If you knew my husband, you’d think I was a criminal for snitching just one cigarette from him tonight, and smoking it. Alex is “brutally honest,” as his boss would say. That means whenever I lie to him, even if it’s just a fib, I feel horrible. I tell my friends about it, the few I have left. They laugh, saying they’ve done worse, which is a comfort to me at times. But not tonight. I sleep here alone until Alex returns, yet I feel more filthy, more contaminated, than I imagine one would feel after committing adultry for the first time.
Alex wasn’t always a gambler, and he didn’t go to casinos and racetracks like the classic gambler you hear about in country-western songs. He started playing the lottery when he was 27; he’d play Megabucks once a week when the game first started in the 1980s. We lived in Bennington, Vermont at the time, and it was a quick drive to Massachusetts to try our luck. We’d buy just one ticket and use a combination of our birthdays for the number.
By the time scratch tickets came along, we had moved to the Berkshires, but Alex still worked at the Die-Hard factory in Bennington. I had quit working for a time to take care of our son, Max. Even without my job, Alex could still afford to take his chances on scratching off the winning number.
Alex came down with Multiple Sclerosis in 1986, so he switched to a desk job at a trucking company, here in North Adams. We were spending more than he made, so I started a job working as a telephone interviewer for a marketing research company. The work was easy and the paycheck generous for what I did, so we got by, even with Max in child care. Alex was spending about ten dollars a week on the lottery then. It doesn’t sound like much, but if you add it up you’ll see where we were headed.
Alex always insisted on being the one to drive when we were together, and I always went along with this. We’d go to the drive-thru at Burger King after I got off work every night, then sit in a parking lot at North Adams State College. Even after we got hand controls for the car so he was still able to drive it, I had doubts about his ability to use the levers, but I didn’t protest.
One night we drove to what I always referred to as the duck pond, a little municipal property near the local hospital, to sit and eat our burgers and drink black coffee. It was chilly, and the moon shone through the haze like a bullet might penetrate a mattress. Fireflies blinked above the grass. I guessed there were a hundred of them circling randomly, lighting up like cigarettes. Alex looked tired. I was beginning to wonder how much longer he’d be able to work.
Alex doesn’t like to think out loud, but that night he surprised me. “Do you mind that we don’t have sex anymore, Darlene?” he asked. He was facing me, with one arm on the steering wheel. He always used the MS as an excuse for not having sex, but I knew there was more to it than that.
“It’s not your fault,” I said, leaning into his other arm.
“If I could make more money, you could stop working,” he said. “Then we’d have more time in the evening to try to work things out.”
“They laid off 46 people at the Die-Hard plant. But my luck is worse now; I’m in a dead-end situation with the desk job.” He emphasized the words “dead end” like he was talking about suicide.
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like I disagreed.
“It’s about time we bought a home of our own.” Alex started the engine. Little Max fussed in the back seat. I figured he didn’t understand what we were talking about; he was only a baby.
“So what’s that got to do with sex?”
“Maybe –“ Alex swore as we pulled out of the small parking lot by the pond. A truck had almost sideswiped us. “Maybe we could have sex, lots of sex, and another kid, a sister for Max. Maybe we could take the kids to Disneyland, and see the West Coast.”
Alex pulled into the parking lot of Riverside Farms convenience store. He handed me a twenty and two fives. “Get me six five-dollar tickets,” he said. I figured it was easier for me to get them, on account of his difficulties getting in and out of the car, so I complied, though I thought thirty bucks was a lot to waste.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of what has turned out to be my nightly hell. We stopped talking about sex, even after I got my hours changed around. Instead, we spent our evenings going from store to store in Alex’s frantic search for the one ticket that would give us a way out.
It wasn’t long before our stops added up to fifty or seventy-five dollars. I doubt Alex was keeping track, but from what I know of the lottery, I figure he was getting back only one-seventh of what he spent; the rest went to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Riverside knew me by then, as did owners of three other convenience stores nearby, and one over in Williamstown. Alex thought luck was something you could predict and control; he’d look at one of the numbers on the back of the ticket, and that would tell him if he was near a win or not.
You could say I was a sucker for buying the tickets for Alex, since I hated it so much. Some of the store owners would think I was the problem gambler, even though I’d tell them offhandedly that the scratch tickets were for my husband. “I don’t know what kind of ticket he wants; just any ole ticket will do,” I’d say, and present the cash. I’d deliberately wear an expression of disdain. It didn’t work. Even the shop owners who believed me thought I was some sort of subservient wife, which I never thought I was, until the heavy gambling started.
I grew to hate our old reliable Buick, even though we’d had sex in it, years ago, before our interest waned. It was in the car that Alex did his worst gambling. That was where he scratched the tickets with his “lucky” coin, made decisions about his next gambling venture, and tucked away each winner in the shelf under our broken tape deck; the losers he put in a Dunkin Donuts bag. He had the tickets classified, too, by some system he’d carefully devised.
The 7-Eleven in Adams had a handicapped parking space, so Alex started going in there on his own, late at night, when the MS let up a bit and he could walk pretty easily with a cane. The store owner’s name was Tony; he was an Italian immigrant trying to support five daughters, two studying communications at Southern Vermont College. He had hit it big in the lottery himself a couple years back, then wised up and quit playing because there were still bills to pay.
Tony knew all the tricks. He kept tabs on what numbers were coming up, and had some way of predicting the lottery, according to Alex, by calculating odds on his home computer. Tony had a regular casino going in his store. I figure Alex ran up a hefty tab there. I wasn’t supposed to know.
Every night before Alex went to Tony’s, he’d be glued to the set at 7:55, waiting for some gorgeous blonde to pick the winning numbers. Once I peeked on Alex’s bureau and discovered a list he’d written of four-digit numbers and their corresponding days: “Mon, Tues, Wen,” spelled just like that.
Alex was headed to Tony’s earlier than usual tonight when I stole the cigarette. He had gone into the bathroom to shave — something he insisted on doing before going out to that awful place. I could hear his electric razor buzzing like a sports car, so I figured it was safe to steal a smoke.
I was never much of a smoker. In high school I’d tried a few and decided that cigarettes were gross. Maybe it was out of vengeance that I desired to get that nicotine high tonight, and become a smoker just like Alex. I picked up his pack of Kools gently, as if he could actually hear me, and slipped out a butt. I put it under some paper napkins.
When he finished shaving, Alex came back into the kitchen. He didn’t look himself. His eyes were watery and his voice quavered when he spoke. I wondered if it was the MS that was getting to him.
I asked Alex what was wrong, hoping he hadn’t noticed my misdemeanor, and at the same time, hoping he had.
“It’s not you, Darlene; I’m just in a bad mood. I seem to be getting nowhere these days, and I feel tired, real tired, like I’m pushing myself in some direction I don’t want to go.”
I thought, you know what you can do to solve that! But I didn’t say anything. I put my hand on his shoulder when he sat down, and massaged it. “You sure it’s not me?” I asked. “Did I do something to bother you?”
Alex didn’t say anything. He was sweating, even though we keep the heat very low. He said in a quavering voice, “I’m just down today; it was just a bad day, I suppose.”
You could say I had a perfect opportunity to butt in and say what I really thought deep down, but for some reason I didn’t. I squeezed his shoulder and started rubbing his back. “Is there anything I can do?”
Alex shook his head.
I said, “I’ll set up the coffee maker before I go to bed, so all you have to do is flip the switch when you come home, how’s that? “
He kissed me, and left. I thought he would be gone for hours.
I searched for matches, and found an old Bic of Alex’s that still worked, even though the flame was low. I pulled the ashtray to my side of the table. It wasn’t right, my doing this. Alex would be pissed. It took three tries to get the cigarette lit because of the so-called child safety gadget over the flint.
At first I didn’t let the smoke into my lungs. On the next puff I started to get that queasy feeling I remembered so well; my body felt heavy, while my head floated with the smoke. I felt that way for a long time.
As I snuffed out the cigarette, I regretted my petty thievery. Alex and I never lie to each other, and this was a downright lie. By smoking, I was doing something he disapproved of; his ideals for me are different from the standards he sets for himself, I guess. He would be mighty disappointed in me if he found out. He’d ask himself if he really knew me, and if I’d been lying to him about other things. Maybe he’d think I’d had an affair and covered it up.
Then I realized that I’d been dishonest with Alex in other ways, that I’d hidden my true feelings about his gambling, and that I owed it to him to tell the whole truth. “It’s our time together,” I should’ve said, “not a time to do something I don’t enjoy.” I realized I should’ve told him how embarrassed I was, how angry and hurt. If he didn’t gamble, I’d have told him, think of all the bills we could pay off, how we could get back on our feet again, how he’d be able to cut his hours to stay home and rest and take care of his MS.
I got up and washed my hands thoroughly, then brushed my teeth so Alex wouldn’t smell cigarette on my breath. I took a long, hot shower and went to bed.
I wasn’t yet asleep when Alex came home, or at least I wasn’t sleeping soundly; he was making lots of noise. I wonder if he noticed the cigarette that I’d snuffed out because I hadn’t extinguished it the way he does, but I doubt it; he doesn’t notice much these days except the numbers on his tickets. I imagined him tracking mud into the apartment without noticing that, either.
He crept into the bedroom, turned on the light, then stopped by my bureau. He gazed at me, his wife, for a long time, while I pretended to be asleep, though I don’t know why.
I heard Alex grab my pocketbook and unzip it. I opened my eyes more to see what he was doing, but it wasn’t necessary to watch; I knew already. He took out my wallet, snapped it open, then dropped a coin by accident. “Shit,” he whispered. I rolled over, but not until after I’d seen him take all my cash, probably leaving a few bucks so I wouldn’t notice anything gone. He slipped out our door again, like a snake, and I heard our Buick engine grind to a start.
I thought about the cigarette, how awful I felt for stealing it. Then my mind switched topics and I realized how scared I’d been to let on that I was awake. I lay there listening for Alex, in case he came home again, but I didn’t hear anything. I got up and fixed myself a cup of tea and sat there thinking about things, trying to sort everything out.
But maybe tonight’s the night Alex will finally win big. He’ll come home and wake me up, insisting I examine the winning ticket he’ll cash in first thing tomorrow. I’ll gasp at the numbers, $10,000 printed five times with five matching symbols, then smile for a long time. He won’t be able to sleep all night. We’ll take that money and buy our own mobile home in the country, and travel to Los Angeles and maybe Tijuana, with Max, on a big jet, first class.
I wrote this story in 1999. I wrote a lot of stories in 1999.