One Last Good Thing
What will a lifelong alcoholic spend his sudden winnings on?
“Hey Chuck. Gettin' your usual?” the clerk behind the counter said. His name tag read BARRY, and was clipped to his red polo shirt slightly askew.
Chuck nodded, not really in the mood to talk. He was quietly grateful that the convenience store didn't have anyone else in it right now. With the news he had gotten earlier in the day, the last thing he wanted was someone trying to engage him in real conversation, or trying to bum a smoke off of him—hell, eye contact would be a bit much right now.
He was still in a bit of a haze from his day drinking, but was coming down, and that needed to stop. He shuffled to the coolers in the back, the bright, faux-frosty letters reading BEER CAVE above a door to his right. He ignored that, instead going to his staple—a couple of Colt 45 forties. Seven bucks for a ticket to where he needed to go, not a bad deal. And with the store a quick ten minute walk from his apartment, he wouldn't have to worry about another bloody DUI from some jackass looking to make a quota.
He eyed the 24 packs of beer, briefly weighed the benefits of having that much booze on hand versus lugging it all the way back, and decided to stick with what he had.
Chuck placed the large bottles on the counter with the care only lifelong alcoholics and nervous teenagers show alcohol, and rummaged around in his pocket for some cash. The clerk scanned the beer, and asked “Ten dollar ticket today?”
The middle-aged man made an attempt to flatten a crumpled twenty dollar bill and placed it on the counter. “Sure. Wait,” he interjected as the younger man moved to comply, fishing another ten dollar note out of his pocket. “Let's go with a twenty dollar one today.”
BARRY shrugged, and tore off one of the larger tickets. “$2,000,000 BLOWOUT—THOUSANDS OF PRIZES!” read the top of the bright red scratcher. The clerk scanned everything, took his money, and gave him his change. Chuck pulled out a quarter. “Mind if I scratch it here?” BARRY's eyes scanned the store, and, seeing no one else, shrugged and nodded, clearly not really caring.
A couple of minutes later, and Chuck was completely speechless.
He was halfway through the first forty before his brain really switched back on.
Chuck had won on scratchers before. Not often, but enough that he kept blowing money on them. Twenty bucks here, a free ticket there, hell, once he even won two hundred and was able to make his car payment on time. But this was something else.
He'd won twenty thousand dollars.
He gazed numbly around his apartment. He looked at his TV, next to some metal shelves half-full of DVDs of old shows, around to his second-hand furniture. The coffee table with two full ashtrays on it, along with several half-empty water bottles and fast food wrappers crumpled up. There were at least two pairs of pants he could see—for some months now, he had no compunction about waking up and getting dressed in his living room.
The general disarray of the room was more distinct to him today, as if he was viewing it through the eyes of someone who had never been to his apartment before. This was the home of someone who had given up on appearances, who rarely, if ever, had guests, and who certainly lived alone.
Which was true. Over two years ago his longtime girlfriend, Kara, had finally had enough, and had taken their daughter Sophie and left. She had said she was tired of waiting to get married, tired of the shouting matches, of his drunken behavior, of the neglect, of how they were always struggling to pay the bills but never short on alcohol. At the time, it seemed like it had come out of nowhere, but now, much later, he started connecting the pieces and realized the real surprise was in how long she had waited.
Chuck was not a man who had ever handled second chances well. Many friends over the years had given him a second, third, or fourth shot, only for him to be just as much of a self-absorbed jackass as he was before, only now with an apology. After several loans he never repaid, or trust he squandered, or some other violation of the social contract, eventually, people just stopped calling him back. He had even been too hung over to remember to go to his custody hearing, and so his ex-girlfriend got full custody of their daughter, and full child support on top of that. The money bothered him more than anything...his girlfriend had always done most of the work raising the little girl, so not having any custody wasn't that different to him.
He always told himself that he was a good person, that he liked to have fun and live for today, and that everyone else was always just uptight, or didn't understand. So what if he liked to drink sometimes? Everyone has their vice, right? He was a good man, the problem was people just chose to see the bad parts instead of the good.
Chuck shook his head, and took another slug from his forty. He was thinking too much. He needed to get that comfortable buzz going again, get the negative thoughts to slow down enough that he could enjoy things again. He had money now, lots of it! What was he going to do with that?
Images rushed through his mind, of better-quality booze, and enough to never run out. Of getting food delivered every night. Of being able to buy cigarettes by the carton instead of by the--
That thought stopped him cold. His mind flashed back to earlier in that day, when he was at the specialist's office. He remembered every single word the prissy man in the white coat had said, and how could he not? Some of the words stuck out more than others, like bright neon letters.
“Aggressive,” “malignant,” “start treatment immediately,” “we'll do the best we can.”
Chuck allowed himself a mirthless smile. All the years he spent drinking himself into oblivion, watching everything else in his life fall away because of it, and it had been the cigarettes that had done him in. He coughed, and took another slug from the bottle.
Now the pictures flashing through his mind were of bills. Bills with long strings of numbers on them that weren't account numbers. All that money he had just won, more than he had ever had at any point in his life before, it seemed to whisper away into this endless sucking void that looked just like a simple white paper envelope with a clear plastic window. When all was said and done, there was no question it would all be gone and then some.
He set the forty down, and went to his bedroom. Rummaging through one of the dresser drawers, he found what he was looking for—his old address book. A little black book full of names and numbers of people he had known over the years. He'd gotten into the habit of recording them back when he was younger, and even now, when cell phones had comprehensive address books, he still kept up with it. It had come in handy in the past when he had deleted someone's contact information in anger, and he wanted to run through it again, to see if there might be someone he could reach out to.
What he was looking for, he wasn't entirely sure. He knew a few women who became very flirtatious when they knew a man had money, and he considered giving one of them a call. It had been a while since he had some fun. The more he thought about it, the more it sounded like a great idea. He was halfway through typing in the number for Amber when a bad coughing fit interrupted him.
Wiping a small amount of blood off his lips after it ended, he reconsidered. He was not really in any condition for that sort of thing, and even less so for finding out what pity would look like etched on Amber's face.
He paged through his black book some more. There was David, he was always a blast. David could drink like a pro, and always had some even more fun stuff on him that he would usually share. He was always down for talking about increasingly weird and wild conspiracy theories, the kind of thing that would sound completely ridiculous sober and in the light of day, but while drunk and sometimes high in the middle of the night, was the most fascinating stuff you'd ever talked about.
Then there was Kara. One of the few women who had tried to see something good in him, long after he had shown her otherwise. The mother of his daughter, who had to be six or seven by now. Guilt rushed through Chuck's body. On some level, he had always meant to reconnect with them, or at least Sophie, eventually. Even after all the missed visits and the angry texts and the fights, most of which he had started, some part of him still thought he had the potential to be a good dad.
He went back and sat down on the old thrift-store couch again. After thirty-seven years of life, he had so little to show for it, few friends, no partner, no major career success. The more he thought, the more he realized that he had taken more than he had given in life. That he had a very slim chance of having much more life past the next few months, in fact. And how he would likely be remembered, not as the man he always thought he was, but as the man he actually was—a selfish, short-sighted alcoholic who used anyone who made the mistake of trusting him.
He actually felt a tear running down his cheek. Maybe he could do something, one good thing. Nothing could make up for how thoughtless he had been to so many people, but maybe he had a chance to do something good with his windfall. Something that would make a difference to someone else, so they could have a shot at something better.
Chuck knew what to do with his scratcher winnings now. He pulled out a crumpled softpack of cigarettes, put one in his mouth, and lit it. He breathed in deeply, exhaled, and dialed the number he knew he needed to on his phone.
“Kara, it's Chuck. No, I'm not looking to borrow money. I want to talk about setting up an account for Sophie.”