Coin-Op Carter

Coin-Op Carter
by Sean Benham

They were punishment for a lost bet one day, a curse from a bearded woman the next. The end result of a business venture gone sour, or sometimes it was a deal with the Devil. The edges of the smaller, vertical rectangle were tinged with a faint orange glow that burned from within. The larger, horizontal rectangle was a digital display; it didn’t quite function like a cheap alarm clock, but it sure looked like one. You could have asked him about them a hundred times and you wouldn’t have received the same answer twice. The truth was, he couldn’t remember how he wound up with a coin-op slot and a countdown timer lodged in the middle of his chest.

His name was Carter, most likely. He didn’t have any ID under that name, or any ID at all. What he did have was a jaggy, faded tattoo scrawled across his neck. It either read Carter or Carten, and he didn’t respond kindly to Carten.

Carter was a bum if you appreciated the indelicate; he was perpetually down on his luck if you didn’t. Slice the wording however you like, but one way or the other, he was homeless and used to be a fixture down on Main. He set up in front of the cake shop on weekdays, but when the weekend rolled around, a cupcake or two could usually convince him to relocate a ways down the block. The frame store didn’t care for their unwelcome weekend guest, but they didn’t have much to offer in exchange for him getting off of their stoop.

He was an odd sight, instantly recognizable. His hair did as it pleased, naturally tending to pile in a messy bird’s nest on top of his head. He couldn’t grow a proper beard, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Long, graying scraggles jutted from his upper lip and drooped off of his chin. He was old, most likely. 55? 60? It was hard to say. He was pickled in hard living, indelicately preserved. Carter didn’t dress for practicality or comfort. Winter or summer, rain or shine, he always wore the same crusty brown slacks and battered snow boots, but opting to go without a shirt. He had to show off his moneymaker.

He was the only beggar on Main. The town wasn’t overrun with the destitute, but it could sheepishly claim a handful. The rest of the panhandlers knew better than to veer onto Carter’s turf; it just wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t violent, or even particularly mean. He was good at asking people for quarters, really good. And it had to be quarters; nickels and dimes wouldn’t cut it. Pennies? He’d scoff if he liked you, gruffly tell you to piss off if he didn’t. A dollar? Thanks, man, but go get it changed at the gas station.

He’d slowly tap the text on glowing coin slot and tell you what he was after, his voice slurred. “Quarters only.” It actually read “Push to Reject,” but after Carter’s trademark spiel, no one felt inclined to correct him. His “sales pitch” was simple. He told passersby that life cost him a quarter an hour. The timer in his chest never had more than 59 minutes left on it.

No one wanted to feel responsible for a man’s death over a piddling 25 cents, and the way Carter pleaded, he made sure they would feel responsible. His desperation was no act. He might not have had a clear understanding of how he landed in his predicament, but the consequences of going against the rules were crystal clear. If those quarters didn’t keep coming, if the timer ever hit quadruple zero, that would be the end of Carter.

It took Tara Millsap five and a half years to graduate from high school. She was in no rush. Over those 11 carefree semesters, she boasted a grade point average of 0.5 and an average blood alcohol content of 0.04. But she was never good with numbers. Or science. Or social studies, physical education, or English.

She was good at partying, though. Christ, she could throw ’em back. At her best, she’d put away two and a half six-packs in an afternoon before switching to gallon bottles of grocery store plonk in the evening. She did it all without spoiling her figure, as well. Hard to say whether or not it would catch up to her in time. She didn’t live long enough to get fat.

Carter liked to drink, too; that was no secret. He used to drink a lot more back when life wasn’t metered at a quarter an hour. That is to say, he used to drink more alcohol, the “intended for human consumption” kind of alcohol. Carter still got sloppy drunk on a routine basis, but his cognac days were long over.

He started by shoplifting traditional near-liquor. No one was particularly appreciative that mouthwash eventually had to be removed from store shelves, stashed behind cash counters and made available only by respectable request. But a minor inconvenience to most was a challenge to Carter. He rose to the challenge by chugging hairspray, the kind that promised Maximum Hold also delivered maximum knocking-you-on-your-ass. Carter grew to become a big fan of Maximum Hold, or “Red Can,” as he knew it.

Carter and Tara could have been drinking buddies, had things gone differently. They wouldn’t have had much to talk about aside from their love of the drink, and he would’ve had at least 20 years on her, though stranger things have happened. But things didn’t go differently and stranger things did happen.

Tara joined the force the winter after graduation. Aside from making sure she didn’t get busted for underage consumption or open container, Tara didn’t have any particular interest in law and order during her time in school. But she had been fired from every taco joint and sub shop in town and needed to pay rent somehow. When she heard about how the police union ensured you couldn’t get the axe no matter how badly you screwed up, she knew she had found her calling.

She lifted, ran, gripped, and swam well enough. She shot the center of mass six times out of ten. She guessed her way through the true and false. She drove the obstacle course without issue; she’d only had three and a half drinks that morning and chewed two sticks of gum to smell extra law-abiding. She signed some papers, then signed some more. She swore the oath with her toes crossed. She was in: Gun. Badge. Squad Car. Navy-blue uniform. Two-way radio. The prospect of an early retirement package. Some goddamn respect for once. It was all hers.

She was assigned to the southeast—far from downtown, one WASPy subdivision after another, sleepy as Hell. It didn’t take Tara long to figure that being a cop was friggin’ boring. But being a drunk cop? That was lots of fun. Vodka was her on-duty drink of choice; it mixed best with the coffee from Mackey’s Diner. She kept a backup fifth in the glove box to keep the party going and she kept enough gum on hand to make sure she stayed spearminty.

Tara would routinely get sloppy and make the southeast her playground: driving too fast, shaking down the chop-suey house for free lunches, pulling guns to make a point. Work was a blurry blast, until Gonzalez got sick.

Carter wasn’t smart, but he was no dummy. He knew he had to play the pity game just right in order to keep the quarters coming. He always had more than 25 cents to his name, but it didn’t pay to look that way. He let the meter run low, low enough to make it look as though death was never further than an hour away. The extra quarters were stashed in his back pocket, carefully wrapped in napkins to muffle the jingle.

When he was on the verge of passing out for the night, he’d wait until no one was looking, feed two bucks into his chest, and roll over, hiding the timer from whoever might pass as he slept. Carter may have had a bizarre technological affliction, but he’d managed it for years without issue. It got even easier once he switched from mouthwash to hairspray.

Bottles of mouthwash were meant to be opened and the contents were meant for your mouth. Neither of those statements could be made about cans of hairspray. Carter wasn’t going to let the pictures of explosions and skulls on the cans of hairspray scare him, though. He was going to find a way into that aerosol fortress and get wasted on the chemical juice within. The first few tries started with a decent-sized rock poised to smash the can’s nozzle. They ended with sticky, angry messes and a lot of wasted hairspray. Carter was forced to steal a better solution.

Peterson’s Hardware didn’t have any obvious security cameras and Carter didn’t have much to lose, so he could afford to forego subtlety. The alley behind Peterson’s wasn’t well lit and the rear window wasn’t latched. What was planned as a break and enter simply turned into an enter, and a leisurely one at that. Carter made a meal of impulse-buy beef jerky and left Peterson’s with a hacksaw and a bag of shammy cloths.

He returned to the stoop of the cake store and celebrated with two Red Cans. The saw lopped the tops of the cans off quickly and cleanly, the rags saved the initial sticky burst of spray for later. Life was good, and it got even better once Carter realized he could cut more than spray cans.

He checked Peterson’s, but they didn’t have what he needed. The construction supply place down by the tracks was a fair bit farther than Carter usually liked to walk, but they had exactly what he was looking for. Even better, it was cheap—just about $6 per foot. He wasn’t about to do the math, but he could see that if he did it right, he’d be buying far more than another six hours. He rummaged through his back pocket, placed a short night’s sleep worth of change on the counter and walked out with a shiny steel rod, just under an inch in diameter.

It worked perfectly. The thin slugs he sawed off the end of the rod wouldn’t pass for quarters in a store, but they were close enough to fool the meter.

Carter’s life got a lot cheaper, allowing him to indulge in his favorite activity: drinking real liquor. He’d spent years chasing away the shakes with a class of booze far below consumer grade. It was only when he was finally able to switch back to rotgut whiskey that he remembered just how much he liked to drink.

In his mouthwash and hairspray days, the ultra high-proof liquor kept life tolerable, but the additives he was drinking along with it made him feel horrible. The bouts of dizzying diarrhea and fuzzy blind spots that lasted for hours went away after he made the leap back to real hooch, and he was actually buying what he drank. Yes, he was buying it with money he conned out of those who pitied him, but to Carter it was a moral victory, a cause for celebration. Celebration meant more drinking. A lot more.

Carter was a seasoned drinker, naturally, but once he was drinking for pleasure and not just chemical dependency, he started to overindulge. Missteps became staggers. Mutters grew into angry tirades. Crude comments once left unsaid were shouted at those who passed, often punctuated with wildly inappropriate gestures. With the timer no longer his primary concern, Carter turned from a harmless oddity into a damn good reason to cross the street.

The charitable quarter donations dropped off as Carter grew into an even greater lush. He’d still do pretty well in the mornings, before he had the chance to get good and lit, but after lunch, his drunken antics were enough to keep most of his prospective customers at bay. Carter didn’t see any reason to cut back on his bad behavior; he was still pulling in more than enough for his daily rod and bottle. He didn’t miss having to engage absolutely everyone that passed, if anything, it gave him time to think about old girlfriends, missed opportunities, and the ever-present threat of death housed in his chest.

He began to wonder if it really was counting down to the end, or if that was just a misguided notion brought about by a lifetime of letting ethanol scramble his wits. The phrase “maybe not …” crept into his head from time to time, but he was always quick to silence it—sawing off another slug from the rod and buying himself yet another 60 minutes. Carter wouldn’t take any chances.

“A robbery suspect is fleeing westbound on—” Yeah, boring. “Goose in my cup, shorty like a truck, assmeat so fat, beepin’ when she back it up …” Ooh, that’s my jam!

That was Tara’s standard reply to a call for backup. Nobody told her what to do, so she treated radio dispatches as if they were advice from her stepmom. Let Gonzalez deal with the “hero cop” crap; she’d officer around on her own, thanks.

This call was different. It was going to suck. Hell, any call that she actually had to respond to sucked. Gonzalez was out sick, or so he claimed, which meant relying on the glory-hog white knight wasn’t an option. And while the union made sure she’d never get canned, they didn’t do a thing to keep the chief from bitching and moaning nonstop about “adequate levels of performance” and “being a piss-poor excuse for a cop.” Tara had to do something to get on his good side; the last time she was called into his office, he flashed some official-looking papers and talked a big game about “busting her butt down to janitor unless she showed some immediate improvement.” It was either deal with this call or trade in her gun for a toilet brush.

“This is Millsap, car 6-1-6. I’m on it.”

Some bum had broken a window down on Main. Shouldn’t have been a big deal, but he was making it a big deal by waving a goddamn saw around. Great.

A quick pit stop behind the tire store, five strong belts of hero juice and two sticks of gum later, Tara was as ready as she was going to get. She had slept through the “Levels of Crazy” slideshow during her training, so she wasn’t sure what to expect or even how to act in a situation like this. She would let her liquor-borne courage and state-issued sidearm take the lead.

Tara took her time driving down to Main, mostly due to her indifferent attitude to police work, partly because she got lost. She never went downtown, even off-duty. The place was a dump, full of low-life weirdos like this guy. She didn’t know why he had decided to tape clock-radio parts to himself or why anybody bothered to call the cops if all he was doing was sitting on the curb and crying. She didn’t care much, either. She was there, he was there, he had a saw on his lap, she was a cop. This could only go one way.

“Drop it! Put the saw on the ground, now!”

“I’m sorry!” Carter howled in between sniffles, his eyes red and watery.

“I said drop it, asshole!” Tara cocked the hammer of her service revolver. Nothing felt quite as good as pairing a pointed gun with a menacing sound. The bum let the saw fall to the ground, of course.

“I said I’m sorry! I tripped! I tripped and I-I dropped the metal stick in the drain. I didn’t mean to, I swear! And I’m outta quarters! Look! Look at it!”

He pointed frantically to the clock on his chest: 00:04.

“Yeah, nice clock. Now get on the ground and spread ’em!”

“Give me a quarter. Can you give me a quarter? Please, I don’t have much time left!”

“I said press your nasty gut to the ground before I blast it, dickhead.”

Weeping, Carter collapsed to the pavement with a thud. Tara pounced, landing on his back, knees first. Cuffs were applied, admonitions shouted.

“You think these nice people like having their place smashed up, you stupid son of a bitch?”

“I didn’t mean to! I fell and the window was in my way! And then I dropped the metal stick, and … gimme a quarter! Please!”

“Shut up and stand up.”

Tara nearly fell over backward as she tugged the grimy bastard to his feet. Making an officer look awkward couldn’t go without punishment. With a flick of her wrist, Tara spun the revolver on her palm. With a twist of her hips, she smashed the bum’s nose with the butt of her gun.

“Stop resisting!”

The stream of tears pouring down Carter’s face diluted the blood dripping from his nose. He sputtered and spat as Officer Millsap shoved him toward the rear seat of the cruiser.

“I need to feed the meter! I will die if I don’t feed the meter!”

“Aw, poor ugly baby let his meter go hungry?” Tara leaned in close to taunt Carter. She instantly regretted pulling the green blob of gum from her mouth; his natural stink stung her nostrils once she was without the minty vapor barrier. Even more reason to put him in his place. “Open wide, you sack of shit.” Her face scowled into an odor-averse wince, she smeared the gum along the length of the coin-op slot. Touching this guy any more than she had to was gross, but the look of sheer terror on his face was well worth it.

Carter thrashed and squirmed, the cuffs cutting into his leathery wrists. He began to wail. If the throaty forlorn cries spewing out of him were supposed to be words, they sure as Hell weren’t in English. It was annoying, but his awful commotion let Tara know that she’d won. This bum would think twice before he decided to disrupt an officer of the law’s aimless driving around again.

Shoving him into the backseat wasn’t easy. He was heavier than he looked and wouldn’t stop convulsing. At least she wouldn’t have to pry him back out again; she’d leave that to the boys at the drunk tank. She pulled away from the scene of the “crime” and roared onto the freeway, making a beeline back to the station uptown with the siren blaring. Tara couldn’t wait to get Carter out of her cruiser; his non-stop noisemaking was really getting old.

Traffic on the freeway was light and eagerly accommodated the screaming siren and spinning lights. Tara had the two leftmost lanes to herself. She straddled the dashed white line, pedal pushed low. Even over the din of the siren, she could hear Carter come to his senses. The bum had finally shut up.

She turned to gloat, looking to twist the knife a little, to stomp her victory home. Carter’s twitching had stopped. The timer on his chest was blinking in time with the siren: 00:00. 00:00. 00:00. Tara couldn’t be certain, but it looked like Carter’s breathing had stopped, too.

“Oh, goddamn it! This is the last thing I—”

She gagged and retched as the smell filled the cruiser, and flinched as the seam of his pants tore wide.

Officer Gonzalez was on break—whiling away the time in Mackey’s diner, chugging down coffee and making friendly shop-talk with Officer Trent. Trent was green, but his story was wild. Bachelor party gone wrong, strippers in the ER, two little dogs rolling around in cocaine …
Gonzalez had to cut Trent short. As the senior officer, it was his unwritten duty to keep the rookie from trumping him at storytime.

“Man, that’s nothing. I mean, it’s not nothing, but listen: you ever work with Officer Millsap? You around back then?”

Trent shook his head as he took a short sip of coffee, trying to hide his disappointment in being cut off.

“No, didn’t know him. I don’t think.”

“Her. And you’d remember her, trust me. Tits out to here, couldn’t get her vest closed all the way. Wasn’t cut out for the job, though. I’ve seen some bad cops come and go, but she was the worst. Bad attitude, worse people skills. You know why she’s not on the force anymore?”

“No, why?”

“She’s dead. Died in the line of duty.”


“Yeah. She’s not on the fallen plaque back at the station, though. ’Cause of the way she died.”

“It’s that bad? What happened?”

“It was weird. The chief doesn’t like to talk about it, thinks it makes the force look bad. So if this ever comes up, you didn’t hear it from me, okay?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Good. She crashed her cruiser, wrapped the thing around a lamp post on Highway 5.” Gonzalez paused for effect. It worked; Trent didn’t look wowed in the least.

“That’s it?”

“Nope, not even close. I said it was weird, right? So, they find the car on the side of the road but they can’t see inside. Like, they can see something in there, but they don’t know what it is. Something big, it looks like. Whatever it is, they can’t see Millsap through it. Can’t see anything through it.

So, the jaws of life come out, they get started on the door and FWOOSH! Shit-covered quarters spill all over the road. And not just a few, either. I mean, the cruiser was full to the ceiling with shitty change. Had to call in the hazmat crew to clean things up.”

An incredulous smile crept across Trent’s face. “Shit-covered quarters? Right. Good one, Gonzo.”

“No joke, man. Hand to God, that’s how it went down. You’re good to get these coffees? I’ve gotta hit the john.”

Copyright © 2015 Sean Benham