The last cigarette pointed up inside the crumpled pack. Ray made a wish, begged for a million dollars from a benevolent Goddess he often called lady luck. He lit it up, smoked it and snuffed it out when the burn reached the filter.
entered the corner store nearby. The door swung in, jingling the bell.
He was greeted by the smell of heavy incense that hung inside the
"Good afternoon my friend!"
said the store owner. He placed a pack of Marlboros and a scratch-off
ticket on the counter. Ray nodded and gave him a twenty.
took out a penny and began scratching. The top four numbers gave him
32, 19, 44, 5, and the bottom numbers gave him nothing to match. So much
"Maybe next time," said the owner, still retaining a smile.
"I hope so, Ari," said Ray, tossing the ticket in the bin. He nodded good-bye and exited the store.
autumn wind hinted the coming winter. Ray unwrapped his cigarette pack,
took the first cigarette out and returned it inside with the tip
pointing up. It was a smoking ritual that he had learned from his older
brother-God rest his soul-during those rebellious years.
Ray took one out and smoked. Between inhales, he would sometimes cough and spit out phlegm.
"Excuse me sir." said a voice behind him.
turned. The voice came from a homeless man dressed in a puffed jacket,
tattered jeans and a red beanie stained with soot and grime. And he
smelled. Reeked of moist and sweaty socks, worn and unwashed for ten
days. Ray stepped back.
"Spare a cigarette?"
still had his pack out in the open. In moments like these, be it
beggars, teenagers or men in suits who struggled to quit the habit, Ray
would say no. But something in the man's face moved Ray. Weary eyes,
those eyes that woke everyday when everyday was miserable as the last.
Ray took one out and offered it to him.
"Bless you sir."
The homeless man eyed the upturned cigarette in the pack.
"A wishstick?" asked the homeless man.
"Yep," said Ray, holding his breath.
"Do you have a light?"
Ray handed the lighter.
"Keep it," Ray said.
"Bless you sir," the homeless man lit his cigarette and took a puff, "bless you twice and three times!"
homeless man held up three fingers, kissed them once, twice, three
times. Ray nodded and walked away. When Ray was far from the man's
stench, he gasped for clean air.
was cold inside the apartment. Ray turned the valve on the radiator,
hooked his coat, dropped the keys in the bowl and flicked the lights on,
illuminating the living room with a dull, yellow hue.
owned a pink couch, not of his choice, but of his late wife who
insisted on getting it. In front of the couch was a cathode-ray TV
refusing to die.
Ray slumped on the couch and
stared at a picture of Agnes, his darling wife, smiling, calm, with the
Leaning Tower of Pisa in the background. That was two years ago.
sank deeper in the couch, took his cigarettes and smoked. He imagined
his wife screaming and yelling at him every time he lit up. Her tirade
was about the dangers of these cancer sticks, prating about the nasty
disease that came with it such as lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis,
Ray exhaled and sighed.
finishing his cigarette, Ray walked to the record player, turned it on
and set the stylus at the beginning. Piano played, twinkling and
snapping, until Billie Holiday sang Blue Moon. Ray bobbed his head with
the rhythm and headed to the kitchen for dinner. He didn't trust himself
with the stove so he grabbed a box of Hungry Man Dinners from the
alarm clock blared at seven A.M.. Ray woke up coughing and wheezing.
After clearing his lungs by coughing and spitting, he readied for work.
arrived thirty minutes late. No one cared. It was a slow day anyway so
he played the stock market, appearing focused and determined, buying low
and selling high, eventually recouping his losses from yesterday.
At six o'clock, Ray was out the door.
opened his pack, drew out his last cigarette and made a wish. While he
smoked, he wondered what he'd do with a million dollars. First thing
that came to mind was a yacht. He would sail the seas despite his
inexperience in boating.
He finished his
wishstick and went inside his usual store. Like clockwork, the store
owner had the Marlboros out along with a scratch-off ticket. Ray began
scratching the gray film covering the numbers, and when it was all
rubbed out, his eyes moved up and down, up and down, matching the top
numbers to the bottom numbers.
Ray blinked and shook his head.
"Would you look at that," said Ray, his lips curling to a smile.
The store owner glanced at the ticket.
Ray looked up, his eyes widening.
"I won. I'm a millionaire!" said Ray tossing his arms in the air.
store owner stuck his hand out for a shake, wanting to congratulate Ray
on his sudden fortune, but Ray pulled him in, hugged him and patted his
back like a brother he hadn't seen for a while.
Ray let go. "Sorry, I'm just. . . I can't believe it!"
The store owner smiled awkwardly.
"You are very fortunate, my friend. Go out and celebrate it!"
"I think I will."
unwrapped his cigarette pack, took the first one out and returned it
inside with the tip pointing up. He placed a normal cigarette between
his lips and handed forty dollars to the store owner as a form of
sat at the backseat of a yellow cab, headed to Bovine Bistro, a
restaurant known for their T-Bone steak, mashed potatoes and homemade
gravy. When he got off the cab, Ray tipped the driver twenty-five
Inside the restaurant, Ray savored
the smoky aroma that wafted through the air. His mouth was excited,
ready to chew, ready to indulge. His stomach screamed for a slice of
"One please," said Ray to the host.
was seated next to the window. He scanned the menu even though he knew
what he wanted. For drinks, Ray ordered the best and most expensive
glass of red wine.
The waiter took his order,
and Ray was left to himself. He sighted a young couple across him,
admiring one another, flirting with their eyes and lips. Ray took a peek
behind him. There was an elderly couple inside a booth, holding hands
while the candle on the table revealed the creases of their skin,
brightening their smiles.
Ray turned his
attention outside. Garbage bags piled up and teetered at the edge of the
sidewalk. People came and went. A homeless man stepped into view.
“DaVinci Chianti?” said a voice beside him.
turned. The waiter stood with a bottle of red wine, the finest the
restaurant had to offer. His glass was filled. He relished the wine with
his nose and then took a sip. Later on, his T-Bone steak came, smoking
and hot, with a side of mash coated in thick, sweet gravy. He took a
slice, savored it in his mouth and felt the world around him melt.
a million dollars ready to be claimed, Ray called in sick. He had
calculated how long he could survive with the winnings alone. With tax
accounted for and with his current lifestyle, he could live off the
money for fifteen years. If Ray wanted luxuries, it would take seven
years until money ran out.
Ray took a cab and was dropped off in front of the Lottery Headquarters.
"I would like to claim my ticket," said Ray to the receptionist.
"Congratulations sir!" said the receptionist. She took out a clipboard and gave it to Ray.
"Please fill this out, date it and sign it. Once you're done, hand it back to me along with your ID and your ticket."
Ray nodded and smiled.
sat on a chair nearby and began filling out the form. It asked for his
name, date of birth, social security number, address, banking
information and so on. When it asked the mode of payment, Ray opted for a
wire transfer. Then it asked if he wanted the money in lump-sum or
annuity. Ray chose lump-sum.
He returned the
form along with his ID and ticket. The manager came out to congratulate
Ray. A press release was in order, and the in-house photographer
directed Ray and the manager to a blue backdrop. The receptionist
brought out a gigantic check for one million dollars. Ray was all smiles
as he saw his full name printed on it.
Today was a good day.
Ray went to the bank. With tax accounted for, Ray was seven hundred
fifty-three thousand dollars richer. He withdrew a thousand and stepped
out for a cigarette. He had three left. He lit one, smoked it and
The breeze was fresh, carrying the
cool air from the Hudson River. Ray explored the neighborhood. The
sidewalk was almost empty, peaceful as he strolled, basking in the
mid-noon sun, the heavens clear, serene against glinting skyscrapers.
finishing his cigarette, Ray smoked another. He coughed and spat out
phlegm-it looked like a tablespoon of raspberry jam. His lungs tightened
and his eyes began to tear. Ray dropped his cigarette and felt the
sidewalk turn and spin under his feet. He propped himself against the
wall and expectorated all the phlegm that befouled his lungs.
"Are you okay?" said a passerby. Ray turned and gave a thumbs-up, his hand trembling as he did.
calmed himself and took deep breaths, his lungs wheezing with every
inhale. One cigarette left. Ray still had the urge to smoke it. But he
stopped himself. He needed a break, a coffee break.
Ray found a coffee shop, he ordered a large coffee with no milk and no
sugar. Coffee dilated the lungs, he thought, maybe it would help clear
Ray sat at the corner, away from the
crowd. He drank his coffee in slow sips, and he would cough and retch
the phlegm that forced itself out, spitting it inside an empty cup he
had gotten from the counter. Glances and sneers crossed him, but Ray
paid no mind.
An hour passed and with his
coffee cold, the dizziness and the ails in his chest subsided. Ray
stepped out, made his wish and lit the cigarette. While he sent trails
of smoke between his lips, Ray hoped that his current wish would come
true. It was a long shot. But wishing for the improbable was harmless.
He smiled and killed his cigarette under the sole of his shoe.
went to the corner store nearby. He bought a new pack of Marlboros, and
instead of a scratch-off ticket, Ray purchased a Mega Million lottery
ticket. The jackpot was six hundred thirty-one million dollars.
"Today's a good day," said Ray, staring at the numbers on his ticket.
a long day ahead, Ray roamed the city. He watched a movie, pretended to
be a tourist and treated himself with more fine dining. With the skies
turning red and the sun hiding behind gray buildings, Ray retreated to
the park and sat on a bench, smoking and dreaming of six hundred
thirty-one million dollars.
Ray caught sight
of a homeless man trudging through the walkway. Joggers and passersby
evaded him like the plague, which was true since Ray could smell the
stench from where he was. And Ray recognized the smell. It was the
homeless man with the puffed jacket, tattered jeans and a red beanie,
the one who kissed his fingers three times.
change?" said the homeless man, reaching out a Styrofoam cup to Ray.
While Ray held his breath, he took his wallet out and stuffed two
hundred dollars in the man's cup.
The homeless man's eyes widened.
"Bless you sir! Bless you a thousand times!" the homeless man held three fingers up, kissed it and kissed it and kissed it.
"Did you want some cigarettes too?" Ray asked. Ray turned his head away and tried to gasp for air.
"Oh no sir. Not at all. You've already done so much."
"Can I ask you a question then?"
"Why do you do that? Why do you kiss your fingers?"
"It is our way of giving grace, of showering blessings to kind souls such as you."
Ray wanted to ask more questions, but the putrid smell was just too much.
"Well, thank you for your whatever that is."
The homeless man nodded, pocketed the hundred and walked away. When the smell was gone, Ray took a long, deep breath.
was back in the apartment when the drawing began. Ray took his ticket
out, lit a cigarette and chased it down with a glass of whiskey.
lady, dressed in black, entered the screen with a pearly white smile
that shined from the studio lights. The camera zoomed to the lottery
machine, a transparent, plastic box that contained 80 ping-pong balls
that bounced around and was blown by air through vents in the machine.
There were tubes on top, and each was sealed until the drawing
"Good evening and welcome
to the New York Mega Million drawing. The jackpot is now at 631 million
dollars. Our first number for tonight is"--a ball shoots up the first
tube--"66." Ray looked at his ticket.
"Our second number is... 18."
listened to the TV, fixated at his ticket. When the third number was
announced, he was motionless. When the fourth number came, he forgot to
breathe. When the fifth and sixth number was said, the cigarette from
Ray's lips fell and singed a hole on his carpet. He picked it up and
took a drag before killing it.
"And our Mega
Million Ball for tonight is..."--the camera panned to another lottery
machine that contained yellow ping-pong balls--"42. The numbers tonight
are 66, 18, 52, 9, 33, 42."
His hand trembled
as he placed a cigarette between his lips. His other hand shook as well
when it flicked the lighter. It took a while.
it dawned on him at what just happened, Ray jumped from the couch,
yelled, pumped his fists in the air, raised his arms in victory, ran to
the kitchen, opened himself a can of Coors and drank half of it in one
gulp, followed by a howl of triumph. A multimillionaire he was!
three cans of Coors and an ashtray piled with cigarette butts, Ray
studied his last cigarette, the wishstick of the pack. Two wishes came
true. He wanted to test it, to see if he was truly blessed, graced by a
stinking homeless man wandering the cold New York streets. If Ray ever
saw him again, Ray would promise him a million dollars.
first things first, Ray needed to make a wish. He had wished for the
improbable, now he was thinking of the impossible. He fancied the idea
of becoming the President of United States or the Mayor of New York. He
thought about more money. Become a billionaire and buy an island
somewhere in the Pacific, get that yacht and sail all day. Or how about
fame? Become a novelist or an actor despite his age and balding head.
His eyes crossed upon the picture of his wife.
lifted the lighter from the table and lit the wishstick. While he
savored every puff and every drag, Ray relived all his cherished
memories of Agnes. The Italy trip played in his head, and he teared up
as he recalled that night, under the stars, next to a candle lit table,
holding hands, gazing up in awe at the great, blue expanse that embraced
He wiped his eye, snuffed his cigarette and coughed.
grabbed a can of Coors and took his time drinking it. He stared at the
door, waiting for it to open, waiting for a miracle, for the impossible
to happen. When he emptied his beer, Ray crushed the can and pushed
himself to the bedroom. He lied down and slept.
a while, soft, distant music goaded him out of sleep. He opened his
eyes. The song Blue Moon played in the background, sung by the eternal
and fabulous Billie Holiday. Ray was back in Italy, sitting under the
stars. He felt the touch of his wife, holding his hand, sweetly
caressing it with her thumb. Ray kissed her, warm to his lips.
"I've missed you," he said.
"I've missed you too."
days had passed. The landlord was given permission to enter his
apartment forcefully. Ray was reported missing by his manager and his
co-workers. No sign of him in his bedroom or his bathroom. His credit
cards and debit cards showed no activity, and the winning lottery ticket