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A Penny Short

‘I left them both at the wedding reception. The best man was toasting the groom by listing all the women he’d given up for his new bride, and I’d had about enough.’

By Peter HZ Hsu
Fiction | Chance, Change, Fiction Friday, Luck, music
March 18, 2016

“How does anyone win on this thing?” I ask the blonde casino waitress. The waitress is about my age, wearing an ornate navy blue bikini top and something that looks like a train conductor’s hat. She’s tall, taller than me, and I’m pretty tall for an Asian girl. She nods her head but with no conviction. I ask her for cigarettes. She tells me she’s all out, but I can see the cigarettes right there in her box. I ask her for a vodka tonic, which she agrees to with another nod.

She says, “Okay. I’ll be right back with that.”

I watch her walk towards the bar, stopping several times to check in with other patrons before I lose her in the crowd. I’m left staring at this penny slot machine. A Penny For Your Thoughts, it’s called. It’s got five reels and like twenty different symbols on each reel. I have no idea how to win on this thing. I’ve tried every way I can imagine. I put the max bet. I put the minimum bet. I pulled the arm. I pushed the button. I said a prayer. I closed my eyes. And every time, I get some outcome I don’t understand telling me I’ve done a little better or a little worse.

The guys would say I’m wasting my time, that the game is rigged against the player. The guys meaning Jin and Leon, the other two members of our string trio. Jin is the violist and current boyfriend—or fiancé, technically. Leon is the violinist and ex-boyfriend, also technically. I left them both at the wedding reception. The best man was toasting the groom by listing all the women he’d given up for his new bride, and I’d had about enough. But Jin seemed into it. Taking notes, maybe, for our upcoming wedding. And there was Leon getting loaded on the free liquor as usual. He’d looked at me with those drunken, red eyes and asked me to stay. I asked to go. We both shrugged, and that was that.

I’m sure they’re probably looking for me by now. Not that I’m hiding. I’ve been sitting here at Penny For Your Thoughts for god knows how long. Time measured in pennies is hard to track. But now it seems I’ve only got one penny left. I look at it a moment, kiss it for good luck. It tastes like tea. In one relatively smooth motion I drop it into my machine and pull the lever.

Just then, three guys I recognize from the wedding pass through the end of the row. They’re tall and lean and wearing tailored suits. The tallest one stops and waves at me, and I wave back with this conditioned cheerfulness.

He mimes the air cello and shouts, “Hey, Yoyo Ma! You were amazing!”

I wave again, still smiling, a little more authentically now.

He gives me a thumbs up and makes his way towards me.

“Yoyo Ma’s a dude, but thank you,” I say.

He laughs. “No, seriously. I’m not being ironic. That was like truly superior.”

The other two nod in agreement. Then they all keep walking, past me down the aisle and out the other end. I turn back to my machine: Bet 1, Winner Paid 0.

And that’s it for my gambling career, and that waitress still hasn’t come back. I stand up to look for her but she’s nowhere to be seen. While I’m standing, an old lady comes and sits down at what was my machine. I sit down at the machine next to me. This one’s called The Penny Pincher and has a white-gloved Mickey Mouse hand pinching a golden penny as its graphic.

“Do you have a cigarette?” I ask the old lady.

“You should ask the waitress,” she says.

“I did,” I say. “She doesn’t seem to like me.”

“It’s nothing personal. They just work slow to make you gamble more.”

“That’s funny. Because, actually, I’m not gambling.”

I show her my empty coin bucket. The old lady eyes the bucket and shakes her head, sighing. She fishes her hand into her penny cup and starts taking coins out one at a time. She carefully counts each penny out loud, 22 of them. She hands them to me in a neat little stack.

“Play until these run out, then go home,” she says. “You need rest.”

“You’re right,” I say, pumping all 22 pennies into my machine and then pulling the handle. The reels land one after another, kuh-thunk, kuh-thunk- kuh-thunk, and it looks like I might have won something. I look to the old lady, hoping she’ll corroborate my excitement, but she doesn’t. I look back at The Penny Pincher, the gloved cartoon hand clutching its riches just out of my reach.

The old lady says, “Sorry, dear.”

I shrug and say, “Hey, can I ask you something?”

She nods.

I start with, “So, I got this job offer.”

I try to smile real big and exude a bit of pride. I think that I should feel proud. I should feel about this job like how I felt about our little trio when I was 15 and we got our first real gig, a real theater with numbered seats and our names neatly printed in the program. That was real, real like first chair at Sunderman, like subbing at Annapolis and The National and at U of M, like the festivals, the quartets, the trios, and the scores of gigs at galas and weddings and premieres, like all those 16,000+ hours of practice, each minute like an optimistic coin dropped into a slot machine.

I think I should feel like that about this job. But I don’t.

I go on. “It’s good money. I mean really good, like Lexuses and no debts good. And it’s easy. I mean, it’s not easy, just more certain, a lot more certain, you know? I’d be selling real estate, but not even real real estate, but like a real estate mutual fund, like if real estate were stocks, something like that. I don’t know. I’m not sure I really get it. But it’s sort of the family business, except not exactly my family. It’s Jin’s family. Jin’s my boyfriend. He’s here, somewhere. He’s gonna want to know what I plan to do. What we plan to do. If we should keep at these dreams or just give up and grow up. I want to know too, what I want to do, about the job, about cello, about him. Jesus, I don’t know what I want to do. I just need like some set of instructions, you know, like a signal, an omen even.”

“Well,” she says, then pauses, as if taking in the gravity of my question, making sure that she gives me the best possible wisdom because god knows this could be the turning point in my life. “Well, having some security does sound nice.”

“Yeah,” I say, not looking up, just watching the wheels on Penny For Your Thoughts spin.

I think about what Leon told me, that life is only about what you do, not who you are.

There is no you, he once said in a moment of drug-induced clarity.

So then, if I do good, I am good.

If I play cello, I am playing.

If I sell real estate, I am selling.

Or is Leon wrong, and really it’s who I am in my heart that counts. It doesn’t matter if I have the wrong job or marry the wrong person or never play the cello again, as long as I still love the things I love, deep down.

“Pretty girl,” the old lady says, pinching me on the cheek. “So pretty.”

Then she pulls the lever on her machine, what was formerly my machine. The music starts. It’s jangly and almost has a melody to it, like the intro to a children’s song. A bunch of random symbols come up on her reels, one at a time, landing with an amplified clunk. The finished outcome doesn’t look like anything to me, though I can barely focus, so who knows. It looks like elephants, queens, and exclamation points. The old lady gasps and the machine lights up and bells start to ring. What seems like buckets of pennies start to pour out of its chute.

She starts clapping her hands and shouting, “Doggone it, doggone it, doggone it!”

The blonde waitress, the one that’s been ignoring me, comes over to the old lady and gives her a big hug. Then a woman in a black suit comes over and shakes her hand. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think this lady just got rich.

I try to smile at her, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I elbow her, vying for her attention. She puts a soft hand on my elbow and moves away from me.

I’m sitting there watching them take the old lady’s picture. It dawns on me that she just won a lot of money. Not just like a couple grand, like a regular jackpot, but like the progressive, like a million bucks or something. I keep trying to make eye contact so that maybe she’ll notice me.

“Hey,” I say. “That was my machine.”

“A day late and a penny short,” she says, with not even the tiniest bit of remorse in her voice.

In all the commotion, I don’t notice all the people that have come over to see what’s going on. Jin is among them.

Yobo,” he says, grabbing me by the shoulders. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.”

I look up at him, bleary-eyed, and say, “Hey, yobo, I haven’t been anywhere, nowhere at all.”

“What?” says Jin. “What’s wrong with you? Are you okay?”

“I’m good,” I say. “I am.”

He grabs at my hand, not grab-grab, but more like gently takes my hand. I let him. I look at him and ask if he’ll get me some smokes and a drink.

“Vodka tonic.”

He hands me his cigarettes and says, “You don’t drink vodka.”

I shrug and he leaves for the bar. Before he turns the corner, I’m up, shaking out the cobwebs, blinking repeatedly until I spot the old lady. She’s walking with the woman in the black suit. They go through a door, a very regular looking door with a small brass plaque that says: Office. It’s seems like an odd place to hand over a million dollars, but what do I know.

I head towards them, passing the other penny slots: A Penny Earned—A Penny Saved, Pennies From Heaven, The Penny Jar, Lucky Penny. I stop about two-thirds of the way to the door and light a cigarette, wondering what I’m doing. What exactly do I think I’m doing now. I stand there. I smoke. It seems like forever. I see the waitress, that same one. She’s got the same box around her neck, those same cigarettes that she doesn’t want to give me. She passes those same three guys from the wedding. My number-one fan, the guy who’d waved at me earlier, is now shouting something at her. But she doesn’t stop. Maybe she doesn’t hear him. She walks by, a few quick steps with her head high, and then I see the guy give a series of pelvic thrusts to the space behind her back. His companions slap and laugh, raising their champagne flutes in a toast to truth and courage and all good things lost in our modern age.

I wonder if this waitress and these guys and the old lady and Jin and Leon and me, even me, are secretly good people, amazing and bright, just waiting for some angel to tap us on the shoulder and wake us. Or maybe we are the angels, and we’re the ones looking for some lost human soul to knead and shape, or to defeat decisively like that thing from the deep that played the wrestler’s sinews like strings on a harp…

Jesus, I don’t know.

The old lady comes out of the office, a small packet of forms in her hands. The woman in the suit shakes her hand again. The old lady smiles and says something. Then she turns to walk out the casino doors. I watch, balancing an invisible scale in my head, contemplating difficult answers to imaginary questions. I watch for another second and then follow.