Excerpt from LOVE LITES
(From The Slot Machine)

Wendell glanced at the slot machine as he headed for the front door, same as he did every morning when he went to work. It was hard to miss, sitting against the wall between the door and living room window where the morning sun glinted off its chrome and gold-like surface. As per his daily routine, he shoved a quarter into the slot and pulled the handle.

            Heart…dollar sign…cherry.

            The heart again. He knew what the dollar sign and the cherry signified, but he had yet to figure out what the heart symbol meant.

            Sighing, he exited onto the porch to find Herb Willis walking his dog past his house. Herb spotted him first and waved. “Hey! Did you hear? Tom Takasuki won a month’s worth of groceries this morning!”

            “No, I didn’t hear that. Who told you? Tom?”

            “Yeah.” Herb nodded, grinning. “Bing, bing, bing! Three little cherries in a row! Sure beats that month’s worth of gas I won back in January, what with the price of food skyrocketing.”

            Wendell could relate. “Same here.”

            Herb’s dog paused to pee on Wendell’s lawn, giving its owner the chance to extend their brief conversation. “What’s the most you’ve ever won?”

            “I got a refund on my investment for the month,” Wendell confessed. “That was back in December. It wasn’t much. Less than twenty bucks. But it helped.” He shrugged slightly. “I don’t play a lot. Not like some people.”

            Herb snorted. “Wish I could say the same. I probably load that baby up with about fifty or sixty dollars in a month’s time. If you could win anything, what would you prefer?”

            What would he prefer? “I don’t know. Maybe having my electric bill paid. Hey, Herb?”

            “Yeah? Hold on, Cookie,” he ordered the dog impatiently tugging on its leash, eager to keep moving.

            “Any idea what the heart symbol stands for?”

            “Nope. Haven’t a clue. Speaking of, I had a few friends over the other night, and we talked about that. Some of us think it means getting a month’s worth of anything you want.”

            “Is that what you think, too?”

            “I dunno. Maybe it means you fall in love.” The man snorted. “At least, that’s what my wife claims.”

            The mongrel tugged again, whining impatiently. “Look, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Herb called out to him. Both dog and owner continued on their way without waiting for a response.

            Locking his door behind him, Wendell proceeded down the walkway to the sidewalk. Turning to the right, he headed for the corner of the block where he’d catch the 7:38 to the stop on Wallingstone Street, where he’d then walk the next three blocks to his job.

            Although he tried not to, he glanced over at the little one-story, wood-frame house as he passed by. He half-hoped she would come outside, or at least appear in one of the windows, just so he could hold that brief glimpse of her in his box of memories. It would be enough to get him through another day. And where on the weekends he could reminisce over every mental snapshot.

            Just as it seemed she wouldn’t show, the front door unexpectedly opened, and she stepped outside to begin sweeping off her porch. For a split second their gazes met, and Wendell felt his heart do a somersault.

            “Hi, Wendell!” Murielle called out to him, adding a wave and a smile.

            “Hi!”

            “Win anything this morning?”

            He stopped in his tracks. She was talking to him, and his breath fluttered in his lungs. He glanced toward the end of the block where the bus sign stood, but didn’t see the familiar white transport heading toward it. Even if it was, he knew he couldn’t pass up this opportunity to share a few words with the woman. Words he would replay over and over during those lonely evenings.

            “Uhh, no. You?”

            She shook her head, a regretful expression on her face. “No. I’ve never won a thing, and those machines have been in our homes how long now? Going on a year, isn’t it?”

            “Yeah. It’ll be a year next week.”

            Again, she shook her head. The morning sun highlighted her black hair with streaks of blue. “You know, there are times I wish we hadn’t voted to end all taxing, and opt for the individual slot machines being placed in our homes instead. I’ll bet you there are people who are paying hundreds and thousands of dollars more out of their paychecks now than they were ever taxed in the first place.”

            “I agree with you. I know those first few months I was guilty of over-spending on the damn thing…excuse my language,” he hastily amended.

            To his surprise, she came down the steps to approach him. Wendell felt his stomach tighten into a knot as she drew nearer. She stopped on the other side of the simple picket fence, so close he could see her eyes were the color of a cloudless sky, even through her glasses.

            She perused the end of the block. “Are you waiting for the bus to show?”

            “Yeah.” It was a miracle he could speak, with her standing near enough to take her into his arms.

            “Where do you work?”

            “Beltrans.”

            Her face brightened. “Really? I’ve never been there myself, but I hear it’s a great place to eat. Are you a waiter or something?”

            “I’m a cook. A sous chef.”

            “What does that mean?’

            “I mostly cut up ingredients and assist the main chef.”

            When she smiled, it was as if the sun sent a halo around her face. “I bet you’re good at your job. I can’t cook worth a darn. I burn water.” She laughed softly at her own joke.

            “Don’t downplay yourself,” he gently scolded, and pointed to the broom in her hand. “I’m a lousy housekeeper.”

            The distant sound of an approaching engine alerted them that the bus was nearing the stop. Wendell knew if he wasn’t there, it would continue on. So did Murielle.

            “Hurry! Go! I don’t want you to miss your ride. We’ll talk more later, okay?”

            “Okay. ‘Bye!” He took off running, but already he knew his day would go smoothly because she had spoken to him. He’d seen her, and talked with her, and hopefully someday they’d be able to spend more time in each other’s company.

            That evening, after work, tired but still riding the emotional high from that morning, Wendell entered his empty home. Seeing the slot machine, on a whim, he took one of the quarters he kept in the machine’s well and dropped it in. This time, however, instead of pulling the lever, he slapped the large PLAY button.

            Heart…heart…

            Heart.

            He stared in shock at the three red icons now glowing, and the machine dinging its congratulations. After a full minute, the lights went out, and the slot machine resumed its usual silence. From the back room he heard his computer chime, letting him know he had a message.

            Numbly, he walked into the converted bedroom. The word CONGRATULATIONS! flashed on the monitor, accompanied by CGI confetti. Wendell sat in the chair and clicked the PRESS button highlighted in the lower right-hand corner. The screen went black, gradually fading to white as the message finally appeared.

            CONGRATULATIONS, MR. ARLO! YOU HAVE WON YOUR HEART’S DESIRE! EXPECT PAYMENT WITHIN THE NEXT HALF HOUR!

                        —The Gaming Commission

He blinked in confusion. He’d won his heart’s desire? That’s what the heart-shaped icons stood for?

What was his heart’s desire? Even he didn’t have the foggiest idea what to expect.