In his thirtieth year, Porter was injured in a car accident. The crash left him with a searing pain in his hip for which he was prescribed Vicodin. Once he was released from the hospital and reasonably mobile, he returned to work at the grocery store. Due to the disability, management permitted his request to sit on a stool at the register even though sitting was against traditional company policy. This privilege contained two caveats: Porter was not allowed to utilize any of the handicap spaces in the store’s parking lot (those were for customers) and when he arrived for his shift, he was to carry the stool himself to his assigned lane. The bag boys were not allowed to help. After rush hour, a few hours before close, Porter was sometimes transferred from his cash register on the floor to the tobacco counter near the bathrooms – it was usually the busiest station at that hour. It was here, on a rainy Wednesday night, Kennedy Williams, the only woman who worked in the meat department, offered Porter a role in her stolen lottery ticket scheme.
“All you gotta do,” Kennedy said, “is find a winner, and tell the schmuck who handed it to you it’s dud. Then when he leaves, you give it to me.”
“What happens then?”
He winced as he sat down. When the Vicodin prescription expired and his physician refused to provide an alternative stronger than aspirin, the permitted stool became an enemy. He attempted to soften the seat with a pillow but Mr. Goddard said it looked unkempt and asked for the cushion to be removed. When Porter offered to replace the stool with something more comfortable from home, Mr. Goddard insisted the seating be taken from the store’s newly installed café in order to advertise its existence. The only two seating options within the café were the aforementioned stool and a plush barrel chair. The chair was so wide it did not fit within the nine square feet allotted to a cashier behind the register of a mid-sized, regional grocery store. Two months after the stool’s installation and one month after the Vicodin prescription was denied, Beth Anderson, a part-time employee in the floral department, offered to sell her Fentanyl lollipops to Porter at cost in exchange for his handicapped parking tag. Beth said she had Crohn’s Disease and had been prescribed the pain medication to reduce the physical sensation of the disease’s effects but she felt the opioid did little to soften the swarming, conscious thought of her intestines dissolving. She also feared the lollipops would give her cavities. As an alternative, her daughter delivered sativa gummies from Michigan during semester breaks. Porter had once seen Beth Anderson mist the same lily for fifteen minutes. Beth said she’d make the first delivery on Friday, pay day. He would be good for the first couple weeks but if prescription strength painkiller was going to be a long-term necessity, he would need a side hustle.
“What happens then,” Kennedy said, “is I give the ticket to my brother. Provided it’s over a hundred bucks, he’ll be in here a few days or a maybe week later with the same ticket when you’re standing right where you are now. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. He walks out of here with the cash and you get ten percent of the winnings.”
“Fifteen percent and I get paid up front,” Porter said. This was the first time in his life he had ever negotiated. Previously, this type of oral combat seemed unbecoming and liable to make people dislike you.
“Ten percent and you get paid when we all get paid.”
“I’m assuming most of the risk. There are cameras here.” He gestured around his head. “If I lose this job, I need to get my insurance from the government and I know that’s the bad kind. Everyone knows that.”
“No one’s gonna be any the wiser,” Kennedy assured him. “The tapes automatically delete after a week anyway. I’ll just tell Rob to wait at least seven days before he swings by.”
What Porter didn’t ask was if she had done this before. He suspected not but Porter had not seen Kennedy wearing anything but her pink-stained white smock. He did not even know the make of her automobile. Clothes and cars were what he suspected criminals purchased with their scores. If he made enough, that’s how he planned to spend his cut.
At first, the Fentanyl made it hard to hold conversation. Porter spent most of his shifts fighting off sleep. All the lollipops seemed to do now was round the sharp edges of interaction with the world. The high beam fluorescent lights seemed dimmer. The rebuke from a housewife demanding correct change less dehumanizing. It made his arms heavier too. He knew, logically, his strength had not deteriorated since the lollipop entered his mouth, but his will to wield the strength had. Giving up made a whole lot more sense than making an effort.
He had mostly forgotten about the agreement with Kennedy. That is, until Beth warned him of an impending price increase on the lollipops which she blamed on a changing insurance policy. For the next few weeks, each presented lottery ticket quickened his heart rate. The only winners he received were for seven and fifteen dollars, one of which was a scratch off. Once, while he was working the day shift on the floor, he heard a shriek and looked up to see two men kissing each other in front of the tobacco counter. Jamie Calcavecchio was working the register, and she was applauding.
“Did someone win big over there?” he asked Jamie in the breakroom.
“Yeah, they won a thousand bucks! Can you believe it?”
He hated her.
By November, Porter was avoiding Kennedy. Even though she hadn’t asked about the lottery tickets, he sensed her disappointment in him. He was disappointed in himself. So far, he wasn’t very good at stealing.
In addition to the lollipops he was now ripping one-hitters in the parking lot before his shift.
He started to worry that Kennedy suspected him of pocketing winning tickets and delivering them to somebody else. Somebody who agreed to the fifteen percent finder’s fee. One evening, just before he was about to plead to Kennedy for mercy, a haggard man in a creased suit clutching a frozen turkey placed a ticket in front of Porter. By now he had given up on ever seeing the reader display anything larger than fifteen dollars. He held the crumpled piece of paper underneath the scanner until it beeped. The display said the ticket was worth one-thousand, four hundred and fifty dollars. Porter looked up at the man to see if he noticed the incoming windfall. The man mined the valleys between canines for shards of beef, lightly swinging the turkey back and forth like a limp flail.
“Sorry, boss,” Porter said. He balled the paper and tossed it into the wastebasket.
The man sighed.
“Just my luck.” He jimmied a beanie onto his balding scalp. “Have a good one.”
Porter watched the automatic doors peel apart and the man walk out. When the sedan departed the parking lot, Porter lunged for the wastebasket and rescued the ticket. Kennedy, of course, had the night off. He had to wait until the following afternoon until they were both working and then a full four hours for his break before he could find her.
She was sitting on top of a crate next to the freezer with her elbows on her knees, clutching her phone in landscape mode. She was playing a game whose objective was to survive in a hostile world until your character was the only one remaining.
“Can we talk somewhere?” Porter asked.
“We can talk right here,” she said without looking up.
At a whisper: “I have a winner.”
Porter waited for her to finish the game, his enthusiasm subsiding with each eliminated player.
“Fuck,” she said. “Seventh place! If I didn’t have meat juice all over my thumbs, I would have capped his ass. Blat! Blat! Blat! Okay, show me what you got.”
Porter presented the slip of paper like a cherished baseball card. She pulled a lollipop from her pocket and stuck it in her mouth.
“What do you expect me to do with this? Guess how much it’s worth?”
“Where did you get that?” Porter asked, pointing to the lollipop.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“Are you buying those from Beth too?”
“If I am, what’s it to you?”
“I thought I was the only one.”
“It’s a free market, pal. Don’t take it personally. Now what’s this slip of paper gonna net me?”
Kennedy told him to be on the lookout for Rob, her older brother. The next few days were excruciating. Not because of the anticipation of Rob, who was apparently never seen without a collar and a clean shave, but because he had to watch Beth Anderson doddering about nearly every shift. He watched her from afar and scowled, hoping she would receive the disdain telepathically. Despite his effort, all she did was buzz about the floral department in her usual upbeat rhythm. He thought she had chosen him because he had an injury but it was now clear this was not the case.
“Are you selling lollipops to Kennedy the butcher?” he finally asked one particularly bleak evening.
“Is that a crime?” Beth said.
“Well, no. She just doesn’t have an injury like I do.”
“Honey, I don’t care if you have an injury or not. I just care if you’re buying.”
“I didn’t think it was about the money,” he said. He felt like a fool. This arrangement was not a quiet act of kindness in an unjust world. Instead, it was the source of its injustice, the rotten center of it all where vulnerability was exploited for a sum that would not even buy a decent dinner for two. She watched him limp away. He hoped she would call him back and apologize but she did not.
Porter moved in with his sister, Gail, and her twelve-year old son, Otto. Porter told her the arrangement was temporary so he could afford physical therapy. Searching the home’s medicine cabinet led to the discovery of Otto’s Adderall. Gail once bemoaned in a whisper that Otto sometimes refused to take his medicine because Otto’s friends had convinced him that to be medicated was to be sedated by the government. Where Otto’s friends acquired such ideas, Gail did not know. Porter offered Otto five dollars a pill and used it to stay awake at work. Porter was staring at the Surgeon General’s warning sticker plastered to the side of the register when the winning lottery ticket reappeared on his counter. Out of reflex, he told the clean-cut man that the ticket was a loser.
“You sure about that, chief?” the man said, presenting a photo ID which read Williams, Robert Nathanial.
The realization made Porter sweat. He began to move before remembering the proper process of redeeming a winning lottery ticket. When Rob left, Porter blotted his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt and plopped down onto the stool, which had begun to seem less like an enemy and more like a part of him. The payment appeared a few days later in an envelope, pinned between his car’s windshield and its wiper, with the words Excellent Work written on it. He gave forty-five of the dollars to Otto for more Adderall and kept the one-hundred-dollar bill under the basement futon where he slept. When things seemed dire, he would remove the one-hundred-dollar note and examine the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who Porter was pretty sure was an admirable rebel, and feel a kinship to history’s greatest tax evaders.
Porter decided the best thing to do with the remainder would be to stockpile lollipops should Beth ever cease her operations on either moral or financial grounds. Beth supplemented her hours at the grocery store with a few shifts at a local greenhouse outside the city limits. She told Porter to meet her there because the location provided privacy, far away from security cameras and nosey minimum wage colleagues. He had never been inside a greenhouse. The climate felt primal, as though he were returning to the origin of existence and Beth was Eve herself, handing him an apple. She emerged from a cloud of mist wearing a wide brimmed hat, arms akimbo to show how welcome he was in her tropical domain. Porter was eager to make the transaction and be on his way. Something about the way Beth was dressed made him think of sobriety and he could not trust a sober drug dealer. He searched her person and the shelves nearby for a small parcel which might contain the goods. Nothing.
“Follow me to my office,” Beth said and waved him to a wall of succulents. There were two step stools nearby and she motioned for him to sit. Porter did, maneuvering his broken body onto the top step of one. Beth reached behind a shelf and produced a manila envelope and took her seat opposite of Porter. She clutched the envelope on her lap. She had words to say before this was all over.
“I feel sorta rotten for doing this, but consider this our final exchange. With the help of patrons such as yourself, I now own this greenhouse. You’ve helped make an honest woman out of me. I owe you thanks and also a goodbye.”
Porter looked around and assessed value. He did not know what a greenhouse was supposed to cost. Whatever this was looked expensive, incomprehensibly out of reach for a man in his mid-thirties living with his sister. The space teemed with life. Each row looked as though it contained a different species of flower or fern, all thriving under Beth’s careful watch. It smelled of rich topsoil and, if he strained his ears, he could almost hear birdsongs. Practicality shortly followed this sensory flood: where was he to go next?
“Do you even have Crohn’s disease?” He asked.
“Or was that a lie too?”
“I assure you, I have never been dishonest with you. I may have omitted some of the finer details of my life but that is my prerogative as an American citizen protecting my privacy.”
He nodded. It did not matter now. He gave her the money and asked if she recommended any other sellers. Beth demurred. Even if she did know somebody, she said, she wouldn’t provide their contact details. Porter, she advised, should begin looking for professional help.
The next winning lottery ticket greater than one hundred dollars did not appear for many months. Its value was eight hundred dollars and the winner was a stout woman with gray hair. She clutched her handbag to her chest and crossed fingers on both hands. She shut her eyes tightly and seemed to be repeating a prayer while Porter scanned the barcode. This made it easier to tell her the ticket was not a winner.
“Shoot!” the woman said. “I had a dream last night where I walked in here poor and walked out rich. I woke up shocked that it wasn’t true. It all seemed so real.”
“A lot of people have those dreams,” Porter said, somewhat unfairly.
The process with Kennedy and Rob was more transactional this time. It lacked enthusiasm and felt as if it were another professional responsibility within the grocery store, an order from the top. The accompanying eighty-dollar payment offered no words of encouragement on the envelope.
“Is Rob mad at me?” he asked Kennedy.
He held the blank envelope in the periphery of her vision while she sniped at a distant enemy.
“Business is just picking up. He doesn’t have time to be friends with everyone.”
The word “everyone” returned a sense of dread he had not felt since discovering Beth Anderson had other customers.
“How many people does Rob have in his little network? How many people like me?”
“Maybe twenty. You didn’t hear that from me.”
The knowledge that Porter was a small part of a larger criminal enterprise kept him up at night. When he couldn’t sleep, he would take a walk through his sister’s neighborhood and smoke Indica from a hand-blown spoon he called Trixie. Then he would slink back into the house and, if Otto was awake, watch his nephew fire at Nazi soldiers on a virtual battlefield. The lines of good and bad seemed so clearly marked in this digital reimagining of the Second World War. Although the first-person perspective insisted the player represented a hero, nobly fighting against a campaign of genocide and world domination, Porter found himself relating to the Aryan soldiers ragdolling across the screen. He wondered about their interior lives. The small villages from which they were spawned. The shape and design of the paystubs they received probably once a month or maybe bi-weekly. It wasn’t long before it became clear what Porter must do in order to seek redemption.
The report was filed in the police station. He had wished to do it over the phone but the officer said, in an exhausted voice, that they couldn’t legally use anything that was being said unless it was in person.
Porter wished he could have seen the arrest in the grocery store. He pictured the drama unfolding: Rob wrestled to the ground, Kennedy rushing from the meat department, tears streaming down her face, pleading her brother’s innocence.
Reality was much less climatic. One day Kennedy caught him by the arm and said, “The deal’s off for a little while,” and that was how Porter knew his whistle had been heard. The prosecutors would soon ask him to testify and he would say no, citing fear of retribution from his co-worker. It wasn’t very long before Kennedy too was indicted. Even though Kennedy had once delivered a monologue to Porter about her disgust for snitches, Porter was not confident his former co-worker’s resolve would last inside the interrogation room.
Life, for the most part, returned to its gentle and repetitive motion. That is, until nearly two years after the first lottery ticket, Porter was presented with another winner worth more than five thousand dollars. The woman who had given him the paper did not look like a fed. She wore yoga pants and a high ponytail. The hidden camera was clipped within the folds of her cotton scarf. He removed the lollipop from his mouth to apologize for the news he had to deliver. Then he thought about the clothes he had never worn and the cars he had never driven.