When You Hear the Call of the Lotto Man
MARLÉNE ZADIG
​       finalist for the Fulton Prize

Geraldine was not the most adept zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo, but she had the gumption to shovel more shit than the rest of them so as to retain a certain prominence despite her overall ineptitude as an employee. She called it her job security, those mounds of excrement that she hauled out of the enclosures over the course of each shift. It was the only point of pride she had anymore, for she had proven to be very nearly useless at performing the majority of her other duties.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like being around animals—she had minored in animal science after all—it was the specificity of the instructions that caused most of her setbacks. Being able to tell the tamarins from the mangabeys, the tree shrews from the elephant shrews was like deciphering an ancient language to her; they all looked alike. She was the reason one of the two macaques was adorned with pink food coloring on its shoulder; she’d kept giving the wrong one medicine for a liver condition, so both of the pair had ended up getting sick. But her supervisor refused to fire her over the episode, citing that the stalls had never been cleaner before Geraldine was on board, and clean stalls were good PR. And besides, the public had eaten the food-dye thing up; there was even an official sign made to explain the situation, that the monkeys were difficult to tell apart.

Her apartment never did stop smelling like fertilizer, though, since there was always at least one soiled uniform lingering in the laundry bin at any given moment. Geraldine didn’t really mind the smell—she rather liked the earthiness, the vegetal nature of it—but she knew that it bothered other people, her boyfriend in particular, and so she spent more energy and money than she would have liked attempting to mask the odor with sprays and vaporized tinctures. Still, her boyfriend preferred that she come to him.

The boyfriend was Colby Clinefield, best known (among other things) for his gig at the local PBS station announcing the winning numbers for the lottery each week. “Colby like the cheese,” he would always say when introduced. Otherwise people would get confused and call him Corey or even Courtney if they didn’t have the mnemonic to jog their memory. He liked to brand himself as a metrosexual, but this was merely because he had a goatee and wore a sportcoat; he had misunderstood the meaning of the term. The sportcoat was usually of grey gabardine, which he wore over a black t-shirt and charcoal denim jeans. He was also partial to a gold wristwatch that an old roommate had left behind which shone unnaturally yellow in the glare of the TV lights, yellow like the double stripes in the middle of the road. 

Geraldine had met Colby at Bingo during singles’ night for the ironic 30’s and 40’s set down at the community center. He had of course been the announcer, not an attendee, and he’d approached her because of the charm bracelet that she wore habitually whenever she wasn’t at work. Something about it had struck him as being desperate, the treble clef maybe, or perhaps it had been the shear quantity of them. Whatever it was, he knew that he would make her day by taking her home with him that night, and it was important to him that he bring positivity into people’s lives.

She had smelled heavily of Lucky Number 6 Perfume by Liz Claiborne, the scent of which he’d recognized as being familiar from one of his other Bingo nights, the one at the DAR. Geraldine had gotten the bottle at a flea market, new and unopened, and decided its piquant floral notes perfectly masked whatever muskiness lingered after a day’s work in the rodent house.

They had done it that first night with the light on, a fuchsia halogen lamp beside the futon bed that burned the flesh of her fingertips when she’d tried to angle it away from her face and made them both sweat through their shirts; he’d only taken the effort to disrobe the both of them from the waist down. He was in and out lickety-split, the way she’d seen the gibbons do time and time again. For all she knew, that was how it was always done. Nothing in her experience had taught Geraldine otherwise.

She and Colby had been seeing each other for months now, and she was in the habit of changing her clothes at her apartment after work and taking the trolley to Colby’s neighborhood to eat dinner together before doing it on the futon in the living room after the local news. He cooked breakfast-for-dinner on Tuesdays, spaghetti with sauce on Thursdays, and the rest of the week was hers. She liked that he was easy to please, in bed as well as in the kitchen, and that he thought it was important to share the cooking responsibilities. She was partial to making grilled cheese sandwiches and her late mother’s chicken tetrazzini, though she’d adjusted her recipes to incorporate marble rye bread with yellow American cheese and tri-colored pasta, respectively, because Colby had once expressed to her that he didn’t enjoy eating white foods.

Fridays were her surprise, and this Friday she’d intended to make her famous seven-layer dip and chips for dinner, but this time with real guacamole that she’d found in the freezer section of the market instead of her usual powdered mix packet. People raved about the stuff at work parties. She would bring it in to celebrate someone’s birthday or retirement, and everyone would praise her on what a good job she had done making all the layers line up flat and perfectly straight in the bowl with no overlap, no globules of sour cream sinking into the grated cheese, and not a single sliced olive drooping into the salsa. It was a thing of beauty, and one couldn’t help but marvel at the attention to detail.

And so she sat on the trolley with her overnight bag and grocery sack of supplies, drawing a diagram on the back of a station map to remind her of how she planned to layer the dip so the white sour cream would not end up on top as she usually prepared it. She had carefully chosen a mild orange cheddar over her typical Monterey jack, and had opted for blue corn chips over the white Tostitos that she generally preferred. The orange cheese would have to go on top of the sour cream, so that the color would be the first thing to meet the eye, and as she considered how much easier this construction would be to prepare, she wondered why she had never thought to change it before. Her mother had always made it with the sour cream on top, and so had she.

The evening went the way it usually did. When she told him what it was she had made for her Friday surprise and placed it ceremoniously on a trivet in the center of the dinette, he said what he always said when she cooked for him: “Thanks, babe.” He then pecked her on the cheek and proceeded to bypass the serving spoon which she had delicately placed in the dish before constructing the layers so as not to disturb the contents, and he instead went straight for the bag of blue corn chips and dove right in, swirling the perfectly calibrated dip into an impressionistic blur as he worked the oversized chip back and forth around the edges to heap as much layered goodness as the chip could structurally withstand.

The motion was like a hacksaw to her core. She could say nothing in complaint; he had done nothing wrong, and one did not fish for compliments where she came from. But Geraldine felt the impact of that gesture long after dinner was over and she had performed for him on the futon bed. When he had come on her belly so she wouldn’t get pregnant and she had wiped it off with his undershirt and he had turned out the halogen lamp, she lay there, rigid, for hours as he snored softly like a chinchilla. The image of all that effort smeared away without acknowledgement with a single chip spiraled through her mind, and she played it over and over again until it was a blob across her consciousness and she could see nothing else. 

But then she heard something that made it stop, distant and faint at first but steadily growing louder and nearer. A train’s whistle, a freight train, barreling down the tracks at the edges of the neighborhood. She had of course heard the trains’ calls before, countless times, as Colby’s apartment was only three blocks away from a major shipping corridor, but this one was none like she had ever heard before. This one had structure, harmony, rather than the usual dissonant conglomeration of noise; in fact, it sounded to her like a perfect chord. 

Geraldine had been born with perfect pitch—her one true gift (though she was not particularly adept at playing any instruments)—and she listened intently as the whistle sounded repeatedly while the train traversed the neighborhood. She visualized the notes on a staff—there were five notes in all—D, G, A, C, D. It was a D7 suspended fourth, a chord she was particularly fond of, given that it contained at once tension and consonance, a promise that resolution was forthcoming in the suspended fourth interval, an expression of the ideal in the perfect fifth, along with the element of the unexpected in the seventh. The additional D an octave above the first coalesced with the other notes in her ear with an air of completeness that made Geraldine quiver with a satisfaction never before felt as a result of any previous encounter, musical or otherwise. It spoke to her.

She instinctively looked at the red numbers blinking like a metronome on the clock radio beside the futon bed—Colby had reset the time after the last power outage but had never hit the “set” button at the end—and she made a mental record of the time the train had passed. 11:17 PM. The Doppler effect was strangely not present, she noted, as the train approached and then hurried away. Though the whistle increased and then decreased in volume accordingly, the pitch bizarrely and impossibly seemed to stay the same, continuing to ring out strong as she drifted to sleep.

The next morning, it wasn’t long before Geraldine began to look up train timetables to figure out where that train had been headed, because it was clear to her that such a train must surely have been a beacon, a messenger, calling her to some elevated purpose or end. She barely knew where to begin. Had it been Union Pacific, BNSF, or CSX? Would anyone disclose a train’s destination city to an average citizen, or was that privileged information? Would she need to consult the company that owned the tracks or the actual trains? It all seemed incredibly daunting, but she was bolstered by this clarity and unity of purpose that she had never before experienced in her lifetime. She was so thoroughly engrossed in her task that she hardly even realized that Colby had gone out and returned with their usual Saturday morning coffee and bagels from the corner shop. Indeed, by the time he had finished reading the Sports section of the paper and the coffee had cooled to an undrinkable temperature, she had not yet looked up from her research.

“Hey honey-babes? You want your coffee in the microwave? I didn’t fix it up yet or nothin’. Just thought you would like to know that it’s here an’ all, cuz that’s the kinda guy I am.” Colby often spoke to her in this way, with this affected manner of speech, because he felt it endeared himself to the feminine types. He thought it made him seem hapless, lovable, but he was actually from Amish country, and no one he knew from growing up spoke like this.

“Mm?” she replied, and as she heard the sound coming out of her mouth, she laughed at how the vibrations tickled her lips. Colby thought she was laughing at him.

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t wanna, I was just bein’ a nice guy.”

But she didn’t hear him. She was busy writing down the letters of the notes from the chord on a pad of hotel stationary from the Holiday Inn in Wilmington. She wrote them in descending order in columns repeatedly across the page:

D        D        D
G        G        G
A        A        A
C        C        C
D        D        D

Dear Geraldine, Ask Colby on a Date. 

Dear Geraldine, Always Carry Deodorant. 

Dear Geraldine, Alternatively, Come to Denver (or Dayton, or Dallas, or Durham).

She became fixated on the last version of her divined message, and it brought her back to square one with respect to where that train had wanted her to go and what it wanted her to do when she got there.

“Hey listen, sweet cheeks, I got a proposition I wanna talk to you about before I head to work. But if you’re busy or somethin’, I could come back to you with it another time.”

Though it pained her to pause her research, she closed her laptop and grudgingly came to the dinette. 
“No, of course, it’s nothing,” she trailed off and sat down beside him.

“I been thinking a lot lately about us and our future and where we’re goin’ in life…”

Dear god, she thought, he’s proposing

“No.”

“Pardon me?”

“Nothing, go on.”

“Look, I know this is probably gonna sound crazy, but I got this idea that I wanna run past you, and it’s really important that you keep it a secret.”

He’s not proposing. “Go on.” 

“I been workin’ on this trick lately, a magic trick.” He pulled out a pair of ping-pong balls from the pocket of his sportcoat and set them on the table. One was marked with a red dot, the other with a black dot. He rested the red-dotted ball in the bowl of a spoon, and put the other one behind his back, where it proceeded to “disappear.” Then he said, “Say abracadabra.”

“Abracadabra.”

He picked up the ball in the spoon, but it was now a black-dotted ball; the red one was nowhere in sight. When she had registered the change, he held his arms out and grinned widely as if waiting for applause. She leaned on her elbow.

“Huh,” she said. “So you wanna be a street magician? ‘Cause I think you need more than that to even do children’s parties.” She wanted to be supportive, if this was really what he wanted to do, if this was his dream, but she was already on that train, and it was rather hard to focus on someone else’s ambitions. 

“No, I don’t wanna be a street magician! The balls? Switching the balls? Without anyone noticing?” He waited, incredulous, for her to connect the dots.

“Ohhhhh,” she said. “You wanna commit fraud.” 

“Well geeze, when you put it that way…” But she did want to put it that way, just that way, because she felt she held some sort of power over him now that he didn’t have, a way out of his Miami Vice-ish apartment, of her excrement-infused existence.

“No, I’m with you, I see where you’re going with this,” she said with encouragement. “Go on.”

“Well, I already got Jesse the camera guy in on it, but we’re both employees of the Lottery Board, so-to-speak, and cannot, as such, play the game as long as we are in performance of our duties. That’s where you come in, baby-cakes.”

“Uh-huh.”

“See, you’re not a spouse or a relative or a dependent of any kind, and nobody at work even knows I have a girlfriend.”

“Don’t they?” She’d phrased it more as a statement than a question, and her tone gave him pause.

“It’s not like that,” he insisted, back-pedaling. “I just don’t like to mix business and pleasure, that’s all.

“So picking up girls while you work at Bingo nights, what’s that exactly?” Again, it wasn’t really meant as a question. He looked concerned, like maybe she would rat him out, like she maybe had more of a spine than he’d formerly evaluated in her.

“Look, if you don’t want to…” She interrupted him with a burst of laughter.

“Relax! I’m messing with you,” she claimed, but he still looked wary. “What, you don’t think I want a piece of that? You think I like being demoted to head shit-shoveler over there? Come on, you shouldn’t come up with these sorts of schemes if you’re gonna be paranoid.” The muscles in Colby’s neck released some of their tension, but he still looked at her with skepticism. “What are the numbers? When do I get the ticket? Fill me in already!” Geraldine took a gulp of the tepid coffee in front of her and seemed to feel its invigorating effects immediately as it slid down her throat.

“Well, the trick is ready, I think, and I’m pretty sure we’ve got the camera angles worked out just about right. I think we could be ready now. The jackpot’s been growing every week for months now.”

“You ‘think’ the trick is ready? You’re ‘pretty sure’ you’ve got it worked out? I hate to break it to you, because it’s no real skin off my back whether this succeeds or not, but you’d better be damned sure you’ve got it ‘just right’ or your asses are going to jail. You realize this, right?” She hadn’t said it in an antagonizing voice, but he grew defensive out of a vague perceived threat hidden somewhere in there that he couldn’t quite identify. She rarely used salty language unless she was drinking.

“No, it’s good. It’s on point, I just wasn’t sure yet if you were really on board with this. Me and Jesse, our side is solid. We’re golden.” He couldn’t help but crack a smirk at the possibilities that lay ahead of him, and at the improbability of getting caught.

They spent what was left of the morning going over the details and contingency plans. Colby said that it was Jesse’s suggestion that they leave the ticket, once purchased, in a sealed envelope with a neutral third party until they could claim the winnings. They wouldn’t tell the person what was inside, just that he or she was instructed to keep the envelope in a safe place until all three co-conspirators were present to prevent them from double-crossing one another. Colby was relieved that she’d agreed to this caveat without hesitation, and they decided on the owner and operator of the bagel shop down the street because he seemed trustworthy but didn’t know any of them well enough to have loyalties to anyone in particular. 

Geraldine would buy the ticket at the corner store near her place so as not to arouse geographical suspicions with respect to Colby’s apartment. He would wear a disguise when they went to collect the winnings to fool the media, and they would look into getting off-shore accounts so as to not raise flags at any standard banks. Whatever anybody did after that was up to them: quit work, skip town, whatever. It was so James Bond, it was fool-proof, Colby claimed.

Meanwhile, Geraldine’s research had led her to learn that there were no published freight train schedules, but “railfans” could monitor the activity in a specific area with a radio scanner, so she went out and bought one. The following Friday, when Geraldine and Colby usually ate and did it to late-night TV reruns, Geraldine said she had something she needed to take care of instead. 

“What, you made other plans?” Colby balked when she told him over the phone she wouldn’t be coming over to make dinner. 

“I just wanna do something different for a change, so sue me already!” She found it easier to talk to him sometimes if she adapted to his speech patterns, even though she was thoroughly convinced that he didn’t speak that way naturally. 

When Colby asked her what she would be doing instead, she told him the truth, something neither of them had expected her to do, and it changed everything.

“I’m going trainspotting.”

“What, like the movie?”

“No, not like the movie. I have a radio scanner, and I’m going out looking for specific trains. You know, like train enthusiasts.” She didn’t exactly claim to be a train enthusiast, but the assumption was out there.

“Since when do you have a radio scanner?”

“Since when are you interested in my interests?”

Geraldine was tired of talking, and she told him that if he was that curious, he was welcome to join her if he kept his mouth shut and just listened to the radio. 

The two of them met up at an abandoned lot next to the rails near Colby’s apartment and sat on some cement barricades to watch the trains go by. With the crackle of the radio scanner in the background, the thing had the air of a stakeout, and Colby seemed engaged in a way Geraldine had believed was impossible for him. 

“This is like somethin’ out of a movie, ain’t it? It’s like we’re listenin’ to a wiretap or somethin’.”

“Hm,” she acknowledged absently. They ate their takeaway pizza in relative silence as the hour of the train Geraldine was waiting for steadily approached. A little after 11 PM, Colby was suddenly inspired to strike up a genuine conversation. 

“You know Gerry, I gotta tell ya. This is just about the most interesting thing I have ever done in my whole life. And I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“Huh. Well I’m happy for you, I guess. And I hate to shush you up right now, but there’s a train I’ve been waiting for coming up in a few minutes. I really want to pay attention to this right now.”

“Oh. Sure, yeah. Don’t mind me.” He seemed more baffled than hurt by the admonition for speaking, seeing in her a glimmer or element of something that attracted him in a way she never had before. He suddenly wanted to kiss her, to make out with her in a most impassioned way, and the realization that he couldn’t at the moment without pissing her off made his bones ache, the ligaments in his limbs taut and primed to spring at the slightest invitation. 

“Shh, this is it!” She checked her Casio wristwatch on one arm and grabbed his kneecap reflexively with the other hand to emphasize the need for attentiveness. 

Before they heard the far off rumble on the tracks or even the faintest hoot of a whistle, they learned of the train’s impending arrival from the engineer himself on the scanner. 

Q216 on approach.

“That’s it!” Geraldine squealed. “That’s the one!” She cut herself off after that, wary of giving away her purpose, vague as it was, to Colby by saying too much. Then, at 11:19, she heard it. That same harmonic structure, the same hopeful sound, filled as it was with anticipation. She was so relieved that a single tear fell down her face, pushed out by the potential for something new and different and wholly unexpected that was swelling within her and taking up space formerly occupied by generalized inadequacy. 

“So what, now you uh, put it in some sort of notebook or somethin’? You check a box somewhere that says you’ve seen it?” he asked when the train had passed. She turned then and looked at him, and when he saw that her eyes had welled up with tears and that she was trembling, it startled him. It confused him and angered him a little, that nothing he had ever done had elicited such emotion from her in the way that this measly train had done. He wanted to have that kind of an impact on her, and he thought back to the times they had done it and whether the expression on her face had ever approached the level of ecstasy that she seemed to be feeling now, but he could not recall ever having looked.

He resolved then to do that, not just to look, but to try to make her feel that way tonight when they did it at his apartment, though she never gave him the chance. He had assumed she’d be walking home with him since he lived around the corner and it was late at night, but she told him she was dogsitting for a friend and needed to get back to let him out to pee. When he complained that she took care of animals all day long and should take a break from all that when work was over, she told him that maybe he needed to reconsider his notions on friendship.

The whole experience of the evening, then, left him feeling sore. Sore at having been rebuffed, sore from being tense the whole night as he’d physically restrained himself from making a move. He worried now about her involvement in his lottery scheme, not that she would rat him out or do anything shady, but that she would take her share of the winnings and leave. And it concerned him that he cared.

The following week was when they’d decided to attempt the lottery heist, and Jesse the cameraman insisted on the three of them going to Geraldine’s corner store together and not revealing the numbers to her until they arrived so they could be sure she wouldn’t pocket the ticket and go into hiding. Colby had told him that that was dumb and unnecessary, because if she took off with the ticket they simply wouldn't rig the results and she’d end up with nothing, but Jesse was highly suspicious of her because she was assuming almost none of the risk for the crime.

Once she’d bought the ticket while Colby and Jesse waited in Jesse’s car outside so as not to be recorded on the surveillance cameras, they all went straight to the bagel shop together, sealed the ticket in an opaque envelope, and presented it to the owner, Big Jake, who was manning the cashier alone as usual. So as not to arouse his suspicions as to the unlawful nature of what was enclosed, they simply told him to keep it in the safe he used for the shop’s cash and to alert the other two if one of them tried to get it on their own. For this service, they would pay him a thousand dollars, which effectively limited any of their ability to bribe him, as no one had that much cash in the bank individually. Once everything had been arranged, all they had to do was wait a few days until Colby announced the winning numbers and hope his trick would go undiscovered. 

The thing that made Jesse the most nervous was that they couldn’t be with Geraldine when the lottery numbers were chosen. What frightened Colby, and what made him down nearly a quart of Pepto on the day of the Lotto pick to calm his bowels, was the awareness that his crime would forever be recorded on camera, and if Jesse missed his timing of when to cut away or Colby botched the illusion, he might be the only one going to jail.

Geraldine, meanwhile, was serene. She’d found it pathetically easy to convince Big Jake to give up the envelope to her precisely when the numbers were being announced and her coconspirators were necessarily occupied. She came to the shop just as Jake was closing and offered him a thousand in cash (from a cash advance on her credit card) and a simple blow job, right there on the premises, in exchange for the envelope. Jake, whose potbelly obscured him from actually seeing his own member, even when fully erect, correctly calculated that no one ever again would offer to pay him to go down on him, as the few times he’d experienced the satisfaction, it had been the other way around. 

The black rubber mats with circular holes for traction which were sprawled all over the kitchen floor in the back of the shop were identical to the ones Geraldine and her fellow zookeepers used to scrape the shit off their boots as they left the animal enclosures, and as she kneeled down on the batter-encrusted mat in front of the stainless steel sink to open Jake’s pants, she cocked a half-grin at the knowledge that she would never have to be covered in animal filth again. His bulging stomach proved to be a blessing in that she couldn’t see Jake’s expression as she jerked him off into her mouth, and he couldn’t see that she had the look of someone listening to a public radio explanation of financial markets; she was already mentally on that train, out of town forever.

They were all supposed to meet up at Colby’s apartment afterwards to watch the rebroadcast of the Lotto picks to see for themselves if they’d pulled it off, but when Colby and Jesse opened the front door, a current of super-saturated perfume flooded over them, forcing them both to veer backward.

“Dude, your girl needs to tone it down a notch,” remarked Jesse, standing to the side to let the room breathe.

Colby scrunched his brow and covered his nose with the crook of his elbow as he barged forward through the fumes as though the apartment were on fire and he was protecting himself from the smoke. There were four empty economy-sized bottles of Lucky Number 6 arranged on the dinette in the kitchen, one for every room in the apartment. Under one of them was a note written on his Holiday Inn stationary:

Sorry, had to run. Better luck next time, eh? -G

“Fuck,” Colby muttered under his breath.

“Bitch!” Jesse countered, a little more vehemently.

Since the bagel shop was closed for the night, they immediately drove to her place, which had been left unlocked and virtually in the same state as it always was aside from a few photos missing from the walls. Even with the cloying perfume from his apartment still clinging to his nostrils, he caught the faintest whiff of waste as he walked around Geraldine’s place, though her uniform was nowhere in sight. The two men rifled through her closets and the garbage but turned up nothing of interest to them except that her usual overnight bag was missing. No clues as to her destination, not even in the waste bin.

When they reconvened in the entryway, Jesse had her TV cradled to one side and Colby clung to the radio scanner which she had left haphazardly on the overstuffed sofa.

“I figured I could get fifty bucks for this,” Jesse said, motioning with his head to the television. “We should do an estate sale. Sell her furniture too.”

“Yeah,” said Colby as they walked out the door. 

“Motherfucking bagel guy,” Jesse spat before lowering the TV into the back of his car. “We should torch the place.”

“Oh yeah, because he won’t know who would be pissed off at him enough to torch his bagel shop. Fuck it, man. I’ll give him what he’s got coming when he opens tomorrow, but we’re not out anything. We can still get another partner, a better partner, and do it again when the jackpot goes back up in six months. She can’t rat on us without forfeiting the money, so we’re covered.”

“Man, she had you whipped, didn’t she? If I’da been double crossed by my own woman, I’d be feeling a whole lotta rage right now.”

“Yeah, well, fuck off. Maybe I just deal with adversity better than you.” The truth of it was that he was generally confused and numb and not inclined to talk about his feelings either way in front of another guy.

Colby persuaded Jesse to let him confront Big Jake on his own in the morning so as not to make a scene and attract attention. He knew he couldn’t freak out too much without tipping the man off to the illicit nature of what had been inside the envelope, so he decided to take the jealous boyfriend approach.

Jake looked wary but unsurprised when Colby was standing against the wall out front at opening time just after dawn. 

“You wanna do this out here?” Colby asked him tersely.

“Nah, don’t want you scaring away customers. Go on in.”

“You know we should fuck you up for giving her the envelope. What did she offer you? Money? We were gonna pay you big, man.”

“I know, I know, but hey, man to man, she offered me a little more than that, if you know what I mean. It was weak, I know, but I’m not a good lookin’ guy like yourself, and I don’t get offers like that every day.”

“What the fuck did she offer you? She was my fucking girlfriend!”

At this bit of information, Jake expressed genuine surprise. “Oh man, I didn’t know. I thought you all were just friends, I mean, you never held hands or kissed or nothin’. How was I supposed to know?”

“Fuckin’-A.” Colby shook his head.

“It wasn’t much,” Jake tried to assure him. “We didn’t go all the way or nothin’.”

“Just shut the fuck up and give me a bagel. Fuck that, give me a dozen bagels. And I ain’t payin’ for these.”

Big Jake complied and handed over a large bag of mixed bagels with all the fixings and said, “I’m sorry, man,” once again.

“Fuck you very much,” Colby said, raising the bag on his way out in a sort of wave.

He knew that Geraldine couldn’t have skipped town entirely because she had to claim the winnings at some point, but there was no way he could predict when that would be, so he went about his daily business and worked towards resigning himself to the fact that she and the money were gone, though this proved more difficult than he’d figured it would be. Despite having the windows open all day and night in his apartment, the stench of her perfume clung tenaciously to the carpet and furniture and gave him fitful dreams of her and only her for days to come.

The following Friday, after reading the blurb in the paper about the winnings having been claimed by a zookeeper from New Kensington, Colby ordered a personal pizza and pulled out Geraldine’s radio scanner from his closet. He brought them both to the empty lot down the road where they’d watched the trains together the previous week and sat down once again on the cement barricade at the edge of the lot. The alternating static and jargon from the scanner made him feel like a voyeur or a spy, but it wasn’t nearly as titillating as it had been before.

He took out a composition book with the standard black and white mottled cover that he’d used in the past to dabble in writing song lyrics. He turned on the scanner, tore out the pages with writing on them and took out a Bic pen, but he didn’t know where to begin, so he just started to write it all down indiscriminately. 

Highball, 30 mile and hour to shift, what’s that OT number?

6591 [unintelligible]

Brakeman 65[?] 8591 goin’ [unintelligible]

Bridge down drawbridge approach.

You have permission to cross the bridge, over.

Clear all tracks.

[unintelligible] to clear, you can take that brake.

But it was mostly static, and Colby felt like he was trying to summon aliens in the desert at night, the krshhhhhhp of the radio static imparting an eerie Geiger-counter quality to the snatches of communication that he was attempting, and for the most part failing, to decipher. And when the CSX Q216 train from Philadelphia to Detroit barreled by right before him and blew its horn, he had no way to know that Geraldine was on board as a hopper, traveling under the radar to avoid the lottery media coverage and catching out of town in an open railcar. 

The way he’d pictured it, she was in the Caymans, swimming with dolphins and generally living the good life in a halter dress with a floral tropical print and a daiquiri in her hand. But there she was in her sleeping bag on a rusty old platform feeling the vibrations of the steel against her body as a low and persistent rumble from the bottom up, like the seismic activity preceding a volcanic eruption. And as it is with volcanoes, the frequency seemed to increase until the rumble was a roar, and the roar became a scream, a scream so loud and full that it was impossible to determine its source or direction, whether it was emanating outward from the train or swallowing her from within. 

But Colby didn’t hear it. He had the scanner’s receiver right up to his ear in the hopes of better making out what the operators were saying so he could write it all down. Because he was sure there was a message in there somewhere, and he didn’t want to miss it, whatever it was.








MARLÉNE ZADIG (rhymes with “train a bad pig”) is a writer in Berkeley, California with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Slice Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently a 2015 Best of the Net nominee, blogs for Carve Magazine, and can be found online here and here.

The Adirondack Review
WINTER 2015