Everyone's a winner

Celeste Hamilton Dennis

 

           Becky stood in the entrance of Chuck E. Cheese's and waited for the parents who were fed up or didn’t give a shit. Family after family of annoyed parents trying to wrestle with whiny brats walked by until she finally decided to tag along on a mother and son combo. The mom was complaining loudly on the phone about how her neighbor didn’t lend her his snowplow, while dragging a boy who looked about nine by the wrist behind her. He was playing some handheld video game. They were perfect. She followed them through the door.

           She was almost at the turnstile when she bumped up against the boy.

           “My nephew, he’s such a little shit sometimes, you know what I mean?” she said to the greeter. The teenage girl rolled her eyes and twirled her long black hair with one hand.

           “Go,” she said. She’d seen Becky plenty of times before, but still stamped her hand, softly, and told her to have a good time. It made Becky want to grab her face and give her a kiss.  She touched the stamped number on her hand and bee-lined for Raptor’s Revenge.

           The giant T-Rex head opened and closed its grimy mouth through the clear glass, waiting for Becky to hurl balls into it. She wiped a tear away, took her position. Jerk the handle just as the largest tooth started to clamp down: that was her signature move. She’d figured it out from hours and hours of practice, coming to Chuck E. Cheese’s after fights with Matty. She shot. She missed. The ball rolled down into a crag and landed in the ten tickets hole. She stomped her foot. Matty wasn’t even in the same room and still could mess her up. Dammit. She needed more tickets. A couple of thousand, actually, to buy prizes at the end of the day, giant stuffed Helen Hennys and glow in the dark Elsa wands and Stone Cold Steve Austin action figures. That was the only reason people came here. She stashed all her winnings in the trunk of her car and planned to sell them on eBay when the time came to leave Matty. Her aunt had made money selling baby clothes that way. She didn’t see why she couldn’t do the same.

           Coins clanked and little dirty bodies squeaked on slides. She put another token in and faced the puke green dinosaur. Before she could shoot, some worker dropped a tub of olives on their way to the salad bar and Chuck E. Cheese himself, flat and trapped in those stupid screens, was singing some rock song about following him to fun. Back in the day when her friends handed her party invitations to eat soggy pizza and play flashy games, Chuck E. was an eager, giant mouse who bounced around them, arms always outstretched for a hug. New Chuck E. was lame. Just like adulthood.

*

       That morning, they had rolled around on a pile of dirty laundry on the floor. It was one of those mornings when the snow acted like a stubborn bouncer blocking them from the outside world. They’d spent hours riding the high of his mood doing the usual dance: screw, snooze, screw, eat. Then the heaters in the apartment quit.

            “Let me smell your breath,” Matty had said to her.

            “No, I don’t wanna,” Becky said. She flicked his chest.

             “C’mon, baby,” he said. “I saw it on T.V. Some scientist said your breath is supposed to smell bad after you cum.” He ran his hands through her stringy straight hair. “I wanna see if that’s true.”

           Becky jerked her head away from him and got up. Matty stayed naked on top of the ripped comforter, watching her. She put on tight black jeans, and a baggy yellow sweater, which she sometimes hid inside of when Matty yelled at her. She topped it off with big gold hoop earrings.

           “That’s gross,” she said. She went back to him on the comforter and sat down. “Your stomach is still sticky.” She ran her French manicured nails down his abs. Abs that, every now and then, were scorpion sharp.

           “You always state the obvious, you know that?” he said.

           “You always state that I state the obvious,” she said. “That's just as annoying,”

           Matty pressed his thick finger on her collarbone. “What did you say?”

           He had never hit Becky, but the threat of violence circled around them like a helicopter in those Bruce Willis movies. She wanted him to just get it over with so she’d have an excuse to leave him.

           He crawled his calloused finger up her neck. He squeezed her chin between his hand and gave her a pinch.

           “You better watch it, bitch.”

           She was surprised. At how calm she felt. At how clear her next move was. She smacked the finger away. He jumped on top of her and pinned her arms up over her head, his limp penis swinging over her hips. His face so close he was cross-eyed. She wanted to pop the blackhead on his nose.  

           “You’re an asshole,” she said. She blew air in his face, mostly to feel like she was still breathing and because it was also the closest to tickling she could do at the moment. He hated to be tickled.

           “You don’t really mean that.” He dropped the lower half of his body on top of her and smoothed that one stubborn bang hair of hers with his chin. He put his lips to her earlobe. He pretended he was going to kiss her and gave her earlobe a quick bite.

           “Get your sorry-ass excuse of a dick off me,” she said. “I mean it. I’ll fucking hock a loogie in your face right now.“ He pressed down harder. She was gathering a wad of spit in her mouth when he rolled off. She got up and went to the bathroom.  

           “Stay in there,” he said. “Your mouth could use a good washing out with soap.”  He burped.

           She took his pills out of the cabinet, slid them out of the flimsy container, and held them in her hands. Without Zyprexa, he’d sleep for days, leaving Becky with a quiet apartment where she could watch daytime talk shows and eat pancakes for dinner without him nagging or interrupting or questioning her. It would good for him to catch up on some rest, besides. She threw the pink pills into the toilet. One missed and fell onto the floor. She picked up the pill, popped it into her mouth, and drove to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

*

           She aimed at the T-Rex in the center of the fake grass and shot another ball with her move. It rocketed off the dinosaur’s teeth. Fuck you, Matty. She shot again: 100 tickets. Enough to buy a punching balloon. Kids flew from game to game, overflowing cups of tickets and tokens in hands, not a goddamn care in the world. She wanted what they had. She inserted token after token and pretended the dinosaur was the guy at the diner who always left a 50 cent tip no matter how many times she brought him more coffee. Or the man who liked to throw forks on the floor so he could watch her bend over. And her mother, who still didn’t trust her to make her own decisions at 28-years-old, calling her in the middle of the night to make sure she was okayeven though it was her mother who was lost in a fog of vodka and cigarette smoke. Becky had at least gotten away.

           A teenage boy came up on her side. He wore a red polo, Chuck E. pinned to his chest, and twirled a ratty ying and yang hemp bracelet on his wrist.

           “M’am, there are people waiting,” he said. He pointed to a line that had formed behind her.

           A kid with dreads was rocking back and forth, arms crossed. A dad wearing a Metallica jean jacket slouched against a nearby mini-helicopter ride and kept screaming “Mikey!” at a boy shooting hoops across the room.  

           “I'm playing,” she said to the boy, loud enough for the line to hear. “Fair and square.”

           “You’ve been here for hours,” he said.

           “You’ve been watching me, huh,” she said. “Creep.”

           He shook his head. “You’ve got problems, lady.” He walked away.

           She kept playing. The line thinned. A girl wearing a red sweatshirt with sparkly kittens and a necklace of tickets remained. She glared at Becky, hands on hips, her potbelly loud and proud. Becky could tell she was like those kids who’d grab huge handfuls of mints from the diner, ignoring their parents when they shouted at them to stop. Her curly ponytail was wrapped in a scrunchie, loose and large.

           She fake coughed. And again, louder. Becky ignored her; she was staying put. The phony could hack all she wanted to. The signs everywhere said, “Everyone’s a winner.”

*

           When she first met Matty at the diner a year earlier, she had been picking up half-opened ketchup packets and spilled sugar containers, wiping salt off the counter and coffee off the seats. Cleaning up people’s messes made her feel as if she was contributing to the world. In another life she might’ve enjoyed being one of those people who got things back to normal after hurricanes. Or a crime-scene cleaner.

           She was cranky and sweaty, exhausted from the fourteen-hour shift, and looking forward to wearing slippers, when Matty walked in. He was stout and muscular like a boxer, and reminded Becky of her family, farmers in Pennsylvania. He fit right in with the men at the diner with grease on their hands and bags under their eyes.

           “You got a little ketchup on your arm,” he told her.

           “That ain’t nothing. You should’ve seen me the other day,” she said. “Had a whole pile of truckers in here, shooting the breeze and eating pounds of burgers. Had ketchup all over my apron, my hair, my freaking fingernails.”

           She looked at his soft, full lips and had the urge to smear some ketchup on them, his mouth so inviting.

           “That sounds like fun,” Matty said.

           “It was, a little. I licked myself just to see what it was like,” she said. “I kind of understand why dogs do that all the time. Felt good.”

           He laughed. “You don’t talk like me. You from here?”

           “I just moved here. I like the snow. Heard there was a good mall,” she said. She squished her small breasts on the edge of the counter.  “I could’ve went to Philly or NYC, but it just seemed too scary.”

           “Nothing to scare you here,” he said. “Except sharks like me.”

           He grinned. His smile was lopsided and his eyes were blue-green. She could tell that he could’ve been one of those self-destructive kids who died from an accident or overdose, leaving behind grieving friends who smoked cigarettes at their shrine night after night. She always had a thing for those kids, and dated them despite her best instincts.

           “Sharks are kind of cute,” she said. She leaned closer and did a little snap snap snap with her teeth.

           His neck splotched red. “I’ll have a bacon, egg, and cheese with ketchup,” he said. She wrote the order down on her notepad. “No, I’m feeling good today. Make that three.”

           He started coming in every day. Soon, she was holding hands with him at Broadway Mall on her days off, and blowing the paper off straws at people in booths at TGIF. Her favorite thing to do with him was speed in his beat-up car on the dirt racetrack out in Dix Hills where he competed every weekend for cash, her arm out the window as they went round and round. Dust got in her teeth, but she loved the wind sucking her skin, his hand on her thigh.

           A few months later, they moved in together into an apartment that Matty swore they could afford, right behind the Honey Baked Ham. A few months after that, he started stomping on Chinese food containers. They fell behind on rent. Then, one day, Matty threw his Aliens vs. Predator controller through the kitchen window.

           That’s when she started going to the Chuck E. Cheese’s down the Turnpike. He never asked where she went. She never told him.

*

           Becky was in a zone. She was destroying that dinosaur. The machine couldn’t vomit tickets out fast enough.

           Her phone rang. She never carried a purse with her inside Chuck E. Cheese’s because who knew what slob what steal it. So, she’d laid her phone down in front of her, next to the handle, because having it in her back pocket threw her balance off. But now the annoying ringtone of some country singer saying “Hello Darlin’ over and over again was threatening her game. She glanced at the screen; a selfie Matty had taken at the Pitbull concert at Jones Beach kept flashing. She should’ve known he’d call her. The dumbass twangy accent was relentless. Nothing could drown it out. Not even the woman who was practically screaming over the loudspeaker about getting back to the table for cake for Avery or whoever’s birthday party and Chuck E. Cheese’s ticket splash happening in three minutes kids!

           “Are you gonna answer that?” a small voice said.

           It was the girl from the line. She was standing next to Becky, one chubby hand leaning on the side of the glass. She wore shiny pink lip gloss and smelled like bubblegum and farts. There were a million other games she could be playing. It was just Becky’s luck to have some pathetic kid glob onto her.

           “Nope.”

           “Why not?” the girl said. “Just answer it.”

           Matty’s dumb face again. A text popped up: 143. He refused to do the emoticon thing. He was probably at CVS right now about to buy the cartoon donkey holding a sign that said “Sorry I was an ass!” He always chose that card because he did it that one time and then every time after that as a joke and now Becky had a stack of donkeys keeping their kitchen table from wobbling. He still kept Becky guessing the color of the plastic roses to go with the card. They could be pink, red, or yellow. Rainbow if he really fucked up. She loved those waxy things. They were built to last, unlike real flowers, which fell apart as soon as you put them in the vase. And their stems were good for picking the gooey caulking on the tub from Matty taking his dumb bath every day.

           The girl started tapping the glass. Becky was on a roll. She wasn’t going to let go of the handle for Matty, this girl, or anyone. She still had a few minutes left in her round. The balls went pop pop pop into T-Rex’s mouth.

           “Don’t you have parents or something?” Becky said. “Where are they?”

           “My stepdad’s over there at the table,” she said. She pointed to a man with a tribal tattoo on his neck who was fidgeting with his phone Behind him was a poster of Chuck E. the “King of Cool” sandwiched between two kids who wore matching black sunglasses. “My mom’s working. She’s a bus driver.”

           A bus driver from the school around the corner from Becky was on the news the other day for leaving a boy on the bus in the garage. She claimed she was tired after a long shift. Bullshit. That trapped boy stuck with Becky for days. She could almost throw up just thinking about his panic, trying everything he could to get out like jamming a window with a pencil from his backpack or pushing his little body against the front door, not realizing the bus locked from the outside. Any fool could see that the woman wanted an out with the job and had done it on purpose.

           The balls started dribbling out of T-Rex’s mouth and down into the “yousuck” ticket holes. She’d lost her groove. Fuck. She needed a break anyway. Another text from Matty. This time it said S-O-R-R-Y 143. She shut her phone off.

           “You’re really good at this game,” the girl said. What the fuck. Nobody ever paid attention to her in this place and she liked it better that way.

           “Scram,” she said. “The ticket splash is going to happen in a minute.”

           “That’s dumb,” the girl said. She rolled her eyes. ”I don’t need more tickets anyway.” She kicked at a shoebox by her feet that was almost full of neatly folded stacks. Girl was good. Probably had a room full of Chuck E. swag. Becky could just see her plopping her big butt into a blow-up chair with Chuck E’s face on it and drinking Orange Crush out of those cups with the giant tokens on top.

           Some hip-hop song started to play. Lame-o Chuck E. burst through a swinging door where the pizzas usually came out. He had the giant mouse head with the one buck tooth and ears alright, but he was wearing a T-shirt and black jeans. Cheapskates. Couldn’t even splurge on the whole furry costume and make it look like they gave a shit about the kids who stopped playing Skeeball and bashing frogs over the head to hang out with this cheeseturd.

           He stopped in the area by the front door right between the Chill Out ice cream treats and the Ticket Muncher machine. A whole crew of kids gathered around. Chuck E. started doing who-knows-what kind of dance, bopping to the left and to the right, waving his saggy gloved hands in the air. It was the same thing every hour.

           “Jennifer! Get your butt over here right now!” the girl’s dad yelled. He was standing in the middle of the kids and motioning with his hands. His shiny Jets jacket was moving fast like pinball flippers.

           The girl shook her head. He crossed his arms.

           “No, Frostie, if you don’t come here and get those tickets, I mean it, I didn’t come here for you to stand around like a putz.” A kid bumped into him and he didn’t flinch.

           “He’s not even my real dad,” Jennifer said to Becky.  

           “So, you don’t really have to listen to him.” She didn’t understand why parents were always so hell-bent on making kids obey them. Maybe if they loosened up their kids wouldn’t be so fucked.

           “My mom says I have to be nice and listen to him because he lost his job,” she said. She picked her nose. “He’s a mailman.”

           Becky squatted, put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and looked her in the face. She had a trail of freckles across her nose. If she had a pen in her pocket Becky would’ve loved to connect them, make a moustache or something, like she used to do with the freckles on her own arm.

           “You know what that’s called? That’s called a pity party,” she said. “And it’s so freaking boring. You don’t need to be invited to it.”

           She let go of Jennifer who was staring at a smashed chicken nugget on the carpet.

           She turned and found Jennifer’s dad behind her. Maybe Becky shouldn’t have touched her. He was giving her a frowny face. Like this guy with his beer gut and shitty choice in sports teams had any right to give her a frowny face. She shrugged at Becky and started following him toward the other kids who were hopping around to Chuck E.’s spazzy moves.

           “Go get ‘em, tiger,” he said. He patted Jennifer on the butt and gave her a little push. The nerve.

           Chuck E. stopped dancing and started the countdown: “3-2-1!” He threw a wad of tickets up in the air and they floated to the ground. It was almost beautiful. Until the kids got a hold of them. They were crawling on the carpet and grabbing tickets with their grubby little hands. They didn’t give a damn if they bumped into each other. The parents were no better. They were egging their kids on from the sidelines and Becky caught one of the moms pretending to drop her purse just so she could snatch some tickets up. A couple of teenagers with braces took a selfie. Becky had seen the splash a million times but today people seemed extra grabby. It was funny if you watched long enough.

            Jennifer was in the middle. She was bent down to the ground and the crack of her butt showed over her leggings. She didn’t move as fast as the others. Every time she tried to pick up a ticket some kid would get there first or snatch it out of her hand. Jennifer didn’t seem to care. Her head stayed down while her dad yelled at her. “Jennifer! Faster! Faster!” C’mon!”   Becky would’ve loved to pop a ball right into his mouth.  

           The splash ended. Jennifer’s dad dragged her to the play area where the slide and sky tube was. She took off her shoes and climbed into the giant yellow tunnel hanging from the ceiling and just like that she was gone. Becky shrugged. What could she do about someone else’s problems anyway. She had her own to deal with. She inserted another token into Raptor’s Revenge. She grabbed the handle and took her stance and before she could shoot her foot bumped against the shoebox of tickets. Jennifer had forgotten it.

            Becky kicked the shoebox again to make sure it was real. It scooted away from the machine, too far, and she snatched it up. It was lighter than she’d thought even with all those tickets squished in there together. She counted the stacks: 22. Had to be at least 50 tickets in each one. She calculated roughly in her head and started bouncing on her tippy toes. Matty hated that, said it made him nervous. She did it some more. She’d been eyeing the Hot Wheels Gorilla Takedown track set for weeks.  She’d seen those babies sell for over $100 a pop on eBay and she knew she could make bank. Her winnings plus Jennifer’s box of tickets and she’d have enough, hell, maybe even clear out the top shelf.

            Nobody was watching her. Jennifer was lost in a maze of zigzagging tunnels and she couldn’t blame the girl for wanting to stay there.  Her dad was sitting way over by the stage dicking around with his phone again while Chuck E.’s creepy animatronic girlfriend, Helen Henny, was playing bass to “Do You Believe in Magic.”

           She held the box closer to her chest. She could just see what would happen to Jennifer if she took it. Jennifer would freak out. Run around the damn place and look under Hammer Froggie and The Price is Right and Smokin Token Extreme. She’d cry when she couldn’t find it. Cry some more. Wipe the snot with the back of her hand and rub it on her pants. Her dad would probably tell her to shut up, to stop being such a baby, and that she definitely wouldn’t be getting a Frostie. She’d feel guilty and not eat dinner and get smacked across the face by her mom because she disappointed her father and have to go to school the next day with a slightly bruised cheek and grow up afraid of men and always wanting to please them. Becky didn’t know if she could do that to her.

           But if she didn’t teach her the lesson of looking after her own shit, then nobody would.

           She went to the Ticket Muncher machine and started feeding it the stacks. It was a hungry thing and slurped them up faster than the lizard in that fly catching game. She shoved in stack after stack until finally it spit out a piece of paper that she folded and put in her back pocket, next to her phone, deciding to come back the next day and cash in. Her insides pinged and zinged. She heard Long Beach had cheap studio apartments if you looked hard enough.  

           She put the empty shoebox back where she found it and started walking toward the door. A group was singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs and she could feel the love for the birthday girl in how giggly and off-key they were. Becky turned to look for Jennifer one more time. She was up in the middle of the sky tube with hands pressed against the plastic peephole, eyes wide and staring at Becky, telling her to just go.

 

 


Celeste Hamilton Dennis is an editor and freelance writer specializing in social entrepreneurship and nonprofits. Her writing has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Barely South Review, and Praxis. She lives in Portland, Oregon and is working on a collection of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, NY.