Mama was leaving him. She said she was going to leave my father for real this time.
We drove toward North Carolina, I sat in the passenger seat. My baby sister was in back. We were going to live with my aunt and uncle—at least that was the plan.
It was night. There were no lights on the highways. I was Mama’s navigator. I held a map in my lap and translated highway routes for her. I had no idea what I was doing.
We stopped at a truck stop diner. The kind with linoleum floors and Willie Nelson on the radio.
My mother used a payphone, bouncing my sister on her hip. I sat at a counter, eating a burger. I could hear Mama talking to my aunt in an anxious voice. I was sick to my stomach.
“He’s lost his mind,” I heard my mother say. “I’m afraid he’s gonna try something stupid…”
My father had not been himself for a long time.
Mama didn’t want me to hear her conversation, so she faced her backside toward me.
My waitress was a woman with phony red hair, big glasses, and colorful pins on her apron. The buttons she wore were spectacular.
The waitress said to me, “Why aren’t you eating your food? You feeling okay?”
She refilled my glass, then leaned onto her elbows. She looked like a sweet woman. She placed a poker chip on the counter beside my plate. It was red.
“If you promise to eat,” she said, “you can have this poker chip.”
I stared at it.
“This is no ordinary poker chip,” she went on. “Why, this thing’s magic. Brought me a lotta luck when I needed it most.”
It didn’t look like anything special to me. I reached for the chip and she swatted my hand.
“Not so fast,” she said. “You only get it if you eat.”
I ate slow—I chewed each bite at roughly the same speed it takes a roomful of Rotarians to recite the Four-Way Test.
And, a deal is a deal. She gave me the poker chip.
We left the truck stop. Mama drove through the dark. The silhouettes of mountains were passing across our windows.
My sister started whining in the backseat. Then, the car started to smell like a pot of collards. My mother pulled over. She changed my sister’s diaper in the backseat, and that’s when my mother started crying.
“I had to leave,” she said. “Your daddy’s sick.”
Sick. That’s what they called it back then. That’s the same word they would use years later, at his funeral.
My mother and I hugged. And I know this is bizarre, but my mother has always had her own smell. A sweet smell. It’s embedded within my earliest memories. I remember my face against her chest. I remember her smell.
We arrived at my aunt’s house. It was still dark. My aunt was standing in her driveway.
That night, I fell asleep holding a poker chip. It was only cheap plastic, but it meant something to me. When I held it, I almost felt magic in my hand. It was as though things in our ugly life would be better. One day.
With enough luck.
And I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But last night I met a kid after I spoke in South Alabama. He was a quiet kid. His mother told me he’d been having a hard time. I handed him a poker chip—I keep a pocketful of them.
“What’s this?” the kid asked.
“It’s good luck,” I told him.
His mother looked at me funny, and I don’t blame her.
So I wrote this.
CALISTA - March 29, 2018 5:44 am
S C Anderson - March 29, 2018 5:44 am
Sean, your writing gets better and more cohesive everyday. The stories are very meaningful. Thanks so much!
Sandi in FL - March 29, 2018 5:56 am
I hope the young boy and his mother both read this story. Then they will fully understand about that poker chip.
Beth Reed - March 29, 2018 7:00 am
I am sorry that you had a hard time. I understand how you worried back then. No child should have to worry about adult issues.
The poker chip meant something to you. You passed it on hoping it will mean something to someone else one day.
I am glad I was able to read this story. Your writing leaves me always wishing for more. Please keep inspiring us. Beth
Sherry - March 29, 2018 9:25 am
As hard as it might be, hard surviving hard times makes us appreciate more the good times to come…and they do come. Keep handing out poker chips.
Nancy Rogers - March 29, 2018 9:45 am
I hope it brings him good luck.
Lucretia - March 29, 2018 9:47 am
The magic comes as someone shares their compassion with us, it is magic the feeling that someone understands and is creating an energy that helps us as we hold on to, yes sometimes a poker chip. I am thankful, Sean, that you carry a pocket full of poker chips and that that young man received one. May you continue to bless and be blessed. Lucretia
Wendy Franks - March 29, 2018 10:25 am
Sean, beautiful as always.
Judith Pierce Croxton - March 29, 2018 10:40 am
I since you found me, or I found you….I’ve started reading your stories the first thing in the morning.
Thank you for sharing the beautiful pieces of your life.
Are you making a book out of your stories? I’d like to buy a copy or three.
theholtgirls - March 29, 2018 4:56 pm
Judith, If you scroll up to the top of the page, and click on the word BOOKS, you will find the 8 Sean has written so far. Enjoy! P.S. I like the way you write too!
Deena - March 29, 2018 10:41 am
The love and kindness you have and share with strangers overwhelms my heart. I wish there was a world full of Seans.. .. thanks for sharing and for just being you.
Cathi - March 29, 2018 11:06 am
Sean, as I said yesterday, you are an Angel. ❤
Jennifer Feist - March 29, 2018 11:13 am
You have an amazing memory
Leia Lona - March 29, 2018 11:35 am
Another good one , so much compassion.
Jan - March 29, 2018 12:00 pm
You just have to make them believe – believe that life won’t always be this way. It can be better. There is hope! You are one of the special ones who can do just that. Thank you.
Jack Darnell - March 29, 2018 12:48 pm
I’m feeling lucky! As Luck would have it. I have always been lucky, lucky is good. Of course my wife says I am blessed. Blessed is good too, She is always right!
Carol Houston Rothwell - March 29, 2018 12:50 pm
Sandra Smith - March 29, 2018 2:18 pm
The gift of HOPE is a magnanimous thing ! ❤
When my Mom was dying (and, my world was falling apart) a friend gave me a plaque, with, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change those things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” It sustained me through that awful time, and has continues too, to this day. One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. ❤
Maxine - March 29, 2018 3:29 pm
Hope comes in many forms, Sean. Sometimes looking like an old plastic red poker chip.
Jack Quanstrum - March 29, 2018 3:42 pm
Enjoyed reading your powerful story.
Edna B. - March 29, 2018 3:55 pm
Hope is a wonderful thing to have and to give. Thanks for this awesome story.
Tammy - March 29, 2018 7:31 pm
Sometimes as humans, we need something physical to touch and hold and then faith begins to take. Love your stories!
Marlene - March 30, 2018 2:08 am
God bless that waitress who noticed a sad little boy and took the time to encourage him. God bless you, Sean, and all those who are “noticers.” The world would be a kinder place if we could all be so forgetful of ourselves and attentive to those God puts in our path every day.
muthahun - March 30, 2018 4:03 pm
Do you know how evocative your writing is? This morning you unearthed a diner in Marion, SC where my mother and I had very sad tea and tried to eat something before returning to the hospital to see if my dad had lived through the night (heart attack), and the smell of my dad on his pillow where I slept with her 13 years later the night he died. I think it’s good to unpack those memories from time to time. Thanks for helping me do that.
Chris - March 31, 2018 5:49 am
I have been on some very similar rides Sean. There was “sickness” in my family as well. I don’t believe that I will ever forgive myself for not making things any better for them when they were alive even though I have been told that it wasn’t my fault. Anyway, thanks for writing the things you do Sean. Hope to meet you someday.
Joyce - June 7, 2018 4:07 pm
I remember how my Momma smelled. She died when I was 13. I’m 71 now❤️ Love your stories❤️
Gladys R Harris - June 8, 2018 7:15 am