Lottery Blues by John Bolton
It was payday Friday and warm for March. Ray pulled on a pair of jeans, cheap tennies, his Howling Wolf tee-shirt and a faded orange cap. He strolled three blocks to County Hospital.
Used to be, Ray was the lead housekeeper at County. Now he was mostly retired. He still worked a day or so a week, mostly, doing floors. Ray was a wizard with floors.
He went down the stairs to the basement of the building and into the Housekeeping office just as Mary, his friend and supervisor was getting off the phone. Ray said, “Mary? Is it payday again? Shee-it! Don’t you just hate how they come around so often? What we sposed’ to do with all this money?”
Mary groaned and chuckled as she handed Ray his check. It was a payday ritual. She reached into a desk drawer and handed Ray another envelope – this one sky blue with his name written in red ink. Mary said, “This from Francine. To thank you for helping her husband fix that roof.”
Ray opened up the thank you card and frowned as he pulled out a Subway gift-card and a lottery ticket. The hand written part of the card read, “Thanks Ray. Remember me when you win the lottery.”
He said, “Aww, Francine didn’t need to do this... But it sure was nice.”
“Jackpot’s at a record high,” Mary said. “Peoples down to the gas station lined up to buy tickets.”
Ray had never bought a lottery ticket - didn’t even know how to pick the numbers…. But he started thinking what he could do for his family if he had him a bunch of money. His two grown sons and their families could sure use some help.
He walked down to Jimmy’s BBQ & Blues, smelling that good smoke for the last two blocks. Every Thursday and Friday night, Ray was the blues at Jimmy’s BBQ and Blues.
Jimmy was around back working the smoker. He cut a slice of beef brisket the size of a Zippo lighter. With no other greeting, he handed it to Ray on a plastic fork. Ray accepted the tribute with a bow of his graying head. He bit off a large and tender mouth full. He chewed a little then threw up his hands and spun a circle doing his happy dance.
“Good?” Jimmy asked.
Ray popped the rest into his mouth. He chewed and seemed to ponder the question. He did the happy dance again and answered, “Not bad, Boss.”
Jimmy dug into his fat, tattered wallet, pulled out two twenties and handed them to Ray. He cackled a dry laugh, saying, “Man you can sing and play a little, but you can’t dance for shit.”
Ray got twenty dollars, two domestic beers and a meal every time he played at Jimmy’s. The ‘doh-mestic’ beer thing was an inside joke. Jimmy served three kinds of beer: Bud, Bud Light and PBR. Ray was PBR man.
Truth was that Ray would have played for a pulled pork or brisket plate with beans and Jimmy’s coleslaw. But the money did come in handy and Jimmy paid him every Friday. He paid him off the books and that was better yet.
Deanna, the dishwasher, came out back and tossed dirty dish water out of a pink plastic tub. She asked, “Ray, honey? You want in our lotto pool? We gonna win and I ain’t never gonna wash another dish!”
Ray fished his ticket out of his pocket and told her, “No babes. I gots the winner right here.”
He went home and laid the ticket on the kitchen table for Loretta to see when she got home from work. He loaded the lawn mower into the trunk of their five year old Chevy and felt a bit light headed. Whoa! He about lost his balance. He was 65 years old and took pride in still being strong and able to work. The same thing had happened Tuesday when he hadn’t done nothin’ but get up off the couch.
He shook it off and drove off to his momma’s house. Ray was fairly content with his life and what he had. His and Loretta’s little house was paid for and in pretty good shape. Central air conditioning would be nice and Loretta would sure like new living room furniture and a new mattress. But they had everything they needed, and most of what they wanted.
Just the same, Ray was thinking about what he’d do if he won some money. He’d heard about folks winning and really putting their lives in a mess. He would not let that happen if he won. He’d see their grown sons’ families in nice but not fancy houses. And a new car for each. And he’d see that Francine got a share. He’d give some money to good charities and he would put the rest away. He’d live simple and comfortable. And never worry about money again.
Ray put on his left turn signal for his momma’s street. He turned and realized he had the wrong street. He was one block off. Confused for a minute, he assured himself that they’d done some construction there and things looked different.
But it worried him. He said a prayer for himself and his family. He asked for salvation and mercy and telling God, that he sure would appreciate more good health. As nearly always, he ended the prayer with, ‘Thy will be done.’
Then he added a PS, saying out loud, “And Lord, it would sure be fine to win the lottery. I’d do some good things.”
He got to his mother’s and gave her a hug. His momma had lost two kids. Both younger than Ray. One of the things Ray needed to do in life was outlive his momma. They visited for a bit and then Ray set to mowing and trimming.
He felt vaguely not right. Just a little headache and light headed. By the time he was done he was tired but feeling okay. His momma fed him pancakes and eggs for lunch. The food and rest set him right again.
That afternoon when Loretta got home they discussed their day. Ray made no mention of not feeling right or what he wished for regarding the lottery. In fact, the lottery ticket went unmentioned. There was a small window of time together before Ray had to leave to play at Jimmy’s.
Jimmy always introduced his performers - sometimes doing so a couple of times a night as the customers came and went. He always introduced Ray as ‘the best bluesman nobody outside this county ever heard of.’
Taped to the back of Ray’s guitar were two lists of twelve songs each. The guitar was a good playing old Kay. The songs were mostly blues and each set had one or more bluesy Gospels. He would play one set take a break and then play the other. And keep it up until time to go home.
It was a good night. People were in good spirits with the fine weather and it being payday for lots of them. Although it was a black neighborhood with some Hispanics coming in, the BBQ crowd was about 60% white, 40% black and 0% Hispanic. He wondered why that was. The Mexicans sure went to the Chinese place down the street.
Ray opened his second set with the Guy Davis song, Payday.
“Well I done all I can do. And I can’t get along with you.
Gonna take you to your momma’s payday.”
He took requests. He was known for doing Hank William’s Mind Your Own Business. He did that song and the BBQ staff and a good number of the diner s joined in on the echoes of ‘Mind Your Own Business.’ It never got old for Ray.
He was tuckered out and quit playing when the dining crowd thinned down. He bent over to unplug his amp and felt light headed. He went down on one knee.
The next thing Ray knew - or more like - halfway knew - he was in the ICU at County Hospital with Loretta at his bedside. The world seemed foggy and dreamlike to Ray. He was aware of things and somehow knew where he was.. But he did not have words. Something like words formed in his mind, but he didn’t recognize them. He felt helpless and befuddled.
Loretta saw his eyes were open. She took his left hand, the hand without an IV. She gave him a kiss on the forehead and said, “Raymond, it’s good to see you awake. You hurtin’ anywhere?”
Ray heard her words but could make no sense of them. He did not understand when she told him he’d had a stroke. He did not understand when she told him that he’d won a portion of the lottery. He saw tears on Loretta’s face. Ray understood tears.
Ray had always hoped he would never have to go to a nursing home. On the day he was to be taken to the River View Nursing Home, Ray had another stroke.
Late that morning, surrounded by family and friends, he died. Per Loretta’s instructions on a hospital form, there were no attempts to resuscitate Ray. No false heroics. He was allowed to die in peace and with some dignity.
* * *
Loretta laid fresh cut peonies and irises on Ray’s grave by the red granite headstone. There were guitars cut into the stone. Loretta thought Ray would have liked those guitars.
It had been three years since Ray died and Loretta had been
there many times. If she was alone, she spoke to Ray as though he were there with her. She wiped tears from both cheeks with a lavender flowered hanky and told him, “Raymond, I sure still miss you. I sure hope you’re not watching us down here. That money causes us more trouble than it was ever worth.”