Monday, January 16, 2012

Interlude Stories: Chris Rhatigan

LUCKY CONVENIENCE - CHRIS RHATIGAN

Old, shabby men like Tony Marcello came into Lucky Convenience every day. They’d rattle off their lotto numbers and demand a pack of Merits or Chesterfields or Viceroys.

They’d sort through the losing and forgotten tickets other customers left strewn around by the soda fountain or the garbage can. They’d ask me to run those tickets through the machine. “You never know,” they always said.

They’d use one hundred-and-sixteen pennies to buy a cup of coffee.

They’d stink up the place with their farts.

They’d complain I was too slow with the numbers. Like they have so much important shit to do they can’t spare five seconds. They’re the ones pissing away hours a day on something they don’t want.

I’m serious. They don’t even want to win—you ever heard of a happy lottery winner?

Not that it made any difference. None of them ever won anything substantial.

Until Tony Marcello.

*

When Tony didn’t show up that morning, I would’ve bet a week’s paycheck he was dead. It was the first time in my five years at Lucky Convenience that he had missed either of his two daily visits—6 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

But he made his 1:30. Pulled up in a sparkling, navy blue Cadillac Deville that had magically replaced his Oldsmobile. He still wore those same gruel-colored trousers yanked up to his nipples and the paper-thin polyester shirt dotted with grease stains.

He was whistling “My Way” when he strolled in, a cigarette tucked behind his ear. No one else was in the store. He picked up a dozen cans of mini Vienna sausages—78 cents a pop—and plopped them on the counter.

Already living it up. Usually he only got one.

“So, you went up to Lottery HQ this morning?”

“Yesterday.” He pointed outside at his new car like I hadn’t seen it. “This morning I put a down payment on that hot little number.”

“What’d you hit? Few numbers on Powerball?”

He shook his head, smacked his fleshy lips and smiled carefully. “Cash Five, my good man. Hit it right on the nose. Two hundred thousand simoleons.”

“Holy shit.”

Biggest winner we’d had before was a measly grand. Mr. Chang, the store’s owner, whined that the 7-11 up the street got all the big winners. Lottery players being a bunch of superstitious morons, they all flocked to the spot dishing out the winning tickets.

“Yessiree,” Tony said. He handed me a folded up sheet that listed all of his numbers and stabbed it a couple of times with his forefinger. “I’ll take five on every one. Figure I gotta ride this thing.”

I printed the tickets, presented them to him in a neat little stack, bagged his cans of sausage and preemptively pulled his two Viceroy soft packs.

Usually I’m not much in the way of customer service, but I wanted to pave the way for a hefty tip.

“And for giving me that winning ticket,” Tony said, “here’s a little something for you.”

He flipped through a fat roll of bills and removed a crisp Hamilton.

“Gee, thanks. You’re a regular Mother Teresa.”

“No problem. See, TJ, you stick with me, good things happen.”

Apparently, he didn’t get sarcasm.

“So, your numbers won, huh?” I asked.

“Nah, it was a quick pick.”

“I don’t remember giving you a quick pick.”

“Maybe it was over at the 7-11.” He shrugged. “I gotta hit the road. Buy me some new clothes. Maybe a new wife, too.”

He left. I went to the back office and checked the newspaper from the day before.

Winning numbers for Cash Five: 12-7-3-22-36.

Tony was full of shit. He scavenged that ticket—someone else had played those numbers and left the ticket on the counter or dropped it on the sidewalk, and Tony picked it up. He might have gotten away with it if the ticket had been a quick pick—numbers the machine randomly assigned—or a scratch-off.

But those numbers belonged to someone. And that someone was U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Charles Basilone.

*

I thought it basic human decency to at least warn Tony. For years Basilone had played his wife’s birthday, his daughter’s birthday, and his age. The Sergeant would be expecting at least a cut of Tony’s winnings.

But Tony didn’t want to hear it. Said Basilone could go fuck himself. If he wanted the cash, he should’ve held onto the ticket.

Doesn’t work like that. Told him he should know better than anyone—people who play numbers own those numbers. And Basilone, he was polite and whatever, but he still had that high-and-tight haircut and hit the range every weekend. You didn’t want to fuck with him.

“Just give Basilone something, anything,” I said. “A token of your appreciation.”

“All right, all right,” Tony said.

But he was analyzing the racing form. Like everyone else, he didn’t listen to a word I said.

*

I was on an opening shift about three weeks later. I got there and Tony was waiting for me outside in one of his god-awful new suits, a sherbet orange number with cream pinstripes. He even had a cane that looked like it was made of elephant tusk.

He’d probably already blown through six figures of his winnings.

“Where ya been?” he said. “Thought I was gonna have to bust in and print the numbers myself.”

“I overslept. Luckily your suit was in the neighborhood to wake me up.”

I unlocked the door and started a pot of coffee. The buzzing fluorescent overhead lights made me squint. I flipped on the lottery machine and took a seat on the stool behind the counter.

I was punching in his numbers for the midday drawing when I heard the door buzz.

A guy wearing a John McCain mask pulled a handgun out his leather jacket.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t hesitate. He shot Tony from a few feet away.

I ducked behind the counter. More gunshots. I wasn’t going to bother telling him to take the cash from the register. I knew that wasn’t what he was after.

The door buzzed again. I peeked over the counter. Everything was exactly the same, except Tony was crumpled up like a used tissue, his orange-and-cream suit soaked in blood.

I ran outside. Drizzle and cold. The parking lot was empty. My ears screamed and the acrid smell of gunfire clung to my nostrils.

I didn’t want to go back in, so I got in my car. Watched the beads of water collect on the windshield and roll down. I turned the car on but left the heater off. It would have just spewed cold air.

I backed out and left. Turned on the windshield wipers but they kept squeaking, so I turned them off.

Returned to my dungeon—a mold-filled basement apartment with a crusty beige carpet. I parked it in a recliner, worked my way through a six pack, watched reruns of Judge Joe Brown.

Nodded off in the early afternoon. Woke up cold and nauseous. Barely made it to the toilet bowl and vomited for what felt like an hour. Thought I would feel better after but I didn’t. No matter how many times I brushed my teeth, it still felt like they were coated in grime.

Mr. Chang left at least a dozen voicemails on my cell. “Where are you? Why you miss your shift?” Shit like that.

Far as I’m concerned, he can take that seven-dollar-an-hour job and blow it out his ass.

BIO: Chris Rhatigan is the editor of All Due Respect and the co-editor of the crime anthology Pulp Ink. A collection of his stories, Watch You Drown, will be published by Pulp Metal Fiction. If you dig short fiction, stop by his blog, Death by Killing.

18 comments:

Jane said...

Like watching a short film! Perfect structure.

Katherine Tomlinson said...

Is that the smell of cheap cigarettes in the air? Any time I've ever been in a convenience store, a "Tony" is there. Good story.

Richard Godwin said...

Chris from the opening line you're onto a winner here. Visceral, real gritty and dirty.

Paul D Brazill said...

Great urban crime.

Julie Lewthwaite said...

A smashing tale, Chris, and beautifully told. Great stuff!

Graham Smith said...

Wonderfully paced with a real sense of place.

I was right there in the moment.

Cindy Rosmus said...

Chris, all your stories are a treat to read. Lots of familiar lowlives we swear we just saw up the block, or puking outside the bar.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great job, Chris

Ben said...

Very nice, good sir. You understand very well the inescapable circle of poverty and crime.

Ben said...

Oh and I liked the John McCain mask. Great detail.

Phil Beloin Jr. said...

I really enjoyed this...I too was a clerk in a store like this one, and I ain't never going back...Congrats on your story collection getting published.

nigel p bird said...

I can't put my finger on it, but this is one of my favourites of yours, Chris. It's so full of wonderful description that it's like being inside it. Fantastic. That collection of yours is sure to make a very large bang when it lands. Thank you.

Thomas Pluck said...

Fine writing, Chris! Really enjoyed the characters. Having worked at a drug store, I'll say you nailed it

Rob Kitchin said...

Great first line and nice job. I can just see that sherbet orange suit with the cream pinstripes. If I'd played finders keepers with an army guy I guess I'd either run or go a little nuts in the wardrobe dept.

Mike Miner said...

Chris, this story felt very authentic, every detail and each character rang true for me. Terrific.

Al Tucher said...

That's noir! Some guys never get a break.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Thanks much, all!

Definitely like writing about those folks you see puking outside the bar.

Anonymous said...

In late with this. Missed it somehow. Musta been out of town 'cause if there's a Rhatigan out there I'm readin'it. Terrific dialogue, internal and external. Jane's right. I can see Kevin Smith directing. Cool.
AJ (anonymous because blogger is acting up tonight)