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  • Writer's pictureEmmett Grogan

Please Play Again

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

My dad finds the dead cat while searching for beer bottles behind the recreation centre. It’s been there awhile, frozen in a snow bank, well-preserved by the winter.

With no collar, it isn’t a household cat: it’s a bush cat. It’s so young, it probably lost its mother to a predator, then wandered off looking for help in the tall grass.

My dad goes to his truck, gets a shovel, finds a cardboard box and an old towel to wrap up the cat. In a patch of sun, the ground is soft enough to bury the kitten. He covers the box with dirt, patting down the soil with his shovel; piles some stones on the grave to prevent scavengers from getting at the body; then he mumbles a brief prayer for the soul of the cat. When the kitten is properly laid to rest, my father packs up his shovel and drives to Tim Hortons for lunch.

At Tim Hortons, it’s the first day of “Roll Up the Rim to Win”; the red cups are back.

My dad orders two extra-large coffees, double-double with milk. He likes to go through the drive-thru window, especially on weekends, so he doesn’t have to stand in line with the rest of the local yahoos. They all know him at the window, in Hepworth, Ontario.

First cup, my dad rolls up the rim, wins a free coffee. That’s alright, he thinks. Second cup, he rolls up the rim, wins another free coffee. As he rips off the tags from his cups, he thinks, I got a little streak going here. Then he tucks the tags from his coffee cups into his breast pocket, for safekeeping, thinking of the cat from that morning: it was tough not to cry, burying the kitten.

My dad’s a big softie, in that hidden way; emotionally guarded, yet tearful at moments you’d never expect. He knows he did the right thing that morning, in the forest behind the arena.

The next day, my dad cashes in both of his rims from Tim Hortons.

He feels like a bit of a mooch, taking home two free coffees and not ordering anything to pay for, but he’s meeting this guy named Fabian for lunch. Fabian’s this dude I hear about all the time; they go hunting and fishing together; they play poker, and shoot pool twice a week.

Fabian this; Fabian that. They drive up to Northwestern Ontario each May to go fishing for two weeks on Big Sky Island; I’ve never been invited along.

It turns out, Fabian is the same age as my dad, even though Fabian still works part-time for the LCBO; my father has been retired from the Ontario Provincial Police for almost fifteen years. I always assumed Fabian was like the son my father never had, but then Fabian had a heart attack, and I found out my dad’s best friend is 25 years older than me: nobody’s making Fabian carry a canoe anymore, north of Lake Superior.

I envy the time they get to spend together: I don’t have any friends from high school that I am still in contact with.

At lunch, my dad gives one of his coffees to Fabian, keeping the other for himself. When they roll up their rims, my dad wins another free coffee, but Fabian’s cup is a bust.

In his excitement, my dad drives back to Tim Hortons, gets two more cups of coffee. My dad likes to reheat his coffee in the microwave after dinner: that saves him returning to Hepworth before heading out the door to shoot pool on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Later that night, while watching television, he rolls up the rim on both cups.

They’re both winners, so my father has two more free cups of coffee waiting for him the next morning at Tim Hortons. The plan is to meet Fabian for breakfast, then go out searching for beer bottles along the highway. They have a route they work together, bombing down side roads at 110 kilometres an hour; it’s like a newspaper route, except my dad collects empty beer bottles. He can spot a beer bottle in the ditch from 100 yards, and he knows where the farmers drop their empties in the field on a regular basis; give him twenty minutes, and he can put together a case of empties for you, any day of the week. Fabian’s just there to jump out of the truck.

At breakfast, my dad gives one of his coffees to Fabian, keeping the other for himself. He rolls up his rim, wins another free coffee. That’s six in a row. Just before Fabian rolls up his own rim, he thinks better of it, hands the cup to my father instead. My dad rolls up the rim for Fabian. It’s another free coffee. My dad has the magic touch, like being able to drop a nickel into a slot machine just the right way. After seven winning rims, even the staff at Tim Hortons takes notice: he’s the man with the golden thumb; the King Midas of coffee cups.

My dad and Fabian grab two more coffees, on their way out the door.

Later that night, in the drive-thru lane at Tim Hortons, all thumbs at his crotch, my dad rolls up another winner. The woman at the pick-up window tells my father, Everybody’s talking about this hot streak you’re on, Bob. You gotta be the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in town.

She figures he’s going to win the Camry…but after eight rims in a row, he’s not so sure.

It’s kind of embarrassing, when he shows up for lunch the next afternoon, presenting his ninth winning rim. He orders a soup and sandwich combo, setting his free cup of coffee over on the next table. To be honest, it makes him slightly uncomfortable to look at, so he stretches out a newspaper while eating his lunch. The restaurant is packed, but nobody says anything to my dad. He gets this sense that he is being watched. What will happen next?

Finishing his coffee, he rolls up the rim…and finds another winning cup in his hand.

He tries to act casual about it, but the people around him start clapping.

As he cashes in his tenth winning rim, the girl at the counter touches the side of her nose with the pad of her thumb. It reminds my dad of the way old men from the old country blow their noses out on the street, but the girl at Tim Hortons is too sophisticated for that; she’s just smiling at his good fortune, sharing a glance with my dad. My dad still gets looked at, rather than looked through, which is more than I can say for most men his age, let alone my own age.

But then, he’s always been a bit of a flirt; everybody loves a confident man, and my dad is nothing if not comfortable in his own skin, even while mucking around out in the bush.

For the next month, until the end of March, my dad rolls up at least half a dozen winning rims each day. He drinks coffee for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and usually after dinner as well, but people start coming up to him on the street, asking him to roll up the rims of their cups.

He’s a minor celebrity around Sauble Beach, thanks to Tim Hortons.

My dad regularly stumbles across the unexpected, while collecting bottles. More than once, he’s dragged home a set of golf clubs, a pair of pants, figure skates, a kite, or snowshoes. But during the “Roll Up the Rim to Win” promotion, everywhere he turns, my dad finds unrolled cups; unrolled cups, waiting to be revealed as winning rims.

He finds unrolled cups in the parking lot of Tim Hortons; in the ditch behind the arena; in the trash can outside the post office; on the sidewalk in front of the drugstore.

He finds unrolled cups washed ashore, down at the lake; while searching for beer bottles in the forest beside the post office in Hepworth; even while scouting for turkeys along the muddy concession side roads that thread Upper Bruce County from Hepworth, Ontario, all the way north to Tobermory, on the tip of Bruce Peninsula.

My dad rolls up so many cups, his thumbnail goes red, and every single one is a winner.

The words WIN/GAGNEZ UN CAFÉ/COFFEE come to leave him cold.

He wins so many free cups of coffee, he starts throwing rims in the garbage.

Even with Fabian at his side, the two of them can only drink so much coffee in a day.

If my dad handed out winning rims while in the line-up at Tim Hortons, they’d probably ban him from the restaurant for the duration of the contest, and rightfully so.

After his 200th winning rim, the owner of the Hepworth franchise comes over and asks my father if they can speak privately. The franchise owner gestures toward a small office at the back of the restaurant, discreetly leading my dad away from the menu counter.

At first, my dad thinks the guy might be trying to pick him up, making small talk in the back office about the restaurant business. Then my father realizes the franchise owner wants to talk with him about him winning his 200th free cup of coffee in the last month. Would my father mind having his picture taken for the local newspaper? Two women from corporate headquarters have been staying at the Golden Eagle Cottages in Sauble Beach, hoping to meet him.

They want to see him do his trick with the coffee cups, rolling up a winner every time.

My dad isn’t too thrilled about having his photo taken, but he figures, what the hell: since he retired from the O.P.P., when’s the last time anybody asked him to be in the newspaper? What harm could it do, since he left both the police force and Northwestern Ontario so long ago?

Two young ladies walk into the office, and introduce themselves, Paulette and Pauline. Twin sisters, they both work for the marketing department at Tim Hortons. My dad immediately thinks, IVF babies. The sisters are friendly enough, but after shaking hands all around, my father asks, Am I in some kind of trouble? Which causes both of the sisters to burst out laughing.

Oh God, no! they tell him. You’re famous; down in Oakville, we call you Quantum Bob.

Quantum Bob?

Paulette asks my father, have you heard of Schrodinger’s cat?

My dad shakes his head.

Paulette and Pauline take turns explaining: Schrodinger’s cat is a famous thought experiment where a cat sits in a box, along with a vial of poison. The vial of poison is connected to a particle of radioactive subatomic matter. If the radioactive subatomic matter decays, the vial of poison is cracked open, killing the cat. But since you can’t know if the radioactive subatomic matter has decayed without opening the box to observe the situation, until you open the box, the cat is both dead AND alive, simultaneously, because the vial of poison could be either cracked open, or still intact: the outcome of the experiment ultimately depends on the observer, and that is a paradox, in that there is no single outcome of the experiment, unless it is observed.

How can the cat be both dead AND alive? my father asks. Either the particle of matter is decayed, or else it isn’t: that’s just common sense. Like in nature: the birds and the bees.

At the subatomic level, physics works differently, Pauline tells him.

Quantum indeterminacy, Paulette reassures him.

What they call a superposition of states, Pauline explains quantum mechanics to my dad, Until the observer himself causes the situation to collapse from multiple simultaneous states, into a single set state, subatomic particles have the characteristics of ALL possible states.

My father takes off his baseball cap, scratches his head for a bit. His brain feels itchy.

Pauline unlocks a briefcase, removes a sleeve of red cups. She hands the coffee cups to her sister, who hands them to the franchise owner, who inspects them for a moment, eyeing them like an audience member called to the stage by a travelling magician, before handing the cups to my father, and waiting for the sisters to continue with their presentation.

That’s 48 “Roll Up the Rim to Win” cups, still in the packaging; you have a one-in-six chance of rolling up a winner, Paulette explains, so you should be able to pull eight winning rims out of that stack, and one of THOSE will likely be a donut, not even a coffee.

Until you roll up the rim, each cup is either a winner, or not a winner. We have a theory that you exist in some sort of quantum bubble, Bob, where every single cup is a winner, because YOU are the observer. I could roll up the same sleeve of cups, and walk away with seven cups of coffee and a free donut; let’s see what happens when YOU do it, Pauline challenges him.

My dad rolls up the first cup; it’s a winner; free coffee.

My dad rolls up the second cup; it’s a winner; free coffee.

My dad rolls up the third cup; it’s a winner; free coffee.

My dad rolls up all 48 cups; each and every one is a winner; free coffee, no donuts.

He doesn’t even bother to rip the tags from the cups; he just hands the cups back to the franchise owner, who hands them to Paulette, who hands them to Pauline for verification of the phenomenon; rolling up 48 winning rims in a row, but no free donuts, just coffee.

That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed, Pauline tells my dad.

Like watching the hand of God rig a game of dice, Paulette concurs, Einstein would have had a nervous breakdown, meeting you. By 1926, he was already spooked by some of the deeper implications of quantum mechanics; you would have scared the pants off him.

Out in the parking lot, my dad thinks, I exist in a quantum bubble. Well, Fabian’ll get a chuckle out of that, next time we sit down to play cards. Fat lot of good it’s done me, otherwise.

As he tucks Paulette and Pauline’s business card into the breast pocket of his jacket, for safekeeping, my dad suddenly remembers the cat he buried at the start of the month, on the first day of the “Roll Up the Rim to Win” promotion; the cat in the box, in the forest behind the arena. Sitting in his truck, hand on his heart, he immediately knows what he has to do.

He drives over to the recreation centre, gets his shovel out the back of his truck.

He removes the stones marking the cat’s grave, digs up the cardboard box he buried a month earlier. Opening the cardboard box, unwrapping the towel, he discovers the kitten gazing at him with a stunned look on its face, waiting to be rescued. The cat is weak, but alive. Literally, five ounces of black-and-white fluff, resting in the palm of my father’s hand.

Anybody else would call you Lucky, my dad tells the kitten, but you look like a real little rascal to me and so that’s what I’m going to call you: Rascal P. Coltrane, the cat who came back.

Then my dad stuffs the kitten in the front pocket of his jeans, and smuggles Rascal home.

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