Putting Two and Two Together

Jennifer's lottery ticket


Jennifer arrived home and dropped her bag in the foyer of the new house. She has been living in it for about six months but the high-toned beauty was something that she finally became comfortable with it after seeing on a regular basis. However, trappings aside, she is tired and jet-lagged and happy to technically be home. She walked past the marble table and sees her mail segregated into three piles: junk, personal and appeals for money from anguished souls. She had been traveling a lot over the last year because it seemed to be the only thing she enjoyed and after seeing the third pile, that fact resonated a bit more than usual . When she was in a remote location, she wanted to head home and when she was home, all she wanted to do was to pack her bag and go. After awhile, she realized that the destinations weren’t the fun part, the getting to and from the places was her only enjoyment. The third pile of letters began to shrink slightly each time she returned from a trip but the sheer number always remained troubling after all this time.

Jennifer avoided looking at the third pile because those letters always ripped at her soul. Her financial advisors warned her about them the day she won the lottery but even being prepared on paper didn’t insulate her from their brutal attempts at getting her money. Since she won the money, she didn’t earn anything; so any comments about her entitlements would not pass muster with her own internal moral code but she won the money and they didn’t.  She didn’t view herself as anything but some lucky slob that won several rail cars of money and since the day of discovery; she hadn’t done much logical thinking anyway.

She swept the letters into a box, provided by her attorney, marked for their immediate return. She didn’t open any of them and made a point not to study their postmarks and outward attempts at differentiation with ribbons, pictures of toothy, smiling toddlers. A vast majority of these letters were being mailed by criminals or the mentally unstable but her heart hadn’t hardened completely as she knew somewhere in that pile was likely one or two genuine appeals.  She had opened a few of them immediately after receiving her money and was tormented for weeks afterwards with their gut-wrenching messages. The requests ranged from new wheelchairs to new houses and from specific dollar amounts to large round numbers ending in seven zeros. There were no boundaries on the claims nor was there was any way to prepare for such an upheaval of emotions once their letter was open. She knew the box would be picked up and dealt with by professionals and she would avoid that burden for now.

Almost one year ago to the day, Jennifer had won the entire Powerball™ jackpot which had caused a national fervor for three months prior to her statistically improbable luck. When she won the single largest amount ever recorded, she knew that her life forever would be changed instantly. Her face was plastered over every tabloid and television show and once the first wave of publicity ceased, the crazies continued to come out of the woodwork seeking money and at times, a piece of her soul. Single and moderately independent, there was never a claim from someone else that they were deserving of a portion of the prize and in the face of basic impossibility and thousands of office pools; Linda had matched all six numbers (plus the Powerball) with a random choice on a single ticket. The ticket remained on the refrigerator for several days after the drawing and she only looked at it once the retail location of the winning lottery ticket was announced. The lottery bureau was getting desperate: the lines around the country were becoming unmanageable and they knew their infrastructure could not take another onslaught like this one. The money was now large enough to justify the purchase of every number combination imaginable and there were several groups already gearing up to begin that arduous process if a winner failed to get this drawing. The drawing had reached its limits and everyone behind the scenes prayed for a winner. When someone won the lottery, it allowed for the entire system to decompress and begin again towards another plateau. However, until Jennifer won, the group was passing one plateau after another with no end in sight.

The little convenience store was deluged by national media advertising the fact that this location was were the winner had purchased the ticket and the sheer crush of publicity finally caught Jennifer’s attention. She briefly viewed the winning combination but only decided to remember three of the numbers because any more would have taken some legitimate effort. She looked at the first three numbers and went to her ticket and saw all three of them waiting for her. She literally sat down and looked again at the ticket now liberated from the refrigerator magnet and resting in her hand.

The newspaper was in one hand and the ticket in the other when the connection of the numbers finally hit home. Alone in her kitchen, she became the richest person within six hundred miles with the realization. The first thing she did was to go into a full-standing panic attack: as she was hyperventilating, she began to fear that this money would be taken away by something or someone before she would have the chance to spend it. After spending fifteen minutes wracking her brain for hiding places, she was overcome with a sense of comfort: no one knew that she had this ticket (she could barely believe it herself) and this was the time for calm thought and reason. She had a few days before the next drawing, plenty of time to claim her winnings but it was now necessary to prepare for the next step.

She drove down to her bank the next morning and purchased a safety-deposit box. Once the box was opened, she asked politely to use the nearby copier and made two copies of the winning ticket. She then went behind the privacy screen and placed the ticket, secure in an envelope, in the box and slid the box into its slot and headed downtown to see an attorney. There was only one building which housed the attorneys, aptly named "The Law Center," and she figured she could find someone there to help. She wasn’t scheduled for work over the next couple of days so no one knew or cared about her whereabouts and her office friendships were cursory at their best. Jennifer didn’t have many close friends and even fewer obligations so time constraints were mainly self-induced. These steps had to be done prior to any public proclamation and she needed to use her anonymity when she still had it.

Once she got downtown, she parked her car and went to the receptionist in front of the Law Center and smiled.

“Good morning, “said Jennifer. “Can you help me please?”

“Certainly,” said the young receptionist. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to talk to a Tax Attorney.”

“Believe or not,” said the Receptionist, “We have about a hundred of them.”

“Anyone you would recommend?”

“I couldn’t recommend any of them.”

“You mean, because you would view this as a conflict of interest?”

“No, it is because I don’t know any of them and I certainly have no need to talk to one of them about taxes. My own financial needs are pretty straightforward.”

“Hmmm,” said Jennifer, “are any of them nice to you?”

“What do you mean, nice?”

“You know common courtesy and all that.  Someone, who looks in your eyes and sincerely says hello.”

“Only one person comes to mind,” says the receptionist, “Her name is Ramona Blake.”

“And she is located?”

“Third floor; her door is right in front of the elevator.”

Jennifer made a small note to send the receptionist a gift once the smoke cleared. It was now time to meet Ramona. She got into the elevator and went up to the third floor. Directly out of the elevator was a door that said, “Ramona Blake, J.D. and C.P.A.” She walked in and said hello to the person at the desk and asked for Ramona.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I do not,” said Jennifer “Is it possible to see her?”

“Let me ask,” said the young man, “she seems pretty nice about things.”

At that moment, Ramona walked by and said, “Oh, I am a freaking sweetheart. Come on back.”

Ramona led Jennifer back to her office. While following her through a series of turns, Jennifer noticed that Ramona was kind of short but had an impressive walking speed. She walked with a sense of purpose and her legs moved smartly instead of overtly scooting along with an increased rate to subtlety compensate for her lack of range. Too often people bluntly compensate their physical shortcomings with non-elegant solutions; it was obvious that Ramona just made up for the smaller stride with being efficient and light on her feet. Jennifer was happy to see that but really didn’t know why.

“Have a seat”

“Thank you. I suppose you are wondering why I want to talk to you.”

“It has crossed my mind because tax attorneys don’t usually get a lot of walk-up traffic. My profession is a bit narrow for most folks. So, why are you here?”

”Well, I need some tax advice.”

“And that advice would be about what specifically? Your personal income tax? An inheritance?  The IRS?”

“Well, not yet,” said Jennifer.

“And that means?”

“It means I think I am the one that won the freaking Powerball.”

Ramona directly looked at Jennifer but it was obvious that her accountant mind was blown open. Jennifer could see Ramona actually grinding numbers and issues in her mind and for the first time, Jennifer saw someone thinking like a computer. She didn’t want to interrupt but she had to say something. Finally, she said, “What do I do?”

Ramona, exhaled audibly, looked at her and said, “Well, you have to make sure you don’t get screwed.”

Ramona allowed herself to drag the last word into three syllables, adding the second syllable for effect and as a result, it came out as “ska-ruu-ded.” She then grabbed a legal pad and started making a list. She leaned over her phone and said, “Hey, Jimmy, hold my calls and in about an hour bring in some sandwiches for me and Jennifer. I am going to be busy for awhile.”

Ramona reached back behind her desk and pulled out two large volumes of government tax codes. She looked at a few highlighted passages and then looked up at Jennifer.

“Oh, by the way,” said Ramona, “Am I your attorney?”

“Sure,” said Jennifer. “Go ahead.”

Ramona handed Jennifer several articles and documents to read about lottery winners, including an actual IRS brochure called “Lottery Questions.” It was tattered and somewhat outdated with examples of paltry winning amounts but it gave her something to do while the newest member of Team Jennifer was almost apoplectic with activity.  As Ramona made several lists and database base searches, Jennifer sat still with not much to say or do. She was sitting on the cusp of almost-incomprehensible wealth and the anticipation for something wonderful happening inside her psyche was oddly missing. After about an hour of phone calling, Ramona said, “I finally have some advice.”

“Do you have the ticket?”

“Not on me, but it is in a safety deposit box.”

“Good. Did you buy it with anyone else?”

“No.”

“That is also good news. You are the sole claimant.  Now, is the ticket signed?”

“No.”

”Go to the bank and sign it. I don’t want to see it and I don’t want anyone to know but carefully go to the bank and sign that ticket. In fact, let me get you a separate certificate of authenticity to get signed while you are at it.”

Jennifer rose from her seat and returned about forty minutes later. She handed a photocopy of the ticket, complete with her signature, back to Ramona. Both the document and photocopy was notarized.

“Thanks but I don’t need to have this,” said Ramona, as she filed the photocopy into a dark manila folder, “but getting it notarized is a nice touch.” 

“I know that but I wanted to show something to someone else, it is hard to keep this secret.”

“Well,” said Ramona, “You need to keep it quiet for another day or so since the bank officer is likely on the phone to CNN as we speak. The lottery board knows there is a winner, but I want you to cash it in before the next drawing.”

“Let’s sum up,” continued Ramona, “what do we know?”

“I know I won and I don’t have to share it with anyone.”

“I agreed. I have read all the newspaper accounts and there was only one ticket issued.”

”I don’t care if I take a lump-sum payment or annual payments, it really doesn’t matter.”

“I agree. Either way, you gain or lose a million or two but you won so much money, it really makes no difference at all.”

“I agree. It is an embarrassing amount and I honestly don’t care how I get it. However, I was to get it over with as soon as possible. Getting payouts each year for forty years seems a bit complicated and piecemeal.”

”I think the best way to claim your prize is show up at the lottery.  When you are ready, we can make a call.”

“Let’s do that tomorrow.”

“Okay. Let’s make the call today but get a couple of options where to show up. The lottery folks will leak this right away and we need to call as many shots as we can while we can.”

”Do you own a home?”

“No, I live in an apartment and ironically the lease is up.”

“Well, as your attorney, I suggest you get a new place, in fact, a nice hotel would be a good suggestion in order to protect you from the crowds. In fact, you should be prepared to change your hotel two or three times within the first month just to keep the crowds away.”

“Is there anything else?”

No, we can talk about the rest of the stuff tomorrow. I will have a reservation for you at a nice hotel in about five minutes so you can rest up without worrying about a local news crew knocking on your door tonight. However, let’s go to your apartment to pick up enough things to last a week or so. Once it hits the fan, we can arrange a moving service to clean out your apartment. Do you have a nice dress?”

“Yes”

“Great, I hope you like it because there will be five thousand pictures taken of it tomorrow.”

“Should I get my hair cut or anything?”

“No, once you leave the office, you can begin remaking yourself. I would suggest you changing your appearance after the presentation because you and that dress will be front page news for a few weeks. However, look nice for tomorrow, run a comb through your hair and get yourself a humble but happy expression. Also, and this is important, don’t sign your name on anything except the prize paperwork. If anything else needs signing, let me sign it.”

Ramona smiled and reached over for the phone. She contacted the regional office and told them that tomorrow they would be coming in to claim the money and asked for three separate locations to pick to meet. The lottery staff went out of its way to accommodate and eventually, Ramona was satisfied. By the tone of her voice, Jennifer knew that Ramona had gotten their attention. On the way to the hotel, Ramona told Jennifer that the lottery folks seemed relieved.

“One guy said that they couldn’t last another drawing. The entire lottery staff is exhausted and it sounds as if they are almost as happy as you to give you the money and get things back to normal.”

That night, after a whirlwind visit to the apartment to pick up some clothes, Jennifer found herself sitting in a Presidential suite enjoying room service and drinking champagne. Ramona didn’t stay that long and encouraged her to get some sleep. As Jennifer looked out the window at the city, she was shocked on how poorly she was going to embrace her new found fame. She never had a lot of close friends and socialized very rarely at work. She found others company to be lacking and the desire to drink with strangers was always low on her list. She eventually got down two glasses of champagne and decided that drinking champagne was overrated. She prepared for bed as she always did but she knew her days of agreeable anonymity were coming to a screaming halt.

She paced all over the hotel suite and finally got to sleep about midnight , about three hours past her usual bedtime. The next morning was filled with news stories that the winner of the Powerball was coming forward. Both local and national beat reporters were crawling all over the lottery property reiterating the same limited amount of news. The facts were limited: the winner was coming forward today and the identity of the winner was unknown. Ramona got buzzed up via a private elevator and stated that everything was ready to go.

Jennifer had already dressed up and sat nervously at her desk with her breakfast lying untouched on the nearby table. Ramona walked by and picked up a piece of toast and said, “As your attorney, you have to eat something.”

“I’ll puke.”

“A nice professional image but you will need something in your already-upset stomach.”

Jennifer reluctantly started on her own piece of toast and seemed to relax a bit. Ramona gave her an update of the day and reassured her that it would be just fine. The first place they were going was the bank to get the ticket and only then, would they decide on their next step. Once they were mobile with the ticket, they could go to several offices and they made the decision to go to the least populated one.

After a few more pieces of toast, they got into Ramona’s car and drove to the bank. The bank was quiet and peaceful with a hushed order of content counting looming in the background. The quiet atmosphere made both of them realize that the notary had not read what he was notarizing so they were in and out of the bank with the ticket in hand within ten minutes.

“That wasn’t horrible.”

“Now, let’s find the right office. They pulled up the main boulevard and were amazed at the line of satellite trucks outside the main lottery office. They had counting at least twenty, each with a set of technicians and on-air talent. The next office was half as congested and the third office, actually the regional headquarters, was empty. Ramona saw a spot near the door and said, “Here we go.”

They parked in the front slot and walked in. The place was busy but manageable. Ramona took a number and within a minute, was called to the counter.

“Can I help you?” asked the young woman at the counter as she took the little number from Ramona.

“Yes, we need to cash in a lottery ticket.”

“How much is it for?

“It is for the whole thing. Can we see your manager?”

Before the office knew it, the duo was brought into a back office and breathlessly introduced to the Operations Manager.

He reviewed the ticket and signed two affidavits guaranteeing the validity of the ticket. “This is going to get some attention, are you ready for it?”

”Not really,” said Jennifer, “But I need to do it so let’s get it underway.”

The Operations Manager gave copies of the affidavit to Jennifer and Ramona and walked out. “I have to go make one of those real big checks, so it might be awhile,” he smiled. “A few other folks will be here soon to talk to you. Don’t worry about them, they all have identification and are employees of the lottery. However, once the press conference happens, you will be on your own.”

"One more question?" asked Jennifer.

"Sure"

"It is my money now?"

The manager smiled, "It is SO your money now.  No one else's...ever."

The rest of the day was a literal blur. The news services picked up the name and pictures of Jennifer from High School and long ago work parties were displayed on all the local newscasts prior to the ceremony. And once Jennifer walked into the press room at the Lottery office, the phalanx of reporters and flash cameras were both surreal and unbelievable. She read a prepared statement, “officially” handed the ticket over to the lottery officials (even though the real ticket was already safe and secure in the state office two hundred miles away) when the big check was finally issued. The pictures continued along with the litany of questions regarding her luck and her plans for the money (in specific) and her life (in general). The questions became redundant until Ramona stepped up to the mike and read a concluding statement.

“Jennifer wishes to thank the State and Powerball Lottery Boards and is anxious to begin a long-deserved vacation. She thanks all the lottery staff and requests the media to respect her existing lifestyle and allow her to get back with her normal life.”

The media wasn’t listening and the cameras kept clicking pictures, oblivious to the request but everyone knew that there was no going back. The flashing cameras were chipping away at her propped-up perspicacity; no one, especially her, can be fully prepared for such as experience. No matter what she said or did, the camera continued to flash, leaving her with a look that inelegantly combined moderate happiness with a doe in the headlights. The sheer volume of shutter clicks and flashes was amazing; thousands upon thousands of pictures had to be taken.

After the onslaught, Ramona and Jennifer were escorted out of the parking garage in the back of a staffer’s van. Huddled in the back, amongst spit-saturated toddler toys, sat apparently the richest woman in the world and her seemingly best friend of less than twenty-four hours. The staffer drove a few miles away and the two women moved into the back of a chauffeured Mercedes sedan with blacked out windows. A few final hugs went to the lottery employee and almost as soon as it began, the formal obligation was over.

Ramona pulled out a list and asked Jennifer if she could stomach anymore questions. Jennifer pleaded for a respite and politely asked if she could take the list back with her and ponder her decisions. The list was exhaustive and brought up many issues that initially weren’t surfaced. As Jennifer looked, the questions included mailing address change, licensing her image with the lottery board, whether to quit her job, the idea of employing a bodyguard and the list continued.

“Quit my job?”

“Let’s get practical: there is no good reason to keep working at your company when you earn far more than your bosses and, in fact, the entire company. Compounding that is resentment will happen, whether it is your co-workers or the more diligent fortune hunters. You will be harassed at work and in many ways, it won’t even be intentional. You want people to be happy for you but that is not how human beings act; you will be on display and the target of anyone that feels unlucky, unappreciated or unloved. You have to break clean.”
 
Jennifer looked down at the list and had no idea what to do next. She was concentrating on ideas to use some of her new money, but the attempts at being frivolous were abject failures. She really didn’t have a lot of desires and she kind of liked her job so all these new solutions were still searching for her problem. The lottery folks encouraged her to blow some money on something, as it made for great press, but there was nothing she wanted to buy. When asked over and over what she was going to spend her money on, she responded (at this time by rote), that she was going to “travel.” The trouble was she had no idea where she would go, what she would do and who would come along.

The only decision she made was to park the winnings into a money market fund but that brought up the burden on individual banks. There was no bank that was adequately insured for the lump sum so that plan would need to expand to a series of banks to share the burden. Historically, no local bank can handle more than a hundred thousand dollars so this was a challenge right out of the gate. She had all this money and no safe place to put it and worst of all, there was nothing she wanted to buy. The idea of a stack of bankbooks, each with a small portion of her new fortune, seemed silly. “What did the rich people do?” thought Jennifer until she revised the thought to be “What do the other the rich people do?”

Never a poster child for avarice, Jennifer immediately felt guilty as the conversation moved into the importance of seeking and securing professional financial advice. She trusted Ramona and she hoped that was as far as it had to go. The moment one gets surrounded by legions of dark suited people, things grow complicated. She wasn’t afraid of pissing away the money; she just wanted to sleep at night and not have to think about things too hard. She continued to analyze the events of the last few days and she was having a tough time remembering what life was like prior to the winnings. Her life, was similar to a celebrity or rock star, that achieves overnight success but in her case, it would be a physical impossibility for her to spend all her money; there was simply too much of it.

She knew she would be extremely conservative with her investments because the last thing she needed was more money. For example, if she took half of her money and put it in a taxable money market fund earning two or three percent, she'd earn enough money to live even before taxes, which would cover a mortgage with significant money left over.  She could lose a million dollars overnight and the principal would be safe and sound. She calculated her paid taxes this year would rival the gross domestic product of over fifty emerging nations and it was becoming apparent that it simply did not matter anymore.  She felt that she literally could burn money and still grow richer; the absurdity was almost paralyzing.

Over lunch with Ramona, she decided her goal was to survive. Jennifer had read that most lottery winners typically are no happier swimming in money than when they were broke. Some become embroiled in lawsuits, estranged from family and friends, and divorced from their spouses. And one study found that instant millionaires are no happier than recent accident victims. “Lucky me,” thought Jennifer.

“There is some upside, Jennifer,” said Ramona, “it is an adventure.”

“That’s true,” said Jennifer, “but do me a favor. Please charge me an obscene amount of money for what you are doing. “

“I promise,” said Ramona as her little legs swung wildly under the table. This was more fun that she had ever had as a Tax Attorney, the pure adrenaline of the event made the whole exercise thrilling. She would have done it for free but she knew that Jennifer would become exasperated if she couldn’t complete the cause and effect loop on at least one agenda item.

As Ramona looked on, Jennifer read from her notes “that people's lives don't change radically. You can catapult people from one economic status to another overnight, but a lifetime of beliefs and experiences change more slowly. People who were outgoing and gregarious before winning took it in stride and people who were shy and withdrawn before winning became suspicious and paranoid."

“Where did you learn this?”

“The brochure was very informative.”

“I have to read more,” said Ramona.

“Evidentially.”

The next few days, Ramona stayed out of the public eye as she arranged for her first trip in about ten years. Her passport application was expedited and within a few hours later of holding her pristine passport, she was on a plane, with new haircut, dark glasses and wonderful clothes, and she was getting the hell out of town. She looked around the first class area and saw a small, elite group made up of wise looking business people, attractive couples and her. No one in the area recognized her even though her face was still making the papers, although they were primary located on bottom folds and page twos.

Things were quieting down and things were slowly making more and more sense. It was going to be an interesting summer and Jennifer seemed to be figuring out the next steps, although at best, was only two steps ahead. She didn’t know what her plans were going to be but keeping herself moving around gave her some time to avoid thinking too hard about what her life was going to be like. All the pressures she knew up until recently were gone; money was not an objective and anything she wanted, she could have by picking up the phone. Her values were still somewhat intact but nothing was making sense on a daily basis. When she was hungry, she ate things that she always ate. She enjoyed herself with her historical pursuits and most of her pursuits were inexpensive and moderately free of financial pressure. When she tried to buy something extravagant, she would always return it because she gained no pleasure by purchasing items that had no real value. The only thing that she enjoyed was travel and as the first year went by, she was rarely home and always on the move.

Jennifer arrived home and dropped her bag in the foyer of the new house.  She swept the letters into a box, provided by her attorney, marked for their immediate return. She didn’t open any of them and made a point not to study their postmarks and outward attempts at differentiation with ribbons, pictures of toothy, smiling toddlers. A vast majority of these letters were being mailed by criminals or the mentally unstable but her heart hadn’t hardened completely as she knew somewhere in that pile was likely one or two genuine appeals for money.  She had opened a few of them immediately after receiving her money and was tormented for weeks afterwards with their gut-wrenching appeals. The requests ranged from new wheelchairs to new houses and from specific dollar amounts to large round numbers ending in seven zeros. There were no boundaries on the claims nor was there was any way to prepare for such an upheaval of emotions once their letter was open. She knew the box would be picked up and dealt with by professionals and she would avoid that burden for now.

If fact, she was in the mood to avoid everything so she went to the atlas in her study and opened it up to a page. The beautiful city of Lisbon opened on both page and she smiled as she picked up the phone. Things were finally making sense.

“Ramona was right, we should read more,” said Jennifer as she unpacked her bag and began filling it with summer clothes.

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