The harried clerk sighs as he shoves my SuperLOTTO slip back across the supermarket's customer service counter. I've filled it out incorrectly. I should ink in only five blanks on the main grid. The sixth selection, between one and twenty-seven, belongs in the special MEGA number column.
"I've never played the California lottery before," I explain.
"Of course," I continue, uncoiling a kink in the chain holding the counter's pen in place so I can complete a new slip, "I've never been given the winning numbers before, either."
Right. I was staring out my kitchen window in the late dusk, trying to decide whether or not a fine drizzle was falling, when the lucky digits were delivered.
The sky plays tricks on the eyes during the day's denouement. What seems a mist can be no more than the exhausted light dying in the air, losing its color, shrinking like wool socks washed in the wrong cycle at the Laundromat. A couple holding hands appeared in that last, crepuscular light, among the limbs of the rangy butterfly bush that slaps against the window's panes in storms. They stepped into the tangle of unpruned foliage. Not a twig snapped. The leaves, the limbs crowned with withered blossoms, passed right through their bodies. Bodies? Can I say that's what those shapes were, flickering, frayed, dressed in hand-me-down light?
They were silent, expressionless. They were dead. Over twenty years ago, on the opposite side of the continent, their flimsy Japanese sedan collided head-on with a diesel rig.
They were my neighbors then. Teen-aged newlyweds with the intriguing names Connie and Clyde, they spoke with thin twangs and always filled nearby air with a slight hint of tobacco and Naugahyde
"Not exactly like the movie," she giggled when we introduced ourselves. "No, not exactly," echoed Clyde, shifting the weathered toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
Although they "just loved" movies, even on television, they seemed unaware that the film was based on the exploits of a pair of gangsters from real life. Their formal educations abruptly stopped about the time Clyde finally nuzzled his fingers, slick from buttered popcorn, into the cup of Connie's bra during the second half of a double feature at the drive-in. In their apartment, books were as scarce as skyhooks on a scavenger hunt. They nicknamed me Professor because of all the "hardly English, twenty-dollar, genius words" that dropped out of my mouth.
The building we occupied suffered from faulty plumbing, and I was often treated to late afternoon concerts of burbling, intimate sound. The minute Clyde came home from work at the garage, he would twist the creaky taps on the bath tub. The gush of a tub filling with water, followed by the clank of overall buttons against porcelain, would travel along the ancient pipes to my kitchen sink. The trap or U-joint acted like a megaphone. The undernourished Clyde slipping into the bath sounded like a fat man doing a cannonball from the high board.
A few minutes later, the plash of Connie joining him would gurgle through the grate of the sink. It was hard to believe such slenderness could make such a racket. She was built like a dwarf sunflower, a pinched little moon of a face nodding on a stalk. Connie coughed a lot, almost nervously. Her hands were constantly brushing strands of skimpy, dishwater blonde hair out of her mouth with quick, nervous movements. She might even have been slightly tubercular. Those unhappy winds howling across her birthplace on the Oklahoma panhandle wouldn't have much to bend if only Connies stood in their way.
Soon I would hear muffled smacks, accompanied by hisses similar to those which sigh out of hermetically sealed cans poked open with a church key. Burbling and splashing would ensue, grunts and pianissimo squeals. As the squeals increased in tempo and intensity, the splashes would sound more and more like crashing cymbals, the grunts like a kettledrum. I would imagine the deaf Beethoven frantically waving his wand at the orchestra for more volume at the final crescendo of his last and most joyous symphony. If there happened to be a plate in my sink, it would begin rattling. I would almost feel like applauding myself as Connie's prolonged honk, her nasal "ooh ooh, Clyde, ooh" swooned a path through the prehistoric plumbing to my sink, then hushed into a heavy silence broken only by the melancholy drip of liberated water obeying the rules of gravity, returning to its natural place.
I was taken aback to see the loving couple, decades later, occupying the same space as the butterfly bush. Encountering wraiths didn't surprise me. They don't seem particularly inexplicable phenomena in a fundamentally unfathomable cosmos. They're commonplace, in fact. Oodles of tales vouch for their existence. What did puzzle me was that they were still togetherthe only couple I know which has lasted twenty yearsand that they had come to visit me. Despite the intimate connection afforded by our plumber's nightmare of a dilapidated building, we had always maintained a discreet, good-neighborly distance. Why Connie and Clyde, of all ghosts? Why now? What did they want?
Nothing. They had simply stopped by to hand me six numbers. They communicated them in the noiseless language of dreams, then smiled, or at least glowed a bit brighter, as if they wished to smile, and vanished.
I flicked on the kitchen's overhead light and jotted down the numbers. Did they contain some kind of Pythagorean secret? The more I studied them, the less sense I could make out of them. I began to feel the queasiness that used to accompany insoluble calculus problems during my college days.
I thought about Connie and Clyde, about a big snowstorm. She resembled some exotic bird, out there shoveling the walk with her husband. The snow shovel, nearly as tall as Connie herself, reminded me of the metallic beak of some extinct avian species. I thought about the building we shared, and our landlady, who refused to repair the plumbing. A refugee from Czechoslovakia, there were more consonants in her name than pips in a pomegranate. She attended church devoutly and had been arrested for shoplifting at a discount department store. She asked her tenants to provide character witnesses. Her lawyer delivered the official court affidavits. Connie and Clyde naturally brought theirs to the Professor for help in filling it out. I basically completed the document for them. All they did was scribble in their dates of birth and signatures on the appropriate lines.
Their birthdays! Those were the numbers the migrants from the beyond had brought with them to the butterfly bush. Much more amazing than any apparition was the fact that I could recall these dates, scrawled on a piece of paper a score of winters ago.
"So you think these are the lucky winning numbers?"
The clerk sticks my slip into the SuperLOTTO machine. It spits out an orange ticket printed with the birthdays of two spirits.
No, not really. I know perfectly well that luck comes in a bewildering variety of flavors, like ice cream, and usually melts about twice as fast. I'm merely purchasing a kind of health insurance. If those numbers my old neighbors passed on to me did turn out to be the winning ones, and I hadn't played them, I would surely throttle myself.