Sunday, June 28, 2015


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.

Ray 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 cramped store.

"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.

He 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 for that.

"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.

The 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.

Ray 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?"

Ray 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!"

The 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.


It 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.

He 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.

He 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, pneumonia, etc.

Ray exhaled and sighed.

Upon 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 freezer.


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.

Ray 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.

He 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.

"Wow! Congratulations!"

Ray looked up, his eyes widening.

"I won. I'm a millionaire!" said Ray tossing his arms in the air.

The 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."

Ray 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 thanks.


Ray 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 percent.

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 medium-rare goodness.

"One please," said Ray to the host.

Ray 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.

Ray 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.


With 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.

He 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.

Afterward, 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 coughed.

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.

After 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.

Ray 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.

When 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 it up.

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.

Ray 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.


With 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.

"Spare 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.


He 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.

A 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 officially began.

"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."

Ray 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.

When 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!


After 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.

But 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.

Ray 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 their world.

He wiped his eye, snuffed his cigarette and coughed.

Ray 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.

After 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."

Five 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 remained unclaimed.

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