“Ticket for Two” by Ray McGinley was originally published in the October 2017 Liguorian magazine
The old priest sighed as he walked the church aisles. The parishioners had left after the last Mass and he was alone, surveying his domain.
It must be fifty degrees in here he thought. The old heating system had gotten its share of band aids over the years, but now it had to be replaced. And now a second roof leak. How long will the parishioners take it? Maybe Saint Michael’s will have to close down after all. Eighteen years ago when he was made pastor he had high hopes for Saint Michael’s. Then the textile factory moved its operations to Mexico, and the downward spiral began. Contributions plummeted and many parishioners left town. Now the two Sunday Masses were half empty and the Church struggled with debt. Well, no sense crying about it, he thought.
He went to his office where the Sunday collection sat on his desk in neat piles of checks, currency, and some small change. The donation envelopes had been marked with the amount and tomorrow the secretary would make a record of each for tax purposes. Next to the checks sat a single lottery ticket, dated one day previous. Somebody has a sick sense of humor, he said to himself. They buy a lottery ticket instead of putting two bucks in the basket.
He began to count the piles and added them up. Pretty much the usual for this time of year, a bit low as people started spending on Christmas presents. Oh well, I guess I can’t blame them, he muttered to himself.
Conan McCormick got home from Church, and as was his custom, sat down with the Sunday newspaper. He pulled out the local news section and turned to page two where the lottery results were always posted.
“Oh, sweet Jesus! Thank you, Lord, thank you,” he said, his voice rising with excitement.
“What is it?” asked Margaret, his wife of forty-one years.
“We hit the lottery! Can you believe it, after all these years?”
“Where’s the ticket? Let me check it.”
“You know I play the same numbers every time, 4, 5, 11, 17, 29, and number 8 for the Powerball.”
“But this shows the Powerball is number 12,” said Margaret.
“I know, but we got the other five numbers. That’s good for a million dollars.”
“Oh, Mother of God. I knew I married you for some reason.”
“I’ll go upstairs and get the ticket. We need to put it in a safe place until tomorrow when the lottery office opens.”
Five minutes later an ashen faced Conan McCormick came down the stairs.
“Conan, you don’t look good. Sit down and let me have the ticket.”
“I can’t find it! I always empty my pockets and put everything on the dresser in the same place. I remember seeing it last night, along with my loose bills. All I can think of is that I dropped it in the collection basket this morning, along with my usual three dollars.”
“Oh, you royal ass! Why did I ever marry you? You better get your big butt down to the rectory and get that ticket back before they find out it’s a winner.”
“What if they won’t give it to me? After all, it’s theirs now.”
“Are you kidding? They didn’t buy it, it was our two dollars.”
“But the collection basket is for donations. Once…”
Margaret cut him off. “Just explain the mistake. They probably don’t even know it’s a winner. Tell them you think you might have won fifty dollars and that you’ll cash it and give them half.”
“Alright, Margaret, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll go right now.”
“Father, there’s a Mr. McCormick asking to see you. He said it’s important,” announced the housekeeper.
“Just give me a minute and then show him in please.”
The pastor put all of the collections in the wall safe and reached for his coffee.
“Father Kerrigan, thank you for seeing me. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“No problem, Conan. Have a seat. How are you and Margaret doing?”
“Okay, Father. As well as can be expected for two old farts on Social Security.”
“So what brings you here on a Sunday morning?”
“I think I might have mistakenly dropped my lottery ticket in the collection basket along with my weekly contribution. I think it might be worth fifty bucks or more, so if you give it back I’ll cash it and share it with you.”
“Sometimes we get more than one lottery ticket, Conan. How will I know which one is yours?”
“Oh well, I always play the same numbers, 4, 5, 11, 17, 29, and number 8 for the Powerball.”
“I see,” Father said, “but all of the collection is locked in the safe until tomorrow when the secretary comes in. It’s on a timer so I can’t get access to it until tomorrow. So how about if I give you a call tomorrow?”
Conan hesitated, but could think of no solution so he said, “Okay, Father, I’ll look forward to your call then.”
After nearly forty years of hearing confessions Father Kerrigan was astute at spotting fabrications. He didn’t know what was wrong with Conan’s story, but something wasn’t right. He went to the computer and searched for the Powerball website. He thought the winning numbers seemed to match the numbers Conan rattled off. He called the housekeeper.
“Mary, would you call the bishop’s office and inquire if I might see him today sometime?”
“Of course, Father.”
Father Kerrigan returned to the computer and researched how to manage lottery winnings. About a half hour later the housekeeper announced an audience with the bishop was scheduled two hours hence.
“Thank you for seeing me, Your Excellency.”
“It’s nice to see you, Jim, even though you’re keeping me from my Sunday cocktail before dinner. How are things at Saint Michael’s?”
“Well, as you know we are carrying a lot of debt. On top of that, we need to replace the heating system and the roof is leaking.”
“Can the heater be repaired?”
“It’s been repaired once too often. Now it has to go. This morning I could see my breath during my homily.”
“So it’s fire-and-brimstone you’re preaching then?” quipped the bishop, and both laughed.
“And tell me about the roof leaks. How bad are they, Jim?”
“One leaks on a couple of side pews, so they’re roped off at the moment. The other one, believe it or not, leaks right into the baptismal font.”
“That’s not a leak, that’s a miracle,” laughed the bishop. “We should declare it a shrine!”
“Right, we could sell tickets, and we’ll call them rain tickets.”
“Now I know why I made you a pastor! So now, what brings you here today?”
“Today’s collection was normal except for one thing. There was a lottery ticket dropped in the basket. I checked the numbers and it turns out it might be a million dollar winner.”
His Excellency whistled. “The Lord provides in mysterious ways,” he added.
“There’s more to the story I’m afraid. A parishioner, Conan McCormick, came to the rectory late this morning and said he mistakenly dropped the ticket in the basket, along with his dollar bills. He asked me to return it.”
“And did you?”
“Not yet. I sensed something wasn’t right. He told me he thought the ticket might be worth fifty dollars but I think he knew what it was really worth. I informed him it was locked in the safe until tomorrow. ”
“Has Mr. McCormick been in the parish very long?”
“As long as I have. By the way, I know his wife, Margaret, from the old country. We were in the same parish in Donegal. She was always a fiery one, has a mouth to make you blush. She probably gave Conan his marching orders.”
“Are you convinced the ticket was his?” asked the bishop. “Maybe he saw someone else drop it in the basket and figured it was a winner.”
“He knew all of the numbers flat out. He plays the same numbers all the time.”
“I see. So, what are you going to do?”
“I was hoping for some guidance.”
“I’m sure you’ll do the right thing, Jim. I’ll pray that everything turns out okay. And thanks for stopping by and letting me know. It’s always nice to get updates.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency.”
“Conan, it’s Father Jim on the phone,” said an excited Margaret.
“Hello, Father. Were you able to retrieve the ticket?”
“Yes, I have it. I thought we might be able to cash it together, if that’s okay.”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself, Father. I can just come and get it.”
“Well, I could cash it in myself, but I thought you might want to come along.”
“Yes, of course. Should I come by and get you?” asked Conan.
“Please do. Let’s take it to the Lottery Office. I always wondered what it looked like.”
“Sure, Father. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“He knows, Margaret. He wants me to go to the Lottery Office with him. What do you think I should do?”
“Go, of course, you dingbat. On the way see if you can figure out what he wants. Maybe he wants a bloody donation or something. Tell him you’ll donate ten thousand dollars to the Church. But don’t let him sweet talk you into anything.”
“Good morning, Father. A little brisk today, isn’t it?”
“Good morning, Conan. Yes it is. Do you know where the Lottery Office is?”
“I have a pretty good idea. I’m sure we’ll find it okay.”
“So, do you have the ticket for me, Father?” Conan said as he pulled away.
“Actually, I think I’ll hold on to it until we get to the Lottery Office. The circumstances are a bit unusual and the folks at the Lottery Office might be able to give us some advice.”
“What kind of advice?” asked a nervous Conan.
“I feel like I have a duty to the Church. After all the ticket was in the collection, so technically it belongs to the parish now.”
“But Father, you know it was my ticket,” Conan protested.
“Oh, I’m sure you bought it, Conan. But I have no way of knowing for certain if you donated the ticket or not. You may not have known its value when you donated it, and then changed your mind later.”
“So what do you intend to do?”
“Well, I might ask the lottery officials what they think. What do you suppose they’ll say?”
“They’ll say the ticket belongs to the bearer, but you know the real story, Father.”
“I suppose we might find a compromise, Conan.”
“That’s a good idea, Father. Why don’t I cash the ticket and then I’ll donate ten thousand dollars to the Church, like immediately.”
“That’s generous of you. I’ll give it some thought. But you know these lottery prizes aren’t as great as they advertise. Unless you take a thirty year payout plan, the amount goes down by about forty percent. And then the federal and state taxes take another bite. So the bottom line is you’re left with less than half of the advertised amount.”
“Okay, but what can you do?”
“You know, I read one time that you can donate up to fifty percent of your income to a charitable organization, like our Church for example, and you don’t have to pay any tax on the amount you donate.”
“But, Father, you still wind up with less money, right?”
“Sure, that’s true, but look at the good you would be doing for your soul.”
A period of silence ensued while each party considered their position. Conan envisioned how he would break the news to Margaret. There was no way he was going home empty handed.
“You know, I think you’re right, Father. We should share our good fortune with the Church. Maybe we’ll donate a quarter of our winnings.”
“That’s splendid, Conan. Very generous of you.”
“So, it’s settled, then, is it?”
“Let me pray over it a bit. By the way, Conan, how did you come to pick those particular numbers?”
“The numbers 4 and 17 are for our birthdays, the 4th of March and 17th of September. The number 11 is for our anniversary, the 11th of August. And the 5th and 29th are the birthdays of our children.”
“And what about the number 8, the Powerball?”
“Margaret will kill me if she finds out I’m telling you. Eight is for the number of times we fooled around before we were married.”
“Oh, Mother of God! I hope you confessed that and received absolution.”
“Yes, but not to you. You know Margaret from the old days. Anyway it was a long time ago.”
“Now I know her even better. You know, you only missed the grand prize by one number. The Powerball was 12 instead of 8. It might mean God is punishing you for fooling around.”
“No, I think it means we should have fooled around four more times,” Conan quipped, and both men laughed, Conan heartily and Father Kerrigan reluctantly.
“Are we settled on donating a quarter of the winnings then, Father?”
“I’m just not sure what God wants me to do.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about it some more, and maybe a third of the jackpot would be more reasonable, and I know the Church could certainly use it.”
“Oh, that’s a glorious gesture, Conan.”
“Great. Can we shake on it, then?” Conan said, extending his hand.
“Just give me a while, Conan. I have to consider what His Excellency might think about it.”
“The Bishop knows about it?”
“Well, yes, Conan, the circumstances were unusual so I needed to discuss it with him.”
“And what did he say?”
“Not much. But that doesn’t mean I won’t receive his guidance after the fact, emphatically I might add. Maybe we should discuss it with the lottery officials. I know it looks bad for you, me holding the ticket, but who knows how they might rule?”
“Oh, for Chrissake, Father, we’ll donate half to the Church. Now is that fair enough?”
“I see Margaret has been expanding your vocabulary. Yes, Conan, I think that’s very fair indeed. And I’m sure God will be pleased with your generosity. And here we are at the Lottery Office, just perfect timing. By the way, I took the liberty of downloading a Multiple Ownership Claim Form from the Lottery Office website. To save us some time I filled it out for the both of us and I typed in a fifty-fifty share. You just need to sign at the bottom, in front of a lottery official.”
“You just strung me along, didn’t you? I just don’t know how to tell Margaret.”
“I think you say that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. And tell her if she comes to my confessional and says she cursed and swore, any more than usual that is, that her penance will be scrubbing the Church floor for a year.”
“Okay, I’ll give her your message.”
“One more thing, Conan, I would like both of you to come to the ten o’clock Mass next Sunday.”
“Sure, okay, Father.”
“Good, now let’s get our business done at the Lottery Office.”
“Bless me, Your Excellency, for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last confession. I accuse myself of committing extortion, but only one time.”
“Extortion is it, Jim? I haven’t heard that one in a long time. What did you steal?”
“About three hundred thousand dollars, more or less. I don’t have the check yet. I forced a parishioner to share his lottery winnings with the Church.”
“Oh, yes, the lottery ticket. I remember. It was in the collection basket, right?”
“Yes, but he told me he didn’t intend to put it there. And I believe him.”
“So, how did you coerce him into sharing the winnings?”
“I threatened him with the fact that I possessed the ticket and the Lottery Office would probably award the winnings to me, meaning the Church of course.”
“I see. And are you sure the Lottery Office would do that? They would inquire about the circumstances, and I assume you would answer truthfully.”
“Yes, of course.”
“So it’s not really clear what ruling the Lottery Office would make, is it?”
“No, I guess not.”
“So the parishioner made his decision based on his own risk analysis, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Jim, this is not extortion, it’s persuasion. And I have to say you performed admirably.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency.”
“And for your penance you’re to skip the cocktail you have with dinner for one week.”
“But I thought you said what I did wasn’t a sin. Why are you giving me penance?”
“Because this is the second time you interrupted my Sunday cocktail hour before dinner, and that’s a sin that can’t go unpunished.”
The following Sunday Father Kerrigan’s homily discussed how the hand of God sometimes guides us in subtle ways, ways that we may not appreciate at the time. After his homily he stepped down from the altar and approached the congregation.
“I want to let you know that our heating system will be replaced next week, and repairs to our roof will begin soon. This is possible because of a generous donation from Conan and Margaret McCormick, who are attending Mass with us today. Please join me in a show of appreciation.”
The applause went on for two full minutes with Father Kerrigan leading the way. The McCormicks were beaming, bursting with pride, albeit bittersweet.
After Mass, Father Kerrigan walked the Church aisles, but now with a smile on his face. Once again all was right at Saint Michael’s.