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Lagniappe

The End of Charles Wheatley

By Noah ThomasPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - March 2021
73

Charles Wheatley pushes through the gas station doors for the one-hundred and thirty-first time this year. For five days a week he stops on his way home from work, legs exhausted, smelling like raw meat, to buy one Sprite and one lottery ticket. He doesn’t tell anyone, even his wife. To them, the lottery is a loser’s game, but he always wins. Perhaps he loses a few real dollars, but he gains so much potential. That’s what keeps him alive.

Charles walks to the sodas, avoiding eye-contact with the gas station employee he has seen and ignored every Wednesday through Friday for the past two years. There are other people in the store on their phones or making conversation with strangers they will never see again. He can’t see why people waste so much time. Talking for the sake of talking makes him nauseous.

Charlie steps behind a woman in line as she makes polite conversation, although he can tell she doesn’t really care about the cashier. People can’t afford that much attention, no one has the space for everyone. He’s been coming into this gas station for years and doesn't know the first name of that same cashier. He wishes she just would stop talking so he could check out. He writes the cost of the ticket and his Sprite in the black notebook where he balances his purchases and keeps track of every animal he’s sliced up and shipped out. It’s a raggedy old book, and four pages are filled with the same entry, a drink, and hope. The instant the woman finally leaves, Charlie pushes his Sprite toward the cashier, pulls out his wallet, and asks for a lottery ticket, all the time staring at its promise of seven million dollars.

He moves to the side, unscrewing his soda, and puts the ticket on the counter. The soda cap scratches the ticket like an itch, rubbing away the surprise. Every number seems like it’s worth something.

It had never happened before, but the second set of numbers lined up. Charlie imagines getting everything he’s always fantasized about; two numbers wrap him in his dreams: quitting his job, and buying a car, out of Egypt into the Promised Land.

The smile on his face fades as the last letters materialize, and his hope breaks away into reality. His dreams metastasize and fall on him, dousing his eternal anger. His hand covers his mouth as he looks around the store, not thinking about all the times he’s made fun of his wife for the same reaction. Looking around, he sees the name tag of the man behind the counter, Ron. He puts the lottery ticket in his pocket, trying to resist the electricity in his arms and legs. They all match, all Seven Million.

“Are you okay?” Ron asks, leaning over the cash register.

“Fine.” Charles cautiously begins to smile at him.

His years of longing blend into stories of lottery winners bankrupt from gambling or lavish clothes and cars. All of his dreams of having enough shatter against the truth. His greatest desires in the wreckage. He had a hundred thoughts that sound like, this could be the death of me. The tired eyes of fantasizing for years about a better life on his long drive home fall onto the lottery ticket, and he just wants to go home and see his family.

He puts the ticket in his pocket, jumps in his car, and drives toward home down a back road, knowing he’ll get home eventually. Rain starts to hit his windshield as he stares forward into the orange clouds of the evening sky. He drives through the lakes and houses he could never see from the interstate, and he is home sooner than he expected. Either because the colorful houses passed the time, or he had incidentally found a way around traffic.

His wife, Haley, is standing in the kitchen listening to the radio stirring enchilada sauce into a pot of corn and beans. Charlie puts his keys on the counter and watches her. She doesn’t ask him how his day went because by now she knows he’d prefer not to talk about it. When she looks back at him finally, he smiles at her, and her eyes open wide and she smiles back.

“Taco soup?” Charles asks, sniffing towards the stove, moving closer to his wife.

“You’re welcome,” she answers with a wink, “no meat, too.” She turns around and hugs him. She had seen Charles eat around any beef or chicken in her meals when he could. A few months ago he said it was too expensive to eat every night, but she figured it just reminded him too much of his job. Charles wraps his arms around her waist, remembering how beautiful she is.

“We have the money, I’m getting a surprise bonus.”

“Charlie.” Haley looks down, smiling shyly, not wanting to break their unspoken embargo with meat. “You seemed happy today.”

“I’ll grab some,” he squeezes her, checks that the keys are in his pocket, and bounces to the door, knowing they don’t have an ounce of meat in the kitchen. Haley watches him all the way to the door.

Charles drives to the supermarket by their house, picks out ground turkey as a leaner alternative for the diet he remembers Haley is on. He picks out a king-sized candy bar at the check-out line for his daughters. He tells the cashier the recipe for Taco Soup, so she could make it for her family, comes home, and has the best tasting dinner of his life.

The next day he calls in sick. He gets sick about once a month, and it’s been a few weeks, so his supervisor expected his call. He drives the same way as the day before but passes Agros Meat Packing LLC toward the regional lottery office.

He felt like he was back at work, but he was the one being split apart. When they tell him he really won, his blood explodes all over the walls. His hands and his feet fall off from him. The lady at the desk, Francine, is so excited for him. She is like his best friend, but they have only met. She starts filling out tax forms, and tells him and the legal details: he does not have to declare himself publicly because they are in Ohio. There's a giant check. It says seven million. He writes the number in the black notebook, on a new page.

They say twenty thousand dollars every month until he dies, or nearly five million as a lump sum. Thinking about having enough for his children, a thought he never had the money to entertain, he decides to take it all now.

Francine gives him a check for five million, advising him to get an attorney and check with the bank a day before talking with an investment professional. He has 40 days to take it to the bank, but they’ll write him another one if he needs it. He has not done this with anyone but his wife before, but he hugs Francine. He shakes the hands of everyone in the office, who are congratulating him. He stops and talks a bit with all of them. Sindi, Will, Angela, Dana, Warren. He remembers their names for the rest of his life. He remembers their voices and their smiles. His memory seems to have grown seven million times bigger, and there is so much space in his heart.

Charles puts the check in the black book, and drives home, dropping a twenty off to the homeless man he usually avoids looking at, hoping he will use it well. The man’s name is Adric, and he is a veteran, and he lost his job in the 2008 crash.

He comes home and plays with his kids, lifting them up like the sheep he’s used to lifting, and cuddles them. Sheep he's used to slicing open, he is holding. After another wonderful dinner, which he whispers a promise to reward his wife for later that night, Charles steals away into the back yard, puts the black notebook into a box, and buries it a few inches under the ground by a tree in his yard. No one knows. He will tell his family, but first, his life is changing.

The next morning he dresses up to go into the factory. Instead of submitting his time, he goes to his supervisor, Samuel, and asks to buy one of the sheep before they kill it. Sam is incredulous, but Charles goes high enough that he can’t refuse. Then, Charles asks the amount be taken out of his last paycheck and says he’s off to greener pastures.

He does not want to thank Sam, because no part of his management, nor the work at the plant, has been positive, but Charles thinks of Sam sitting in traffic, going home to his family, eating around meat in his wife’s signature dish, and shakes his hand, thanking him for the years, and assures him that he’ll come back someday and buy the plant and turn it into a soup factory, referencing an inside joke of theirs.

Sam laughs, and says he’ll miss Charles, and that he understands. Charles loads a sheep into the back of his minivan and sets off until he finds a field. He opens the back of the van and releases the sheep, which immediately starts eating grass. Charles can't stop thinking of all the people he’s met, and the sheep, and his family.

He drives up north where he knows there’s an office building with a sign he’s noticed before. Up the elevator to the top floor is a marketing consulting firm that runs ads for Sprite. He applies, and he gets the job. He’s making twice the money he did before.

A few weeks of his new job, where he gets to talk to people about what he loves, and talking to people everywhere he goes, and spending more and more time with his family with the firm’s efforts toward a greater work-life balance, he is a man of joy. He is like a spring. Until it is the fortieth day.

He hasn’t felt the need to go by the gas station. He always stopped by for hope, and a soda but his hopes are gone now, and they’re replaced by something better. Plus, the firm gives him basically unlimited cans of Sprite. He chooses Sprite Zero, because he wants to be around for a while.

Nevertheless, he stops by the gas station on his way home on a day when his wife is making Taco Soup again. The woman in line in front of him is telling her whole life story to Ron, the cashier, but Charles just listens. When it is his turn, he buys Ron a Sprite as the clock hits five. The bank is closed, and his check is in the ground, in the notebook, in the past. The offer will always be there, hiding in the back of his mind, making space so Charles can fall in love with more people. And maybe he will need it someday, or maybe someone will, but not him, not now.

literature
73

About the Creator

Noah Thomas

writing at storiesbynoahthomas.com

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