The Gambler

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Jack McCoy nearly broke the glass door as he fought to get inside the small store and away from the stinging ice-cold winds. The shivering man beamed a grateful smile to the welcoming warmth inside as he gnarled his stiff fingers in front of his hot breath. It was the first week of March inside of a hellish winter that had no love for the warm-blooded homosapiens trudging through it. The shaking man hadn't even dressed appropriately in the first place. He sported a beat-up black leather jacket, a pair of faded blue jeans and some dark gray earmuffs which sat snugly on his snow covered and windblown hair.

Half-Irish and half-Italian, Jack McCoy was regarded as a handsome fellow by any who saw him. He stood a pinch over six-feet with raven-black hair worn at medium length. His blue eyes sparkled like gems and tended to place people at ease when he smiled. Hypothermia aside, and discounting potential homelessness, Jack appeared to be in good spirits this day.

The young man had just left his gambler's anonymous group for the 15th time, and what he truly hoped, would be his last time. The meeting had given Jack a dim sense of hope thanks to his friend, a fellow Bostonian, Vic, who also had a gambling problem. Vic had told Jack about a "golden opportunity" which would end all his money problems. Jack, who'd heard of every scheme in the book allowed his friend to pitch him. Vic very enthusiastically informed Jack about an advertisement he'd found on Craigslist by a local laboratory looking to pay people $300 per day to take an experimental drug.

"Three-hundred a fucking day, Jack! What the fuck, huh?" Vic rattled with a giant grin.

"You sure it's legit? What if it's a con?" Jacked questioned dubiously.

"Whatya got to lose you losah, huh?" Vic laughed.

Jack thought of the eviction notice he'd found on his apartment door that morning and couldn't offer a good rebuttal. Afterwards, while sipping cheap coffee, Jack and Vic shook hands on the hope they'd both get to participate. As a long-time gambler who was indebted to some bad people, Jack saw it as the perfect "get out of jail free card" he'd been looking for.

It was after the meeting that Jack decided that he'd quit gambling for good, pick up the Sunday paper for a job and then apply for the drug trial. Jack reasoned that if he got accepted into the trial he'd be able to start the job after it was finished and hopefully live a normal life once again. Fingers crossed.

Inside the small store, Jack stared at his ice-cold hands a moment and then walked through the shop toward the register and his precious smokes. It was a small place with a dingy tiled floor and double-sided shelves on each side. Jack noticed the basic stuff, like candy, chips, toilet paper, cat food, Beefaroni and Spaghetti-O's. Jack could smell freshly brewed hazelnut coffee and made a note inside his head to grab a cup. He felt somewhat badly as he noticed the trail of dirty snow, he'd left behind him. When Jack stepped in front of the register, he rubbed his defrosting hands together and cleared his throat. He faced an old, silver-haired clerk named William. The old man greeted Jack with a wink and a slight grin hidden under his bushy mustache.

"How are you, son? Cold enough for ya?" the clerk asked.

"Yeah it's fuckin' brutal out there. Wicked bad winter this year. Sorry about the mess I brought in," Jack responded while blowing his hands warm.

"Don't you worry about that, I got plenty of free time to clean these days. What can I get for you?"

"How about a job" Jack stated with a vanishing smile.

"If I had more business, sure. Economy ain't too good right now. How long you been looking for work?"

Jack frowned and ignored the question as he rubbed the numbness out of his nose. "Just get me a pack of them Camels, and if you got a Sunday paper still, I need one of those too."

The old clerk nodded and fetched the cigarettes. "One pack or two? Discount if you get two, you know."

"Just one for now," Jack replied.

William placed the cigarettes on the counter and reached next to the register where he lifted a thick, slightly used Sunday paper. "Cigarettes are eight bucks and the paper you can have for free. I just finished it," he said as he rang up the order.

Jack's face lit up, he was happy to save a few bucks whenever he could. While reaching for his wallet he glanced left and fixed his attention on a glass box display which housed a wide assortment of scratch tickets. He'd noticed the tickets when he walked into the store but repelled his attention from them to prevent his own temptations. Jack didn't want to spend any money on gambling ever again, but... his left brow raised slightly as an idea occurred to him. "Say, how much was that paper supposed cost me, Sir?"

"Two bucks, but don't worry about it kid," the old man grinned with a wink.

"Well, that's not what I was getting at. I think I'm going to take the kindness you've given me and try my luck. Let me get a two-dollar scratcher," Jack said with wide and feverish eyes.

"Hmmm alright. Which one you want, son?"

"You choose, for me," Jack said quickly, his eyes never leaving the case. After he said that, his attention caught onto the ticket that read, "$2,000 a week for life," and he imagined how wonderful that would be. However, not wanting to jinx himself, he decided to let the old man choose for him, and as Jack presumed, the clerk picked a different ticket. Not the same ticket that Jack felt "good" about, but he decided to stick with the old man's choice. He figured his own luck was never that good anyway. The clerk placed the scratch ticket onto the counter while pulling a penny from the cup, and then laid it on top of the ticket.

"Ten bucks for everything," the clerk said.

Jack pulled a worn debit card from his wallet and presented it to the old man.

"I can charge the smokes, but I need cash for the ticket."

"Shit... you got an ATM right?" Jack asked with a clenched jaw.

"Yeah, right there in the back. Three-dollar charge though, this ticket's gonna cost you five dollars," the clerk warned.

"Well let's hope I win then!"

Jack hustled to the back of the store, inserted his card into the ATM and mentally reminded himself that he wasn't going to gamble past the "free ticket" he was getting. The state of Massachusetts had been paying him $300 a week for unemployment, and like clockwork, every week he'd lost it all gambling down at the casino. He punched in his pin number and felt a twinge of apprehension about getting any cash out at all. Maybe I ought to just forget the ticket and get out of here... he thought to himself. Conflicted, Jack looked to the front of the store toward the counter and considered the ramifications of what he was doing. He almost canceled the transaction after a moment's thought, but then his eyes fell on a large digital sign with glowing red numbers that read, "$40,000,000," the -Lottery Jackpot- and next to it, a white sign that spoke, "You can't win, if you don't play," and he made up his mind.

"Fuck it," he said aloud.

"WHAT?" the old man yelled from the front.

"NOTHING!" Jack hollered back.

The ATM prompted him to select the withdrawal amount and Jack decided it'd be better to take out all the funds just in case. This way he could avoid using the ATM again for any purpose and dodge paying another fee. It'd be better to pay the fee only once, he reasoned, rather than multiple times. He pulled out $280, which left $17 in his account. Jack folded the wad into his pocket, less one twenty-dollar bill to pay for the ticket and smokes. He then returned to the counter. He handed the clerk the twenty and the clerk handed a ten-dollar bill back.

"Good luck," the clerk grinned.

"Thank you, Sir. You mind if I scratch it here in case I win?" Jack asked. He was concerned because it was three blocks to his apartment and it was too cold a day to have to come back.

"Sure, why not. I ain't got much else going on in here."

Jack smiled and grabbed the penny. He scratched off the coating on the ticket to reveal his fate. After a few seconds, he checked it. He checked it again. Then one last time. He had lost.

"Damn. I was hoping for something good to happen," Jack said as he placed the smokes into his pocket and picked up the paper.

"It was worth a shot, son," the old man chuckled.

"It sure was," Jack said with a frown.

Jack turned to leave, and his eye caught the ticket he'd been drawn to first. "$2,000 a week for life." The ticket's powerful statement caused him to ponder for a moment. Why is that ticket calling out to me? he thought.

"You know what... fuck it. I got no use for this ten-dollar bill. Let me get five of them tickets right there," he said as he tapped the glass.

The elderly store clerk reached into the case and pulled out five as Jack requested. "Here you go. You feeling like it's your lucky day now?"

"I don't know, but for some reason... that ticket is calling my name. Almost like it's trying to tell me something. I think there's a damn good chance I might win big here," Jack said as he placed the paper back down on the counter.

"Alrighty then. I hope you win," William said as he took Jack's money.

Jack scratched the tickets in quick succession, each time frowning in disappointment as the tickets revealed themselves to be losers. Upset with himself for being drawn back into the chaos of gambling, he quickly threw the losing scratch cards into the trash and picked up his paper. He looked at the clerk and smiled. "Here's your penny..."

Jack stared a moment at the penny the old man had given him for the tickets. Something didn't feel right about it and he looked at the date. 1990. It was one of the new cheap alloy pennies they started making after 1981. He flicked it into the air and heard only a slight tick. Jack smiled and understood the source of his bad luck. "Can I choose my own penny out of the cup?" Jack asked as he placed the paper back down onto the counter.

"Got you some kind of superstition, do ya?" the old man chuckled.

"Sort of. These newer pennies are so cheap, they can't be anything but bad luck," he said as he thumbed through the cup. He pulled out a dark colored penny and placed it into the palm of his hand. 1978. His birth year. It was a sign. He flicked it into the air and heard the metallic ping verifying its high copper content. He smiled. "Yeah, here we go. Let me get ten more of those tickets." The clerk shrugged and tore off a new set of ten tickets and handed them to Jack.

Jack took a long, deep breath and separated the tickets with gentle care. He then slowly scratched all the tickets one by one, carefully and meticulously. He made sure to rub away each of the potential winning number spots with sharp attention. When he was done, he held onto only three of the cards that had won him back at total of ten dollars, half what he paid.

"Guess them ain't the lucky ones then?" the clerk asked.

"Let me get ten more," Jack said as he fished a twenty out of his pocket.

"You... sure about this kid? Ain't you supposed to be looking for work?"

"Oh don't worry, sir, I've got plenty of money saved," Jack lied.

"Oh, well alright then. Let's have some fun."

The old man handed Jack his ten tickets and took the twenty. He then cashed in the three winners from before and asked Jack if he wanted the money or new tickets. Jack instructed the old man to give him new ones as he scratched away on the cards already in front of him. At that point, Jack became blind to his surroundings. His mind wandered into the realm of hope. A place where at any minute, his life would be changed. His life would be better. He would be able to pay all his bills. With $2,000 every week, he was going to be able to find a better apartment and buy himself a brand-new car. He'd also be able to pay back his other gambling debts in less than a month. The world was going to be brighter for Jack McCoy after this day. He just felt it...

An hour later, Jack stood in front of the counter with one remaining ticket unscratched. He'd lost all his money in front of the snickering store clerk, who figured the young man was just having fun. For Jack, it wasn't amusing at all. He'd just lost his entire weeks' income and didn't have enough money to pay for food. He also didn't have money for rent which sent the mental image picture of the orange eviction notice to the front of his thoughts where it mocked him. The gambler was broke again. This time it was serious. Rent was thirty-seven days past due and the electric... Jack realized right then and there that he should have used the money to buy food or to have gotten his electric turned back on. His face became pale and his eyes dull at the prospect of everything he would lose because of his compulsion to gamble.

"You think that's the lucky one son?" the old man asked.

Jack flinched, stared up at the clerk and sighed. "I hope so. I really fucking hope so."

Jack sluggishly scratched the card with a heart that ached from the certainty of defeat. As he predicted, it too was a loser. Like Jack. He threw the scratch card into the trash along with the other several hundred or so duds. He closed his eyes, rubbed his face and felt the weight of reality come crashing down upon him. Wanting only to cry, he turned from the counter and headed for the door.

"Your paper!" the old man yelled.

"Keep it."

Jack wandered back out into the dim and frigid evening with his head down. He lit up a cigarette and slowly wandered the deserted streets of Boston. He then remembered that he had $17 left on his card which meant he'd be eating uncooked Ramen noodles again all this week. He headed toward the building where his apartment was and wondered how he would claw his way out of the mess he'd landed into yet again. His spirits rose just a bit as he thought about his friend Vic's great opportunity. He looked at his watch and saw it was just after 5pm. The Boston Public Library would close in two hours and he needed to go online to apply for the trial. He changed direction from his apartment and headed toward the library. Jack hoped Vic was right. Life was running short on opportunities for the broken man. Jack needed something to change, and fast.

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