Jackpot Time by Amy Sisson

Cass stepped through the front door of the Lovelock Grand View Cafe, setting the bell jingling. She stopped just inside and rummaged through her purse, finally coming up with a crumpled dollar bill.

“Bethanne, can you change a dollar for me?” she called.

An older woman came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and shaking her head. “Cass, I have never seen anyone but you stick a quarter in that machine,” Bethanne said. “If you do hit the jackpot, you’re only going to be winning back the money you’ve been putting in yourself all this time. You’d’ve been better off just using a big piggy bank.”

“Bessie here is my good luck charm,” Cass said, patting the decrepit slot machine. “I been working here twenty-seven years, and every single day I’ve walked through that door I’ve put one quarter in that machine. And look at me—I got my health, I got my daughter and my grandkids, I got my job. If I stop putting quarters in, who knows what’ll happen?”

Bethanne snorted. “Some job,” she said. “The tips are a joke around here.”

“You grumble but you don’t mean it,” Cass said with a smile. “You got your favorites. I’ve seen how much whip cream you put on Mr. Harrison’s pie every time he comes in. Good Lord, you’re gonna give that man a heart attack if you keep it up.”

“Oh hush,” said Bethanne. She pulled a handful of change out of her apron pocket and picked out four quarters, which she handed to Cass in exchange for the tired bill. “Besides, whatcha gonna do when Mr. Ross finally decides to retire that old dinosaur and put in another video poker machine instead?”

“Mr. Ross wouldn’t do that to me,” Cass said. She pocketed three of the quarters, dropped the fourth into the machine’s waiting slot, and pulled the handle, waiting expectantly while the drums spun. They stopped in quick succession from left to right: cherries, a lemon, and a watermelon. “Oh well, next time,” Cass said. She went around the counter and stashed her purse in the lost and found drawer, then started a fresh pot of coffee.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Bethanne said. “The soup’s chicken noodle today. Jake ran out of broccoli.”

“Chicken soup on a Thursday?” said Cass. “What’s the world coming to?”

 

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Cass remembered to bring a quarter with her from the previous day’s tips, but once in a while she forgot, particularly if it was one of the days she dropped her grandkids off at school. The next time it happened, Mr. Ross happened to be in the front of the diner when Cass rushed in a few minutes later than usual. Mr. Ross was carrying two pieces of pie over to the booth closest to the front door, where Hugh Thomas, a truck driver who came through once or twice a month on his way to Reno, was nursing a cup of coffee. “On the house, Hugh,” Mr. Ross announced, sitting opposite the trucker.

“Hell, Stan, you’re gonna go bankrupt if you keep giving the food away,” said Hugh.

“Yeah, well, my customers’re too cheap to pay. Can’t let this pie go to waste.”

Cass smiled as she pawed through her purse, which was crowded with keys, combs, lipstick, and a couple of her granddaughter’s barrettes.

“Mr. Ross, you got change for a dollar?” she said.

Mr. Ross patted his pockets. “Sorry, Cass. You can take it out of the till if you want.”

Hugh had begun searching his own pockets as well. Laboriously, he counted out three quarters, a dime, two nickels, and five pennies. “Here you go, young lady.” He accepted the dollar she handed him and watched her put the coins, minus one of the quarters, into her apron pocket.

“Thanks,” Cass said. “For the change and for calling me young, even though I know you’re just flattering an old lady.” Hugh started to protest through the mouthful of pie he’d just eaten. “Oh no you don’t,” said Cass with playful sternness. “I’ve been around too long to fall for that kind of thing.”

“Well, alright, ma’am,” Hugh said. “You let me know if I can carry your groceries while you limp across the street.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Cass laughed. She turned to the slot machine and fed the quarter into it. “Here you go, Bessie,” she said and pulled the arm.

“Bessie?” Hugh said.

“Gotta call her something,” said Cass.

Hugh smiled. “Got the bug, then, huh?”

Cass smiled back, turning away from Bessie’s meager offering of two bunches of bananas and an orange. “Not really,” she said. “Just this machine. I’m not a gambling woman by nature, but when I was nine years old my grandpa brought me in here and gave me a quarter, told me if I treated this machine right then she would treat me right too. I’ve put in a quarter every time I’ve walked through this door since. ’Course, maybe I wouldn’t have started if I’d known I’d end up working here all these years. That’s a lot of quarters!”

“Ever win?” he said.

“Sure! When I was fourteen, let’s see, that would have been back in 1982. I hit the jackpot, won $647.25. Won again when I was twenty-seven, $387.75 that time. I figure I’m due again pretty soon. Next time I hit it, I plan to get a babysitter for my daughter’s kids and treat me and her to a weekend in Reno. We’ll get us manicures and pedicures, see a show, drink them fruity drinks by the pool, all my treat.”

“Sounds like you got it all planned out,” Hugh said.

“Yep, Bessie’s my lucky machine. It’s not just the jackpots, you know. I sometimes win those little payouts, like when you get two diamonds and a bar, it pays ten bucks, or two cherries and a diamond pays five. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve won five bucks. First time was when I was twelve. I thought I was rich: Five dollars all at once! Well, really it was $4.75 once I took out the souvenir coin. But still, that paid for the next twenty pulls, almost.”

“Souvenir coin?”

“Yeah, you know those coins and tokens you get at fairs and arcades, or to celebrate some town centennial or something? I’ve gotten a couple of those from this machine over the years. The one I got when I was twelve looked like a quarter but had a tree on it and the name of one of the states, I forget which one. It was some kind of commemorative thing, it had the year 1788 on it, I remember. Pretty thing. I’ve kept it all these years. I should see if I can dig it out.”

“You said you’ve gotten a couple of them?” Hugh asked.

“Yeah, three of them altogether,” Cass said. “That one with the tree, then a funny one dated 2032 that showed the first person who walked on Mars. I gave that one to my grandson Tommy, because he loves space stories and all that, but he lost it. I shoulda kept it for him ’til he was a little older.”

“How old is he now?” Hugh said.

“Tommy? He’s nine now, and his little sister’s five. Best grandkids ever.”

Hugh smiled indulgently. “What was the third coin?” he said.

“Oh, that was the wildest one,” said Cass. “It had a lady president on it, and it said 2029, I think. I accidentally gave it away in someone’s change the very same day I got it. I could smack myself for that,” Cass said.

“You think a lady president is wilder than someone walking on Mars?” said Hugh.

“Well, maybe not,” Cass conceded.

“So all you have left is the first one?”

“Yeah, the one with the tree.”

“I’d love to see it if you can find it,” Hugh said. “I used to collect coins myself when I was a kid. Anyway, I’ll be coming through here every Tuesday and Friday from now on—got a new contract,” he explained.

“Sure, I’ll bring it by,” said Cass.

 

“Hugh, I swear to God this coin came out of that machine when I was twelve,” said Cass. “Why would I make that up?”

“I’m not saying you’re lying,” Hugh said. “But how could it have? This coin is from 1999, not 1788. See, it only says 1788 at the top because that’s the year Connecticut joined the Union. But here at the bottom it says 1999—that’s when it was actually made. It’s just one of them state quarters they’ve been putting out for years now.”

“But I got it in 1980,” Cass insisted. “That five dollar payout when I was twelve. That don’t make sense.”

“Oh hey, I know what happened,” said Hugh. “Your grandson, you said his name is Tommy, right? Maybe he remembered you said your token had a tree on it too, and he switched it out with this quarter for a joke. Or maybe he accidentally put the wrong one back.”

“No, I’m sure this is the one I got from the machine,” Cass said, but doubt began to creep into her voice. “I showed it to my grandpa, asked him what the Charter Oak was, but he didn’t know. I remember specially because he died not long after.”

“Well, I don’t know what happened, but I don’t see how you could’ve gotten this in 1980.”

Cass plucked the quarter out of Hugh’s hand and tucked it into her left apron pocket instead of the right, which held the day’s tips so far. She turned away with thin lips, ostentatiously wiping the next table over even though it was already clean. Hugh watched her, chagrined, as she worked her way back to the counter. He ate the last few bites of his meatloaf and took out his wallet, laying down enough cash to cover the bill plus a generous tip. He clambered to his feet and walked to the door, standing uncertainly for a moment.

Cass looked over at him, her good nature reasserting itself. “Drive safe, Hugh. See you on Friday.”

Hugh grinned and raised his hand. “See you, Cass. Don’t let Bethanne give you a hard time, now.”

 

On Friday, Cass was in the kitchen wiping down the toaster and wishing she could trade her knees in for a new set when she heard Bethanne yell from the front of the diner. “Cass! He’s here!”

Cass grabbed the two cheeseburgers that Jake was about to set down in the pass-through and hurried out from the kitchen, stopping to deposit the plates at a table occupied by a pair of truckers. Then she went over to Hugh’s booth, wiped her hands on her apron, and fished in her pocket before triumphantly placing a shiny coin, with just a little bit of wear, on the table in front of Hugh. “Got that the day after you were here last time,” she announced. “I hit the five dollar payout again, and out comes this coin with the rest of the quarters. It’s a strange one, don’t you think? Where do you suppose it’s from? Maybe a joke shop or a magic shop?”

Hugh picked up the coin and started to examine it, then stopped and sheepishly pulled out a pair of cheap reading glasses from his shirt pocket. He looked at the back of the coin first, with the familiar spread-winged eagle centered underneath the “United States of America” and the smaller “e pluribus unum” sweeping around the top edge.

“Turn it over,” Cass urged.

He did, and immediately saw that the profile was not that of the familiar Washington, but rather a hard-faced man with short hair and a high collar.

“Don’t he look familiar?” Cass asked.

Hugh didn’t answer. He took a quarter out of his own pocket to compare and held one in each hand, testing their weight. “Feels the same,” he muttered. Then he looked at the coin’s face again. Cass waited expectantly for him to notice that the word “Liberty” curving across the top of the regular quarter had been replaced with “Freedom.” At a quick glance, it looked and felt like any other quarter, but obviously it couldn’t have been.

Especially considering that the date on it was 2021.

“Ain’t that funny?” Cass said. “Mr. Ross thinks the man looks a little bit like that politician who’s been on a lot of the talk shows lately, that new Congress guy who’s supposed to have such a bright future. Maybe they pass these out as souvenirs at his rallies or something. What do you think?”

“Wow, that is something, Cass,” Hugh said. “Let’s see if we can find anything about it online.” He pulled out his phone and fiddled with it for a moment. “Shoot, I can’t get a decent signal in here. I’ll take a picture of it and see what I can find out about it later.”

“Oh heck, why don’t you just take it with you?” Cass said. “You can give it back to me on your way back through.”

“Are you sure?” Hugh said.

“Sure,” Cass grinned. “I’ll trust you with my huge winnings!”

“Alright, I’ll bring it back safe and sound,” said Hugh, dropping the coin into his shirt pocket with his reading glasses. “I’ll show it to a friend of mine who knows a little more about coins than I do.”

“Thanks, Hugh. Hey, listen, I still have that other one with me that I showed you last time, the one you said was just a state quarter? Would you mind showing him that one too? You know, just in case.”

“Sure, Cass.”

“Thanks,” Cass said again. “So what’ll it be today, the usual?”

“Yup.”

“You got it.”

 

Three weeks later, there’d been no sign of Hugh. Cass knew enough about truckers to know their routes could change without much warning, but still she was disappointed. She certainly wasn’t interested in Hugh romantically, but she’d begun to think of him as a friend, and realized she’d started looking forward to his twice-weekly visits.

And, truth be told, she wanted her coins back. It tickled her, getting a little mystery gift from Bessie now and again. Mystery was usually pretty hard to come by in Lovelock.

Cass was pleased, then, when she came in one morning about a month after Hugh had last been to the Grand View, and Bethanne immediately pointed out the letter that Mr. Ross had pinned beneath one of the sugar shakers on the back counter. It was addressed to Cass care of the diner, Bethanne said. Cass rushed right over; she’d never gotten a letter there before, and these days hardly anyone sent letters at all, so it was a special treat. The return address said “H. Thomas, Jefferson City, Missouri.” She tore it open, well aware that Bethanne was standing close behind her, ostensibly cleaning the already immaculate counter.

Inside the envelope, Cass found her two coins scotch-taped to a piece of plain white paper with a scrawled note that she had to struggle to decipher. “Dear Cass,” it said. “My friend at the coin shop says the one coin is just a regular state quarter like I thought, but he’s never seen anything like the other one. He even checked a bunch of internet boards, but none of his online buddies knew it either. He says you should put it aside, because something will turn up online eventually. So keep it in a safe place, and I’ll see you the next time I come through—I should be back on the regular route in a couple of weeks. Sincerely yours, H.T.”

Cass put the letter down, perplexed.

“Well, that’s strange,” said Bethanne. Cass looked up quickly. Bethanne didn’t bother trying to pretend she hadn’t been reading the letter over Cass’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Cass said. “Real strange, isn’t it? I mean, everything’s online these days. If someone went to all the trouble of making this coin, you’d think someone somewhere would’ve heard about it.”

“Oh well, none of this will get’m still  lunch served, will it?” Bethanne said. She started to move towards the kitchen but then turned back. “Hey, you didn’t play your machine today!”

“What? Oh, right,” Cass said. She peeled the taped coins away from the paper, put the letter back into the envelope, then folded the whole thing in half and tucked it into her apron pocket. Then she walked slowly over to the machine. She looked down at the two coins in the palm of her hand and then picked one, putting it in the machine but not yet pulling the handle. The other coin went into her pocket alongside the envelope.

“Cass, what’d you do that for?” Bethanne asked. “I would’ve given you a quarter. You didn’t have to use your special coins. I hope you didn’t put the new one in there.”

“Yeah, I did,” Cass admitted.

“But Hugh said—”

“I know,” said Cass. “It’s just a feeling. Maybe I should’ve been putting these special ones back in all along—maybe then I’ll really hit it big.” She smiled half-heartedly and pulled the handle. The drums spun, then settled on a lemon, an orange, and a watermelon. Even worse than usual, Cass thought.

She staggered, then steadied herself against Bessie. That was strange; she almost never got lightheaded, but then she remembered that she’d skipped breakfast that morning. Tommy had even lectured her about it, because his fourth grade class had just finished a unit on healthy eating.

She turned around just as a teenage boy bussing tables glanced over at her. When had Mr. Ross hired a busboy? He looked familiar but Cass couldn’t quite place him.

They stared at each other. The boy opened his mouth but no sound came out. He tried again and finally managed to emit a weak “Gram?”

It was Tommy. Tommy, who when he chided her for skipping breakfast that morning had been nine years old. Did that mean that she’d …?

Cass felt dizzy. The machine. Bessie. The coin, dated 2021.

“Gram?” Tommy said again. “You, you disappeared. Years ago. Where did you just come from?”

Cass couldn’t answer. She felt intensely sick. “Tommy?” she whispered. Then she looked around, wide-eyed. Little changes here and there: a new cash register, a new “No Smoking” sign, and a bulletin board where the public payphone used to be. On the bulletin board, Cass saw a photocopied notice asking for anyone with information about Cass Johnson’s whereabouts to please call a phone number that she recognized as her daughter’s. “Last seen at the Lovelock Grand View Cafe on May 27, 2014” was printed right below her picture, the one taken just last Christmas of her and her grandkids, only they were cropped out.

Cass felt in her pocket for the other quarter, then pulled it out and looked at it. No matter what Hugh said about it being a plain old state quarter, she knew, she absolutely knew it was the very first special coin that Bessie had ever given her.

But now its year was no longer in the future. It was from 1999, before Tommy had even been born. Would giving it back to Bessie return Cass to where—when—she’d just come from, in 2014, or would it take her all the way back to its own time in 1999? Would she be better off just staying here and never putting another quarter into that damn machine? Or should she stay here and play Bessie until she got a payout, and then hope for a 2014 quarter in the mix?

Bethanne—a much older looking Bethanne—came out from the kitchen and dropped the plates she was carrying with a tremendous crash. She gaped at Cass.

No, she’d never be able to explain this. Cass decided to take her chances with the Connecticut quarter. If she ended up in 1999, well, now she knew what to do with Bessie’s gifts, and she could always keep playing. Maybe she could visit her mother, or even her grandfather. He’d always said Bessie would treat her right.

Cass grinned, put her quarter into the machine, and pulled the arm.


Amy Sisson is a writer, reviewer, librarian, and lover of all art forms.  Her short fiction has recently appeared in Abyss & Apex and Escape Pod.  She currently lives in Houston, Texas, with a large collection of ex-parking lot cats.

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