loved only three things in life: Susanna Rogers, his cat Abraham,
and Wheel of Fortune.
Susanna worked the
one-to-nine shift on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays in aisle five
at the local Kroger. She wore a ponytail at the base of her head and
painted her lips with pink gloss. Hershel suspected that her nails
were fake, because they click-clacked loudly on the register
buttons, but he didn’t mind, because she always remembered his
Kroger Plus card number, even though she didn’t know what asparagus
or squash looked like.
Hershel had far
more interest in Susanna than he did in Vanna White; he thought Vanna’s
head was too big for her body. He didn’t care much for Pat Sajak,
either. Too many clever quips. Get on with the game already,
Hershel would think. He would also think this: These idiot
contestants don’t understand the importance of vowels. Too
often, the contestants went for T, L, R, and S before ever buying a
vowel, which seemed an ignorant strategy to Hershel, who knew that E
was the most frequently used letter in the English language,
followed closely by A, O, and I.
between six and six-thirty, as he settled into his secondhand couch
with a bowl of popcorn atop his rounding belly, he pummeled the
one-dimensional players with kernels and yelled, “Buy a vowel,
dammit!” Sometimes they did. Sometimes they asked for an N.
contestants rarely solved the puzzle before Hershel. In addition to
hollering commands, he also belittled them with, “Solve the puzzle,
idiot boy!” or “Good Lord, my five-year-old could figure that out,”
to which he was referring to Abraham, since he lived alone and had
six o’clock show, if it was a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday, he would
walk to Kroger for a soda, frozen dinner, or pack of gum. He would
wait until aisle five was open, then listen contentedly at the
click-clack of Susanna’s fingernails.
Susanna,” he’d say.
four-seven-four-oh-eight-seven-oh,” she’d reply.
It was thanks
to Jack Crenshaw, an accountant from Georgia, that Hershel finally
figured out how he would court Susanna the Cashier. Crenshaw was in
the final round with Pat Sajak and the puzzle, which Jack answered
correctly, was Be Mine. Hershel watched in amazement as the
Crenshaw family rushed the stage to celebrate Jack’s hundred-grand,
but he didn’t pay attention to their embarrassing shrieks and claps.
Instead, he stared at the puzzle. Be Mine.
He got up
from the sofa, washed his hands, and wrote Susanna a note that said
“Would you like to have dinner with me?” He replaced every vowel
with a blank, then folded the puzzle and put it in his wallet
because it was Wednesday.
afternoon, on his way out the door, he turned to Abraham.
luck,” he said. The cat meowed.
walked into Kroger, he went straight for aisle five. He didn’t have
any items. Just the note.
four-seven-four,” Susanna said, smiling. She looked at the conveyor
belt. “Where’s your stuff?”
nothing. He was afraid that if he spoke, he would say something
awkward and ridiculous. So instead he handed her the puzzle. As she
stared at it, her eyebrows wrinkled.
this?” she said. “Hangman?” She looked back at him. The corners of
her mouth were turned upward, which gave Hershel hope.
said. He cleared his throat. “It’s a puzzle.” He spoke quietly so
the other cashiers wouldn’t hear. They didn’t. Instead, they punched
away at their registers. Their fingernails didn’t make the same
click-clack sound as Susanna’s.
prayed that no customers would come behind him.
Susanna looked back at the paper.
like to buy a vowel?” Hershel asked.
blinked. Giggled. “What?”
like to buy a vowel?” Hershel pulled a pencil from his back pocket
and showed it to her.
said, then laid the puzzle down on the check-writing platform.
poised his pencil, ready to fill in the Es.
vowel?” he asked.
tapped her bottom lip with a manicured fingernail. “L.”
head popped up. “L?”
she said. “Why?”
Now it was
Hershel with the wrinkled eyebrows. An L? Either Susanna the
Cashier was the dumbest person alive, or she didn’t want to solve
his puzzle. He studied her face for an answer – a squinting of the
eye, twitch of the nose, something. But she simply stood
there, staring at him and his pencil. He wasn’t sure if she was
smiling at the puzzle, or if she was smiling at her own attempts to
mock him. He squinted his eyes and looked closer. Surely it was a
joke. “L” wasn’t even a logical choice, considering the rest of the
puzzle. Even without the vowels, a halfway intelligent person could
look at the puzzle and see that. There were already two Ls in
wasn’t a joke, though. Maybe Susanna was just dumb enough to think L
was a vowel.
wrong?” Susanna said. She frowned, cleared her throat, and shifted
her weight from one leg to the other. “Why are you looking at me
like that?” She looked around at the other cashiers, who were
oblivious to the goings-on.
Hershel mumbled. He crumpled the puzzle into a ball, shoved it in
his pocket, and hurried past aisles four, three, two, and one on his
way out the door. He walked all the way home without looking back.
When he got
home, he called for Abraham, who meowed and emerged from behind the
television. Abraham loved chasing things, so Hershel reached into
his pocket and tossed the puzzle on the floor.
an L,” Hershel said, to the cat.
scurried off with his paws on the unsolved puzzle, Hershel prepared
a bowl of popcorn and sank into the hollow of his secondhand couch.
When he turned on the television, Pat and Vanna were sauntering
across the bright Wheel stage, smiling as usual. Hershel wondered
what Pat would think about Susanna buying a consonant. Surely he
would have clever things to say about that. Hershel could never
recall a moment in Wheel history that someone spent money for an L.
contestant, a plump middle-aged woman named Tammy, asked for an “N”
and Hershel shoved a handful of popcorn in his mouth. He wondered
what Susanna would look like on television with Pat Sajak. He
wondered if her fingernails would click against the wheel when she
spun it, or if she would wear a ponytail. Would her first letter be
an L? Or would she select a vowel? Perhaps she didn’t know the
difference. Maybe she was a math person who had failed English in
high school. Hershel tried to imagine her hunched over a desk,
calculating logarithms and finding the value of x.
idiot!” Hershel yelled. He tossed a kernel at the television. It hit
one-dimensional Tammy on the nose.
Hershel had spent many afternoons wondering what it would be like to
have Susanna on the couch next to him, ridiculing the contestants’
poor letter choices and clapping when someone made a good solve. But
now, as Abraham pawed the crumpled puzzle on the floor, Hershel
imagined Susanna on the screen, throwing the entire Wheel community
off-balance. He knew, without a doubt, that she would suffer his
wrath from the couch. She would be the worst contestant to ever set
foot on the show. He could forgive a failed Jeopardy appearance –
maybe – but this?
an L,” Hershel said again, and sighed. Somewhere in the pit of his
chest, his heart broke.
wondered where he would shop tomorrow.