American Culture

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Diner” by Mark Sumioka

There on the coffee table was the colorful stack of lottery Scratcher tickets.  I leaned forward at the edge of the couch, the adrenaline from the gamble swirling through me.  I had coin-scraped their surfaces in jagged angles, though some Scratchers, the ones at the beginning of the session, had been scored in perfect shapes – ovals, circles, or rectangles.

That was when the fever had just begun.

Now I saw the pile of lottery tickets and their frayed bits of grey-black residue and was aching for more.  It filled me with memories and sadness.  It went beyond money and entertainment.

But I had no cash left.  In the back of my mind was the final Scratcher in the kitchen drawer where the can opener and spatulas were casketed.  That was Teddy’s lottery ticket.  He had left it with me.  He had forgotten it one night after he got blackout drunk.  It had been weeks now.  I had neglected to give it back to him.

Suddenly I was up and gunning for it, yanking the drawer open and shoveling through the restaurant takeout menus.  When I spotted the lottery Scratcher, hope splashed me, but then a twinge of guilt.  It was fine.  Teddy had forgotten.  Surely, it was mine to claim now.

This would be the last one.  When it was done I would come back to reality.  The thoughts of family and joyful times would subside.  And I would sit alone in my apartment with a bottle in arm’s reach.  Out of the corner of my eye there was the framed photo of Gale and me, taken in San Francisco, and next to it, the one with Teddy, me and Mom in Temecula.  What wonderful times they had been.

I would wait on this lottery ticket.  I would make it worth my time.  The gamble gave me a buzz, a good accompaniment to my endless thoughts.  These Scratchers were enough to get the mind soaring with optimism, while blinding the regret.  Though, in this mindset I would end up at an ATM in order to withdraw more cash.  But this was not possible.  The monthly bills were approaching.  I would need to be disciplined.

For the next few days my plan had been to lock myself indoors.  I had taken the next day off from work.  I was sufficiently stocked with booze and food.  And there was Teddy’s lottery ticket.  But once I scratched that ticket it would all be over, and my brain would bring sobering gloom.  I needed to wait.  I needed a tiny distraction to alleviate the tension of the forthcoming day.

First, I poured a double portion of whiskey over ice and cut it with water.  Then it struck me to sit at the kitchen table.  It was where Mom had always done her Scratchers.  Suddenly it made sense.  The living room had been bad luck.  Why had I even gone there at the start?  Even the light shone lighter in the kitchen.  And when I swigged the first half of my drink and the burn coated my throat, it registered instantaneously what my other problem had been; I should have been drinking all along.  It was like a friend for moral support, one who lightened the mood with antidotes and never minds.  I had been too tight, too caught up in it.  I had become so distracted that even liquor had left the forefront.

Now I was ready.  If only I could muster the energy to hit the ATM and buy a few more five-dollar Scratcher tickets, or even two-dollar ones.  But Mom had hated the two-dollar Scratchers.

Today’s feverish lottery session had me about sixty dollars in the hole, easily half a night’s tips the way business had slowed of late.  I had finished the first set and marched back to the store and gotten two more.  Back and forth I went, home to store, store to home.  All told I had gone back five times.

I downed the rest of my cocktail.  With the whiskey lifting me a moment I held the nickel in the air, poised, thinking about my mother, and then Gale, before exhaling and scratching the card.  The sensation was like ridding food residue from a newly laundered shirt.  I had done that often as a child in order to avoid my mother’s interrogation.  It felt nice scraping the chalky surface.  It was like being a teenager again, with that same contentedness I felt watching Mom play bingo through the windows of the community center, or Teddy and I working with her to piece together a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table.

The lottery ticket Teddy had forgotten was a poker game.  Top the dealer’s hand with one of eight player’s hands.  I scraped the coin against the surface and wiped the bits away with my pinky.

The dealer’s hand revealed a pair – two Jacks.

This was a good sign.  Normally the dealer’s hand was high, anything from three pair to a straight flush.

And then I went for it.  One after the other my poker hands were revealed:  a pair of twos, a pair of eights, one card shy of a straight, a nothing hand, another nothing hand, a pair of tens, and again nothing.  On the eighth hand, as I rubbed the nickel side to side and the dot of grey enlarged, there came, one by one, a row of five red hearts: 3, 4, 5, 7 and Q.

It was a flush!

I tipped my cocktail glass and swallowed but there was nothing but ice and crawling fluid, so I held a cube in my mouth and crunched slowly, thinking about all the possibilities.  Still, my fun was nearly over.  Once I revealed the prize amount there would be nothing left but quiet and faded memories.  I didn’t want it to stop.

I got up and made another drink, holding the fragment of ice in my mouth.  I brought the drink to the table and sat gingerly.  Now the mystery of the prize consumed me and I thought of everything but my mother.  I thought of stacks of money, expensive cars, jewelry, swanky vacations, and desperate floozies at my side.  I chewed the ice.  It was cold and sharp.

Underneath the flush I scratched the prize amount.  And then my mouth gaped.  That swooping elation came into my guts and burst upward.  My face became feverishly hot.

“Hey!” I yelled, body jolting erect, kicking the chair backward with my locking knees.  It squealed across the tile and thumped on its back.  My neighbor downstairs pounded the wall.

The prize amount read $75,000.

“Gale!” I shouted instinctively and looked frantically about the room.  But then in an instant I remembered and knew she wasn’t there.

I knelt on the tile and leaned all my weight against the table as though starting a push-up.  I checked the Scratcher again, my fingers along the row of beautifully printed red hearts.  One by one, I checked the number and suit of each card.  I lunged to the carpet, stomping my fists on the floor.  And the neighbor pounded the wall again.

“I’ve won!” I shouted, but my neighbor persisted.  So I stood and stomped my foot on the carpet.

Then in a burst, I ran outside to my deck.  The ocean breeze whipped my face.  I closed my eyes and held my breath.

“Hey, Hank!  What’s going on up there?” my neighbor shouted.  He was irritated.

“I’m so sorry!” I shouted instinctively then went back inside to the kitchen table.  I picked up the lottery ticket.  My eyes were rattling anxiously, my breathing erratic.  I could focus but my leaping heartbeat kept me unsteady.  My head strained.  It was beautiful pain.

Now as I plopped to the hard floor with the ticket in my hands, I remembered what my mind had so successfully kept away the past minutes.  This wasn’t my lottery ticket.  It was Teddy’s.  I had recovered it from a pair of pants at the bottom of my hamper.  I could faintly recall the night, weeks ago, Teddy demanding that I hold the Scratcher for him in my pocket since he was wearing sweatpants.  And I had irritably stuffed it into my back pocket.

I thought it through.  After taxes how much was left of the $75,000?  If Teddy and I split it how much would we get?  Who was I kidding?  I could never tell Teddy and hope to collect half the winnings.  It was all or nothing.  Tell him or don’t.

By the time I got halfway down the bottle I had resigned that Teddy needed to know.  He was my brother for shit’s sake.  He had his right.  But then I swayed, remembering how much of an ass he could be, how he patronized me so frequently, and how good he had it at home with his daughters making his meals and cleaning the house, and the grandkids always there for playful chaos.  How nice it must have been to have a full house, to have all those loving people around!  Everything in my brain worked against Teddy now.  Reason after reason popped up why I should keep the winning ticket.

By night’s end I had drunk the entire bottle and collapsed on the couch.

The ringing phone woke me the next morning.  It was Teddy on the line.

“What is it?” I groaned.

“It’s nearly ten-thirty,” Teddy roared.  “At our age waking up this late is sacrilege.”

“Touché,” I said.

There was a pause where he cleared his throat.  Almost baffled he said, “You know what day it is, don’t you?”

“I know what damn day it is.”

“You’re not meeting me then?”

“I will,” I said, then with growing agitation, “I will.  Just leave me alone a few minutes.”

His voice was drawn out, “Let…me…guess.  You’re still on the couch.”

“It’s my couch.  I’ll do what I want.”

“Always the whiner,” Teddy said, though we both knew this wasn’t true.  In actuality he had been the whiner of the family.  This was his elder brother patronization.  It was the I-was-born-before-you mentality, which apparently justified his high self-regard.  “I know I told you weeks ago.  You knew it was today.”

“Stop,” I said.

“Then I’ll meet you at the diner.  Hank?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Do you want me to call back?  In case you fall asleep?”

I rubbed the gook from my eyes and looked around.  I felt out of place, my leg bent over the armrest and half my body edging off the couch.  My eyes moved about the living room and it was difficult to focus on the old photos of my mother.  The morning light was too startling.

“Hank?” he followed.

“Do whatever you like,” I said and hung up.

Today was the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death.  Teddy had insisted we meet at the diner in order to honor her, as it was one of her favorite eateries.  For years I had dragged myself out of bed to meet Mom and Teddy for breakfast there.  We had generally done it twice a month.  But after my mother died our meetings had come to a halt.  The diner had become off limits.  This was the first time since Mom’s death we had stepped foot in the building.

Teddy and I ate breakfast quietly.  He was in his usual spot by the window, and me on the other side of the booth facing him.  Mom had always sat next to Teddy.  It was obvious it was still strange for us.  At one point Teddy let his arm fall to the open space at his left and it seemed to startle him.

The waitress refilled our coffee cups and left.

“How’s the job?” Teddy said with an air of boredom.  “You getting enough hours?”  It was mechanical on his part.  He had been giving me the same questioning for years.

“The same,” I said scraping the burn off my toast.

He pointed with his butter knife, “You can send it back.”

“I’ll eat it,” I said chewing.

Teddy ate his food aggressively with his mouth raucous and his cheeks plump.  It reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie, and when Teddy opened his chewing mouth it reminded me of trash day in years past, and the brawny garbage men dumping cans into the backend of the truck.  Now it was all mechanical trucks with their robotic arms, bustling and dumping.  It lacked character.

“Oh,” Teddy said, reaching for his pocket.  He pulled out a maroon scarf, slowly, so that the length of it slithered out as though he were a magician.  “Got this for you.”

“What the hell is that?”

“It was Mommy’s.”

I examined it thoroughly, recognizing, and then the memories came rushing back. I remembered all those rainy days when she had driven us to school.  She had worn it over her head, wrapped neatly over her curlers.  It had been an embarrassing sight at the time, but now it was an image that became so very meaningful.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I said, and then after a moment reached over and picked it up.  I grumbled, “You’re going to get it dirty.  Don’t put it on the table.”

Teddy sighed, “You can keep that.”

“What do you mean?” I said and quickly stuffed it into my pocket.

He glanced out the window and something caught his attention.  The food in his mouth became a lump that went down his throat and I watched his Adam’s apple bob.

“I found it in a box.  In the closet in Elizabeth’s room.”

“What else did you find?”

“Just clothes and trinkets and things.  Nothing you’d be interested in.”

“How do you know?”

He looked at me.  I hated that patronizing face.

His voice became high and mocking, “You always say, ‘I don’t want to know about it, leave me out of it.’”

“Out of what?”

“Everything!” he burst.

The other patrons craned their necks, but then receded.

Teddy’s face sagged.  It brought back many memories, and it stung me thinking about all the times Teddy and Mom had kept secrets from me over the years, large to small, significant to meaningless.

“You and your secrets.  You’ll never change.  It’s just like before when she was around.  Still keeping everything from me.”

Teddy shook his head.  “No, you’re the one that’ll never change.  Always putting words in my mouth.”

“Well, you just admitted you leave me out of everything,” I said.

“Oh come on.  Don’t be an moron.”

“But aren’t there things you’re not telling me?”  Suddenly it was as though I was a kid again, and Teddy was holding something over my head.  I became urgent, “Teddy, look at me for Christ’s sake.”

He sighed.  Then slowly, he picked up the glass of water and took a sip.  He smacked his lips, looking over the remainder of his food.  He locked eyes with me.

“There are all sorts of things you don’t want or need to know about.”  He lifted his eyebrows as though impressed with himself.  “Who took care of everything after Mommy died?  Hmm?  Me.  That’s who.  And who saw to it…” Now Teddy became upset, his eyes moist and his chin a quivering prune.  “That every-thing was…that it was just…fine?”  When he said the last word it was as though he’d let out his last dying breath.

I couldn’t look at him.  My eyes fell to my lap, then lifted and peered out the window at a few birds chasing the sky.

Teddy mashed his eyes with the napkin.  His face had reddened.  He looked exhausted.

“Okay,” I said.  “Let’s not get into it.”

“Good,” he said, then forked the remainder of the eggs into his mouth and chewed unorthodoxly.

Like a sudden hiccup, I remembered the lottery Scratcher in my pocket.  The quiet at the table allowed me to think back, all those times I had watched Mom and Teddy like a couple of sisters gathering at her kitchen table with a pile of lottery Scratchers, giddy as they grazed their coins across the cards.  I had never liked buying them.  I had only done it on occasion at the insistence of my mother.  I doubt I had bought two lottery Scratchers the past ten years.  The episode yesterday had come with obvious indications.  I hadn’t challenged it.  I just went with my strange mood.  Now I realized the cause, and it was funny how predictably the mind worked through anxiety and mourning.

Teddy swallowed the mouthful of food.

“It’s not stuff you’d want to deal with.  And the other things…” he trailed off.  He looked out the window.  The tears returned to his eyes.

I wondered if we should have waited another year before coming back to the diner.

And then Teddy took a deep breath, exhaled, and threw the anchor into my arms so that I would sink.

“And besides…you just lost Gale.”

“That’s not what we’re talking about!” I snapped.  My fingers pinched the bridge between my eyes.  I clenched my teeth.  The grief of losing them both was overwhelming.

Teddy was still, leaving me to my thoughts.  I could hear him breathing through his nose, long and relaxed, as though in a deep sleep.

Then I looked at him.  “What the hell are you doing?  What are you keeping from me?”

“It’s nothing.  Just stuff.”

“And…money?” I said.

Teddy’s eyes became alert before feigning a look of insult.  He shook his head, but his face told me otherwise.

Then I knew.

“Damn you, Teddy.  How much?”

His jaw was tight.  “Not that much.”

“She had money put away?”

“Some.”

“Thousands?”

“A few.”

“You ass.”

The waitress came over.  “More coffee?”

“Top her off,” Teddy invited.

I put a hand over my cup.  She filled his and went away.

He tapped the table with his nails.  “You’re brooding again like always.”

“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do?”

Then I looked away toward the kitchen.  The tears were close, but I held them back.  I could taste the saltiness trail down my throat.  I swallowed repeatedly.

“Look, don’t get sore at me.  This stuff with Mommy’s things, it’s not what you think,” Teddy said.  He forked for a sausage and it rolled off the plate.  So he picked it up with his fingers, bit half, and held it in the air as he spoke.  “There were the costs of the cremation, and clearing out the house of all the stuff that wasn’t any use keeping.  And it’s not like you’re struggling.  I’m the one not working.”

“You’re the one who opted for early retirement.  You’ve got that damn pension you always brag about.”

“It’s not always enough.”

I was steamed.  I got up and went to the bathroom.  At the sink, I stared into the mirror for a prolonged period before lathering soap and rinsing my hands.  The machine was out of paper towels.  So I patted my pants in order to dry them.  And there in my pocket I could feel the rigidity of the lottery ticket.  I shook my head.  Now I realized I was no better than Teddy.  I ran the faucet again before realizing I had already washed my hands.

When I got back to the booth Teddy was arranging the butter chips into a pyramid, the same as he did for years.

“You’ll need more butter if you want to make a good one,” I said, the same as I did every time.

He looked at me and procured a slight smile.  So I reached behind to the empty booth, like when we were kids, and contorted my body in order to reach the edge of the butter dish.  I slid it toward me before grabbing its contents.

“Good,” Teddy said when I plopped the handful of butter chips onto the table like a stash of coins or candy.  “Remember how I’d just get to finishing the pyramid and Mommy would stick a finger in and knock it down?”

“So cruel,” I grinned remembering.

“It was like a game.  You always helped get the butter chips from the other tables and Mommy always knocked it down.”

As I watched his pleasant face, and his fingers deftly making the butter chips into a gold brick pyramid, it hit me.  Teddy was family.  He was an old coot, but he was still my brother.

Don’t mess up my butter pyramid,” he said in that same snarky tone as when we were kids.

My chuckles erupted to laughter.

He looked up and snickered.

I pulled the lottery scratcher from my pocket and set it on the table.

“What’s this?” Teddy said.  He picked it up and looked it over.  Then his eyes bugged.  He shouted, “Ho!  You won!”

The others looked on curiously.  Their faces were hopeful, pleased, while others were narrow eyed and skeptical.

“Keep your voice down.”

“Good God, Hank!” he shouted and then looked around the diner.  He smiled courteously at the other patrons and then sunk his head lower as he leaned in.  “75,000 smackers.”  Then he grew self-conscious.  “We need to hide this.  We need to safeguard this.  You got a plastic baggie?”

“No,” I said, “Go on.  Keep it.  It’s yours.”

“What do you mean?”

“You asked me to hold it for you.”

“What?”

“Weeks back.”

“I did?”

“You wore sweatpants.  We were out drinking at that shitty cubby hole down the block from your house.”

Teddy became pensive.  “But that doesn’t make sense, because I don’t usually do them when I’m drunk.”

“Well, you bought it at a store.  But you wouldn’t scratch it then and there.  That’s why I got so pissed.  It takes five seconds.  You had on those awful red sweatpants you always wear after you get out of the shower.”

Then he seemed to recall and his eyes widened.  “I did ask you.”

I was stone faced.  It was the right thing to do.  There was no other way.

“Like I said, it’s your ticket.”

Then he became bewildered.  He could read me like a billboard.

“You want to split it?”  His eyes searched mine.  “Well, what do you say?”

I shrugged, posturing the same as always.

My tone was indifferent, “If that’s what you want.”

“Well, never mind then.”

“Is it what you want?”

“You tell me what you want,” Teddy demanded.

We sighed at the same time, though Teddy’s was more pronounced.  Here we were, old men, and we were still going through the motions the same as we did when we were children.  We were bullheaded.  Still there was something fun in it, something lovable and genuine, and that made our bond strong.

“Oh, come on, little brother,” he moaned.

“You should keep it.”

He looked out the window and my eyes followed his.

Teddy’s voice perked, his eyes still peering outside, “You want to know the real reason I buy them?”

He looked at me.

“Buy what?” I said.

“These,” he said holding up the lottery ticket.  “These things.”

“Hope?”

“No,” he chuckled.

“Why?”

“Because of Mommy.  They remind me of her.  I don’t care that I lose most of the time.  Whenever I buy them, I take my time, and really enjoy scratching those boogers off.  I think of Mommy the whole time.  Remember how happy she was whenever she did them?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say she was happy.”

“Yes, she was.”

“Okay.  She was.”

I know.  Trust me.  She loved them.  And it wasn’t about the money.”

I gave him a look.

“Okay,” he chortled, “Maybe it was the money.  It doesn’t matter.  Mommy loved them, so I loved them.  Don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t a cheap habit.”

“Neither is any vice.”

“We’d go for our walks by the bay and then on the way back we’d stop at the store with the big yellow sign and we’d buy five or six apiece.”

“Jesus, I didn’t know you two were that into it.”

Teddy shrugged.

The waitress dropped the check.

I reached over and Teddy put up a hand to fend me off.  He set down the cash to cover the bill, and then leaned an elbow along the railing to look out the window again.

“After we split the lottery money I’ll show you all the things I kept of Mommy’s belongings.”

“Whatever you say.”

I watched the server return.  As she picked up the money Teddy gestured that it was fine.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No, thank you,” he said in that animated way of his, and she went away smiling.

Now Teddy leaned forward.  I could feel him gazing at me.

“Say, Hank.”

“What is it now?”

We met eyes.

“Thanks for telling me.”

“Sure, okay.”  It was another front on my part.  I was just as pleased as him.

We sat there in the booth for a few minutes, both of us looking out the windows.  Teddy seemed to hold his excitement over the winning lottery Scratcher.  I wondered what kept him so calm.  Finally he pulled out the lottery ticket and handed it to me.

You cash it.  Then give me my half when you get the check.”

“I can do that,” I said.

“I know you can.  I should have known it a long time ago.  Come on.  Let’s get out of here.  I’ll show you Mommy’s things.”

“I thought you wanted to wait till after.”

We shuffled out of the booth.  Teddy put his arm around my shoulder as we left.