Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Tale" From the Q?: Winner

Hey, Space Monkees!

Last semester I wrote a short, short story for my college's campus literature magazine.  I'll spare you my suspense - it was not accepted.  So, if just to give poor Hollander's story some immortality, I'll repost it here.  Enjoy:


After several panicked moments of hunting for forgotten quarters in the empty hallway of the shopping mall, Hollander finally found enough change to page the $1.75 the soda machine demanded.  With a moment of hesitation, Hollander debated pressing the buttons marked “A” and then “7” to buy a bottle of lemon-lime soda.  He knew that once those buttons were pushed, the point of no return would be passed.  He would no longer be able to hit the “change return” button.  Once that bottle hit the bottom of the machine, Hollander would have lost his very last bits of money.  The combined amount of all his assets in the world now amounted to just a few ounces of green plastic and the carbonated beverage inside.   But the dry feeling in the back of Hollander’s throat overrode his financial concerns, and he made the purchase.  With a loud thump, the soda fell to the bottom of the machine.

With his soda in hand, Hollander decided to rest his body on the bench several feet away in front of a men’s room.  The soda machine, the bench, and the bathroom were all off in a hallway away from the rest of the shopping populace.  Those people had money to burn on video games and scented soap and fancy clothes with designer labels, certainly the purchase of a just single bottle of soft drink would not be a big problem at all.  Hollander was not one of those people anymore.  Perhaps tonight this bench would be his bed.  It all depended upon whether a security guard would decide to confront him.  Hollander did not want to begin walking again today.  A long day’s march had left his feet worn and blistered.  Overcoming a weak sense of modesty against stripping in a public place, Hollander took off his shoes.  At this point he did not care if passing shoppers could smell his feet or notice the huge hole in his sock.  The sweet air chilled his ragged feet.  Feeling more relaxed; he twisted off the soda bottle’s cap.  He drank deep from the sugary liquid.  There was a slight tang of pain as the bubbles scratched his throat, and his eyes watered up a little.  Yet even so, Hollander felt for a just a short moment a bit at peace.

It didn’t last long.  The negative thoughts, the worries, the fear, they all would not stay down for long.  As much as Hollander tried to suppress himself - to ignore it all for just a bit longer – the troubles polluted his mind.  Now it was gone, just like his job, his home, his family, his life.  All gone.  He had been forced out of regular society, and now belonged to the bitter underbelly.  He was now a person that most people preferred to ignore or brush away with loose change – a homeless person.  Just how long could he wander the streets like this before he began to look like what he now was?  When would his cloths become tattered, his face pock-marked, and his skin dirty?  Where would he be sleeping tomorrow?  Just where in the world was he going, now that he had nowhere in the world to go? 

A more mundane question:  what time was it?  Hollander looked down at his wrist out of an automated reflex, but all he saw was a band of pale skin where his watch used to lay.  Compared to everything else he had lost, that watch was unimportant, but even so the loss of time seemed to hurt him the most.  People in his position didn’t need to know what time it was.  You don’t punch a clock when you are out living on public benches.  Time is a luxury for people with a purpose.

Hollander tried to wash back all these dark thoughts with another gulp of the soda bottle.  To avoid going through the same old mental exercise of trying to find out exactly how it had all come to this, he decided to read the wrapper around his soda bottle.  “Nutrition Facts:  Calories – 100, Total Fat:  0g, Sodium 20mg, Total Carbohydrate 28mg, Sugars 28g, Protein 0g, Not a significant source of other nutrients”.  There was a phone number listed for “Any Questions”.  Hollander might have actually called, but he had thrown his cell phone away days ago.  There was nobody left in the world who he could call anyway.  Nobody wanted to speak to him.  Instead Hollander took another sip of his 20mg of Sodium and 28g of sugars, and then flipped the bottle over to see if there was anything else to read.

There was.  In fancy cursive font, the soda bottle teased:  “ARE YOU A WINNER??”  No, thought Hollander, I am most definitely not a winner.  The bottle continued to tease:  “Check under the cap to find out if you are the lucky winner of ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!”  Underneath the caption there was a drawing of several dozen cartoon dollar bills sticking out with sparkles all around.  It seemed to Hollander to be a promise of unfathomable wealth and happiness – all the more unfathomable to him since he currently had none of either.

For a moment, Hollander went to look for the bottle cap to check if by some lunatic miracle he had won.  However, he knew all too well that these games were completely impossible.  It would be more likely to be hit by lightning, or eaten by a shark, or die on a roller coaster or whatever stock statistic people use to describe impossible odds than for his bottle - one of millions manufactured - to be the winning one.  For all Hollander knew, somebody had already won and the contest was over.  How long this bottle had been in the machine?  Quite simply, even checking the bottle cap was a waste of time.  If such sure things such as having a job and a house could fail you, then long-short daydreams like winning a soda contest were surely beyond your range.

Instead, Hollander decided to lie down on the bench in front of the men’s room.  He could hear the shuffling traffic of the many mall shoppers begin to die down.  Soon enough he heard the metal shriek of store owners lowering down their metal fences to keep out midnight thieves and vagrants – like him.  The day had grown late, and he was tired.  Hollander shut his eyes and tried to keep out the thoughts of his lost life so that he could finally get some rest.  But after ten minutes he was far more awake than ever before.  His eyes felt too big under their lids, and he wanted to open them.  When he started to look around, he noticed a mall security guard walking towards him.  To avoid a potentially awkward confrontation, he surrendered the bench and moved on.  Where would his tired feet take him tonight?  Nowhere, most likely.  The best he could hope was for a nice place to finally rest and leave his ruined dreams behind.

By the bench, a small green plastic bottle cap rolled along the tiled hallway before finally stopping face up.  Within the bottle was a printed massage written in choppy computer font.  It said only a single word:  “WINNER”.

(I was sure to ask later why this story was not accepted out of hopes of finding some kind of major flaw in my style that I am too inexperienced to spot. Instead I was told that the story was rejected because "Sprite would have made him more thirsty". I guess that means I bored them... sorry.)


  1. I think he ment you were a little too vauge with it. I liked it though.

  2. That was good, Blue. It was sad, but... who wants a happy ending?

  3. God, the stupidity of what's-his-name infuriated me. It may have been a bit unrealistic or an overused concept, but the entire setting made it not seem as cliche. I don't know why it was rejected. It's true that Sprite makes you more thirsty but for all we know that was alien piss from another planet. Being descriptive is something I suffer from too, though in a different sense. When I write, I have trouble describing a setting. You did that just fine, just the actual actions took in that setting seemed a bit vague. The diction was nice and so was the irony. It's good cheese.

  4. Ironically I'm probably getting as many readers by posting it here then if it actually got published in that magazine (which is a sad thing to admit, since I'm actually one of its members...) So either way - 12 people. Dynamite.

  5. As far as short stories go, this one is really good. Easily the best of all the stories you've posted on "Tales From the Q?".