Lottery Head by Cliff Aliperti

I had to pick up Mom’s prescription and was further taxed with burning the extra fifty dollars she had pressed into my hand on two lottery tickets. Just two? What the fuck, I remember when the two-dollar ticket debuted, and I thought that was excessive. Whatever, it’s her disposable income, and as long as she can still afford her insulin, sending it straight down the shitter on lottery tickets wasn’t any of my business.

Rite Aid has one of those tall boxy lottery machines, like a soda machine only it dispenses lottery tickets. Sad world. It never bugged me too much to use the machine when she asked, but I always felt like a scumbag when she wanted me to cash in her winners. That involved other humans and if small talk emerged I always acted as though I knew as much about the New York Lottery as a Martian, and was sure to explain I was only there on someone else’s coin.

I planned to buy her tickets first, while my hands were free, but there was a woman standing in front of the lottery machine scratching a ticket, and I really couldn’t be bothered. Woman was practically dancing with the big goddamn metal box, her body swaying in time to the rhythm of her scratch. Fuck it, the insulin was a single pen, it’d fit right in my pocket. I’d come back for her lottery tickets, hands every bit as free, after visiting the pharmacy.

When I returned, to my surprise, the woman was still standing there; still scratching there.

“Excuse me,” I said, failing at killing the disgust from vomiting over my words.

She stepped back half a step, still scratching. I pulled out Mom’s two twenties and ten and was reaching for the machine with the first twenty when, suddenly, the woman said, “I have thirty dollars in there.”

I paused and looked at the screen. Sure enough, there was a thirty-dollar credit on the display.

I turned and looked at her for the first time. Average height, trim build, somewhat sloppily dressed, dirty blonde hair, but featureless as far as I could tell because, to my amazement, she wasn’t looking at me, but looking down and still scratching. Her face was the backside of a lottery ticket. One of those long ones that must have cost a few bucks.

What do you say to such a person?

“Well, go on and finish up,” I said, and I could tell I sounded like a bit of a dick, but Jesus, really?

She looked up then, looked a bit desperate, and took a hesitant step forward like she was testing the waters on a chilly day. I could tell I was breaking her spell, her high, her whatever the fuck. To me, she still hadn’t earned a face. Just a blur. An annoying blur of text and symbols.

I held up a hand. “Wait, I get you,” I said. “Okay, I’m playing fifty dollars. You’ve got thirty.” I tapped the red digital 30.00 that displayed on the machine.

The machine ate one of my twenties, the other, and then the ten. I stepped back and rapped the digital display again to gain her attention.

“Okay, eighty dollars in there now.”

She nodded. She watched.

I pressed a button for a twenty-dollar ticket. Waited for it to drop. Retrieved it. Then I felt her shadow looming over my shoulder. I resisted the temptation to look back. I was in her head and understood. She knew math, lottery math at least. The long ticket she held was a thirty-dollar ticket. Her thirty-dollar credit lingered because she had yet to decide her next play: if the ticket in her hands was a winner, she’d choose a different ticket. If it were a loser, she would choose the same type of ticket and hope the big winner was the very next ticket on the roll.

I’ve learned such logic through a lifetime of watching Mom scratch. Now Mom was definitely more than a social scratcher, but this lady, no doubt about it, she was a full-on addict.

Since the lottery-headed woman was making me uncomfortable, I decided to be a little cruel with my selection, allowing my hand to linger over each of the three different types of thirty dollar tickets on display, waiting for her to shout from behind me, “No! Please, not that one!” She didn’t. Didn’t say a word, but she did whimper, just a tiny emission of grief, when I neared the button just left of my actual selection.

I felt her exhale when I finally picked my ticket, a black bordered one that I was pretty sure I’d seen Mom scratching in the past. It dropped; I retrieved it.

I turned to the woman. She was not looking at me, but face down, still scratching, her face just dozens of lines of tiny typed text from the New York Lottery. A QR code dimpled her forehead; a UPC code the beauty mark on her chin. Picasso, I thought, before tapping the display on the machine to wake us both up.

“Okay, I got my fifty,” I said. “There’s your thirty-dollar credit. Right?”

She nodded.

“We’re good?” I asked, as though I owed her anything.

“Thank you,” she said, returning her gaze to the ticket she held at waist level, scratching away, reminding me of a kid playing a video game or a dedicated musician strumming their instrument.

I began my departure.

“And … good luck!” she practically shouted.

I turned. She was looking at me. I was too nearsighted to make out her features.

“You too,” I said.

What a nice woman when the urge struck her. I peeked back once more.

The image remained fuzzy, but I could tell from her sway, she was still scratching.

Cliff Aliperti is a Long Island-based writer, who has blogged about classic film for several years at his site Immortal Ephemera. His fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine, After Dinner Conversation, the Under Review, and elsewhere. You can find more about Cliff at Twitter/X: @IEphemera.