Ted Stevens was the only customer in the bodega that Sunday morning. The midtown store looked like every other New York bodega. Most had a deli counter and sold cigarettes, toilet paper and other late-night necessities. They all had bright florescent lights, coffee brewing behind the counter and the smell of cleaning fluid-infused wet cardboard. This one was no different.
Ted plopped his paper and iced tea down on the cluttered, high counter and reached for his wallet. A toasted bagel scented the deli area and the accompanying coffee caught his nose. Ted had recently given up coffee and was reminiscing about his old habit when the proprietor looked him straight in the eye and said, “Would you like a lottery ticket today?”
He thought for a minute. No one had ever asked him that question before. Would you like a bag for that? or is it still raining? but never, would you like a lottery ticket? He had never purchased a lottery ticket. He figured that he had the same chance of winning by finding a winning ticket on the sidewalk as he did wasting his money on the actual purchase. Besides, he was flat broke most of the time and sometimes had to choose between food and other necessities. A lottery ticket was neither. “No, thanks. Just the paper and the tea.”
“I really think that you should buy a lottery ticket today,” the proprietor insisted.
This was a little pushy, but it was New York City and the places in midtown were usually full of sweaty tourists being fleeced by pushy shopkeepers like this guy. “No lottery ticket, thanks,” Ted barked back.
The proprietor looked at him steadily. “I’m telling you, you should buy this ticket.” The proprietor looked around to make sure no one was in the store, then continued, “I happen to know that you would be purchasing the winning ticket.”
“Yeah, right. Could you please give me my change?”
“I wouldn’t pass this up, if I were you.”
Ted looked around the cramped little store. This guy couldn’t be very well off. The rent in midtown was exorbitant and he had probably been stuck in his claustrophobic little perch most of his adult life. Ted threw it back at him. “Why don’t YOU buy it?”
“That would be seen as being improper.”
How about that, thought Ted, a proprietor with scruples. Somehow, he was starting to make a lop-sided, odd sort of sense. “How do you know that it’s the winning ticket, anyway?”
The proprietor looked around again, like a bookie giving away a tip. He lowered his voice, “I happen to know the lottery agent. These things are rigged. They want everyone to think they have a shot, so they make sure places like mine end up with the winning tickets. Usually, it’s bodegas and gas stations out in the outer boroughs, but when he found out it was going to be my shop, he let me know. I even know which one. You just happened to be the guy that walked in when the winning ticket came up. I gotta sell them in order. They check all that kind of stuff. It might be rigged, but they don’t want no funny business.”
Ted reached for his wallet. He thought that since this guy had spent so much energy making up such a tall tale that he might as well oblige him and buy the damn lottery ticket. Besides, you never know… “How much?”
“It’s up to 34 million!”
“No, how much for the ticket?” Suddenly it registered. He very diligently repeated, “Thirty-four million dollars?”
“Five dollars.” The proprietor smiled and handed him his change and then the lottery ticket. As Ted reached for the ticket, the proprietor held on to it. “There’s just one little thing.”
Ted let go, “Yeah, I knew it. What’s the catch?”
“There is the matter of my portion.”
So much for scruples, Ted thought. “Of course, your portion.” He played along.
The proprietor became serious, like he was drawing out the master plan for the big heist. “Here’s what you do. The winner will be announced on Friday. Go downtown and collect the funds. Elect for the lump sum. Deposit half in a Swiss bank account. Sit on it for 6 months. Come in the store on a Sunday just like today and buy a paper and an iced tea, just like today. Hand me a five-dollar bill and a one-dollar bill…”
Ted interrupted, “Yeah, yeah I know, just like today.”
Unfazed, the proprietor continued, “On the back of the one-dollar bill write the name of the bank. In pencil! On the back of the five write the account number. Got it?”
This all sounded way too thought out, Ted thought. “Got it. But what if you aren’t here?”
“I’m always here.” He examined the ticket one last time and handed it over to Ted.
On the walk home, Ted admired himself in the shop windows along 5th Avenue. The lottery ticket in his breast pocket was an extravagance similar in his mind to the feeling rich women must get from shopping at Sacks or Bergdorf Goodman. Ted Stevens was a non-descript, middle aged man of average height, average weight, brownish eyes and hair—not actually even a color. His clothing was normal. On the rare occasion he was forced to replace a pair of pants or a sweater, his request actually employed the word normal. As he crossed one avenue after the next the ticket in his pocket took on more and more weight. By the time he reached his apartment, Ted realized that, for the first time in his life, he may be anything but normal, and that was unsettling.
The following Friday Ted ordered some Chinese and nervously straightened his apartment. He lived alone in a small studio on the first floor of a pre-war railroad apartment building on 46th street in Hell’s Kitchen. This was all that he could afford after his second wife left him, taking most of his cash, their one-bedroom condo overlooking the Hudson, and his cat. The cat bothered him the most. He had that stupid cat since his first divorce. Why she claimed it as her own still baffled him.
The Chinese restaurant was on his corner of 9th Avenue and five minutes was all the delivery ever took; the same amount of time it took him to completely clean his dingy little apartment. He walked his trash down the dimly lit hallway to the receptacles in front of the building as the delivery boy met him on the street—the wafting of Chop Suey preceding him.
Ted made himself comfortable in front of his television, balancing a plate on his knee as he struggled with the chopsticks. The lottery ticket sat next to him like a pet rock. He knew that he was going to have to endure the local news program before the break in the middle for the lottery numbers. He concentrated on capturing brown rice on his disposable chopsticks. He would manage to get the rice on, but fail to get it all the way to his mouth without planting his face directly on the plate. Eventually, he resorted to just scraping the last grains of rice into his still wanting mouth as the lottery theme music disrupted his hunger. He put his empty plate aside and grasped the ticket in both hands. He knew deep down that this was futile, but a rare bit of optimism won over his justifiable skepticism. He waited expectantly.
The voluptuous hostess approached the spinning number machine as the music persisted. Why on earth would anyone, who didn’t know that they were going to win, watch this crap, he thought. The music stopped and the first ball shot to the top of the long, clear plastic tube. “14!” announced the exuberant bombshell as the screen cut to a close up of the first numbered ball. Ted had a 14. Not that big of a deal, yet. There were four more numbers that had to be exactly right.
The next number shot up with a great deal of velocity and stopped just as suddenly: “48.” He had that number, too. Ted started to wonder about the process. If this really was rigged, how did they do it? It certainly looked random with all of the balls going around and the lever or button or whatever it was that the blonde was doing; as random as the selection of this woman to host such a non-event.
7 popped up with no warning. Three right so far. Ted began to sweat. He may really win this absurd and outrageous contest. Not even a contest, he thought. Just a manipulative act, playing on the human weaknesses of greed and avarice.
19 was next. “Holly fucking shit,” Ted yelled to no one. He was one number away from the winning number. The program cut away to a commercial in order to bilk any sort of drama out of an otherwise meaningless and lackluster production.
Ted sprinted to the bathroom, nearly peeing himself on the way. Just as he was finishing, he heard the insipid music again. He rushed back, tripped over his unfastened pants and landed on his bed, grasping the ticket.
A drum roll and an extra long shot of gurgling ping-pong balls preceded the final reveal. The little ball perched on the Plexiglas tube. The blonde flashed her expensive white caps as the announcer exuded, “And the final Powerball number for this evening is … “20!”
Ted stared at the ticket. Out loud he read, “7, 19, 14, 20, 48. I knew it. It was all bullshit.”
The television announcer repeated, “So here they are ladies and gentlemen, the winning numbers for tonight’s New York State Lottery worth 34 MILLION dollars. The numbers are 7, 14, 19, 20 and 48.”
Ted continued to stare at the ticket. Slowly and evenly, he ticked off each number. He jumped off the bed. “I won! I fucking won! Holly shit I won.” Ted ran around his small, cluttered apartment, tripping again on his still unfastened trousers. He lay on his stomach—knee in pain from the fall—and stared at the ticket. He had actually won the New York State lottery.
On Monday morning he called his office and said he wouldn’t be in that day. He gave no further explanation. Ted found the address of the Lottery office on the computer at the library. He lost his laptop in the last divorce and hadn’t saved enough money to buy another. So, whenever he needed information or wanted to check his personal email, he would go to the 10th Avenue branch of the New York City Library and wait on line to use one of the three old PCs available to the public.
Ted took the 4,5,6 train downtown. The building was right across the street from the courthouse; a non-descript government building that defined the word gray. The security guard pointed him toward the ground floor office.
He walked into the lottery office unannounced. The receptionist, a bleached blonde with too much makeup and the traces of two packs a day greeted him the way any person with her experience would greet anyone without an appointment. It never occurred to Ted that he might need to call ahead. He told the receptionist his name and that he had won last week’s lottery. She smiled politely, requested his winning ticket, and asked him to take a seat. She stood, turned, and walked toward an inner office, leaving Ted on his own.
Ted sat on a steel folding chair in the government gray waiting room, feeling more like he was about to go to the big house than a penthouse. He tried to take his mind off of the sense of doom by staring at the one splash of color in the room, a cheaply framed Caribbean travel poster.
After what seemed like an hour, the receptionist returned and asked Ted to follow her to another office. He took a seat next to an empty desk and waited some more. The only sense of any living thing in this office was the occasional whisp of cheap men’s cologne—either Old Spice or Brut. Finally, a middle-aged man with an ill-fitting suit and cheap toupee came in and introduced himself.
“Good afternoon Mr. Stevens, my name is Harold Willmar. We were expecting you to call first, but no matter. I’ve contacted the store owner from where you purchased the ticket to come down, verify the ticket against his receipts and collect.”
This made Ted nervous. He was not aware that there was any receipt or need for such a thing. A wave of nausea came over him, probably from the cheap cologne. “Collect?” he said shyly.
“Oh, yes. That’s one of the incentives for our retailers. If they sell the winning ticket, they receive a rather substantial bonus. Why do you think they’re so many places that offer lottery tickets?”
Ted smiled. His nausea had passed as he realized that he was not in trouble. On the contrary, he was about to be a very wealthy man.
Mr. Willmar continued, “There are a few rules that we need to discuss with you. Some policies and of course the PR.”
“PR?” This again flustered Ted.
“Yes. With this sort of a prize the press is anxious to report the winner. It’s up to you, though. We don’t release the winning name or names unless the recipient gives their permission. So, you see, it’s up to you if you want to be famous.”
Ted flashed on both of his ex-wives; the first time that he had ever thought of them as a group—a group that would surely want this money. “I don’t think that I’ll want to share my winnings.”
Mr. Willmar looked confused. “I’m sorry, you what?”
“I don’t think I’d like to be famous.”
“Oh, I see, I see. That’s fine. I have a paper here that you’ll need to sign that says you wish the State of New York to keep your name and likeness private. That’s not a problem whatsoever.”
“And then there is the disbursement. How would you like it?”
“You mean, in bills?”
“Oh, heaven’s no, Mr. Stevens. That amount of cash would fill this office. I mean that you have two options: you can take a one-time payout less the capital gains and lottery tax, or you can opt to receive an annual, tax-free payout. The latter works out better for the state but is, well, not so popular, shall we say.”
“I see. No, I think I’ll go with the more popular method. Do you just write a check?” All of this seemed unreal to Ted. He was trying his best to remain calm.
“Actually, it’s a wire transfer to whatever account or accounts you have set up. Usually, people take their time figuring this out. Most people have never had this kind of money before. We have a couple of financial advisors that we recommend, strictly as a starting point. We don’t want to tell you what to do with your money.”
The receptionist buzzed the office phone and Mr. Willmar picked up, “Yes? Send him right in.”
“Mr. Yilmaz is here.” Mr. Willmar announced, as if this would please the new multi-millionaire.
“Who?” Ted looked confused again.
“Mr. Emir Yilmaz, the owner of the Midtown Stop Mart.”
The door opened and in walked a very distinguished looking man of Middle-Eastern descent. Ted was taken aback. This was not the proprietor with whom he was to clandestinely share his ill-gotten gains. “I was expecting…”. Ted realized that he didn’t know the proprietor’s name.
Emir sensed his discomfort and tried to help. “You were probably expecting my brother, Abi. He works on the weekends.” He thrust his meaty hand forward, “Emir Yilmaz. Congratulations for both of us.”
Ted shook his hand and felt a little more at ease. He didn’t have to sit in the room with the man who got him involved in this …whatever it was. He had gone over and over in his head and come to the conclusion that it was not a crime. He didn’t steal anything or rig anything. He was told it was the winning ticket but he legitimately purchased it and then won. It may have been rigged by someone, but not by him. And regardless, someone was going to win, so why not him?
They both signed a series of papers. Emir opted for the publicity for his store. Of course he did, thought Ted. What great advertising. People would be lined up the next week to buy lottery tickets from the Midtown Stop Mart. Good for him.
Ted returned to work and gave two weeks notice. He lived paycheck to paycheck so, until the transfer took place, he needed the money. Brighton Research was on the 34th floor of a midtown high rise. The central area was divided into cubicles, one of which was assigned to him. His job was pretty menial. Basically, he called people and asked them if they liked certain products. The company was hired by other companies to do consumer research, but realistically they were just hired to tell the client how good of a job they were doing, so the client could tell their stock holders that an independent company said that they were doing a good job. Everyone there knew it was bullshit, but it was a job, and right now, it was better to have a job than to tell your boss that the job you had was bullshit. This was still true for Ted too, but only for two more weeks.
The two weeks provided an opportunity to use his office computer to set up new bank accounts. He no longer cared about the forbiddance of personal use. He would do as he damn well pleased, but he would still try to be discreet.
He didn’t need a financial adviser like Mr. Willmar suggested. He used to be a low-level bank executive before the downturn. He knew what the limits of insured deposits were and which were the more stable institutions. Now all he needed to do was actually open the accounts. He had to play a shell game because he only had 350 dollars and each required a deposit in order to establish the account. His plan was to open one account, wait a couple of days, then transfer some of the funds to the next new account.
After some research he found an offshore bank that would do an automatic transfer of large deposits to a Swiss bank. Recent regulations made it more difficult to transfer directly to a Swiss bank, so he needed a middleman. They would arrange the account, provide the paper trail necessary, receive the deposit, and transfer it instantly.
By the end of his second week, he had all of his accounts in order. He made an appointment with Mr. Willmar in order to hand deliver the account and routing numbers. He didn’t feel safe emailing or even phoning this information. Not that there was any risk at that point since there was a grand total of $550 dollars among all of the accounts. The offshore bank did not require an advance deposit. They were considered a bank, but this sort of account was opened and closed with only one transaction. Their fee would come directly out of the deposit.
In the weeks that followed, Ted didn’t have any idea what to do with himself. He dedicated one checking and debt card account to pay his bills and buy food. He knew that he didn’t have to worry about being hungry or paying his alimony ever again, but he certainly did not feel rich. He felt alone. He didn’t have any friends outside of work. Even if he wanted to celebrate—which he didn’t—there was no one to celebrate with.
Every day he would wake early and walk around the city. At first, he enjoyed the sweet smell of the roasting nuts from the street vendors and the early Christmas decorations being hung along Fifth Avenue. As the days grew shorter, his walks began to meander aimlessly. The sights and sounds tended to irritate him more than entertain.
His trips passing the Midtown Stop Mart became more frequent, but each time it was Emir behind the counter, serving a coffee or retrieving some toilet paper from a high shelf. Ted continued on without stopping. One day he walked in and greeted Emir. The shop seemed tidier than he had remembered and smelled less of wet cardboard and more of freshly brewed coffee.
Emir was pleased to see him. He explained that he had taken his share of the money and bought his wife a new car and had taken a trip to Turkey to see family that were still in the old country. Ted asked him about the short, grey haired man that waited on him that day.
“I don’t know who you mean. We have a very small staff. It is my brother Abi, his son Alex and myself. They are both taller than me. Sometimes my wife comes in when Abi is out of town, but she does not have gray hair nor does she resemble a man. I’m afraid you are mistaken, Mr. Stevens.”
Ted thanked him, bought a newspaper and left. He was truly confused. Who was that stranger? Did he imagine the whole transaction? This discovery did not help Ted’s desperation. He was alone, confused, doubting events that he thought were real and not knowing where to go or what to do next. The one fact that he confirmed and re confirmed through various online accounts was that he was rich. Really, really rich.
He spent his afternoons wandering the streets of Manhattan, stopping periodically to refresh himself. He never drank much before. He never did anything much before. At first, spending time in seedy bars, experimenting with various libations was amusing—something to look forward to each day. But slowly, the drinking began to exacerbate his awareness of his useless and wasted existence. He had no foundation for being rich. He didn’t have the slightest notion of how to behave. Even if he wanted to do something as outrageous as giving all of the money away, he wouldn’t know where to start.
And then there was the conundrum of the proprietor. Who was he? Did he exist? Did Ted still have to give him half of his winnings? The thoughts consumed him. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat, but he continued to drink. He stayed locked up in his dreary apartment for days, held hostage by television, whiskey and insomnia.
In a drunken stupor, he broke his self-induced captivity and trudged up the stairs to the roof. It wasn’t a high building—only seven stories—but anyone that fell or jumped off would surely not live to talk about it. He searched for the edge, staring out and staggering among the vent pipes and patio furniture. The cold breeze sobered him slightly. He was determined to jump. He managed to shimmy up onto the thick wall separating him from certain death. He stood and looked down, which made him dizzy and nearly lose his balance.
“What are you doing up there?” came a voice from the darkness.
Ted looked toward the voice, but only saw a floodlight from a nearby building. “Who’s that?”
The voice repeated, “What are you doing up there? Get down. You could fall.”
“That’s the idea isn’t it?” Ted realized that he hadn’t actually talked to another human being for days, or maybe even weeks. “I’m going to jump if it’s all the same to you.”
“It’s not. Now get down. What do you think you are doing? Your life is way too important to just throw it away like that.”
“How would you know? My life is worthless.”
“You’re making a big mistake. There are people that depend on you and you are jeopardizing their very existence. It’s not just one life that you take.”
Ted was startled at this statement from a total stranger. Who was this prick interfering with his jump? “You don’t know anything. There’s not one soul on this planet that depends on me. Not one. So there.” Ted started to move forward, nearer to the edge.
“What if you’re wrong?” He stepped a little closer. Ted could see his silhouette. He was short, with what looked like grey hair. He looked vaguely familiar.
“Wrong about what?”
“About the people that depend on you. You might not even know them yet. That doesn’t mean that they won’t depend on you. Does it? DOES IT?”
Ted didn’t know why he was letting this mysterious man talk him down, but he turned and climbed off of the wall. When he looked back, the man was gone. Ted stumbled to the rooftop door, but he wasn’t there. He ran to the opposite end of the roof, tripping, twisting and regaining his balance, but finding no sign of the little man. He sat on a low-slung bench next to stairwell and tried to figure out what had happened. He was confused, but he no longer wanted to jump.
The rooftop episode scared Ted sober. His depression continued, but he had gained enough sense not to end up back on the roof again.
Six months passed before he returned to the bodega. Once again there was Emir. Once again, he quizzed him about the little man. When he described a short, grey haired, aging man, he had the strange sensation that he was describing the man from the roof.
No longer did he have to share his winnings. Sadly, knowing that he was twice as rich as he thought made him feel nothing. He still didn’t know what to do with his money, where to go, or what to do. He was lost. He had no identity. He didn’t really care about anyone or anything. Ted had never been a vengeful man, but also had never been outgoing or particularly friendly either. It wasn’t that he hated people, he simply didn’t really know any. He was shy, couldn’t make small talk and found even polite interactions with strangers to be painful. Doctors had never diagnosed him with any particular disorder, but he often thought if he were a kid today, they would probably say he was autistic.
He stopped by an Irish pub on the Upper West Side. He hadn’t had a drink in months. It was early in the day but the usual suspects were already at their posts. He frequented this establishment from time to time so he recognized the faces, but never bothered to have many conversations, especially when it got later and the drinking and the bullshit escalated. He appreciated a quite drunk, but seldom did he find one.
He sat at the end of the bar nearest the street, next to an open window. The stench of bars in New York seemed to be more pronounced in the daytime. He didn’t know if it was the cleaning supplies from the early morning wash out, or the lack of perfume and body odor of the evening patrons that covered up the sourness of stale beer and urine. At least the day-old cigarette smoke no longer hung in the air like the cloud of a church basement after an AA meeting. Small blessings, he thought.
An old rerun of “Streets of San Francisco” was playing on the flat screen—the establishment’s only conceit to the current century. Ted was lost in thought and the first Guinness to pass his teeth in months. He skipped the shots of bourbon, selecting instead a careful reentry to the world of drink. He was now resigned to live. And to do so, he needed to be careful about any indulgence, since all were at his fingertips and none would end well.
San Francisco looked interesting he thought, as he stared at the mute television. Since the proprietor was either a figment of his imagination or just another lost soul from the street, and the ex-wives were no longer a burden, he had no reason to stick around New York. California seemed like an interesting place to visit.
The next day he made arrangements for his departure. He didn’t have any idea where this adventure would lead or how long it might take, so he might as well be prepared for the unexpected. He decided to keep his apartment. It was cheap enough (not that it really mattered) so he paid a year’s rent in advance and hired an accountant that he knew from his time at the bank to pay all of his other bills while he was gone. He bought a first-class ticket to San Francisco, packed a duffle bag full of dirty clothes and took the train to JFK.
Ted checked into a hotel on Union Square. He had read about the St. Francis in the airplane magazine and it seemed as decent as any. It was a vast, old fashioned palace of a hotel, but had been well kept and smelled of lilacs and expensive women’s perfume. At one time he would have thought it expensive, but he didn’t even bother to ask the rate.
San Francisco was nothing like what he had imagined. The immediate neighborhood was seedy and full of tourists. It reminded him of Times Square in the 70s. He detested the riff raff that constantly preyed on tourists and other unsuspecting passers by. He didn’t feel threatened or afraid; he just felt disappointed. This didn’t feel like the adventure that he had imagined.
He sat in his hotel room and drank the entire mini bar. It took him two and a half days. He passed out in the middle of Tuesday and woke up Wednesday with a raging hangover and a pounding desire to actually do something. Ted was slowly starting to learn that his methods of dealing with depression and disappointment were not the least bit effective and he needed to try something/anything new.
He checked out of his hotel and wandered around the city. He found a few bars that were interesting, but what was once comfort in drink now felt like a rerun. He had come to the exact same series of bars on the other side of the country. He found the subway system BART and got on it. Maybe there was something better in the boroughs.
In Oakland he found more of the same. He meandered through what he didn’t realize were very rough parts of the city when he came upon a car dealership. Ted had never owned a car. He learned how to drive when he was 16. His parents were divorced when he was a teenager. His father lived in Queens taught him how to drive. He had an immaculate brown El Camino. Ted didn’t really care for the car, his father, or driving, but he did learn and was considered a good driver, whatever that meant.
Looking pretty rough around the edges, Ted walked into the dealership. Not one of the car salesmen spoke to him. Not only did he look homeless, he was also a white man in an all-black neighborhood in an all-black car dealership.
He looked at the models on the floor and what was on display in the adjacent parking lot. All of the cars were made by Volkswagen. He liked the looks of most of them and loved a particular black convertible. He hovered around it, tried to open the locked doors and waited patiently for a sales person. Eventually he gave up and marched into what he imagined was the manager’s office.
A distinguished looking man with graying hair sat behind the desk. May I help you?” said the man politely.
“Yes, I would like to buy a car.”
“One of our salesmen could help…”
“None of your so-called salesmen came near me. Are you the manager?” Ted said, attempting to short cut the well-worn procedure.
“Yes, sir I am. Albert Washington.” He extended his hand.
Ted relaxed a little and shook the man’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I would like to buy the black convertible sitting on the lot. I believe it’s 38 thousand plus all the other crap you all add on to make a profit.” Ted reached inside his jacket pocket for his checkbook and continued, “Could you please just tell me the final price so I can write you a check and get the hell out of here?”
“I can have the funds wired if you would prefer. Or you can speak to my bank manager. The bank’s in New York but he can assure you of the funds.”
“That will be fine. We’ll need some identification and a little while to prepare the paperwork and the car.”
Ted sat back in the chair across from Albert. “I’ll give you twenty minutes. How much?”
Albert quickly punched some numbers in a desktop computer while he dialed the intercom. “Prep the black cabriolet a sap.” That will be 43,485 dollars which includes all dealers…”
Ted wrote the check and tore it out of the book. “The bank’s number is there on top. Call them. I don’t want you to be the least bit suspicious. He knows me and he knows how much money I have in that account.”
“We need your drivers license to finish the paperwork and you’ll need to sign the papers.”
“Fine. I’m going to walk across to that restaurant and I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
Albert looked across the parking lot to the Waffle House. He was tempted to suggest that Ted just stay put, but figured that telling Ted anything would be futile. “’I’ll have it ready.” Glancing at the check, he finished, “Mr. Stevens.”
Ted crossed the busy road and took a seat at the counter of the Waffle House. Several people stared incredulously, but Ted was un-swayed. He picked up a menu and waved for a waitress. “I’ll have a cup of coffee and two eggs, please. Oh, and bacon. Can you make it kind of quick?”
“Whatever you say, sir.” Her tone was condescending, but her smile was genuine. “Coming right up.”
Ted sat back and read the paper that had been stuffed under his arm for so long that it had molded to his elbow. He read the newspaper and drank his coffee, totally ignoring his surroundings, let alone being threatened by them. He spent a lot of his childhood in Harlem, which was near to the private prep school that his mother insisted that he attend. He hated school and would often get off one subway stop before school and hang out all day with the musicians and other unsavory elements known to inhabit that part of New York in the 1970’s. Ted was an odd little kid. He wasn’t naïve, just fearless. There was a difference and people—especially streetwise people—knew it. Ted was accepted for who he was and was never intimidated by anyone, regardless of color or socioeconomic circumstance. People were people; some were smarter than others, but Ted didn’t even bother with that distinction unless it involved him directly, which it rarely did.
Ted looked at his watch, finished his coffee and paid the bill with cash. He dodged the traffic in front of the dealership and made his way to Mr. Washington’s office. “Is it ready?” he said cheerfully. This may have been the happiest Ted had been in months. He was truly excited to own a car and he couldn’t wait to drive it.
The sun was far down in the sky before Ted took to the road. He pulled into a gas station in Berkeley and asked for a map. The attendant leaned into his shiny new vehicle and pointed to the middle of the dash. “What the hell is that, pal?”
The rude man had just directed Ted to the single most helpful piece of equipment on his new car: the navigation system. Ted uncharacteristically started a conversation. “Good point. But mine is a problem of not knowing where I want to go. Where would you think is nice, not so much of a city, and is about three hours from here?”
The attendant rubbed his chin. “Tahoe is beautiful this time of year. You can get all the way around if the pass isn’t snowed in yet. Yeah, Lake Tahoe. That’s where I’d go.”
“Thanks, pal.” Ted waved and drove away before his smart comeback sunk in.
Driving down the main road toward a freeway overpass, he found a place to pull over. He dialed in “Lake Tahoe” as his navigation destination and activated the voice directions. The very first command was reassuring, “Proceed one hundred yards and turn right onto I 880 North.”
He drove with abandon, faithfully following his new female friend’s pleasant directions. It was dark by the time he past Sacramento, but he had no need or desire to stop. He was surprised how little fuel he had used; the gas gauge had barely moved off of full. Ted never paid much attention to cars. He didn’t know one brand from another. He was such a city kid that cars were mainly yellow and driven by cab drivers. They were ubiquitous conveyances, as interchangeable as subway trains or buses. He never considered driving, let alone owning a car. He had rented one a few times to visit relatives of one or the other of his ex-wives, but, like taxis, rental cars were non-descript boxes, propelled by internal combustion engines and returned before daylight.
Just outside of Folsom, traffic suddenly slowed. He was stopped for several minutes before traffic began to crawl again, which it did for the next 30 minutes. He finally came upon the remnants of a big pile up with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles surrounding the mess. He couldn’t tell if there were any injuries. He had to focus on keeping his pulse from racing. Sirens and red flashing lights always made Ted anxious. He had a habit of looking away and covering his ears whenever a fire truck or ambulance sped by him on the street. He thought if he lessened the impact, he would be less frightened.
The traffic disbursed immediately after the accident and the city lights faded in his mirrors. He was alone with his thoughts and the occasional headlights passing in the opposite direction. He flashed on the little man on his roof. Who was that, he wondered? And how did he get onto the roof? He knew he had let the door shut behind him, locking it from the outside. Only a tenant could unlock the roof door. He knew all of the tenants, or at least what they looked like, and the little man was definitely not one of them.
A flash of headlights on the curve a few hundred yards in front of him caught his attention. They had flashed and then disappeared and then flashed again. As he got closer, he slowed down. Off to the right was a stationary light that didn’t seem to be pointed at anything specific; it seemed to be pointed into the woods. He slowed even further. There were no other cars on either side of the road and no buildings in either direction. He was in the middle of nowhere.
When he was right up on the lights he pulled off onto the shoulder. The lights were coming from a car in the ditch, wedged between a tree and the abrupt incline. The flashing lights that he saw must have been this car spinning out of control.
Ted jumped from his car and ran into the ditch, not thinking of the consequences or what he was going to do. He stumbled over a portion of the bumper that must have jammed into the hillside, but then regained his balance and continued toward the mangled wreck. As he reached the driver’s side door, he could see that the airbag had deployed and the driver was slumped over it. There were no other passengers in the vehicle. He tugged on the door and, with some effort, was able to pry it open. An acrid smell escaped as the door opened—likely the propellant from the exploded airbag.
The young man appeared at first to be uninjured. Ted gently pulled at his shoulder to free his face from the collapsed airbag. The man was conscious but extremely dazed. “Are you alright? What happened? Can you talk? Are you hurt?”
The man did not answer but gestured toward his left leg. Ted looked down to see a rip in his jeans and a large gash just above the inner knee. It was pumping blood at regular intervals. Ted knew from watching too many medical dramas that the man had severed an artery. He also knew that if he didn’t get the bleeding stopped right away that this guy could die. Ted’s eyes darted around. The man was fading in and out. It was up to him to save this man’s life. There was no other option.
Ted patted his pants and jacket, frantically searching for something, anything. His hand bumped up against his belt buckle, triggering him to remove his belt. All of these actions seemed like someone else was performing them. Ted was just there observing. “You’re going to be alright. You’re going to be okay. Just hang in there,” Ted said reassuringly.
He wrapped his belt around the man’s upper thigh and pulled and twisted and tied it tight, stopping the pumping blood immediately. He exhaled and slumped over to relax his neck muscles as the flash of incoming headlights illuminated the inside of the car. Two people ran toward him and he shouted, “Call 911. He’s got a bad cut on his leg. I’ve stopped the bleeding but he needs help. Do it now!”
The couple did as Ted said. They helped comfort the injured man and kept him awake and warm until the ambulance arrived. Ted explained that he was the first one on the scene and that the guy must have lost control of the car and ended up in this ditch. The injured man nodded his head in acknowledgement.
The flashing red lights in the distance washed over his face as Ted stumbled his way up the muddy hill with his fingers in his ears until he got into his car. He was around the bend and out of sight before the ambulance came to a stop.
It took Ted a little over an hour to reach the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe. He pulled into the Safeway parking lot and parked his new car for the first time. He stepped through the automatic doors and stood for a second, taking in the geography of the brightly lit supermarket. He knew exactly what he needed and it took him no time to spot the giant neon sign hanging over his goal: Liquor. He grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and two six packs of beer and headed to the check out.
Back on the road and headed north, Ted opened a beer. He knew better than to get into the Jack while driving, but he needed something to calm his nerves. He was shaking and his adrenaline was still pumping. The beer helped, but just as the adrenaline subsided, he hit the curving and slippery road around Emerald Bay. The road was still open, but snow was falling, making the unprotected road treacherous. Not only was this the first time Ted had driven in years; it was also the first time he had EVER driven in snow. The adrenaline started pumping again. It had the unpredictable effect of making Ted feel alive. He felt like he had value and a mission. He had no idea what that mission might be, but for the first time in his life, he felt like he was going in a direction.
As he reached the other side of the bay, the road straightened out and the snow abated. He relaxed and found a place to pull over. Tahoe City was the destination in his navigation system, but he had no clue what was there. He felt a wave of exhaustion and knew he needed somewhere to stop. He searched his car’s system and found the nearest accommodations about twelve miles up this road. He selected The Sunset Cottages, followed his new friend’s reassuring voice and continued north.
An old pickup truck with its hood up sat at the entrance to The Sunset Cottages. Ted turned passed the truck into the gravel parking lot. As he passed, he noticed a young woman in the truck and what looked like a child’s car seat next to her. He parked in the nearest spot and headed toward the building marked office.
The little cottage that housed the office was right out of the 1950s. The walls were knotty pine. A roaring fire at the far end of the room and handcrafted furnishings that were meant to last almost as long as they had warmed the room. With the exception of a high desk and a rack of brochures of local attractions, there was no real sign that this was a motel. It felt more like someone’s living room. Ted headed straight for the fireplace to warm his adrenaline-depleted body.
Karen, a woman in her mid to late 70’s, wearing a red cardigan and blue mom-jeans, came from the kitchen and greeted Ted with more warmth than the fire at his feet. He registered for two nights but was honest with Karen, “I’m not really sure how long I’m going to stay, if that’s alright. I can pay the bill, no problem though.”
Karen smiled, “No, no that’s fine. You stay as long as you like. It’s a little early in the season and we aren’t sold out at all until December. We’re glad to have you.”
Ted looked out the window. “What’s the deal with the woman in the truck out there?”
Karen sounded motherly, “I think she broke down, poor girl. She came in a little while ago and asked to use the phone. Odd. Most people have cell phones these days. But she must not or it doesn’t work up here. Anyway, she made a call but didn’t seem to talk to anyone.”
Ted walked outside to his cabin but veered off toward the pickup truck. He walked up and gestured for the woman to roll down the window, “You having some trouble, miss?” Ted saw the baby, “Um, misses?”
“It’s miss, well it is now. Yeah, this old truck broke again and I can’t get a hold of my dad.”
She had tears in her voice. She seemed like a child trying to take care of another child. Her baby was bundled up and fast asleep. “Where are you headed?” Ted asked.
“Sacramento. My parents live down there. We live, or lived in Reno. My husband was in Iraq and was killed. We don’t have any money left so we had to leave. This stupid truck is the only way we have to get down the hill.”
“So, your father is in Sacramento? And you’re trying to get him to come up here and fix your truck? Isn’t there a garage around here somewhere?”
“Sir, we don’t have any money.”
“Well, even if you reached your father it would take him hours to get up here and then what is he going to be able to do in the middle of the night? I have an idea. Why don’t you come in to this motel and I’ll get you a room? You can spend the night and your father can come in the morning to rescue the damsels in distress.” Ted realized that he had never said anything as charming and kind in his life. He wondered what was happening to him.
The young woman was nervous. She knew to be skeptical of strangers, especially middle-aged men. “No. We couldn’t do that. I’ll call again in a little bit and he’ll come. He doesn’t get off work for another hour or so.”
“You mean to tell me that he’s working for another hour before you can even ask him to come up here? Look, I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help you. Now go inside to the nice lady and I’ll pay for your room. That’s all. You can check in with your baby and be warm for the night. You can call your father from your room and he can come in the morning. Okay?”
She rolled her window up and waited a moment. Opening her door, “Okay. That is very kind of you. My name is Melissa and this little angel is my daughter Jade.”
“Nice to meet you both. My name is Ted.”
“This is Melissa and her truck broke. Do you have another cabin where she and her beautiful daughter could sleep tonight? Please put the room on my bill,” Ted insisted.
Karen smiled and thought that Ted was the kind of person that made the world a better place. Ted had no idea that he was that type of person or that anyone would ever dream of thinking that about him. Karen said, “Of course, my dear. Cabin 3 is made up and all warm. I was just in there cleaning so I had the heat on. Would you like some help with your bags?”
Melissa stuttered, shocked at the hospitality of strangers. “Um, yes…no I can manage. Thank you both so much. You are so kind. I don’t know how I can pay.”
Ted interrupted, “You don’t have to pay. Just stay warm and get some rest. Call your father in a little while.”
“I have some dinner on the stove. Once you all get settled in, if you don’t want to go out again, you’re welcome to join me for dinner,” Karen added.
Melissa was starving. She had run completely out of money and for the last two days had only been able to feed Jade. This was a miracle. “Really? I would really appreciate that. Thank you.”
“It’s not fancy. I have a meat loaf in the oven. I can make mashed potatoes and some green beans that I canned last summer.” It pleased Karen to be able to offer and that was evident by her easy way and bright smile.
“That is my favorite meal. Oh, my goodness!” Melissa could not believe her ears.
Ted sensed her embarrassment and interrupted, “That sounds great. I’ll help Melissa with her things. When would you like us for dinner?”
“How about in an hour? I need to do the potatoes.”
Ted stepped toward the door and opened it for Melissa and her baby. “That sounds great. See you in an hour.” He held the door as Melissa sheepishly waved goodbye.
Ted sat on the bed of his cozy cabin and let the exhaustion overwhelm him. He felt himself slumping over and stood up. He paced the room, turned on and off the television and inspected the small, tidy bathroom. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smelled Lysol and enjoyed it. He stood on the threshold of the bathroom and stared around the room. He had to stay awake for an hour. It would be rude to not show up for Karen’s generous offer. He searched for something to occupy his time. His hand came to rest on a squat bookshelf. He turned into it and stooped down to read the titles—all dime store fiction. At the far end of the top shelf was an unmarked book. Ted pulled it from its dusty slot, leaving a clean silhouette behind.
Ted sat on the edge of the bed and thumbed through what was obviously some sort of diary. He read a few of the entries and realized that they were all penned by past occupants of the cabin. There were tales of holidays spent at the lake, friends and family adventures told, and the occasional love story. An interesting concept, he thought. These books were a place for people to leave a mark; a small gesture of themselves for future readers much like themselves; an analog version of Facebook. Ted liked the idea and went in search of a pen. In the top drawer in the small desk in the corner he found a white ballpoint pen with The Sunset Cottages embossed on the side.
November 12, 2011
I have never written anything like this and don’t know who will read it. My name is Ted and I just won the New York State Lottery. It’s a complicated story about how I won but I guess now it doesn’t really matter. I won by buying a ticket at a convenience store and put the money in various accounts around the world.
It didn’t change my life like most people think. Well, maybe it has but not for the better. I did quit my job but that just made things worse. I sat around and didn’t do anything. I started to wander around New York and mainly drink in bars. I knew that my life sucked because I had nobody to share my money with and no desire to do anything. I think the worst feeling in the world is knowing that you can do whatever you want to do but not want to do anything. I didn’t care about me or anyone else. I tried to jump off of my building and a strange man talked me out of it. I don’t know why I let him. I guess I knew it really wasn’t my time yet.
I went to San Francisco and hated it. I bought my first car ever and liked that. I drove up here and, on the way, saw a car spin out of control and end up in a ditch. I actually saved a man’s live. I have never in my entire life done anything like that. I didn’t have any choice. I was the only person there and if I didn’t do something this guy was going to die. He was bleeding out and if I didn’t stop it, he was dead. I left when help came. I know he lived.
I am really tired but I don’t think I am any longer confused. I need to help people. I am scared to do so, but it is clear to me beyond any other sign in my life that I have to do something with my life. I need to give my money away and help as many people as I can. People are out there that need me. That is something that I have never in my wildest imagination ever thought would be true. But it is true. I am needed. I am really needed and I can help. As I write these words, I understand them. I think I need a drink.
Ted joined Melissa, Jade and Karen in the upstairs dining room for dinner. He was exhausted and only ate a few bites of his food. He excused himself almost immediately. As he was leaving, he said, “Thank you so very much, Karen. Melissa, since you haven’t reached your father yet I have another idea. I’m going to Sacramento tomorrow. Would you like to ride with me?”
Melissa hesitated, “Well, sure. I guess it would be okay.”
“You’ll be safe with me. I need to go back to New York and I’m sure I can get a flight from there, right?”
“Oh sure. Okay, what time do you want to leave? Are you sure that you want to take us with you?”
“How about if we leave at 9? Karen, I’m sorry I’m not staying longer. I’ll pay you for both days and obviously for Melissa’s room. You are incredible and I will come back soon, I promise.”
The next day Ted, Melissa and Jade loaded their things in Ted’s trunk, fastened the car seat in the back and headed south toward Sacramento. Ted was lost in thought most of the way, but spoke to Melissa from time to time about her husband, their plans before he died, and how Jade’s dad had only seen her twice since she was born. Melissa told Ted about her parents and how nice they were to take Jade and her in. As they approached Sacramento, Melissa said: “The next exit is where my parents live.”
Ted continued in the fast lane. “Melissa, do you mind just coming to the airport with me? There’s a flight that leaves really soon and I need to be on it. We’ll get you back to your parents.”
Melissa was nervous. He had seemed so nice but this was weird, she thought. “Umm, I guess so. I mean are you sure?”
“Don’t worry. This is all going to work out. I promise.”
They drove for another twenty minutes in nervous silence. Ted knew exactly what he was going to do and Melissa was unsure of every twist in her young life. Neither of them really knew where they were going in life but each knew that others depended on them to figure that out, and they were both determined in their own way to do just that.
Ted pulled over in front of the United terminal and put his little Volkswagen into park. He reached toward Melissa’s leg and she jumped. “Excuse me, I need to get something in the glove compartment.”
“Oh, sorry.” Melissa felt embarrassed for her over reaction.
Ted pulled the top paper and the Sunset Cabins pen out and shut the glove compartment. Matter of factly, “Melissa, what is your last name?”
Confused, she said, “Kendricks.”
“Oh, that’s right. You told Karen that last night.” He began writing.
“Why do you need to know my last name?”
Ted looked up and smiled. “For the title. Look, I don’t need this car any longer and clearly you could use a car, so I thought: I have a car I don’t need, you don’t have a car and need one: what a perfect match!”
“You what?” Melisa was astonished.
“I’ll mail you the original title once I get it in the mail, but if you present this document to the department of motor vehicles the registration and title will be transferred to your name with no problem and the car will be yours. I paid cash so there’s nothing owed and the title will be clear. I also paid the insurance for a year and will call them today and put it in your name. You have nothing to worry about.”
Melissa sat stunned, speechless.
Ted continued, “Oh, and I almost forgot. I talked to Karen about your truck. She’s going to have the local garage come and get it. Call her if you want to go pick it up. If not, they’ll fix it and sell it for you. You choose. Drive safely.” He smiled, threw the keys into her lap, grabbed his duffle bag and was gone.