Aug 28, 2004

Mau mauing me

Leonard comes in every day. Between 2:25 and 2:40, he’s there with his list of lottery tickets that comes up costing $22 and then he adds one, thinking maybe I think that fate won’t know he’s betting on a number if it’s not on the list.

Every day he’s there and I have his numbers almost memorized. I hold his list in one hand like a prayer, typing it out with the other hand, fingers running, ‘round the keys sideways for 456 and backwards for 654, doing a double step down is case the answer’s generous and a quick peck up in case it’s not like he asked. Every day he comes in and I hold and type his hope for luck, his numbers, thumping the send button and rocking on my heels while the lotto machine rattles up to $22 and he doesn’t say much past how’re you, not normally more than that, and just smiles.

I think he looks glad to see me, when he smiles, but then he leaves it there, not quite letting it fade out, leaves it there until maybe it’s a sneer, a condescension. His shirt says granddad a couple, three times a week, though I’ve never seen anybody with him, just him rolling in a new red SUV and standing there and letting his smile go stale to a sneer.

He left his wallet, one day, and I saved it for him. I opened it carefully to look at the driver’s license and tried to find him in the phone book. I left it behind the counter for him with a rubber band ‘round the outside with his name noted down. He said thanks and I said sure, next day at the appointed time when he gave me his list. He said you didn’t expect that anymore and I said you gotta trust people. He smiled and I smiled and it was, I thought, pleasant passing comradery.

And then today.

Today I woke up before my alarm and sat outside on the stoop watching the oak tree and listened to a bluesy-folk version of Dylan unexpected on the radio and I tried to match my voice to the gravely velvet of this New Orlean’s guitarist I’d never heard of before. He was tapping his feet and quick triple picking the guitar mellow and the whole way to work I pattered my fingers on the steering wheel and remembered to remember his name. 2:30 came and Leonard was there with his list and a scratch off ticket from yesterday.

This isn’t a winner, I said.
It says free ticket, he said.
I don’t see where you’re talking about. If it were a winner it’d say here in the code.
What’re you blind?
Not a winner said the machine. Do not pay out.
You’re just supposed to give me a free ticket, he said, getting loud and looking over back at the line behind him lined up for luck.
Look, I said, it’s just not a winner I’m not tryin’ to hassle you.
Well that’s what you’re doing, he said. HASSLING me.

And everyone looked, looked through slitty eyes and shuffled their feet at the nice old black man being hassled by the white kid with his machine and what’s he think he’s doing not giving the man his ticket, he says it says free ticket. What was that look he gave them that they saw a free speech saint, Democratic Man smiling smugging for his rights for not be trampled over by some green machine says he didn’t win, some kid with a Texaco emblemed collar shilling shitting for the state for the rules for the business that’s eating the old man’s dollar?

For a minute I thought about how I didn’t care - one dollar – I’d give him the ticket and then I thought about looking at the little slot on the sheet at the end of the night said I if was all right and how I’d be taking this dollar out of my pants pocket and giving it away. Just a dollar, I thought, and he smiled.

He smiled smug and sneering un huh yeah he was getting his and I thought what about him saying thank you and me saying trust and four months of numbers between us and now, here suddenly, I’m white, I’m the enemy, I’m the bad luck symbol the unfair slight of the world and the people in line said un huh he’s getting his and I thought goddamn it, you can’t mau mau me.

I gave his ticket back to him. I gave him his money, dropped it on the counter – didn’t explain, didn’t say Hey Leonard relax or say my collar’s blue or that this wasn’t The Man this was me. I flicked his money down and it slid out across slow over the edge, off and fluttering to the floor.

You throwing my money, he said, he demanded, loud with his anger.

I shrugged.