The Prize//Tara Lemma

Charlene likes the farmer’s market mostly because it’s one of the few things she and Brian do together outside of the house. She exhales a plume of smoke, looking sideways at him and appreciating how handsome he looks as he surveys a pile of gently used tires.


“Good tires, baby?” she asks, tapping a cherry-red fingernail against his neck. She knows she has nothing to contribute to this conversation, but she always wants to talk. Brian swats her away, bending to get closer to the tire.


“The tread’s worn out, on all of them,” he says, glaring at a Pakistani man in a lawn chair, counting his cash. “Let’s go,” he says, pulling Charlene by the wrist. Brian tends to touch more because of her unbelievable body, and talk less because of her childlike mind. Charlene tosses her cigarette in the general direction of the cigarette holder, stumbling behind Brian and not feeling a lick of guilt, because women who are loved have far greater concerns than where to dispose of their trash. As Brian pulls her along, she thinks, this is it. The feeling. Charlene was never willing to settle for anything less than butterflies, and after years of searching, it seemed she had found the man that would continue to thrill her, keep her guessing, drown out the screeching and wailing inside her head. Charlene looks around dreamily, eyes landing on a prize machine with a big, plastic chicken inside, guarding over plastic eggs, clucking softly.


“Oh, I love these games,” she says, pulling her hand back. “Brian, look, the chicken is smiling!” Brian nods impatiently. “So cute!” she continues. Brian says nothing. Charlene crosses her arms, pushing her breasts together. “Can I have fifty cents?” she asks. Brian digs into his front pocket and places four quarters, a straw wrapper, and a somewhat melted piece of gum into Charlene’s hand.


“I’ll be at the electronics booth,” Brian says and walks away. Charlene approaches the machine, which emits a low-frequency hum and seems to be vibrating. Music plays as the chicken spins, its beak turned up in a smile with red, satanic cheeks. Its eyes penetrate Charlene and she is transfixed. She wipes the grime off of two of the quarters and pushes them into the machine, stopping the rotation of the chicken and the speed of the music.


Everything slows down as the chicken squawks, bulbs lining the inside of the machine flickering and flashing, and an egg is released into the chamber below. Charlene’s body is electric as she reaches for her prize. It is a golden egg, surprisingly light, fitting perfectly into the palm of her hand. She pops it open, chipping her fingernail in the process, and finds nothing. The music that previously was pleasant, reminding Charlene of the circus, now sounds threatening, too slow, sinister. The chicken’s garish colors hurt Charlene’s eyes, and she squints angrily, letting the empty egg fall to the ground and digging for the extra quarters in her pocket. She pushes the quarters in, presses play again, and crosses her arms, looking the other way. Charlene loves games but she is not very lucky, and so she is familiar with this particular blend of disappointment and hope. The chicken squawks again, releasing an egg, and Charlene waits a few seconds before retrieving it, as if to convince herself that it does not matter. This egg is plain yellow, heavier than the first, and when she pops it open, a few wrapped hard candies fall out. Charlene wishes it had been a temporary tattoo or a lip gloss, but still, a prize is a prize, and she rushes to catch up with Brian, satisfied. The chicken resumes its rotation, light flashing onto its painted face so fast and bright that passersby shield their eyes.


Brian is mid-argument with a man selling an electric guitar when Charlene finds him. “Hey Brian!” she calls. The two men look up and then promptly ignore her.


“—can’t expect me to seriously believe that Willie Nelson played this guitar,” Brian continues. Charlene unwraps a hard candy and pops it into her mouth, enjoying the sickly sweet cherry flavor, and everything gets quiet. The two men turn to her, looking hungry.


“Charlene,” Brian says, with a tenderness she is not used to. He rushes towards her and holds her tightly, swaying gently and breathing into her ear. Charlene stiffens in surprise. The man with the electric guitar calls out to Brian.


“I guess I could let you have it for a hundred,” he says, staring at Charlene’s red toenails through her platform sandals. “My cousin told me about the Willie Nelson thing, but he’s full of it.” Brian hands over the cash and leaves with Charlene, plucking a discordant tune.


When they get home, Brian handles Charlene gently, spending more time kissing her and looking at her than he has in a long time. He kisses her hand, the crook of her arm, her collarbone. When his lips graze her throat, he stops suddenly with a small grunt of surprise.


“What is that?” Brian asks.


“What is what?” Charlene asks, fingers groping around. There is now an indentation–no, more like a hole, in the hollow of her neck, about the circumference of a pen, not too deep, smooth, and completely painless.


“Does it hurt?” Brian asks, probing at the hole with a disgusted curiosity. Charlene goes into the bathroom and looks at the hole, which appears to have been scooped out with flawless precision.


“Not at all!” Charlene says too quickly, ready to forget the hole, to forget everything except Brian’s attention. The hole is nothing, something the doctor will explain later, something she will apply an ointment to for a week or so. She turns up the music on the radio and takes off her bra, at which point Brian stops protesting.


Charlene wakes up and the bed is empty. Brian is frying bacon in the next room. She waits to see if he will come and wake her for breakfast, but he doesn’t, and as she listens to the scrape of fork on plate, she touches the hole in her neck. It is much larger today, maybe with the circumference of a dime. Charlene looks in the bathroom mirror and discovers two new holes, one in her shoulder and the other in her bicep. She pulls one of Brian’s work shirts over her head and meets him in the kitchen.


“I’m starting to feel like Swiss cheese,” she says, looking a little fragile, as Brian shovels eggs into his mouth.


“Go to the doctor, Charlene. Those holes aren’t normal,” he says as he finishes the last of the eggs. Charlene unwraps another piece of candy and pops it into her mouth and as she leaves the room, Brian turns to gape at her long, tanned legs. He loves those legs, suddenly and strongly.


Charlene’s mouth still tastes like cherries at work, hours later, as she pours another cup of coffee for a truck driver with an okay attitude. He doesn’t thank her but he also doesn’t call her waitress, and that is about the best she can hope for. She stacks hot plates on her arms, hamburgers, pancakes, terrible steak, and distributes them with a smile. She spills ketchup and gravy on her uniform and says it is no big deal. Charlene goes into the bathroom to sneak a quick drag and is surprised by how tired she looks. She looks like an old tire. She looks like her mother. Blue eyeshadow is bleeding into the cracks around her eyes, and though her long-sleeved uniform covers the holes in her shoulder and bicep, it does not fully cover the hole in her neck, which again seems to have doubled in size. It is positively cavernous now and under the fluorescent lights, it makes Charlene feel sick. She wants to go home. Not home to her mother, the old tire. Not home to her father and the top-secret kisses. “Charlene,” he’d say. “It means beautiful,” he’d say, and even then, Charlene knew that was not true. Charlene wants to go home to Brian. She puts out her cigarette, places it into the pocket of her apron, and pops a hard candy into her mouth. Her mouth goes numb with cherry flavor.


When Charlene comes out, the men say, “Charlene, Charlene! Can we have a refill? Can we have your phone number? Do you want to come to our nephew’s football game?” The neck of Charlene’s shirt sags enough for one customer to notice the hole in her neck, and his eyes light up as he shakes his head, as if waking from a deep sleep. Charlene leaves that night with an unprecedented amount of tip money and thinks, this month, we won’t have to worry at all. Charlene goes home, realizes she has no more candy left, and falls asleep alone.


That was Monday. Today is Thursday and the holes are larger still. There is a new hole in her thigh and a new hole in her cheek. The side of her face looks as though someone took a large ice cream scoop of flesh cleanly out of it. Charlene has not seen Brian in a few days, but she can almost hear the reverb and hiss of his electric guitar if she holds her head very, very still. Charlene goes out to the porch in his oversized t-shirt and no pants. She leans back against the railing, listening to the faraway sound of neighborhood children playing. It is so, so warm and Charlene feels like she could sleep right now. She closes her eyes and the kids continue playing and laughing. “Charlene,” they say. “It means beautiful!”

Tara Lemma is a writer and a recent graduate of Temple University. She now works as a K-12 tutor. She loves her one-eyed cat, avocado rolls, and other various comforts. She tweets somewhat infrequently at @ilovetaralemma. This is her first published piece.