Taking the Ticket Down

The Lotto ticket was the only decoration on the walls. It was a useless thing to attempt to cover the apartment with. It was small and bright, even crumpled and smoothed, contrasting horribly with what a trap the place was. Everyone asked about the ticket but there were two things Justin would not speak of and the ticket was one.

Justin’s life was in the shitter. Anyone could see it. Even his few remaining friends vocalized it if asked; which didn’t happen often. The apartment was in the bad end of the Village. But it didn’t matter much, he owned nothing worth stealing anymore. He had taken to coming back in late. Some part of him trying to speed the trip down; hoping with a Freudian rakishness to be destroyed by the random, pointless predators of NYC.

He told himself it was the little things when Tori was first gone. He told himself it couldn’t have lasted because the way she said any word with a “th” always bothered him a little. He told himself foolishly that he always wished she was quieter in bed. Of all the things he would regret with heat, that was the crown jewel.

Tori came from the Dakotas. She was half Oglala, but she wore it full on. Her manner necessitated her arrival in a big city; she was on a flawless keel for big things.

There was an old Lakota man named Grant Shot-With-Arrow who lived above the Korean deli a block from Justin’s old place. Tori went to talk to him at the sidewalk café next door four times every week; for several hours each Sunday. They spoke different dialects but understood each other well; throwing in an English or French word as occasional ballast. Anyone Tori loved, she got presents for. She brought Grant presents regularly. Once he had even allowed her to reweave his horse gray braids with two supple strips of elk leather; dyed bright red and a yard long each. If he had been a man who had cried once in his eighty years he would have cried again that day. Tori didn’t have to be told this. She saw right into people; she knew a person when she saw one.

Justin told himself he wasn’t a racist. He was right. It wasn’t that Tori didn’t fit in. She fit in too well, he thought sometimes, and tacked away from it immediately; another filigree in the regret. Admitting to engineering it wasn’t something he was ready for.

Justin had been the ad gun in his crop. He was dialed into six figures, and commissions, just one month after dropping out of design school. Deliriously happy, he was doing fantastic work. A campaign or spot he designed was sure to spike unit movement; whether it was chewing gum or Mustangs. Other agencies there and from London were buzzing him with insinuated offers and the tender caress of contract lawyers. He was on the way up a terrific arc; he was blue chip at twenty two.

Back then he had a sweet four room just on the money side of the Village; he could have afforded better but he liked it there. That’s where the people were. That’s where he met Tori.

The first time had been in a sudden heavy spring rain. They both raced around a corner and connected shoulders. They spun to nearly facing. She had the Times over her head with both hands and he had his face half buried in his overcoat. They made angry eye contact for a second, neither was the apologizing kind, and they went on where they were going. But Tori dropped her paper umbrella and walked slowly the rest of the way. The huge rain drops pounding her scalp painfully for six blocks.

The second time had been in the café. Justin began looking for her and did find her every other day or so. She was always with Grant Shot-With-Arrow. He might not have assumed she was Indian if he hadn’t seen them together. He never would have asked her her name either. Justin never let himself drift in the direction of a woman unless he was sure she was interested and unoccupied. After three weeks of seeing her with what he took to be her grandfather, he was sure she was unoccupied. Only the one thing remained.

He sat next to them that Tuesday, taking the morning off from work to do it. He heard some of their conversation; understood none of it. An hour after he sat down, and began to feel idiotic there at a table alone without so much as a book, Grant and Tori got up and left.

Justin waited two minutes for her to come back, she didn’t. He got up and went to counter to buy some croissants and get back to work where he belonged. By the time he was getting his change he saw Tori at the door looking around. They made eye contact. Everything immediate was clear to him. Everything down the road was at least hinted to Tori. It changed nothing.

She moved in with him after a week. Neither of them could come up with even an unvoiced reason not to. It was crazy how happy she was; she never showed it outwardly but knew it, was grateful, and tried to make Justin happy too.

It wasn’t just stupid things that Justin began to be bothered by. After eight months he was being truly asinine. She would ask if he wanted to do anything after work, and he would get mad. Of course he did, was she stupid? Though he never said a harsh word Tori would sense these trip wires and remove her foot gently and walk another direction.

She always bought him presents. It began to bother him. Some gnawing thing inside him was fed by her kindness. When an office buddy told him how beautiful she was he became infuriated, but the human part of his brain clamped down the emotion; instructing him that this irrationality would not only be unintelligible but it was fundamentally wrong to feel.

Work was going poorly, definitely, but he was in no danger of losing what had got him there. He was just going slower than before. His new campaign for TWA wasn’t cynical, he told himself, the fools in the agency just couldn’t see what he saw. He’d work it out.

They never fought, exactly. Of course it was Grant that brought it out. It was so easy that it should have been predictable. A conflict between a half mentioned possible plan and Tori’s regular Sunday visit when she was already half out the door. It was beyond her understanding. It was now beyond Justin’s ability to contain. Not a fight, it was a basic shift in positions. It was the point of no return. You’ll do what you do, I’ll do what I do.

Tori knew the danger; knew that if she started crying she would never stop. So she didn’t let a single tear loose. Not for the days that everything clung together with her will to live feeding it.

Of course the ticket was a message. All her presents were. She gave them all with her high-plains clarity that was so essential to transplanting safely here. Even this Justin realized slowly, but he didn’t have it.

It happened five weeks after he had asked her to move out. Which was ten days before being called in on his day off to be fired. It was nothing so dramatic; nothing where there was a chance for recanting and redemption. It was simple and as accidental as that first time he saw her. It was just too late.

A defiant thread searching to rebuild everything refused to let him quit the café and that’s where he saw it. It was a long walk there now but he went often. The article was taped up on the meat case. He didn’t think anything of it; standing with a baguette under his arm. He just noticed the numbers. It was inevitable he’d look, they were her birthday. He laughed at himself for searching out reminders. It made him stronger to catch himself doing it.

The new apartment, the over-furnished coffin, came only three months after that. There were a handful of vague attempts to gain serious employment again. But the story of his rabid defense of the most bleak campaign ever offered up to Proctor & Gamble was often repeated in the circles he had to track. There was no chance he’d work again in a firm that mattered. He took work in one that didn’t and he did it just well enough to keep from ceasing all together.

He found the Lotto ticket in the move; unable to connect with the anger that had made him stuff it back there. Almost nothing had ever made him as mad as that ticket had. Did she think he was tossing on a sea of chance unable to control his own fate? Did she think so little of him? That he needed this sort of thing? He was on his way up. He’d be a millionaire before he was thirty. It was ridiculous and hateful to buy him the ticket. He didn’t even look at it then, he just hid it from himself.

He sold and threw away everything in the move. When the ticket dropped out of an overturned drawer he threw it away. Without understanding what he was doing he brought that half-filled trash bag to the new apartment. He filled it up there. He went so far as to take it downstairs and leave it in the alley. In a blurry and drooling drunk that same night he did something that would finish it. He found that bag at midnight, clawing it open at the bottom. He recovered the ticket and took it upstairs. It was all he had left of her.

Sitting on the edge of the bathtub he examined it with the care he had given her body the first night they made love. The alcohol let him laugh happily, crying, at how well he knew her. She had picked her birthday for the numbers, always trying to give him some part of herself. He finally saw one of her messages as clearly as if she’d just said it. He thought he’d die that moment of wanting her.

At noon when he woke up, still dressed, he had the most profound sense of dread he’d ever experienced. It was crippling, he could barely move. He felt if he did move it would be death. But he unravelled the layers of dreams of Tori and a snatch of forty point blackface type reading Second Chances Happen. He shaved, washed and dressed in a good suit. He took the ticket and walked, unflinching, to the café. But he was shaking by the time he got to the entrance. The article was still there on the meat case; yellow and dog eared with a slightly different headline than he had found in dream. It showed the disbelieving recipient of twelve-some million dollars. It also cruelly showed the first number that had been called and went unclaimed. Justin raised a hand and pushed it hard against the case so it would stop shaking. He held the ticket next to the article and ticked off the numbers one at a time. It was the winning ticket that had gone unclaimed, stuffed in the back of some kitchen drawer seconds after it was taken out of a sage smelling note. But he knew exactly which kitchen drawer. And, of course, so had Tori.

He knew what had bothered him then. That she always knew. She was always sure. And the anger flooded out of him like urine in cold water. He felt fine.

He hadn’t given up; he released the poisoned pride. The ticket was to prove that now; prominently but secretly. It was there on the wall that should have been decorated with his brilliant resume of produced advertising copy. It would be there to remind him of everything lost, if he could hold onto that, he could hold on to the outrageous odds that everything was possibly gainable again. It was possible.

If he hadn’t seen her so soon he could have maintained that altitude, fighting back over time. But he did see her right after a spring rain; one year and a month after he first asked her what her name was. When they made eye contact he knew everything; admitted everything. He knew there was no pity in her eyes but that he craved it still. He knew that she was alone. And he knew that she wanted to just say some words; to get the first horrible moment over with so they could return to the course that was intended. But of all these and more, he knew one thing was going to make the choice. His mouth filling with the mucous brine of a self-hatred so pointed there was no getting off of it. He was going right back home to take that ticket down.


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