A Special Providence
He was being rejected even by the Provincial Lottery Corporation.
by Rob Hunter
“There was lots of room; I was the only passenger on that bus.”
On the Canadian side of the international bridge high yellow sodium lights on sixty-foot pylons ringed a set of gas pumps, casting few and deceptive shadows. Gerald Bronson MacKechnie looked back over his shoulder at the border kiosk that led to the United States. The agent on duty was bored and studying his nails, a bad sign. Too late for a U-turn. Gerry strode purposefully forward. He was leaning on the counter at Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries, waiting for a roll of change, when the duck spoke to him. It was his miracle, a de facto, set in cement miracle. The question of the duck was never fully determined. That it was a duck, Gerry was sure.
In an age of specialization, Theo Arsenault was a generalist, with gas pumps, a soda fountain, over-the-counter drugs and notions, and a wall of coin-operated gaming machines. Plus lottery tickets, tobacco and magazines, pizza and beer. Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries was also the bus stop. To this it owed no small portion of its success. The duck was on the screen of a Lotto terminal, endlessly flipping a gold coin.
“Quack, quack, quack,” said the machine as the duck appeared, stalking back and forth with a big cigar and a painted-on mustache. Doing a Groucho, a lure to the unwary, promising riches. When you’re already a loser—a status to which Gerry readily confessed—slim pickings topped no pickings, miracle-wise. Gerald Bronson MacKechnie loved jelly doughnuts of every race, sex and flavor, and thought of a jelly doughnut.
“You, Gerry MacKechnie, are a prime example of reverse Darwinism. The jelly doughnut, for example,” said the duck. “You are a poster boy for failure. And as such, you shall be rewarded.”
“I get a prize.” At the word ‘prize,’ Gerry thought of Cracker Jack. He did not pause to wonder that the duck could read his mind. He should have wished for a jelly doughnut or a crème-filled Bismarck. Instead he got a miracle. It all started when Gerry pounded on an otherwise inoffensive video poker terminal.
For Willipaq, Maine, everything had been and gone with the previous century. These days youth fled to the cities of the south with the ink on their high school diplomas still wet. What Willipaq occasionally got was payoffs on the gambling machines just over the river in Canada. Most of the money stayed in Canada. The proceeds went to National Health. Willipaq waited and hoped for an Indian casino. In Canada the provincial government poured in millions on infrastructure while Willipaq, from Augusta, the state capital, was transparent. Willipaq was broke—Loup du Jour a truckstop.
Gerry MacKechnie slammed the Lotto machine with the heel of his hand. Thwack! A repetitive pattern of a duck and its endlessly flipping coin stopped dead center in the screen, coin frozen in midair. It had been a bad night with Sheila and the kids. Now this. Sheila had chased him out of the house, and he was feeling low.
He found this satisfying and did it again with the same minimal results.
Gerry was a decent sort, a husband and father, unemployed one month out of two, a solid citizen who saw himself as a free spirit. High school and a rusted-out Trans-Am on blocks in the yard were the biggest things that had happened in his life. And as an afterthought, his wife and children. Drinking beer, driving the back roads with the radio loud, then hanging out and playing video poker was heady medicine, but that was ten years ago, when he was single. Tonight he was the lone customer remaining in Arsenault’s. No one had seen him hit the machine and he could hope for a quiet getaway. He had put off going home until he broke even and now he had broken the machine. Three AM. Sheila would give him a frosting—no nookie, cold feet in bed and up at six, bleary-eyed from late night TV.
Gerry watched western movies, Sheila the Weather Channel. No premium services, no new movies, no HBO. Just reruns. Sheila had named their new puppy “Cosmos” because of a severe crush on Carl Sagan. She brought the boxed set of “Cosmos,” the TV show that explained everything, into their marriage. “Evolution is fact, not a theory...” Sheila had said. “Carl Sagan said that. That explains you, Gerry.” The dog licked her hand. “He, at least, knows where he is,” Sheila said.
Inside the gaudily painted cabinet an erasable, programmable, read-only memory chip considered the pounding a bit much. A tiny field collapsed, sending its contents winging away to chip heaven. On a screen framed by irreverently stenciled plywood, a Jack, deuce, nine and a pair of red tens blanked out leaving a field of low-resolution scan lines.
After a moment of furtive embarrassment, he thought what the hell, and knelt to see if the plug had come loose from the wall. It had not. “Shit.” Gerry hit it again. Nothing. Not even the satisfying jingles and rattle of springs and linkages you got in the good old pinball machines. “I thought there was a special providence that looked out after these things,” said Gerry, meaning the Provincial Lottery Corporation.
“There is,” replied the machine. A ten-dollar jackpot dropped into the takeout drawer.
The voice continued. It was the duck. “Be fruitful and multiply—that’s all you get. And don’t whack the machine—the Corporation doesn’t favor muscleheads abusing church property.”
The picture flickered. The screen filled with the Corporation’s usual come-on—Youth, Beauty and an annuity somewhere in an ill-defined future. Gerry looked around. The night clerk was fussing with a clipboard out at the gas pumps, getting totals. This must be some new program from the Lottery Corporation. He scooped up the money and reached for his jacket.
“You have heard the saying Lord love a duck?”
“Well, I’m the duck. And you have been blessed. ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face.’ That's in the Bible. Well, here I am.”
“That’s about John the Baptist,” said Gerry who had won prizes in Sunday school.
“So? You get a duck. Play the game. You double parked?”
“Nope, I walked.”
“Too bad. I’m good with parking meters. The silent sentinels. They, too, are God’s messengers.”
Gerry considered parking meters. “No shit?”
“No shit. Think about it.” The duck paced the screen in a tight circle, gesturing with its cigar. “The silent sentinel doesn’t really care what time it is. It doesn’t care if you get towed or if the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Artifacts have a different schedule of priorities than living creatures.” The duck leaned forward as if to emphasize this point. A golden circlet hovered over its tail.
“Ahhh...” said Gerry.
“A halo, OK? Learn to live with it...”
Thonk, thonk, a video game sound effect, thin and reedy, rattled the terminal’s tiny loudspeaker as the duck tapped on the edge of his screen. “The Provincial Lottery Corporation is waiting,” said the duck. Gerry fished out a handful of Canadian two-dollar coins.
“Go on. Plug ‘em in.” The duck’s voice took on a stagy confidentiality. “For all you know this lottery terminal is a landing beacon for some ancient astronaut. Me. And the parking meter is obviously the superior local life form. Look at you—full of pride, all alive and strutting around. I’ll just bet you think you’re the bee’s knees.”
Gerry looked more closely at the lottery terminal. It looked pretty usual. “Uh, you are an astronaut?”
“No. I am simply trying to educate you, broaden your worldview. That was only a hypothetical scenario. That is your first lesson—defer to your betters. Me. I am better than you. Remember this always.”
Where Gerry MacKechnie went, Cosmos went, and preferably by car, headed to the land of flashing lights and cash payoffs. But though Cosmos was a dog always after a good ride, foot travel was Gerry’s only option these days. The ancient Trans-Am had no tires and no plates. Trips were special, and even though Cosmos and Gerry went everywhere together, usually to Loup du Jour to play the Lotto, the anticipation made Cosmos’ blood race with feral memories—the pack, the hunt.
There would be rustling of preparatory activity, lacing sneakers, unpegging of a windbreaker from the coat tree in the hall. With his blue nylon warmup jacket half on, one sleeve dangling, Gerry MacKechnie executed a perfunctory circuit of things to be looked into before the trip to the store—that was the giveaway. Cosmos, who shared his name with a video manual for the universe, took his responsibilities seriously. He plomped his 102 yellow pounds in front of the kitchen door and thumped his tail on the linoleum, blocking all exit.
Cosmos had no life other than being with Gerry—the nearness of Gerry, the wonderfulness of Gerry. Sheila’s status as Universal Mother was sometimes confusing, after all she had made Cosmos in Her image. But recently that had started to change. In his dreams he was a wild wolf, rich with an ancient lineage, bounding joyously. Cosmos would pause to check himself in a polished hubcap. The hubcap winked at him, proof enough—he had forgotten proof of what. Aside from the occasional squirrel or the smell from the pizza oven at Arsenault’s, Cosmos never felt more fulfilled with the exception of letting fly from his bottomless bladder. Time was when lifting a leg was the happiest exercise of his heritage. Ahh...
Gerry waved to Hal Overby at US Customs. Hal was barricaded in his guardhouse by a heap of torn up asphalt. The Americans were installing electronic gear to scan license plates. Gerry walked over to Canada and back to the United States almost every day and the grilling was the same. “How long have you been in Canada or the USA? Are you carrying any firearms, tobacco, citrus or potatoes?”
“Hi, Hal. Nope.”
Occasionally, “How’s Sheila and the kids?” The boys, 6 and 8, were named Chad and Jeremy—there was an oldies station in town with an afternoon pizza give-away.
A woman sat in the booth at Customs Canada.
“Just over for the day?”
“Just over to play the Lotto and video poker.”
“Thought so. Any citrus?”
Tammi eyed him up and down. She checked her computer monitor from habit, but no car, no plate for the scanner. Gerry was a pedestrian. “No potatoes, drugs, explosives?”
“Have a nice day.”
Cosmos wagged on through, no questions. Dogs were welcome. As long as Cosmos wore his rabies tag he was an international citizen.
Gerry slunk into Arsenault’s, beery and unshaven. A pair of teen toughs played at one of the machines. Gerry moved to the far machine of the row of identical terminals. The duck was waiting. As Gerry slumped over, digging deep into his pockets for a dollar coin, the machine spoke.
“You’re back.” The duck waved, looking like an animation cel against a matte of interlocking tessellations of faded images of itself. “I have just declared a holy day of obligation. Closed. Sorry.” With the fluid grace of puddle of molten glass, the coin slot healed itself.
“I have dollar here someplace...” He was being rejected even by the Provincial Lottery Corporation.
“Not you, you silly, compulsive boy, me—go or stay, that is. Not a red letter day in ego land. Divinitywise, if you catch my drift.”
“Beg pardon. You are a duck.”
“The duck is only an aspect of a reality beyond your comprehension. Sometimes I am a talking volcano, others a burning bush. Today I am a screensaver under the auspices of the Provincial Lottery Corporation. One of those days, dig? No wonder your wife regards you as an asshole past redemption. You might find things better with Sheila if you stopped plugging loonies into these damned machines and spent some attention on her. At home—you know, where the hearth is and appended bullshit. She has made her decision.”
“Sheila? You mean Sheila is moving out?”
The duck faded to a tiny dot of luminescence. The machine dinged and a two-dollar payout bounced into the takeout drawer. “Save your money—the advice is free.”
“But, Sheila...” said Gerry.
“Sheila, Sheila,” said the duck. “You are so wrapped up in your own miserable existence you have lost sight of the bigger picture—me and my perquisites. Go home to Sheila and save your money. I have spoken.”
“I wish.” Gerry fumbled the few coins left in his pocket. “I can’t go home until I at least break even. I wish. I wish.”
“Three wishes? Bite me, gringo Americanski. You would be lucky to get back over with a sack of oranges. You have cable?”
“No. They cut it off last month.”
“No HBO? My, you are deprived. Want to do a dog a favor?” asked the duck.
“Beg pardon?” Gerry started backing away. He had got his hopes up about that cable bill. One lucky jackpot. But the duck had dropped the cable subject.
“None of that, no easy getaway. Just do as I say. Pretend I’m Sheila. Right now your dog’s gotta pee something fierce.”
“You’re sure you’re a duck?”
“Ducks pee. Dogs pee. Everybody pees. Come on—make it snappy. There’s a pile of newspapers under the baggage counter. Here is a chance for you to demonstrate some delicacy. Spread them on the floor and turn your back.”
Cosmos stretched then vigorously shook his head. He headed toward the papers.
“Well?” said the duck.
“Well, what?” asked Gerry.
“Turn your back.”
Cosmos had long entertained a nagging doubt that there should be more to life than peeing on tires. The newspapers were strange and wonderful. Something had changed. Gerry MacKechnie did not change. Sheila had named him but Gerry was Cosmos’ pole star. Everything was right because that’s the way things were. Gerry was here and all was well. The great yellow dog’s muted trickling went on for a considerable time.
“Uh, yes.” The duck knew his name, Gerry only now realized. Well, why not, it knew his wife’s name.
“Pick up the papers and put them in the trash, then we’ll play. Get us some food.” The duck nodded to the luncheonette. “Cheeseburgers will be just fine. Wash your hands first. And be sure to come back, I don’t like waiting.”
Gerry pulled a quarter-folded ten dollar bill from an inside jacket pocket. He unfolded it with an apologetic expression.
“I get it. You’re broke,” said the duck. “No problem, just take a cruise by the video poker on your way.”
Gerry MacKechnie did as he was told. He looked up at the display. The duck was here, too, superimposed on a flashing screen of rampant royal flushes. “Here’s the funds.” The machine whirred and a winning chit for two hundred dollars was ejected. “For your trouble. And that cable bill. Here’s for the food.” Twenty shiny gold loonies slid into the tray. “Make that double cheeseburgers and hold the pickles.”
Gerry stayed a long time in the tiny lavatory holding his hands under the blow-dryer, turning them over and over. What the hell, he had nothing else on today.
“Took you long enough. I’m famished,” said the duck when he returned with the food.
Another day, another bender. This time there was no duck in evidence. An attractive, exotic-looking woman with the ageless beauty of an Egyptian goddess was pressing a sheaf of bus receipts on the night clerk. “But there was lots of room. I was the only passenger on that bus.” A voice with a big city lilt and a perfume by Coco Chanel or Diana Vreeland—not cheap, not over-priced, just right.
“Lady, I’m sorry, but it just hasn’t gotten here yet. Freight isn’t like check-on baggage. They send it on when they have the room to spare.” He was gesturing to the empty shelves behind him emblazoned with the Atlantic BusWays logo. “Say, haven't I seen you before? In a museum or somewhere?”
“No. I doubt that,” The new arrival, who was wearing a Tour de France bicycle racing T-shirt, said “Forget it.” The night clerk looked confused, then sat down. The woman turned and gave Gerry the once-over. Gerry’s hands and feet felt too big and his neck was throbbing. He was very conscious of his appearance and wished he had met this woman sober and by daylight. She was magnetically lovely and he spun a fantasy scenario of the two of them walking barefoot on the beach. Compelling, that was the word. He found her compelling. His nerves were shot. He was getting edgy. When had he last shaved? Huh, two days at least.
“You are hoping she’s an adventuress out on a big money scam and finds you irresistible? This would add some meaning to your pathetic life? This is a bus stop—not a likely location. A classy babe like her should be on a cruise or in the VIP lounge at an international air terminal. And you? Cut me some slack, please.” The duck stared out from the screen. “Check the chick,” said the duck.
The woman was gone. “Whaddid I tell you?” The duck was triumphant. “She never was there.”
Gerry had his cigarettes, why all this hanging around? It was time to get over the bridge and back to the waiting bottle. Forget the duck, forget the video poker, there would be other days. “But the woman?”
“A little piece of street theater and illustrative of what you may yet make of your pathetic life, Gerry, me boyo. She is the Goddess, Queen Mab, patroness of the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, over for the season at Saratoga. I now owe her one—and you therefore owe me. Lay off the booze and the gambling and Sheila will be Queen Mab for you.”
“Sheila will be a goddess?”
“Well, the Corporation has a weakness for dogs—it’s the corporate culture: wolves, you know. Wolves don’t get irony, maybe that’s why. I have discovered a soft spot for you myself. Unfortunately you have sold your soul for chump change so any favors I can pass along will be understandably small. You have been granted just a glimpse, a peek of better things—a dispensation for your delicacy in the matter of your dog having to pee.”
“Because I turned my back?”
“We all enjoy our private moments.”
“Uhn. I’d like to go far. To travel. Whatever.”
“Simple enough. The Lottery Corporation says I owe you one.”
“Because you are kind to your dog. The dog loves you, which is more than I would be inclined to do. The dog trusts you. Of all creatures of creation, you at least have never let him down. You will go far. Far enough.” A cascade of coins fell into the trough. “But for you this night there will be a plenary indulgence. Take a cab.” Quack, quack, quack, the duck did a Groucho to exit screen right.
When Gerry arrived home he found no bus ticket, no airline ticket plus brochure for enchanted islands with bare-bosomed tawny wenches. Just the Trans-Am with four new tires—wide metrics, the P225/sixty-fifteens—an inspection sticker and fresh, shiny license plates. Miracles are where you find them, figured Gerry. He had told the duck that he would like to travel, after all.
That night it was dinner out at McDonald’s and the late show at the Willipaq Cinema for Sheila, Gerry and the kids. Cosmos opted for the double cheeseburgers and a side of fries.
copyright 2003, 2015 Rob Hunter
Special Providence was first published in the May 2003 issue of Quantum Muse.