CAUTION: This post contains adult content. It’s not explicit, but it is a mature topic. If such material offends you, SKIP it. Don’t read it and then complain later, because your comments will be deleted.
A Happy Xmas Ending
by Steve Meissner
AUTHOR’s NOTE: Every year I write a holiday-themed story. Here’s one from 2013…
The lights were low, the music unintelligible. The air was scented by a stale combination of cheap plastic, dirty carpets, ancient cigarette smoke, and pseudo-sex for sale. I was in my usual spot, just in front of a counter lined with vibrators, plastic organs, and crotchless underwear, trying to decipher an organic chemistry textbook.
Working in a dump like this might have its benefits for a college student, but spending Christmas Eve in a porno bookstore was no fun. Sure, the money was decent. The emergency-alert button and sawed-off shotgun beneath the counter were surprisingly superfluous. The closed-circuit videos and warnings about 24-hour security surveillance seemed to keep the predators at bay – not to mention protecting the reputation of the owners, a tough couple of guys with thick accents who wore the faux cowboy garb favored by Los Narcos.
I had plenty of time to get some studying done, moving closer to the day when I would earn my degree and leave this smarmy existence behind. But tonight the foot traffic was steadier than usual. Who knows? Maybe loneliness and unrequited lust took on more urgency on such a night. While most people were sharing holiday cheer and warm affection with their loved ones, the sad oddballs who kept this place in business seemed to be feeling a surge of need.
At any rate, I was struggling to complete my chemistry requirement to stay up on my pre-med coursework. My grades were all over the place, depending on how much sleep I got, how much time I found to study, and how my finances were going. At the beginning of the semester I was delivering pizzas – until someone made an unexpected left in front of me. The insurance settlement helped cover my tuition bill, but then I had nothing left for a new car.
So I lost the pizza job and couldn’t find another. Then, one of my shadier uncles put in a good word with an old buddy, and I was offered this midnight-to-7 a.m. gig.
My grades started to creep up – except for chemistry, which for me had all the clarity of a smoke-filled room. I was running a solid C-minus in this class, which wouldn’t cut it; but 40 percent of the final grade was based on an infamously tough take-home final, meaning I had one last chance to pull out of my academic crash-dive. So there I was. It all came down to doing well on the final. I was trying to find answers in the textbook gobbledygook, but the constant customer flow kept interrupting me. Customers shoveled soiled bills onto the counter (packaged porn was a cash-only business) and avoided eye contact.
I didn’t even look up when the electronic chime announced the arrival of a yet another customer. I glanced at the security monitor and saw a heavily bearded dude scanning the “hot teen” section, then turned back to find the proper representation of cyclobutane in a cycloalkane ring stain. My head was spinning with this complex chemistry problem when I heard someone clear his throat. There was the bearded dude, handing over a DVD titled “Co-Ed Oral Finals” and a $20 bill.
“Need a last-minute gift,” he said. I looked at grimy hands with dark semicircles of filth collected under yellowed fingernails. I glanced up to see a twinkling pair of blue eyes peering at me through bushy, greenish-grey hair that covered the top and bottom of his head. I shrugged, deciding I’d better pull on a pair of plastic gloves before handling this guy’s money.
“Oh, that’s OK,” the man said with a chuckle. “This really is a last-minute gift for, well, let’s just call him a pal of mine.”
Yeah. A friend. Whatever, I thought. I nodded at the tag again. “Well, that one’s $29.99,” I repeated.
He continued to smile as he held out his soiled piece of currency. “This’s all I got.”
I sighed heavily. “Maybe you wanna go look in the discount bin for something,” I suggested. “Stuff in there starts at $9.99.”
He shook his head. “I want this one.”
I sighed again. “Look, sir. I don’t set the prices. I just collect the cash. The one you want goes for $29.99. We don’t offer discounts.”
“C’mon,” he said. “Not even on Christmas Eve?”
The smile didn’t fade. He didn’t pull back his hand; nor did he add any more bills to his offering. Suddenly he glanced over at the chem book, open on a stool to my right. “Organic Chemistry?” he asked. “That’s some challenging stuff.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
He smiled again. “Maybe you don’t remember that cyclopentane has four carbons on a plane, and the fifth is slightly off the plane, giving it the shape of an open envelope,” he said. “Take a look at that problem again and keep this in mind.”
Huh? I glanced over and reread the question. The dude was right. I looked up. I must’ve worn my surprise on my face, because he gave me a yellowed, snaggletooth smile.
“I actually aced that course when I took it,” he said. “One you carve the basic principles into the base of your noggin, the rest is easy.”
Working in a place like this tends to wear down your sense of surprise. You occasionally spot one of your professors, someone you’ve seen on TV, or a classmate pass through the door. It’d happened to me more than once, so I figured this was simply some professor I hadn’t met yet. On the other hand, I’d heard that faculty get pretty good benefits, including dental coverage, so that gap-toothed grin didn’t fit the picture.
“Yeah, uh, thanks for the help. But like I said, I can’t give out discounts,” I said.
”Well, how’s about we work something out?” he asked. An offer like that is never welcome when you work in a place like this. You know it’s not going to end well – no happy ending.
“Uh, whatever you have in mind, sir, I think I’ll pass,” I said, trying to keep things polite. “I really wish I could help you, but …”
“Why do you think that’s worth $9.99?” I asked.
The chem whiz with bad teeth smiled. “Before I had my … well, before my fortunes took a turn for worse, I was a math professor with an expertise in probability statistics,” he explained. “I wrote a little piece-a code on a computer in the library before I picked those numbers. I’m pretty sure it’s a winner.”
It was a “Mega Millions” ticket. I remember hearing the jackpot was somewhere north of $100 million. As the saying goes, maybe I was born at night, but it sure as hell wasn’t last night. “Do you know the odds of drawing the winning ticket?” I asked.
I got another yellow smile. “I know exactly,” he said. “One in 175,223,510. Furthermore, the most commonly selected numbers are 7, 17, 23, 32, and 42.”
I glanced down at the ticket in his hand. “Well, you didn’t select those numbers.”
“So what makes you think these numbers are winners?”
“I said those are the most commonly selected numbers. Never said they were winning numbers.”
I shook my head and sighed again. “Look,” I said. “I’d really like to help you out, but ….”
“Tell ya what,” he answered. “You hold on to that ticket. If it wins, we’ll split the take. If it loses, I’ll come back and pay you $100.”
Ah, what the hell? It was Christmas Eve. And this guy did give me the answer to a question on my chem final. That had to be worth nine bucks. I took his greasy money, put the DVD in a bag, and handed it to him. “See ya in a couple-a days,” he answered.
So the next day – yeah, it was a Christmas promotion so they picked the ticket on Christmas Day – I checked the numbers, just for the hell of it. The numbers were:
7 – 42 – 23 – 32 – 17
Holy shit! Then came the “extra” number – the one that puts you over the top for $300 million! That number was 40. The ticket I was holding had 42. Close but no cigar. I heard on TV that the winning ticket had been sold to someone living in a Florida town called – appropriately enough – Panacea. What else did I expect? So I turned in my final and reported back for duty at the porn store.
About midnight, in walks Mr. Snaggletooth, wearing the same greasy clothes, sporting the same greenish-grey hair.
I nodded. “You’re back,” I said.
“Always keep my word,” he said with a tight smile.
“Yeah, well your ticket came close, I gotta say that.”
“My algorithm needs a little tweaking,” he responded. “But now I’ll have a chance to work on it.”
“Oh?” I said. “Did your retirement come in?”
He gave me another tight smile. “No,” he said, dropping a wrinkled paper bag on the counter. “But we qualified for a $10,000 second prize.” I stared for a minute. Then I opened the bag. It held five thin stacks of $100 bills, each with a band around it that said: “$1,000.”
“Five thousand bucks,” he said. “That oughta help out with your tuition.” My jaw made a slapping sound as it hit the glass counter. The old dude gave me a salute and turned toward the door. As he headed out, he said, “Sorry it ain’t the jackpot, kid. But whaddaya expect? I ain’t Santa Claus.”