Small Change

CherriThe winning ticket.

By Cherri Ellis

I love people who know who they are.

Audrey and Walt have been married for 35 years. They’ve got one grown boy, and they live next door to their two baby great nephews, whom they adore. They live a life of routine rhythms, and that’s the way they like it. They are salt-of-the-earth, middle class Americans who have what they have through hard work, and they take pride in what they do. Walt works for Sherwin Williams and Audrey cuts hair and cleans houses. I met her through my sister Robin, who was sweet enough to arrange a last-minute hair appointment for me the weekend of my college reunion. (Nobody loves Dye Day more than me. The reason I don’t do more illegal things is that it is very difficult to get good hair color in prison.) Not only does Audrey do Robin’s hair, but she also cleans her house and runs errands for her for a crazy reasonable $15 an hour.

Walt’s got a buddy named Larry who is also in the paint business. I don’t know how long they’ve known each other, but they’ve had a very specific weekly arrangement for longer than many friendships even last. Walt and Larry have played the same 10 numbers in the Ohio State Lottery twice a week for 22 years. The ticket is $10, so it costs them each five bucks every time, which adds up to an annual investment of $520. The thing is, Larry doesn’t like to be bothered with it, so he just gives Walt all of the money at once for the whole year—$520—and Walt handles the legwork. He stops twice a week on the way home from work, hitting as many different places as possible, but always playing the same 10 numbers. Using a combination of birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions, they each chose five sets. They never vary.

In the morning before work, Walt likes to sit in his car in the parking lot and read the newspaper and drink his coffee. It’s his own little quiet time of reflection before jumping into the day, and this is when he would check the numbers. One day, unbelievably, after playing the same numbers more than 2,000 times, they won. Walt and Larry were about to split $3.5 million.

Walt called his wife Audrey first, and then she called Larry. They figured he wouldn’t believe Walt, and, to be fair, he didn’t believe her either so she had to repeat herself several times. His actual quote was, “It is too damn early in the morning for this.” When it finally sunk in, Audrey went on to work and Walt and Larry drove to the Lottery Office together. They weren’t paranoid on that drive, but a few weeks later when they returned to pick up their checks, they were extremely nervous and drove straight to the bank. Although it turned out not to be the case, they were under the impression that banks were only insured for a million dollars, so they thought that they would have to open more than one account. Imagine one day receiving so much money that you needed more than one bank in which to put it.

Here is what I love about this story: not much changed. Walt has a newer truck, a Ford F-150, which he likes because it’s dependable and not flashy. They paid some bills. They updated their 22-year-old kitchen. Audrey still cuts hair at Beauty in the Burg with her two business partners, because it takes all three of them to keep it running and a deal is a deal. She still cleans my sister Robin’s house for $15 an hour, running errands and helping with whatever is needed. Robin’s health requires her to be on oxygen, and her air is at a premium. When a local gym was strong-arming her to pay out a contract that she couldn’t possibly use, Audrey drove her down to their front desk and stood silently next to her, arms folded, glaring at them until they relented. When I asked her why she is still cleaning Robin’s house when she doesn’t need the money, she just laughed. “Your sister is a sweetheart,” she said. “She is very good company.”

Statistically, you are more likely to be killed by a vending machine than win the lottery. I don’t know about you, but I have never felt in even mild danger while waiting on my Cheetos to drop, but according to MoneyMiniBlog, the chance of being killed in the process is one in 112 million. You can Google “Lottery Horror Stories” and find tales of divorce, substance abuse, bad investments, and lost friendships. And while $3.5 million is not Sultan-of-Brunei money, I am quite certain that much bad behavior has occurred over far less. This was simply not the case with Walt, Larry, and Audrey, although they do treat themselves to one extra indulgence.

They still buy a single lottery ticket with the same ten numbers, but now they do it three times a week.

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