pointer finger on the glass counter that shields the sacred tickets from errant hands. The Scratchers are safely on display like a fine décolletage. But unlike the forbidden fruits advertised by a low neckline, those Lotto tickets can be had for the night, long as you’ve got the money.

He closes his eyes and his restless finger becomes the slider of a ouija board. He’s conjuring up the spirits and I wonder to myself if it feels the same way I feel when I stumble upon the perfect word when his fist comes down atop the case and he declares, “That one.”

His eyes are impossibly wide. “Also, two Lucky Sevens. Oh, and, uh, three Triple Cherry Pluses. And, let’s see…five Crazy Cash Cows.”

“Five?” I ask. No sense in letting him burn all his tip money on his first break. “You sure?”

“Five,” he says. “Can’t you feel it, man? It’s five, right? Five.”

“Hey man, I’m just the guy behind the counter. You’re the winner here. Five it is.”

Talkin’ ‘Bout B’barns (Writing Exercise)

The Man in Black (The Bad)

The word dilapidated can only be fully expressed when applied to a worn-out old shell of a barn—like the hovel just off the side of I-80 a quarter mile up past Cherry Glen. That barn has more holes than timber for walls now, but in some forgotten past, livestock and freshly harvested foodstuffs must have been safely stored inside. A far cry from the few oversized splinters that remain. With all traces of goodness and color washed out ages ago, what is left is the color gray—all fifty glorious shades. No need to get the Big Bad Wolf—this tinder pile’s bound to blow down any day now, under the slightest huff and puff from Mother Nature. This barn, this practically-begging-for-a-demolition pile-of-sticks, is the especially gossipy type, spreading rumors about the things buried deep down underneath, and has managed to collect a colorful variety of nicknames such as “Zodiac Shack” and “Body Barn.” So when the local news anchor mentions that a corpse has been found in an old shanty on the outskirts of town, this hovel is the default mental picture. And a good half the time, that mental picture lines up perfectly with the real picture as well.

Eastwood Style (The Good)

But this barn is also the first piece of shelter runaways stop at after fleeing home—the cops find the lost kids there every time. And the Zodiac Shack is the séance capitol of the tri-county area—a real Winchester mystery hovel—just perfect for tourists on a budget. The thing practically reeks of old country charm; new barns are pretty much like new housing tracts, all looking and feeling the same. But a piece of history like this barn can only grow more unique as the days go by. Sometimes less is more, and what’s more minimalistic than a run-down former barn structure off the side of the freeway? Sure, no horses or pigs or piles of hay have sought shelter inside for half a century, but there is still refuge to be provided. When an owl screeches outside of a house in town at midnight, the hatchlings chirp back from up in the time-tested rafters of the barn just outside of town. And more than one deer has birthed a fawn under those same rafters, which half obscure a perfect golden moon.

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The prompt was to write about a barn: once in a positive manner, and once in a negative manner, without using pronouns.