Gambler in a Wasteland

When I was a kid, I collected coins. I had such a huge collection that at the age of 15, I had nothing left to add. My father used to say that collecting coins, same as life, gets boring over time, especially when you have everything. That's how I felt the last several days. I used to enjoy desert roads. Now, my surroundings swirled and twitched as I turned to look behind. There's such a thing as too much desert. I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"Habibi," Hisha whispered, "I think I can see the city."

"You imagine." I said, "We're going to die here."

"No, no, look. Lights!"

I raised my head. No lights, only wasteland. Desert and mountains and desolation. "You imagine, Hisha." I said, "Condemn me and my damn luck. You'll surely die before me, just like Musa, and I'll wander here alone." I was certainly not yet ready to be left alone.

"Maybe it's a gas station at the entrance of a nearby town."

"Don't start."

"Wait, this can't be a gas station..."

It was nice to learn that he didn't completely lose his mind.

"It's a booth." He continued.

My mistake.

"It's a lottery booth, I can't believe it."

I didn't reply. If you can't win an argument with a smart person, you clearly can't win with stupid ones like Hisha. He lowered his hand from my sweaty shoulder and skipped at what resembled a combination of folk dance and dying convulsions.

"Wait... where are you running to, you dumb bastard." I said, and then I stopped; on the horizon, white and yellow lights flashed like little beats of electricity in the heart of nothing, blinking gracefully; a pair of megaphones on top, a small window underneath. It wasn't a gas station, it was a lottery booth.

Hisha tripped, got up and kept running. I followed, falling and getting up repeatedly. We were like two fish spotting a hole in the net. While running, I was discouraged. Surely, there's nobody there. It's just an abandoned box in the heart of the desert with a pair of megaphones and a window.

"Anybody here?" Hisha approached the window with slight hysteria, knocking on it repeatedly. The window opened, and his hand shot in and hit something, I heard "Ouch!"

"Sorry, forgive me, lady..."

"Dumb nomads." I heard a woman's voice through the window, "Shit, now my nose is bleeding."

As I approached, I could see a rabata neatly wrapped around a pair of bright brown eyes.

"It's a lottery booth..." I said to myself, "in the middle of the Sahara."

"Sorry lady, do you have a glass of water, maybe?" Hisha asked.

"You don't have to shout, I hear perfectly well. Damn this place, always the same," the woman said. She unwrapped her rabata, what a beautiful woman; a perfect blood-dripping nose, and two red lips. She pulled a roll of toilet paper from under the counter, squeezing a square into her nostrils, "Everybody always asks for water. I have tickets worth millions here, and people always ask for water."

"Please..." I snorted, leaning on her counter, "we're dying."

"No need to pile it on." She pulled out a freshwater jerrican from under the counter; a most welcome sight. She could just as well have pulled out a pair of new eyes for a blind person. We both sprang for the jerrican before she could put it on the counter. She dropped it in surprise. Hisha managed to snatch it out of my clutching hands and gargled it down. Water dribbled down his chin and naked chest. I clung to his neck and drank what was spilt.

"Ugh," I heard the woman say, "that's nasty."

After we both finished gasping, and after she replaced the toilet paper with a new square and stuffed it up her nose, she went on and said, "Well, are you ready to bet, gentlemen?" As she spoke, the tissue bounced up and down. I could see much better now. Her nails were smeared with red nail polish, and she was holding a pair of tickets.

"bet?"

"It's a lottery booth, you're betting on numbers and winning prizes. The next lottery will start soon, so everyone take a ticket." She wrapped herself up again and handed us two pens. We filled in the numbers. I used a sequence of numbers that I regularly use when I fill out lottery tickets every Friday; my little Hamsana's birthday, my anniversary and a few more dates. It was a hopeless sequence, but I wasn't about to break a habit in the middle of the desert.

"Lady, what are the prizes?" Hisha asked.

"The first prize is a jeep with air conditioning and a fresh fruit bowl," She said, "The second prize is a camel, and the third prize is twenty million dinars in cash."

"How many humps?"

"If you lose, however," she ignored Hisha, "I guess you'll die here from dehydration. Are you ready to pay?" She reached out her hand.

We looked at each other, "Why do you think we have money?" Hisha asked, "All we have are these pants and ragged shoes."

She studied us, "They're not that ragged... They'll do."

 

In my youth, I used to gamble on horses. Today I know it's silly to gamble. Horses are smarter than humans, I've never heard of a horse that went bankrupt, betting on the wrong person. But when you have nothing to lose, and the shoes were indeed ragged, gambling seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

She gave us a mat while we waited for the results. She had no food, but she had a backgammon board, some old magazines and medical-grade marijuana. The days passed, and our bodies weakened. The water ran out, and we lay there on the hot sand, under a blazing sun, deep blue sky and tremendous silence. I never imagined the desert to be a significant threat to my life, just as I never imagined sharks as a threat when on land. Once, I thought about swallowing the backgammon dice, to finish it all, but I was afraid that till I finally succeed in something, it'd be suicide, and nobody will even know. At least if they knew. Like Musa, who resigned from the factory and yelled at the manager from the top of the ladder, "You can't fire me, I quit!" Only he ended up at the unemployment centre, and I'll end up buried in the sand. What am I saying... He did end up buried in the sand, and hadn't even found a new job. I thought a lot about the past back then, and about Musa. The same guy who used to say life is short, but it is also the longest thing he had ever experienced. I envied him; thousands of miles of sand between him and this relentless tension. He hadn't been hungry or thirsty, nor had he felt this anguish for so long.

My tongue swelled, I could no longer hold my body, all my bones ached, and I could see nothing in the intense sun, "I don't think I'll survive to receive our prize, Hisha..." I said one day, "After I die, you can have my share."

I couldn't even see Hisha anymore, but I could hear him, "Don't despair, Habibi," he said, "death is the last thing we'll do in this life."

I suspected the woman was dragging time just so we'd be weak enough to die if we lost, but not too weak so we'd be saved if we win. A few days passed before she said, "Gentlemen, the raffle will start in a few moments."

Finally, I tried to rise but fell. Although this announcement surprised me and I felt great excitement, I would be a liar if I said that I thought I'd win.

"Gentlemen," She declared through the megaphones, "Welcome to the thirteenth lottery of the Sahara Desert."

I was sure that was it, we were going to lose, die here and join Musa in Hell. Not that it scared me, how much worse could it get. But I still tried to listen. The woman pulled out numbers and announced them over the megaphones. I could see nothing, the sun blinded me, but I heard everything. She declared every number. I didn't remember which ones I bet on, but I listened as if my life depended on it.

And it happened. I thought I was going to pass out just as my name was called. I won a jeep with air conditioning and a fresh fruit bowl. Incredible. I wanted to jump and scream for joy, dance a victory dance, hug and kiss the woman on her red lips, but I couldn't move. Instead, I snorted and coughed. I asked in a rasping voice, "Where is it? The jeep... where is it?"

"There you go," she said, lifting my hand and placing something on them. I could feel it was keys.

"Where's the jeep..." I asked.

"Congratulations Hisha, you must pick it up from the neighbouring town, a few thousand miles from here," she said. "You won. You'll make it after all."

Did she say Hisha?

I was pretty sure she said Hisha.

I looked at Hisha, confused, but there was no one there.

Only then did I realize what a complete fool I was. Could it be? Did I walk for days in the desert, talking to an illusion bearing my name? The sun must've fried my brain. I felt like a perfect fool for letting the desert deceive me for so long. But I didn't want the beautiful woman to see me in my confusion, so I checked to see if she noticed anything. It turns out that not only did she not notice, but she was not there. The lottery booth had disappeared as well—another fruit of my imagination. I had to pull myself together and take a deep breath. After all, it was time to walk towards my jeep. It'll not start itself.

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