One. It was the most appropriate place to start anything, he figured. The loneliest number, not that he minded being alone.
He struck the match and watched the red and black end spark to life. He inhaled deeply, taking pleasure in the chemical tinge of the first smoke. The flame swayed in the draft of the small front room in which he sat, as he did every Saturday evening at seven o’clock sharp, the television tuned to channel Four WZRY. Outside his window the wind whipped the branches of the big oak tree. He held his hand around the flame and lowered it gently to the wick of the candle, coaxing it to life.
When the first ball came tumbling through the slot in the cage and the lady in the silky white evening gown and the red lipstick held it up for the cameras, he didn’t have much of a reaction. He’d been doing this long enough to know better than to get too excited.
Another one. Together they formed the month of November, the month of his birth. A sad month, he’d always felt. Full of ominous foreboding. Not yet winter, but too late for fall, the leaves already long since fallen and dried out and blown away by a battalion of buzzing blowers. Good god, how he loathed those things. Why couldn’t people just use a damn rake? Or they could do what he did: nothing at all.
The strangest bit about it was that he wasn’t a religious man, not by any stretch. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to church. His mother would be so disappointed if she could see him now, he thought to himself. She’d been a saintly woman. Enough to put up with her deadbeat husband for forty-five years until he keeled over on the couch one evening in the third quarter of a Bengals-Steelers game. “The goddamn Bengals are killin’ me,” he’d always said, his old man had. And that’s just what happened. On a failed attempt to convert on fourth and inches with two minutes left to play in the fourth quarter and a hundred-fifty bucks on the line. It was a brain aneurysm that did it.
When the second one came tumbling out, he inched forward in his recliner. “Two down,” he mumbled.
The third digit was a three. There was really nothing more to be said about it than that.
Saint Mickey. Patron Saint of degenerate gamblers, of amount-to-nothing-ne’er-do-wells, of overweight men whose once-white cotton tee-shirts no longer covered the lower reaches of their bellies as they sat at the Irish pub or the VFW or the OTB, drinking four-dollar specials of a shot of off-brand whiskey and a Miller Light, bitching and moaning about how they were dead fucking broke yet again and about how some pony or a woman or the Reds had let them down for the umpteenth time. Complaining about the government or the union or about how some Mexican had taken his job at the plant. Because wasn’t that just how life was? A process of slow chipping away. A series of bad bets. He liked those men. Or at least he didn’t dislike them. Because they didn’t have much in the way of ambition and because they didn’t make him feel bad about how his life had turned out.
Saint Mickey, whose face graced the candle he’d just lit, a mischievous glint in his eye, like he knew some secret about fortune. That it had multiple meanings. That it cut both ways. When the three came rolling down the tube and was placed beside the two ones he sucked in his breath. “Come on now.”
A zero came next in the order of things. Nothing in his life seemed to add up to much more than that. A failure of basic math is what it was. Or just shit luck. Or maybe it was the gambling, like his ex-wife had always said. It didn’t much matter. It was what it was, as they say, and there wasn't a whole lot to do about it.
The roof needed to be fixed and the transmission on the four-door Ford he’d bought knowing full well it was on its last legs needed an overhaul. Not that he had the money for that. The tree too. The big oak. It had rotted from the inside. A perfect microcosm of everything else in his life, rot radiating from the center, hidden beneath the surface until it came bursting forth at the least opportune time.
The branches had started to come down. First it was the small ones. He’d ignored those. Then it failed to bloom in the spring and started to sprout mushrooms and various fungi along its trunk. It was only a matter of time before the whole damn thing just tipped right over. He was a gambler though. “Fifty-fifty it falls away from the house,” he’d said to the guy who’d come out to look at the tree and who told him it would cost him eight hundred bucks to cut down. He liked his odds. So he’d let it ride.
The woman with the red lipstick held the little white ping pong ball aloft. He stood from his chair, grunting with exertion as he did. In all the Saturday nights over the course of all those years, he’d only gotten the first four numbers once before. The grand prize was $47 million, not the biggest the pot had ever gotten, but getting up there. He searched his memory for the right prayer but came up empty. His eyes flashed back and forth between the television screen and the candle. A bead of sweat formed on his brow.
Six. The third to last number. The same numbers he’d always played. His birthday plus the number seven, because he needed a last number and it seemed like as good a choice as any.
Some of the guys at the bar, the degenerates he liked well enough, had years ago made a pact that if any of them ever hit it big, they’d split it, even Steven. It had never added up to a whole lot. Once in a while, one of them would get lucky with a long shot at the track and he’d wander in, proud as a goddamned peacock, and lay a couple of crisp hundred dollar bills out for everyone to see. Then he’d say “drinks are on me tonight, boys,” like he was the champion of the world.
They always cheated, though. Everyone knew it. It was never the whole pot, just a portion of it. Just enough to impress a bunch of drunks clinging tentatively to middle age with beer bellies and combovers and worn-to-the-threads sports caps. How much would he lay on the bar if he won, he wondered. It’s not like he would stick around in this shithole of a town. There would be mansions to buy. A big fishing boat would be nice.
He would spread out maybe two grand and slap each of them on the back, a big fucking grin on his face. “Our ship’s come in, fellas,” is what he’d say. He’d put two hundred bucks in each of their grubby palms and tell them to do something special with it. Tell them to take their wives out for a steak dinner. The few who had managed to keep their wives, anyway. And then he’d buy a case of champagne, saying to the bartender, Franky, "none of the swill tonight,” like a bigshot. "We'll take the good stuff."
The next day he’d disappear before the news broke that he’d won millions, his picture splashed across the front page of the Lake Tribune, a shit eating grin on his mug and a cartoonishly large check in his hands.
Eight. He could see it even before it stopped rolling down the chute. Clear as day. He pumped his fist. One more to go. Then he dried his sweaty hands on his pants.
The wind howled, rattling the loose panes of glass in the old window frame. The television briefly flickered. The woman with the red lipstick turned the crank on the side of the cage full of balls once, twice, three times and then brought it to a sudden halt. The solitary white sphere exited the bottom of the cage and began to roll down the chute. His whole body convulsed, a shiver of energy running from the crown of his head, warming his chest, tingling his groin, before finding its terminus in the soles of his feet.
He turned briefly toward the visage of his patron saint with his knowing grin.
“You owe me this, Mickey. After all these years of shit luck, you owe me this, you fucker.” The woman reached down and plucked out the final ball. “And the final number for this evening’s lucky seven jackpot,” the announcer stated, building the suspense.
There was only just enough time to glance at the ceiling directly above him. Toward the deafening sound like a manic freight train, the trunk of the dead tree crashing through his rotting roof, ripping through the rafters, obliterating the drywall, and finally smashing his skull into a million little pieces before landing with a thud on the floor of his small front room. From beneath the mass of splintered wood, his arm spasmed twice, fingers twitching, before falling still. By some miracle, the television was left entirely undamaged and the candle continued to burn, Saint Mickey surveying the wreckage.