Magic Numbers - A Short Story
By Anthony Jones
Terri sat at the desk in her finest evening gown and opened the center drawer. The sweet odor of the cigar box arose like a warm hug from her father. She could hear Jim’s footfalls on the tile floor as he approached the den.
“Are you ready to go?” Jim asked in a stern voice.
“I’m ready, but we can’t leave yet. You know what day it is.”
Jim’s eyes fell to the cigar box on the desk, and his heart sunk. “Yeah, today is the day the Association is honoring me at the annual awards dinner and it happens in eighty minutes. Let’s go!”
“Who do you think your talking too? If you’re in such a hurry to leave, just go. I’ll meet you when I’m done.”
“Done? With what? An OCD ritual created by a lunatic? I have had it with this!"
Terri looked up from the desk, eyes filled with hurt and anger. “Why don’t you calm down. Why are you acting this way?”
“Don’t turn this on me!” Now Jim was on a roll and was powerless to stop. This was the last straw. Even his ears burned hot with rage. His words cut her like a razor.
“You drug that damn box to Hawaii last year and we missed our anniversary dinner cruise. And for what? So, you can carry on a stupid tradition of your dead father that is ruining our lives?”
The tears she was fighting back began to stream. Jim didn't understand. This was her time to remember her father in her own way. Terri’s first memory was sitting on her father’s lap at age three while the weekly drawing played on television. He would take out the box, where he kept every ticket he ever bought. The tickets were meticulously filed chronologically dating back to the beginning of the lottery. He even had a special pen to circle each of the numbers that hit. Then he would number the ticket at the bottom in small print and hand the pen to Terri to draw the sad face indicating another loser. He always played the same numbers and bought the ticket at the same mom and pop bait shop in Rio Vista and never missed a week. He died in a head on collision seven years ago returning from that very store. After the funeral, when her mother asked if she wanted any of her father’s things, she chose the cigar box. For seven years, Terri has never missed a week playing her father’s magic numbers.
“Please Jim, you know how important this is to me, go on and I will catch up.” Terri said trying to compose herself, dabbing at her eyeliner with a tissue.
“Don’t bother! I don’t want you there! I’m done!” Jim slammed the door on his way out.
Terri used her small mirror to assess the damage her sobs had done to her face. Black lines traced the tracks of her tears. She took out her make up kit to complete the repairs; then she put it away and laid her head on her folded arms and cried again.
The tall grandfather clock’s chimes brought her back from her sobs and she took the remote from the desk drawer and turned on the weekly drawing. She opened the cigar box slowly and allowed the aroma of tobacco mixed with her father’s spiced cologne to scent the air. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. She felt a smile on her lips as she imagined her father playing his magic numbers. Terri opened her eyes, picked up the special pen and began to circle the numbers as they appeared on the television screen. She printed, not this week at the bottom of the ticket. Then she numbered the ticket 1,507 and drew a small sad face on it and placed it meticulously in the box with the others. When she was done, she returned the pen to the box, placed the box in the drawer and turned off the television. It was seven twenty, she had plenty of time to make it to the awards banquet, but the sting of Jim’s words would not leave her. Instead she went to her room, curled up on her bed and cried some more.
The next morning, Jim was gone. Terri remembered this was his annual training conference in Los Angeles. In their eight-year marriage she thought their boundaries were fully tested, well defined and set in stone. They had never separated for any extended period while angry with each other or without saying goodbye.
It was Saturday when Jim left his hotel for the airport. Why hasn’t she called? Jim tortured himself all the way to the airport replaying the awful things he said about Gabriel. Did I really call him a lunatic? Jim asked himself. Truth be known, Jim really liked Gabe and missed him deeply. He was like the father he never had. Jim even made the trip with Gabe to Rio Vista on occasion and enjoyed chatting about the Forty-niners and fishing in the delta. And now, he was not speaking to his beloved because she wanted to carry on her father’s rather benign tradition.
After processing through security at the airport Jim found a seat at his terminal and took out his cell phone. He scrolled through his photos finding dozens of selfies of him and Terri. When he came across the Hawaiian anniversary vacation he stopped on a photo of Terri in her sexy bikini on the beach with her arm around his neck. The love and adoration in her eyes was priceless. What was it I said to her about the cruise we missed because of the lotto thing?
Now he remembered it differently. It was he who suggested they skip the dinner cruise that night. He hated pre-ordered food and the pretentious on-board jazz band that would expect them to dance as the boat cruised the blue haired old ladies a mile off shore. It was him who insisted on ordering room service and using the in-room spa. Jim remembered it was Terri who rocked his world so passionately that night, he measured all other romantic encounters against it and nothing in his life has ever come close.
By the time he landed in Sacramento and collected his luggage, Jim was contemplating what he would say when he got home.
Where do I start? He thought as he pulled out of the long-term parking lot. When he reached the freeway, he noticed his gas gauge was on empty. At the Chevron, Jim thought about texting Terri with something sweet to test the waters but chickened out fearing it was too impersonal after a week of the silent treatment. No, he would have to do this one in person. He simply had not figured out how to apologize so she would know he is sincere. I am such an idiot, he thought as he entered the store to pay for the gas. He wandered to the cold drink section and selected a water and approached the counter.
“Hello, my friend” the clerk said as he rang up the water.
Jim took out his wallet. “Hi, I got forty on pump seven.”
“The lotto is at a record three hundred and ninety million, would you like to add a ticket to your purchase?” The clerk said pointing to the lighted sign.
Jim looked at the sign and shook his head, then noticed fresh cut roses on the counter beneath it.
“You know odds of hitting the lotto are higher than being struck by lightning; how much for the roses?”
Terri was halfway to Rio Vista to get her weekly ticket when her phone rang. “Hello,” she said.
“Mrs. McLain, this is Sergeant Thomas with the California Highway Patrol, I’m sorry to inform you your husband has been in an accident on the causeway.”
“Oh my God. No!” Terri cried into the phone, “Is he ok?”
“I’m afraid not ma’am; he has been life flighted to UC Davis Medical Center and listed as critical.
Terri’s stomach clenched. UC Davis is where they took her father before he died.
“I’m on my way!” She said and turned her car toward Davis.
When she arrived at the hospital, the nightmare started all over again. The same faces at the counter, the same elevator, the same smell of iodine and disinfectant mixed with a pasta aroma escaping from the cafeteria. The same nurse Jodi that tended to her father before he passed.
“I’m sorry Mrs. McLain,” Nurse Jodi said, “your husband just came out of surgery and must spend some time in intensive care, no visiting. Come with me and I will show you where you can wait.”
Terri followed the nurse to the emergency room waiting area. “Can I get you anything while you wait?” Nurse Jodi asked. Terri shook her head and sat down.
For five hours, she sat, not wanting to believe it was happening all over again. She thought about all the things she wanted to tell Jim. She wanted to tell him she was sorry and would put her father’s box away forever, and that he was far more important than a silly game. She would choose another way to remember her father, perhaps visiting his grave from time to time like normal people. She prayed for a second chance to talk to her beloved, a chance she never got with her father.
As she sat contemplating the worst, she noticed the nurses chatting about the lottery being at a record high.
Today was the last day to get a ticket. The drawing was coming up in two hours and would forever break the living chronological chain in the cigar box. And it was ok, if only she could speak to Jim once more she would give anything. She felt ashamed for the way she acted last week. The awards banquet was an important night for Jim and she made it all about a stupid game. “Please let him be ok.” She whispered.
“Mrs. McLain, your husband was moved to another room. You can come in now. The doctor said he is going to be just fine,” Nurse Jodi said.
Terri welled up as she looked at Jim sleeping peacefully. “Thank God!” she whispered and sat beside him. She took his hand and pulled it to her lips and kissed it softly. She sat quietly thinking of all the things she would say when he awakes.
A short time later, Nurse Jodi came in the room. “Mrs. McLain, would it be alright if I turn on your television just for a moment, I want to watch the lotto drawing. It is at a record high and we all went in on tickets,” she whispered
Terri nodded, still holding Jim’s hand.
When 16 came up Terri smiled and thought, one of father’s magic numbers. When 15 and 4 came next, she started to laugh. Then 42, 8 and finally 23. Now Terri was laughing hysterically, then crying a little bit, then laughing again.
“Are you ok Mrs. McLain?” Nurse Jodi asked.
Tears were tracing her face as she said, “You did it daddy.” When she reached for the tissue she noticed the roses.
“They’re for you, the EMT said your husband refused to let go of them, so I put them with his personals,” Nurse Jodi said, pointing to the small table with her chin.
Then Terri noticed something else. The distinct color of an orange lotto ticket was poking from Jim’s wallet. When she opened it, and saw that Jim had played her father’s magic numbers. Her tears returned and she placed her hand over her mouth.
Nurse Jodi left the room shaking her head.
Jim awoke to Terri’s sweet kisses on his face.