In the winter of 2015, the City of Boston was covered in a foot of wet snow and Jack McCoy marched through it alone. He wore an old black-leather jacket, faded blue jeans and a pair of ankle high boots that were unfit for winter and made his toes numb. Jack's only real protection against the stinging cold that day were his gray earmuffs. He’d owned since the 6th grade and even they were starting to fall apart from wear and tear. Jack never planned properly of course and always had circumstances, such as this, to battle.
The frigid man peered skyward and scowled at the dark grinning clouds that mercilessly hurled sleet down into his squinted eyes. The city's tall buildings loomed over the lone man like shadowy gray giants and the hypnotic snowfall danced before Jack daring him to lose his balance. If one were looking down from above, it would appear like a painting of a winterish ghost town, and Jack would seem like a wraith trapped within it.
Most people –normies-- as Jack like to call them, were inside their warm and cozy homes wrapped in thick blankets. Probably all watching the television and sipping hot cocoa as they gleefully savored their time off from work. The jobless Jack, sick with envy, couldn't enjoy that same luxury because he'd failed to pay his electric bill several months in a row and thus had no power on at his apartment.
Jack was cold, and he was sick of walking. He gazed down at his treacherous boots as they stomped deeply into the heavy snow and sullenly pondered his troubled life. The problem with Jack was that he didn't like to work, and consequently, had too much time to think, and think negatively at that. It wasn't unusual for him to get himself into trouble somehow. Most days, Jack worried about his future, and when he could no longer stand it, he'd, of course, find his way inside of a casino, which not only magnified his problems, but tended to create many more.
On this day, the freezing man's troubles had caught up to him in such a way that there seemed to be no way out. Aside from his electric being cut off, he now had to deal with an eviction. There was a bright, neon-orange eviction notice on his door that morning. The mental image of it haunted him. Jack knew if things didn’t go his way, which they often didn’t, he’d be forced to live out on the streets for the first time in his life. Given the current weather patterns and the fact that he had no vehicle or any close friends, this almost certainly meant death for the young man. He did have the option of living with his mother, but to Jack, there were things worse than death and his alcoholic mother was one of them.
After an hour into his journey, the somber young man arrived in front of a small market called “Brown Street Goods”. Jack took his mind off his problems for a moment and did his best to clear out the snow in front of the entrance. Once clear, Jack had to force the door open against the wind to get it open. As he did so, he heard the brass bell above jangle loudly and once inside; the door slammed shut behind him. For just a slight moment, Jack thought he could hear the wind whispering vulgarities at him, angry that he'd survived his journey. The quivering man breathed a deep sigh of relief and grinned once he felt the magical warmth touch his skin. Jack thanked the Lord above, flexed his rigid fingers in front of his hot breath and removed his earmuffs, placing them inside his pocket.
Half-Irish, half-Italian, Jack McCoy was regarded as a handsome fellow by any who saw him. He stood a pinch over six-feet and had raven-black hair worn at medium length. His bright-blue eyes sparkled like topaz gems and tended to place people at ease when he smiled. Hypothermia aside, and discounting potential homelessness, he appeared to be in better spirits since entering the store.
McCoy had just left his gambler's anonymous group for what he hoped to be the last time. The meeting had given the young man a sense of renewed hope. Jack's friend, Vic, who also had a gambling problem, had told him about a "golden opportunity" which would end all his money problems. At the meeting, Vic had very enthusiastically informed Jack about an advertisement he'd found on Craigslist from a laboratory looking to pay people $300 per day to take an experimental drug.
"Three hundred a fuckin’ day Jack! What the fuck huh?" Vic rattled with a giant grin.
"You sure it's legit? What if it's a con?" Jack questioned dubiously.
"Whatya got to lose you fuckin' loozah, huh?" Vic laughed.
“Yeah, but what the fuck kind of experiment is it”?
“Who gives a flying fuck? Three hundred --over thirty days--, that’s nine thousand fuckin’ dollahs”! Vic shouted as he whacked Jack a hard one in the shoulder.
Jack thought about the eviction notice on his front door and couldn't really offer a good rebuttal. He took a swig of coffee, aka sludge, and grimaced at the Styrofoam cup. Both Jack and Vic then went on for an hour talking about it. Afterwards, the two shook hands on the hope they'd both get to participate. As a long-time gambler, and 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 when Jack decided, finally, that he’d quit gambling, 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 start the job after it was finished and hopefully live a normal life once again.
Presently, inside the market, the optimistic man smiled as he approached the counter in the rear. It was a small store that had a dingy tiled pathway to the register in the back. On each side of the walkway were two double-sided shelves stocked with basic stuff like candy, chips, toilet paper, cat food, canned Beefaroni and Spaghetti-O's. The kind of inventory you’d find at any market and selling for triple the price you’d find at the grocery chains. Jack could smell freshly brewed hazelnut coffee and made a note to grab a cup with the paper. 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 chilled 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, Jack? 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 worry son, I got plenty of free time to clean these days. Want your smokes?”
“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, Willy?”
“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 eyes.
“Hmmm alright. Which one you want, son?”
“You choose, old man,” 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 counter.
“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, Jackie boy,” 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, Willy, 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.
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.