Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Lottery Ticket - A short story

The Lottery TicketBy Roy L. Pickering Jr.
Copyright by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Giving up on relationships used to come easily to me. You see, I didn’t believe in wasting time. In most getting-to-know-you type situations I was able to tell within fifteen minutes whether the woman I was kicking it to was worth the effort of further pursuit. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not referring to strictly sexual interest. When it came to that, it only took me about five minutes to determine whether a young lady could be sweet talked into my bedroom. By the time I reached my thirty-fifth birthday, however, one night stands had lost much of their appeal. Call it growing up, or perhaps merely diminished enthusiasm over the idea of exclusively physical encounters. I’d had more than my share of fast and furious hook-ups in the past. Their entertainment value was no longer what it used to be. So I began looking for something more substantial. I felt I was at last ready for a courtship with potential. To accomplish my new goal, I developed a sophisticated screening system. I asked the women I met pointed questions that cut straight to the chase. I bypassed small talk and went directly to investigative communication. Since interviewing people is part of what I do to make a living, making the transition from my professional dealings to my personal life was relatively effortless.

The technique I devised served me well. It alienated women who were cautious about baring their soul so soon, which was okay by me, because I wasn’t interested in the guarded type. I was perfectly willing to open up right away about who I was, what I dreamt of, what I longed for. If a woman didn’t share this in common with me, I didn’t give a rewarding relationship with her much chance. Why start up what was destined to finish? When my forthright manner scared a woman off, I figured it was better to ascertain incompatibility right off the bat than taking the slow scenic route to the same disappointing destination.

Plenty of women weren’t intimidated by my strong approaches. To the contrary, they found my style refreshingly distinctive. I stood out from the pack of wolves drooling over their every move because I expressed sincere interest in matters other than how to get into their jeans. The fact that I was often the lone wolf with concerns other than sex on the brain had the effect of making me more appealing than I ever imagined I could be. Yet although the candidates were plentiful, I would find each of them lacking in some fundamental way and have to continue my search. I was frequently told that I was being too picky. But how can one’s criteria be too exclusionary when it comes to selecting a life partner? I wanted it all because I felt I deserved it all. To see it any other way would have been a disservice to myself.

Beauty lies everywhere, particularly in this sleepless city of super sized dreams that I reside in. So it could only serve as a portion of the equation, of no lesser or greater value than the others. I also sought intelligence, and compassion, and sensuality, and spirituality, and confidence, and independence, and humor, and ambition, and humility, and tenderness. Like I said, I wanted it all. Within fifteen minutes, give or take a few, I was able to calculate how much of these qualities a woman had to offer. Far more often than not, a lovely and pleasant woman would fail to adequately stimulate my interest. This left me with nothing to do but cut the conversation and my losses short. No hard feelings, at least not on my part. Every minute spent with someone I had ruled out of contention was one that could be better utilized by moving on to someone new. I knew the right girl for me was out there. I just had to keep plucking strands of hay from the stack until my needle was unearthed.

“You look at honies the way you look at your lottery tickets,” my best friend Terrell would say every now and again. “How much money have you squandered on the pipe dream of getting rich in one quick strike? Twice a week every week for how long has it been now?”

“Over fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years.” Terrell shook his head, one twist to the left, one to the right, then back to the left again. I had seen the gesture of exasperation from him countless times, most often when somebody on the Knicks had missed a late game jumper. “Do you have any idea how much money that adds up to?”

“Actually yes, I have done the math. Not nearly enough to make me anywhere near wealthy. But it’s a chunk of change I wouldn’t refuse if you offered it to me.”

“You could have been putting that money into a retirement account, or investing it, or putting it into a savings account and earning interest.” Terrell paid his bills by advising people on what to do with their money, so I understood that when it came to delivering such lectures, he couldn’t help himself. “Hell, you could have been putting all of those dollar bills under your mattress and sleeping lopsided but soundly. But to just squander it. What kind of sense does that make?”

“The law of averages will work to my advantage sooner or later,” was the line of logic I typically employed as rebuttal. “I play the same six numbers every time. Eventually they’ll hit. It’s inevitable. I’ve had some pretty close calls. The day I stop playing those numbers is the day they’ll come up.”

“Close calls and two bucks will get you a subway ride around the city, Dale.”

“Well, I do love to travel.”

Terrell would shake his head again, then concede that it was my inalienable right to spend or throw my money away however and wherever I saw fit. “Wasting money is one thing,” he’d conclude. “But throwing away the opportunities you’ve had to be with so many fine women truly boggles the mind.”

“I know who I want,” I would explain for the tenth, or fiftieth, or hundredth time. “It’s just a matter of finding her, whoever she is. And I know I will find her. I just have to be patient, and persistent, and steadfast.”

“And knuckleheaded.”

We would laugh and then move on to other subjects, such as the exploits of our favorite sports teams; workplace accomplishments and frustrations; the latest achievements by Terrell’s ridiculously bright daughter, Briana; the most recent acts of mischief by his precocious son, Stephon; or the latest committee joined by his beautiful activist wife, Anita. Terrell had found what he was looking for in life. My own expedition was still ongoing.

It seems like yesterday, but my world is now scarcely recognizable from what it looked like then, when Terrell and I were sipping after work cocktails at a trendy midtown bar owned by the latest rags to riches rap star who had come to dominate the music charts by rhyming about the women he’d laid and the enemies he had conquered. As usual, I thoroughly scoped the place out to see who most piqued my interest. Fortuitously enough, she was standing directly to my right hand side. I introduced myself. Five minutes of conversation passed in a heartbeat and the intrigue remained. After fifteen minutes I was charmed by all I had learned about Heather and anxious to know more. Three hours later, Terrell long departed by then, Heather told me that since the next day was a workday, it was time for her to head home.

“Can I get your phone number?” I asked, full of hope that this could lead to something extraordinary.

“Only if I can have yours in return.”

“You have yourself a deal, Heather.”

She gave me her business card, but I didn’t have one of my own handy. I looked through my wallet for a scrap of paper that could be spared. Two lottery tickets turned up. One had been purchased the prior weekend and I already knew it to be a loser, but had neglected to throw it away. The second had been purchased earlier that day. I squinted in the dull neon lighting of the bar to determine which ticket was the worthless one that I could write my phone number on. That’s when my cell phone rang.

“Yep, I’m still here. Yeah, she’s right next to me. Let me call you back in a bit, Terrell. Later, partner.”

I gave the paper I had written my phone number on to Heather. Her cute shy friend Lisa, who had remained in the bar for much longer than she cared to while Heather and I were getting to know each other, was a tad irritable by that point and now had one foot literally out the door.

“Heather, are you coming?”

“I’ll give you a call,” I said.

“Until then, I guess.”

“Until then.” The mirror behind the bar reflected the goofy grin I was unable to wipe from my face. I liked this girl and was curious to see how much more I might come to like her.

There were unfortunate instances when my screening system would fail. On these occasions, a woman who at first seemed to be a perfect match for me would prove herself within a date or two to be anything but. The woman who had visually and intellectually seduced me on first meeting would turn out to be a mirage. In a one-on-one setting over a candle lit dinner, her considerable flaws would come to harsh light and I would realize that I had been duped. Better late than never to discover my mistake, it was easy enough to avoid compounding the error of my initial poor judgment. No point in getting into deeper water when the sensible plan of action was swimming to shore. A kiss on the cheek at the end of such an evening would effectively nip the acquaintance in the bud.

I took Heather out to dinner on a Saturday night, two days after we first met. High expectations had been set. They would not be met. Instead, every twist and turn of our conversation led to disappointment.

“This is a tough menu for me to choose from. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Is that right?” I asked, fully intending to order a rib eye steak, medium rare.

“It isn’t just for humane reasons, though that’s certainly a major factor. I don’t think people are careful enough about what they put into their bodies. Monitoring your cholesterol level is a very serious issue. I won’t even get into mad cow disease, but trust me, it’s only a matter of time before those diseased animals make it into our restaurants and supermarkets.”

“Until they come up with mad broccoli disease, I guess you should be safe.”

My humor changed the subject, not that it succeeded in producing laughter or even a smile, but subsequent topics were not improvements.

“Did you see the stunt pulled by Britney, Beyonce, Pink, and Cher the other day? When will these beautiful young women, and Cher, stop exploiting their bodies for shock value? They’re sending the message to young girls that being intelligent and talented isn’t enough for a woman. The only way they can keep our attention is by showing us what their mothers and plastic surgeons gave them.”

I knew better than to confess that I had been rather entertained by the award show grind session she was referring to. It was clear enough that this would stir up feminist issues for Heather to rant about. No matter what I said, even if I agreed with her ninety nine percent, I strongly suspected that the one percent of dissent would cause me to be branded as a male chauvinist pig.

“I haven’t caught much TV lately,” served for what I thought was a safe reply. “Too many reality TV programs and award shows for my taste. I pretty much watch TV for just news and sports. The Jets let me down this year, but I think my Knicks will go far.”

“I loathe sports. They turn men into zombies transfixed by a bunch of millionaires running around with a ball. If I want to see people sweat on television, I’d much prefer to watch Survivor. Or Fear Factor. Or American Idol. Or any of those shows. I must confess that I find them all very addicting.”

It had become blatantly evident that we were nowhere close to being on the same wavelength. I was amazed that she had managed to give all of the right answers during our first conversation, yet was now giving nothing but wrong ones. Clearly I needed to do some tinkering with my screening process to make it cover a broader range of subject matter. I had eaten a light lunch the day I first met Heather and thought we vibed so well. Perhaps the alcohol later consumed made me less clear headed than I’d thought I was. I promised myself to drink glasses of water in between stiffer beverages in the future.

“My friend Lisa who was with me when we met teases me all the time about my reality TV obsession. But the way I figure, those shows are a pleasant diversion from news about the unnecessary war that our undeserving President forced us into.”

I definitely knew better than to go there. Talking politics on a first date is never a good idea, even if you intend it to also be your last date with the person. Suffice it to say that Heather and I were of differing opinions on the president’s use of military force. My physical attraction to Heather had not subsided. To the contrary, she was even prettier on second sighting. She possessed many other admirable qualities as well. Heather was a wonderful woman for some lucky guy to find. But I would be taking a pass on being that guy. If I had any uncertainty about this, it went away when she informed me that she would be popping outside between dinner and dessert to satisfy her cigarette craving. I was not amused by the hypocrisy of her chiding me for the food I put into my body while she insisted on inhaling tobacco into her own. And very few things were as much of a turn off for me as kissing a woman with cigarette breath. So I hurried the date along to its conclusion, escorted her home, then turned away from her doorway, certain that by design I would never see Heather again.

When I arrived home that night, I fed my cat Charlemagne to whom I now knew Heather would be allergic, sorted through my mail, then turned on my computer and went online. After reading a few emails, sending out a couple, and deleting several that promised to help decrease my debt and increase my girth, I went to the state lottery website to see what the day’s winning numbers were. That’s when my jaw dropped and my life changed.

2-9-17-25-48-53. There they were on my computer screen, the sweetest digits I had ever seen. I’d been playing them twice a week, fifty two weeks per year, for the last fifteen plus years. Now at long last they had hit. Either I was the co-winner, or better yet, the sole winner of sixty-two million dollars! Not capable of caring less about the annoyance of my extremely sound sensitive upstairs neighbor, I shouted for joy. Tears were shed and a victory dance was performed as visions of my future appearance on MTV Cribs, pointing out the best features of my tricked out mansion, went racing through my giddy head.

Eventually I stopped hooting and hollering, and my upstairs neighbor stopped pounding on his floor / my ceiling. I took a deep breath to steady myself, then pulled out my wallet and removed the lottery ticket within it. I gazed lovingly at the six printed numbers that matched those on the computer screen. Would I purchase a Hummer and then a Bentley, or the other way around? The dilemmas of the rich and ecstatic. Then my celebratory mood abruptly ended.

“What the hell?”

The date on my ticket was wrong. It belonged to Wednesday, three days earlier, when another six numbers entirely had been drawn. This ticket was an expired loser. What I needed was the one I had bought on Thursday for the Saturday drawing. I glanced through my wallet again, but there was no sign of another lottery ticket. Slower and closer examination of my wallet and its emptied contents produced nothing but frustration.

I was no stranger to the concept of misplacing useful or valuable items. If given a nickel for every time my remote control went temporarily missing, winning the lottery would not have been necessary to make me a wealthy man. My keys went AWOL at least twice a week. My sunglasses, my watch, and various other paraphernalia often played an annoying game of hide and seek with me as well. Some people would no doubt label me scatterbrained, but I’d read once that such behavior was a sign of genius, and that sounded much better. I had never misplaced a lottery ticket before, but there was a first time for everything. So I prepared to play the role of bloodhound and go rooting through every square inch of my apartment.

“Charlemagne, by any chance have you seen a little piece of paper with numbers on it lying around? You didn’t eat it, did you?”

My overweight feline responded with his patented blank stare before smugly turning his back on me. You’d think that providing food, shelter, and a clean litter box would earn a modicum of gratitude, but you would be wrong. I began my search by turning up sofa cushions, because my sofa had an uncanny ability to swallow whole any possession smaller than a microwave oven. That thought reminded me of another good place to look. I’d once found one my cufflinks in the refrigerator. Its partner was later found ensconced in my bed sheets. My apartment often felt too small and I was planning to look for a larger place when the lease ran out. At moments like this one however, the enormity of space to comb felt overwhelming.

“Come on, Charlie. Just give me a hint and I’ll buy you a bunch of new stuff to scratch and shed on.”

The rotund furball again refused to give me a meow of acknowledgment. I got down on my knees to look beneath the sofa. I found that I needed to do some serious dusting under there. And then it suddenly came to me. My memory brought back the scene with razor sharp detail. I now knew precisely where the ticket was. I had mistakenly written on the back of it and given my fortune away to Heather.

Apparently my evaluation of our date needed to be revised. Turns out we would definitely have to go out again. After all, my luxury cars, gargantuan residence, and the yacht I intended to throw phenomenal celebrity attended parties aboard would not be paying for themselves. I had to get that ticket back. Problem was, I couldn’t just point blank ask for it. Heather was no fool. She would suspect that I had a damn good reason for wanting it, soon discover that she held a winning lottery ticket in her possession, and proceed to cash in my destiny. She probably would not figure out on her own that she was sitting on a gold mine. Only if I foolishly tipped her off. I needed to somehow find where she had put the ticket and secretly return it to its rightful owner. Despite the clear signals I had given towards the end of our first date that she really wasn’t my type, I would now need to convince her that I’d had a change of heart. And so our great love affair unfolded, with no less romantic a start than that of Romeo and Juliet, Rhett and Scarlet, or John and Lorena Bobbitt.

“I can’t believe you never told me that’s why you got involved with Heather,” Terrell would say to me nine months later.

“It wasn’t my proudest hour,” I admitted. “I was considerably paranoid about the whole business. And I didn’t think it would take so long to be done with. I figured we would go out a few times, she’d eventually invite me over to her place, and I would casually manage to get her to reveal where the ticket was. But it turned out to be a lot trickier than that to manage, and to take a whole lot longer than I had imagined.”

“Your tie is crooked, Dale. You don’t want to look like a slob today. Too many eyes will be on you, waiting to see if you chicken out.”

“Not a chance of that. I’d be crazy not to marry that woman. She’s the best thing by far ever to happen to me. And as gorgeous as I know she’ll look in her wedding dress, I’m pretty sure she’ll get most of the attention. I do look damn good in this tux, though. You’re looking rather sharp yourself, Terrell.”

“Thank you. As your best man, I figure it’s my duty to be as least as suave as Superfly.”

“I can’t believe you’re still insisting after all these years that he’s cooler than Shaft.”

“By far. So you aren’t nervous at all, Dale?”

“Just the opposite. I can hardly wait to make it official.”

I was charming as could be on my second date with Heather, while she continued to be equally irritating. The more I learned about her, the less appealing she grew. So it took some effort to convince her that I wanted to pursue a relationship. After awhile it took
considerable effort to convince myself that the prize was worth the hassle of the chase. But I would remind myself of the dollar value of the prize, and that would give me the motivation to soldier on.

It was not my intention to hurt Heather. The last thing I wanted was for her to grow attached to me, knowing that I planned to bail the moment I had obtained what I wanted. I didn’t see myself as some sort of playboy, con artist, or money minded lothario. I simply felt that I deserved to get back my lottery ticket and reap the benefits I’d been contributing towards for a decade and a half. A horrible mistake had placed the ticket out of my possession. I needed to fix that mistake expeditiously so Heather and I could both return to our true destinies. Hers was to be a cigarette smoking vegetarian feminist. Mine was to be filthy rich.

Nine months later I stand beside the woman I love, our friends and families looking on. I’ve just been asked if I wish to take her as my wife. Of course I do, and so I say as much. The past several months leading up to this moment have been a chaotic blur, but now all is calm, and right, and good. Fate has blessed me. I glance over towards my best man and best friend. Terrell’s smile beams back at me. We’ve been through a great deal together, being friends since junior high school. A lot of good times have transpired in the intervening years. This one ranks right up there at the top. There’s no more denying it, even if we wanted to. We’re all grown up now. We’re grown men with a couple of amazing women by our sides.

I clasp hands with my brand new bride as we head down the church aisle together.

“I love you so much,” she whispers into my ear as the camera flashes dance about us.

“I love you too, Lisa.”

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. If Terrell’s phone call had not distracted me while I was trying to make out in dim lighting which piece of paper to write my phone number on, I never would have given Heather the wrong lottery ticket. Without doing that, I would not have bothered to see her beyond our first date. After two months of trying somewhat comically to get the ticket back without revealing my objective, I finally gave up and simply asked her if she still had it. When she requested the reason for my query, I admitted that it was a winner and offered to split the money with her. But unfortunately, there was nothing to split. Heather had copied my phone number into her address book on the night we first met, after which she discarded of the ticket. I had considered that she might have done this, so although I was disappointed, it wasn’t especially difficult to accept that I would not become a millionaire. It was actually relief that I felt, because at least there was no longer reason to continue with my masquerade. I did not wish to date Heather any longer, and I told her so. I said that I wished her well, but my heart wasn’t in our relationship because it had been claimed by someone else. Then came my next big confession. While pretending to be Heather’s boyfriend, I had fallen hard for her best friend Lisa.

I didn’t get my mansion, or yacht, or fleet of luxury cars. No fifteen minutes of fame on MTV. Instead, I found a woman to spend the rest of my life with. Not a bad tradeoff. Lisa and I are very happy. Our wedding was a beautiful affair. Regrettably, her friend Heather was unable to attend. I think she’s trying to avoid me. It isn’t that she was devastated by our break up, or by finding out why I had been dating her to begin with. It turns out that she left New York a couple months ago and promptly bought a huge house in California. A wealthy relative passed away and left a substantial amount of money behind as Heather’s inheritance. That’s what she claimed anyway. I suspect otherwise, but I’m not complaining. The way I see it, Heather found her winning lottery ticket, and I found mine.

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