To call Francis Littlejohn an old stick would have been an insult to old sticks. He was a cantankerous, officious little man with a distrust for humankind.
“Trust no one!” he used to always say. “There isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t rob you blind, given half a chance.”
Working on the lottery commission made him feel he had a purpose in life. As far as old Francis was concerned, it was his sworn duty to protect the jackpot with his own life if he had to. He had no real control over the prize money, of course, but it was little fantasies like this that kept him going most days.
His job had taken on added importance as of late, as the jackpot had reached a record level. There had not been a winner in over twelve weeks and the winnings were piling up. The projected numbers for next week’s drawing were staggering. Added jackpot money meant added work. Fran knew that.
While going through his mail one morning, he noticed a letter that stood out from the rest. It was hand-addressed. He’d received hand-addressed letters before, but this one was different. Even the return address was hand-written. No company logo, no corporate stationary, just a name, neatly printed with plain block letters.
It looked to Fran like a letter from a fourth-grader, perhaps writing to him as part of a school project, to learn all about the inner workings of the lottery business. It wasn’t often that a bureaucrat like Fran would receive fan mail. He looked at the return address. It was from someone named Forrest J. Hipple from Wichita, Kansas.
Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like any fourth-grader’s name, he thought. With his fancy, ivory-handled letter opener, he sliced open the curious letter:
Dear Mr. Littlejohn,
I am writing to inform you that this week’s jackpot, the one that has currently been unclaimed, rightfully belongs to me. That’s because the six numbers drawn on Thursday evening were my numbers. I suppose I should say our numbers. That being my wife and me. You see, the numbers “eight” and “fourteen” represent the day I met my lovely wife of forty-two years. The numbers “six” and “twenty-two” represent the day we officially tied the knot. And the numbers “nine” and “twenty-seven” represent the day I put my lovely Martha into the ground, some twenty years ago.
Unfortunately, I was unable to purchase my ticket this past Thursday like I usually do. I know I’m partially to blame, as I always wait until just before eight o’clock on Thursday evening to purchase my ticket. It’s a bit of a superstition of mine. It was all just dumb luck, I suppose … but when I arrived at the Gas-n-Go this past Thursday, the man at the counter told me his machine wasn’t working. Even though I’ve always bought my tickets at the Gas-n-Go on I-35, I decided I’d better drive into the city and try a different store, knowing I had until nine o’clock to get my ticket. But that’s when my darned tire went flat.
Being that I’m getting on in years, it takes a little longer to change a flat than it used to. By the time I reached the store, it was too late. They had stopped selling tickets for that night’s drawing. I thought nothing of it at first. The same sort of thing happened back in ninety-eight when I had my gallbladder removed. I wasn’t able to get my ticket that night either, but they didn’t draw my numbers that night, so it didn’t much matter.
Then this past Friday when I looked in the newspaper, I noticed my numbers had been drawn. Naturally, I was quite excited. Until I remembered about the flat tire and the ticket-printing machine down at the Gas-n-Go. My memory isn’t quite what it used to be, and sometimes it takes a spell to gather up my thoughts. I wasn’t sure what I should do.
That’s why I am writing to you now. Please let me know how we can get this straightened out. I realize there is likely to be a bit of red tape to work through, so I am prepared to be as patient as necessary. The important thing is that we get it worked out. Thank you very much for your time. I know you’re a busy man, and I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my predicament.
Forrest J. Hipple
Fran was dumbfounded. “Oh, that’s priceless,” he said to the empty room, sounding a bit impressed. “Positively priceless. I think I’ll have it framed. I’ll hang it right over there, where everyone can see it.”
He wondered if it might be a prank, but he doubted any of his co-workers would be so clever. He read through the letter a few more times, grinning each time he read it. “A flat tire, you say?” He smiled and shook his head. “The old malfunctioning ticket-printing machine … how horrible.”
He had an idea. He grabbed a sheet of official lottery stationary and his favorite pen and started to write:
Dear Mr. Hipple,
Congratulations on correctly picking last week’s jackpot numbers. Unfortunately, we will not be able to award you your prize money until we are able to properly determine that the numbers drawn last Thursday were the numbers you intended to play.
While it does seem a bit conspicuous that the numbers seem to reflect significant dates in your life, I am afraid we would need some concrete evidence that would show us you had intended to play those exact numbers last Thursday. Even if you’ve played those numbers in the past, we have no real way of knowing if you intended on playing them on this particular week. I’m sure you can see our dilemma. If you could just prove to us beyond any reasonable doubt that you were going to purchase those exact numbers this past Thursday, we will be glad to see what we can do on this end.
I’m sorry for any inconvenience all of this has caused you. I might suggest that next time, though, you try to get to the store a little earlier, just in case. Thank you very much, and keep playing. Good luck.
Francis H. Littlejohn
Lottery Commission Vice Chairman
Old Francis was quite proud of himself. “Trust no one,” he declared with his finger in the air, giving his speech to an empty room. He affixed a stamp to the envelope and tossed it in with the rest of the out-going mail.
Another week passed by with no one winning the jackpot. That morning, one of Fran’s underlings walked into his office carrying a small package wrapped in plain brown paper and secured with a long piece of twine tied around the box in either direction.
“This package just came for you, sir,” said the underling. “Registered mail.” She set the package on his desk and quickly excused herself.
He recognized the neatly-printed block letters immediately. It was from none other than Forrest J. Hipple from Wichita, Kansas.
Oh, how wonderful … the wacko sent me a bomb. I’ve offended the man so much he wants to blow me up. And by registered mail, no less.
He reached for his fancy letter opener. He sliced through the twine and ripped through the paper to reveal an old shoe box with a plain white envelope taped to it. He used his letter opener again to open the envelope.
Dear Mr. Littlejohn,
Thank you for responding to my letter. If you would indulge me, I would like to tell you a story.
Sixty-three years ago, I was working as a mechanic at Nate’s Garage, down by the old Kansas Turnpike, where they would later put in the Interstate. It was about five minutes to eight on a Thursday evening, just about quittin’ time. A lovely young lady drove into the garage with an old Buick Roadmaster.
It was her father’s car. He was out of town on business, and she had used the car without his permission. On her way home, it started making a funny noise. I told her we were closing in five minutes, but she probably shouldn’t drive the car any more. I offered her a ride home and told her I would look at her father’s car in the morning.
I had told her a fib … she could have driven the car. It only needed a new belt. But I was quite smitten with her, and I wanted to make sure I would see her again. My plan worked, and six months later, we were married.
Years later, after I finally retired, they tore down Nate’s Garage to build the new Gas-N-Go. It wasn’t long after that my Martha took ill. That’s when I started buying the tickets. I figured if we could win the jackpot, we could afford to go to the best doctors in the world. She never knew I was buying the tickets. I kept it a secret.
After she was gone, I kept on buying the tickets. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want to stop playing. I suppose I don’t need the money so much anymore. We never had any children, so there wouldn’t be anyone to spend the money after I’m gone. We tried to have kids, but I guess it wasn’t in the cards for us.
Martha never approved of gambling. But I’m quite certain if she knew how foolish I had been by not playing on the night that our numbers won, she would never forgive me. Although, like I said before, it really wasn’t my fault. But I’m not sure my Martha would see it that way.
She really was a sweet lady. I think you would have liked her. Everyone liked her.
Well, I’m sure I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thanks for listening to my story.
Forrest J. Hipple
Francis lifted the lid off the shoe box and there they were, just like he knew they would be: twenty years worth of lottery tickets, all with the same six numbers, each one purchased a few minutes before eight o’clock, each one purchased at the Gas-N-Go … the one down by the Interstate.
“Well, you old son of a bitch,” he muttered into the empty room, sounding just as impressed as he had sounded earlier. “You old son of a bitch.”
©2009 John Ethier, all rights reserved.