ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Ticket" by John P. Kristofco



The jackpot had risen to $200 million, and enthusiasm for the lottery was heating up. At noon and five-thirty, lines formed at lottery stations across the state. For Gravitz Grocery at the corner of Summers and Graves, it meant a modest, though welcomed, boost in customers.  Its neighborhood had seen less traffic in recent years as shoppers left for the new ‘outdoor mall’ two miles away, and the once trendy Shoppes at Summers had begun to show the fading shades and lines of retail age.

But when the lottery jackpot got interesting, people stopped in to buy tickets. 

Sometimes they also bought milk and bread or maybe  cigarettes, but whenever the number got big, more customers came to Gerald Gravitz’s little grocery on Summers Street, and that made him smile.

Jess Hutchins could see it as he looked into the window, old man Gravitz with thinning gray hair and a white apron tied around his waist.  Sometimes he’d nod at him or even smile, and that made Jess happy.

He knew the grocery and this corner very well.  He sometimes slept out in back where the wall of the Goldleaf Restaurant formed an angle that cut the wind.  Besides, there were often large cardboard boxes broken up out there, and the dumpster used by both businesses was close by. Those had become important resources for him.

Jess Hutchins had been on the streets for almost two years now, brought out by some things he could not have changed, others he might have, and some that he just plain screwed up. By now he was well-versed in the where and how of getting along.

He understood that folks like Gerald Gravitz did not want him by their stores, especially when they were busy, but sometimes, if he paid attention, there might be some old fruit or dated bakery for him at the back door, so he knew how to keep just the right distance.  Today, he sat on a bench at the corner farthest from the door.

Inside, six people stood in the lottery line.  At the front was Emil Moody, a seventy-two year-old whose wife had died three years ago, though he still lived in the big house they bought together forty years back.

“This gonna be the week?” Gerald Gravitz asked as his old friend stepped forward.

“Just like every week,” Moody smiled back, handing over three dollars, the same amount he played every time.

Two trips a week to this small grocery store and a drive to the church and cemetery were about all the getting-out the retired accountant managed any more.  He spent most of his time reading, gardening, or just walking around the town where he had lived his whole life.

“You hear anything from Jenny?” Gerald asked as he punched up the tickets.

Moody shook his head.  “No, not this week.”  His only child, Jennifer, moved out to Arizona with her husband in ’05.  He was a geologist for a huge petroleum company, and she sold real estate.  They never had children.

“She still trying to get you to sell the house?”

Emil smirked.  “Oh heck yes.  Says it’s way too big for me, too much to keep up.  I suppose maybe she’s right.”

“You thinkin’ about it?” the grocer handed him his three tickets.

“Oh no, no.  What would I do?  Where would I go?”

“Out there with her?”

Moody chuckled.  “Arizona?!  What, are you nuts?”

Gerald smiled.  He had heard all this before.

“It’s a hundred damn degrees out there, and they’ve got rocks and sand for lawns for cripe’s sake.”

“But they say it’s a ‘dry heat,’ no?”

Emil Moody threw his hand at his friend. “’Dry heat’ my old ass. A hundred and ten is a hundred and ten, dry, wet, or in between.”

“Didn’t Jenny ask you to go out there with her?”

“Oh, some, at first, right after Donna... well, you know.”

Gravitz nodded.

“But I never thought she meant it, just said it because she figured she should. She hasn’t mentioned that in a long time now anyhow.”

Moody turned to go.

“Well, good luck anyway, Emil.  Hope you win the big one.”

The old accountant reached for the door, shrugged his shoulders. “Oh hell, what would I do with all that money anyway?”

“You could count it a couple times,” Gerald Gravitz laughed out.

Emil waved, opened the door, and walked down toward the corner where Jess Hutchins sat.  Emil had seen him there before, many times.  Hutchins stared a moment but did not ask for money.  Moody walked right past and didn’t say a word.

At the same time, another man walked onto Summers from Graves.  Adam Ellis saw the Lotto sign right beneath ‘Gravitz Grocery’ and paused for a moment.  He had only bought lottery tickets twice before, both times when the jackpot was past $100 million. It’s twice that now, he thought.  Why not?

So he walked over to the store’s glass double doors, noticing someone on the bench at the end of the short block.  He slowed and squinted. That guy really looks familiar.

He paused again then stepped  inside, taking his place behind a short, dark-haired woman who was now fifth in line for lottery tickets.

Ellis was thirty-eight, tall, and showed the benefits of his daily workout routine.  He flashed a well-practiced grin as the woman turned to watch him arrive. She offered a quick scan and returned the smile.  Beside her, a little girl tugged at her arm, stretching out to reach the candy bars displayed  off on the right.

Adam could see the corner bench from his place in line. He bent to look out. I swear I know that guy.

And as he reached down to get his smart phone, it suddenly struck him: That’s Jess Hutchins!  He hadn’t seen Jess since their Washington High School graduation twenty years ago. Jesus!

Adam Ellis had been a mid-range student and athlete back then, but he was very popular, handsome and outgoing.  He went on to earn a degree in business administration and had since made the modest ascent into middle-management with a local furniture chain. By almost any measure he had done ‘all right for himself’ and was more or less satisfied with his world, his three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath colonial on a half-acre out at the edge of town, his school-teacher wife and their two kids, one of whom was already a sophomore in high school.    He drove a two year-old Buick sedan; his wife had a new SUV.  The kids were doing okay in school, and he had recently upgraded the flat-screen t.v. in his basement man cave. 

At the twenty-year reunion that past June, he had seen himself somewhere in the upper middle of his graduating class. Things were going just fine for Adam Ellis.

But Jess Hutchins?  He had always seemed somehow different, somehow ‘special.’

Though a good but not exceptional student then, Hutchins always had a ‘sense’ about him, a confidence, almost a swagger.  He only had a couple friends, was shy and quiet, but on the few occasions he did speak in class or at some meeting, people listened.  It was as if he had been places, seen things, understood things, even though he was born there and grew up right in town just like everyone else.  Most people thought that if anyone in their class would turn out to make a huge splash, make a pile of money like Zuckerberg or  Gates, it was Jess Hutchins.  Certainly he would wind up living in New York or L.A., or at least up in Greenfield Hills, the exclusive neighborhood out at the east end of town.

Adam knew that Jess had been in the Army, which surprised people, though he had a reputation for doing the unexpected.  He knew that Dennis Kelly, a high school friend who enlisted with Jess, had been killed in Afghanistan.  But that was fifteen years ago.

Adam Ellis also remembered hearing something about Becky Hutchins, Jess’s wife, leaving town for Europe with a man named Boykins a couple years back.

He squinted for a better view out the window.  The unkempt figure on the bench was gathered into itself, rocking almost imperceptibly as its shadowy eyes stared out at the street.  Stringy brown hair hung down nearly to the shoulders of a filthy green jacket.

Adam closed his eyes a moment, picturing a student in his senior English class describing what he called the “multi-directional force” of a specific metaphor in a poem. He opened his eyes again, looking out to the bench. Yep, that’s Jess Hutchins all right.

“I do this every week,” a voice startled Adam.  He turned to the woman in front of him.

“I buy three tickets every week,” she smiled brightly.

“Oh, you do?”

“Yes, like a clock.  I’m here every week.  I’m going to win this one of these days.  I just know it.”

“Oh, well, good for you.”  Adam glanced back toward the window.

“Sure am.  Figure I’ve got it coming.”

“How’s that?” he turned back.

The woman tugged at the little girl. “Don’t touch those,” she said, shaking her head.

“Danita here was born with a malformed spine.  She’s only four, but she’s already had three surgeries, and she goes to see a specialist once a month.

“Oh my,” Adam said softly, looking down at the child who he suddenly realized was wearing a brace.

“Yeah,” the woman shook her head. “She’s a real trooper though.”

Ellis smiled.

“Her brother and sister are in school now.”

“Oh, are they?”

“Yeah, and I get one afternoon off a week, so we get to spend some time.”

“How nice.”

“I work over at the Giant Store on Triskett.”

“Giant Store….?”

“Yeah.  It’s one of those big discount places.”

“Oh, I see.”

The man at the front of the line finished his transaction and left with four tickets.

The others moved up.

“Yeah, been there for three years.”

“You don’t say.”

“Ever since her father flew the coop.”

Adam paused.  “Flew the coop?”

The woman pursed her lips and nodded.  “The no good son of a bi…” she looked down at the little girl. “Her father left just after her first birthday, found some tootsie in Tulsa.”

Ellis suppressed a laugh.

“He was a long-haul driver, still is as far as I know.  Tulsa was one of his regular runs. Seems like for a time there he was delivering more than ceramics and power tools.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”  He looked back over to the bench.

“Tell me about it.  I had to start working to support the four of us, so I got a job over at the Giant. My cousin Darlene works there, so she helped me get in.”

“Good for you.”

“Well, not quite good enough it seems.”  She tugged on Danita’s arm again. “They don’t pay very much, and old long-haul didn’t leave a penny behind. Now he’s stopped paying the child support he supposed to send.  I haven’t seen anything in six months, so I’ve had to take in some sewing, but even with that it’s a mighty tight squeeze.”

Adam Ellis’s pocket buzzed.  He took out his phone and checked the message, but the woman, now looking off in the distance, kept on.

“I barely have enough to get by any more, and just last week the furnace started making noises like it’s about to surrender.  She looked toward Gerald Gravitz one person beyond her at the counter.

“I don’t know what the hell I’ll do if that furnace gives up the ghost.”

Ellis nodded absently, sliding the phone back in his pocket.

“So that’s why I’m here every week,” she continued assertively. “It’s about the only ‘other’ I allow myself.  But I look at it as an investment; you know what I mean?”

Adam did not.

“I figure it’s my turn for something good to happen.  But like they say, you gotta play to win, no?”

He looked at the short, dark-haired woman and nodded.  “That is what they say. You got to play to win.”

The man in front of the woman took his tickets and left, so she moved forward.

“Hello Lynette,” Gerald Gravitz smiled.  “The usual, I assume?”

“Sure thing, Mr. G, one with my own seven numbers---and here they are; she extended a small slip of paper, and two more from the machine.”

The woman turned to Adam.  “I’ve been playing these seven for a couple years now. They’ll be my payday,” she smiled.

Gravitz processed the tickets and handed them across the counter.  “Good luck, Lynette.”

She turned to leave.

“Good luck to you,” she nodded toward Adam.  “It was nice talking with you,” and she started toward the door with Danita in tow.

“Hold on a minute,” Adam touched her arm.  He turned toward Gerald Gravitz.

“Ten tickets, please; all from the machine.”

The lotto machine whirred out the  paper slips, and Adam Ellis placed a $10 bill on the counter.

When Adam got the tickets, he took the first seven and handed them to Lynette.

“Here you go,” he smiled. “Hope you have a winner there.”

“I can’t take these…..”

Adam held up his hand.

“No, I insist.  Good luck.”

She reached out and squeezed his arm.  “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Thank you very much.”

Adam nodded.

“Thank you mister,” a small voice rose up from below.

Adam smiled.

Lynette and Danita left the store as Adam Ellis followed behind.  When he pushed open the door, he turned to look at Jess Hutchins over on the bench.

Jess looked up, and in that moment they both knew.  Adam stood uneasily at the doorway as if he were about to speak, but Jess turned away and peered down the street, as if shielding himself from the wind.

Adam Ellis stepped through the door, reaching to put the three tickets into his pocket.

He was not aware that the breeze caught one of them and blew it out onto the sidewalk and down toward the side of the building with other wind-tossed scraps. He was still looking at the bench as he walked off with a twinge of guilt and with two lottery tickets in his pocket.

By the time Adam arrived home, it had begun to rain.  He took off his jacket and went to put the lotto tickets on his dresser when he realized that there were only two. I must have miscounted he thought.  It’s just as well, that means the woman at the grocery got one more. He smiled.  That’s just fine with me.

Three days later the Lottery Commission held its Super Lotto drawing.  With this kind of jackpot, the television audience for the brief show would be much larger than usual.

A man in a tuxedo and a young woman in a low-cut, sequined dress smiled demonstratively as each numbered ball rolled down the little plastic chute into the tray at the bottom.  One by one the seven slots were filled:  14, 9, 37, 44, 28, 16, 31. The young woman repeated the numbers dramatically several times.

In the living room of his too-big house, Emil Moody sat by the television, a book in his lap,  and three lotto tickets beside him on a table. He glanced at them casually as the numbers were read off.  He had two of the numbers on one of the tickets and one each on the other two. 

“Business as usual,” he mumbled softly as he set the tickets aside.

In an upstairs bedroom of a tidy colonial out on the edge of town, Adam Ellis’s two tickets sat ignored in a dresser drawer as the family dined at the Mexicali Restaurant in a strip mall next to a Kohl’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

At her small bungalow on a street of small bungalows, Lynette Lincoln sat at her kitchen table with ten lotto tickets stretched out before her like the bingo cards of a veteran player.

Her eyes darted from one to the other as she wrote down the seven winning numbers.  Two of the tickets had three of them; four had two; two had one; and two had none.  She closed her eyes tight and swept the tickets to the end of the old Formica table, right beside the $4,000 estimate to replace her old furnace.

At the Gravitz Grocery Store, the phone in the office rang shortly after the lotto drawing took place.  Gerald Gravitz almost dropped the phone as he plopped down in the chair when he was told that his store would receive  $100,000 for selling the winning ticket in the jackpot that had grown to $207 million.

And behind his store, at the angle formed by his building and the restaurant beside it, Jess Hutchins was organizing his space for the night atop two large cardboard boxes which were stretched out above a mix of dirt and the small pieces of life that the wind and rain bring to places such as these. Among them was a badly wrinkled lottery ticket with the remnant dabs of ink and color for seven no longer identifiable numbers: 14, 9, 37, 44, 28, 16, 31.

He pulled two filthy blankets from the bag he always carried and stretched one out as a cover. He folded the other up as a pillow on which he set his head, just about four inches above what was left of that lottery ticket.

He slept uneasy that night.  He often did, with images of what was and what might have been gnawing at him and at the fractured pieces of his life.                        



John P. Kristofco, from Highland Heights, Ohio, is professor of English and the former dean of Wayne College in Orrville. His poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in over a hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, The Bryant Literary Review, The Cimarron Review, Poem, Grasslimb, Iodine, Small Pond, The Aurorean,  Ibbetson Street, Blue Unicorn, Blueline, Sheepshead Review, and Slant. He has published three collections of poetry,  A Box of Stones, Apparitions, and The Fire in Our Eyes and  has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. His work appears frequently in Offcourse.

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