Winning Numbers - Rob Granader

            What’s the first thing you would do if you won a million dollars? It wasn’t a question Ray asked or answered. Which was surprising for a guy who played the numbers five days a week. So, when $850,000 showed up in their bank account ‒ because you always take the lump sum, never the fifteen-year payout ‒ he only wanted to spend it as fast as he could.
            At first, he and his wife, Marti, did all the things expected by their friends. He bought stupid shit like a Jet Ski, even though they didn’t live near water. She bought matching sweatsuits for a family reunion that wasn’t planned. He got a new Ford F-150. And for a full week, they went out for lobster every night.
            But the restlessness that drove him to Rick’s Liquor to buy Lotto tickets each day of the week was still there. The unease of life pushed him off the road to stop for “just a couple of beers” after lunch before getting behind the wheel. The incomplete feeling still settled inside of him even as the money arrived and then began to dissipate.
            Marti mostly bought things for her family, helped her sisters with the groceries, didn’t skimp on the Little Debbies anymore. But after a couple of weeks, she wanted more. Not more stuff, not more money, but more security. Isn’t that what millionaires have?
            “Maybe we should see one of them lawyers,” she said to Ray. “One that’s been callin’.”
            “You can call ’em all you want,” Ray told her. “They just callin’ for your money. They never called before.”
            “We didn’t have no money before,” she said.
            “Exactly,” he said. Ray called their purchases “upgradin’.” Just getting better stuff like new TVs and one of them speakers you can carry around the house.
            But Marti was worried it would run out. “He’s actin’ like he’s trying to spend it all,” she told her sister Bonnie.
            “He cain’t spend a million dollars,” Bonnie said.
            But he can, Marti thought.
            Ray also upped his spending on Lotto tickets from five a day to ten, then twenty, then one hundred, and by the time the Jet Ski arrived in the driveway, he was spending $500 a day on tickets.
            “You ain’t gonna win again,” Rick would say to him when the line at Rick’s Liquor got too long as they waited for the machine to spit out tickets, the rat-tat-tat of the machine drowning out the store noise and everyone else’s patience. Soon the ink would blur and go blank, and Rick would open the top to change it while waiting customers groaned.
            “I’m buyin’ ’em,” Ray would say, “it’s your job to sell ’em. Now sell ’em.”
            “You ain’t gonna win again is all I’m saying,” Rick said, noticing the increase in spending.
            Ray was pretty sure Rick was just sore because the winning ticket wasn’t bought at Rick’s but instead at the 7‑Eleven down the street. “Maybe if you’d hurry up, I wouldn’t have to go someplace else to buy ’em,” Ray said.
            Rick focused on changing the ink in the machine. He knew too well that arguing with a man who was drunk before lunchtime was not a winning strategy for him or his business or the other customers in line.
            “You know I ain’t won nuthin’ yet,” Ray added. below the din of the machine.
            Later that afternoon Ray woke to his wife’s angry voice. “When you gonna quit?” Marti asked him when she found him asleep at the wheel of his new truck parked in their driveway.
            He wiped the drool from his cheek and some that slipped down to the steering wheel where the word FORD was engraved and his saliva pooled. “What time is it?” he asked. “The numbers been picked yet?”
            “You always said if you ever won the Lotto, you would quit work as soon as you could,” she said. “And now you can.”
            “I cain’t,” he said, resting his head on his forearm.
            “You can but you ain’t,” she said.
            They all expected he would quit. All the guys who drove long haul back and forth to Pittsburgh. The guys he’d see at the bar or he’d meet at the lunch truck when he wasn’t drinking at noon. They all said they’d walk away if they won, told him that’s what they would do. But he didn’t wanna quit. Not yet.
            “What would you do?” he asked her with a sadness in his voice she didn’t recognize. “Would you quit?”
            “Why are you still playing the Lotto?” she asked. “You already won.”
            “I gotta win,” he said quietly.
            “But why are you doin’ it?” she asked. “You play to win. Winning is getting the money. You already got the money. So why are you playin’?”
            He knew the best part of his day was going to Rick’s and buying them tickets. And then, of course, the waiting. Waiting to see if he’d won, ’til the numbers were announced later that night. And maybe he was close, only a couple numbers off, and like a good golf shot, that morsel of good news propelled him to the next day, maybe encouraged a change of strategy, alter the numbers, vary the last one.
            He couldn’t give that up. Marti had just been lucky.
            Later that night, sitting at the kitchen table, Marti yelled into the next room: “How many tickets you buyin’?” The television was screaming at a volume that was not meant to hear the show as much as it was to drown her out.
            “Five hundred,” he said too quietly for her to hear. “And maybe more tomorrow.”
            “You’re in early,” Rick said the following day when Ray walked through the door just after ten in the morning. Ray usually came in later, smelling like he just finished the six-pack he’d started at lunch.
            “Feelin’ lucky,” Ray said.
            “It’s better now,” Rick said. “The morning is better because it’s quiet, and no one needs to wait for Bertha to spit out your five hundred tickets.”
            “I’m glad it works for you,” Ray said.
            While Bertha belched out tickets, Rick rang him up. “You gettin’ beer, too?” Rick asked. “I know it’s a little early.”
            “Hell, yeah, I’m getting beer. Ever heard of ice?” Ray said.
            “Fine,” Rick said and he punched at the cash register. Ray plugged his card into the reader. A moment later he grabbed it back, and just as he was putting it into his wallet, a sound came from the machine as a warning, not a welcome. “What the hell, Ray?”
            “What?” he answered.
            “Put the card back in,” Rick said.
            Again Ray stuck it into the machine, fiddled a little with it, but the same warning buzzed out.
            “Your card don’t work,” Rick said.
            “Unless you charged me a million bucks, then it works,” Ray said.
            “It don’t work,” Rick said.
            “It’s your machine,” Ray said.
            “It says you’re out of money,” Rick said.
            “Jesus Christ, Rick, you want me to start buying my tickets at the 7‑Eleven, too? Maybe it’s luckier over there.”
            “Try it again,” Ray said. But after another try and another, it still didn’t work.
            “You know I’m good for it,” Ray said.
            Rick nodded slowly.
            “Don’t I deserve a break?” Ray asked. “I just need a break.”
            “You’re a millionaire,” Rick said.
            “You know that ain’t mine,” Ray said. “I didn’t earn it.”
            “Who earns it?” Rick said. “Your wife was just lucky. And if your number comes up, it’s because you were lucky too.”
            “So I’m not lucky,” Ray said.
            “It’s not a game of skill,” Rick said. “Life is not a game of skill, that’s all I’m saying.”
            “But I deserve to win,” Ray said. “I deserve it so much more than she does.”
            “We all know that.”
            “And that’s what makes me so sad, I mean mad.”
            “You know I never do this, but I already printed ’em out. So, you can come back tomorrow and give me a new card or something,” Rick said.
            Rick’s brother-in-law was sitting on a milk crate just behind the counter, flipping through a Playboy. “Maybe ask your wife for some more of that money,” the brother-in-law said without looking up from his reading.
            Ray hadn’t seen him. He looked around, confused, and then exploded, charging the brother-in-law, sending packs of gum and tiny flashlights flying off the counter.
            Rick jumped in between them, pushing Ray back to the other side.
            “Ray, you’re a friend,” Rick said. “Now come back tomorrow with the money.” Looking at his brother-in-law, Rick added, “And you shut the hell up.”
            That night Ray finished his beer in the truck before walking into his house. He’d seen Marti’s sister’s car in the drive and decided he needed more beer in his blood before walking into an array of bags filled with girl junk. As he stumbled through the door, Marti yelled from the kitchen, “Is that you?”
            He could hear Bonnie and Megan laughing in the other room, a jug of white zinfandel on the kitchen table. “How was your night?” Marti asked, hoping he would follow her lead of cheerfulness. He didn’t look at them and kept shuffling.
            “Hey, Ray,” one or both of the sisters said.
            But he walked straight into the living room, turned on the TV and turned up the volume.
            Marti gave them a look and shook her head.
            “Where’s the money?” Ray shouted a moment later.
            “You guys better go,” Marti said softly.
            “Where’s the money?” he yelled again.
            “What money?”
            “The lottery money.”
            “It’s there,” she said. “You know, in the bank.”
            “Well, it ain’t because I couldn’t get no money out,” he said.
            “Did you spend everything in your account already?”
            With a flick of his finger, the television went silent.
            “I didn’t know I had a limit,” he said, staggering up from his chair.
            “Everyone has a limit, hun,” she said.
            “I thought one mil was my limit,” he said.
            “Well, I don’t think we want to spend it all.”
            He looked into the kitchen. The table was filled with bags from Walmart, T-shirts and socks pouring out of them.
            “You puttin’ me on a budget?” he said. “I never put you on a budget.”
            “I always had a budget,” she said. “A budget based on how much you made.”
            “And now I’m on a budget based on how much you made?” he shouted.
            “We’d better go,” one of the sisters said.
            Marti’s face dropped a little and then nodded as her sisters left. They gathered the bags from the table. Marti waited until they were out the front door before returning to meet Ray’s glare.
            “I don’t want to run outta money,” she said, now talking as loudly as he. “I don’t wanna be poor.”
            “And the money I make made you poor?”
            “We spent everything you made.”
            “You didn’t make this Lotto money,” he said. “You don’t make more than me.”
            “I know I didn’t, it’s luck.”
            “And you have it,”
            “We have it!”
            “I play Lotto every goddam day and don’t win nuthin’. You play once, and you win the goddamn jackpot. You get the article in the paper. You get the big check,” Ray said, his voice cracking.
            “We get it,” she said again.
            “No, we don’t,” he said, slamming an empty beer can to the ground. “They all know I didn’t win it. I get an allowance.”
            The following day Ray slept late. The sun was up, and the room was midday lit when Marti found him sitting up and rubbing his temples. “You still here?”
            “What time is it?” he asked.
            “You slept through your alarm,” she said.
            “I’m not goin’ in.”
            “Did ya quit?”
            “Maybe now they’ll fire me.”
            “You don’t want it to end like that.”
            “They’re expectin’ me to quit anyway.”
            “Then go in and quit, but don’t get fired for showin’ up late,” she said. “Don’t leave on bad terms.”
            “They’re my terms,” he said, “so they ain’t bad.”
            “If they fire you, it’s their terms. You know why all those Lotto winners quit their jobs? Because it feels good.”
            He pounded his fist into the mattress before kicking his feet over the side of the bed and stomping into the bathroom. The next time Marti saw him was in the basement of County Hospital.
            Marti was at the grocery with her sisters when the call came in. She didn’t recognize the number, but she thought maybe it was the lawyer she’d called earlier in the day, the one the lottery people said she should talk to. But it was one of the police at the hospital. He and his partner were the first ones on the scene. They couldn’t trace the truck because it still had temporary plates, which got shredded from the fire hose and washed away.
            She pieced together his last hour from three stories: Rick, the police chief, and Kishor at the 7‑Eleven. Ray had gone to Rick’s, who wouldn’t sell him more tickets because he still owed money from the previous day. “Maybe you are the unlucky one,” were the last words he said to Rick. Then he drove down to the 7‑Eleven.
            “He was drunk,” Kishor said.
            “How do you know that?” the police had asked.
            “He said very mean things,” Kishor said. “He yelled at us, he said we ruin his life. He wanted tickets but he had no money. I need money for the tickets, I told him.”
            “So he didn’t buy any tickets?” Marti asked.
            “I could not sell him tickets,” Kishor said. “He did not have money.”
            “And then what?” the police had asked him.
            Ray left the 7‑Eleven, got into his new truck, and drove it with outsized force through the plate glass front of the store. The chief said it was an accident. “He put the car into drive instead of reverse. It rammed through the front window of the store. The force sheared off the top of the truck, and the neon Budweiser sign crashed down into the car, electrocuting Ray again and again and again.”
            “I don’t think he wanted to hurt me,” Kishor said. “I think he just tried to leave. He was very drunk.”
            “I want to see the truck,” Marti said.
            They brought her to the dump where his truck lay, headless, the rain washing the inside. She climbed into the front seat, shattered glass, debris from the store ceiling, and stacks of soggy Lotto tickets. It was an accident, she told herself. No way he would ruin this new truck. She found more tickets in the glove box and brought all the soiled tickets home and hung them from the shower curtain rod with laundry clips.
            When the numbers were drawn that night, she wrote them down and brought the paper into the bathroom, where she checked the hundreds of tickets. Her heart pounded as she ticked them off, one, then another, through the long lineup. Marti was halfway through the string of tickets when she found the winner. “Oh, my God,” she said quietly to herself. “He won.” She carefully pulled the ticket from the stream and called Bonnie to meet her at Rick’s. When she pulled into the near-empty parking lot, tears filled her eyes. If he only knew, if only he knew.
            “He won,” she said, screaming as she ran up to her sister, waving the ticket in the air. “He won.” They hugged, and now Bonnie cried too. They went inside and told Rick he was gonna get a good payoff.
            “Who won?” he asked, pouring them each a double whiskey from an open bottle he kept behind the counter.
            “Ray won this time,” she said.
            Rick studied the ticket while they drank. “You know I didn’t sell him nuthin’ today,” Rick said.
            “But this ticket was bought here, right?” Marti asked.
            Slowly Rick looked up at the women, who’d already finished their drinks. “These tickets are from last month,” he said. “These ain’t winning numbers.”
            “They are,” Marti said.
            “These are old.” Bonnie said, looking at the date on the ticket.
            “He lost,” Rick said.
            “He won,” Marti said back at Rick.
            “The numbers are from the wrong day,” he said. “Today’s drawing can’t match last month’s ticket.”
            “He picked the winning number,” she said.
            “That ain’t how it works,” Rick said.
            “How what works?” she said. “Luck? Luck only happens on a single day?”
            “The Lotto,” Bonnie said. “You cain’t just bring in an old ticket and call it a winner.”
            “Yeah,” Rick said. “It’s a loser.”
            And then, looking at the two of them, she paused and took in a deep breath and said: “He died a winner, you hear? He picked the winning numbers. Luck don’t happen on the day you decide. He hoped for it. He worked for it. He got it.”
            “That ain’t how luck works,” Rick said.
            “Says who?” Marti said. “Says who?”

Rob Granader is an English major from Michigan who went to Washington, DC to cover Capitol Hill and ended up running a Market Research company. But with a wife, three kids and a growing company, writing slipped off the burner until he moved the family to London and the light was back. Nearly 400 articles, essays and short stories later and with the kids off in college, he writes through leadership in the business space, a blog about the mysteries of middle age and short stories about the mysteries of, well, everything. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine, New York Times, Blue Lake Review, borrowed solace, Doubly Mad: A Journal of Arts and Ideas, Mariashriver.com, and Umbrella Factory. Rob has written more than sixty publications, but there are those white whales out there still.