Jean and Burnie won$41 million in thelottery. But they still stop at Stuckey's, still shop at Kmart, still play the numbers. And they still have each other.
Jean Graham was driving fast down Interstate 10, telling where they had been and where they were going, when her husband leaned forward and said they were nearly there.
Stuckey's was just ahead, said Burnie. She better get ready to exit, because they always stop at Stuckey's. The hot dogs are two for 99 cents.
Lunch came a few minutes later on a plastic tray -- glasses of milk and hot dogs oozing low-grade chili and liquid cheese stuff.
"Now, don't these look good?" said Jean. "Cheap and good! Why would you want to pay more?"
She had come to this question and place nine months after winning $41.7 million in the Texas lottery. It was the second-largest jackpot ever awarded a single ticket holder in the state, and Jean Graham had struck it rich in the way lightning strikes others dead -- not through anything she did or planned to do but completely by chance. She gave each of their two children a third of the new fortune, which, after taxes, left her and Burnie an annual income of about $500,000 for the next 20 years. What would they do with all that dough? What would their dough do to them? At the ages of 64 and 71, Jean and Burnie Graham would have to start over.
"They're a rare breed," said their son, Eddie. "They'll never get uppity. You couldn't change them with a crowbar."
Burnie had retired long ago as an instructor of air-conditioning repair, and Jean instantly became a retired nurse. They gave their old clapboard home in a hardscrabble stretch of northeast Houston to a church and moved into a pale brick affair behind pale brick walls in Sharpstown. The house cost about $200,000, and Jean bought another next door for her mother. Whether to show it off, or to show what regular people they still are, or maybe just for a little company, she let a reporter inside.
"Most people are very happy for us," Jean explained. "It couldn't have happened to nicer people -- that's what they say."
The ceilings were high, the carpet was deep, and the air-conditioning was set extra cool. The wall hangings were chosen by a decorator to match the decor, and above the fireplace, there was one book, The Rector's Wife, and it matched, too. Here's the sculpture of dolphins she got on her last trip to Vegas; there's the new piano no one can play. Yes, this is a La-Z-Boy, she said, "and it's real comfortable, too."
Jean is 20 pounds heavier than a year ago but has dyed her gray hair blond and feels much healthier. At the kitchen table, she sat down beside Burnie, who gazed through thick glasses from under his baseball cap. "We do the same things we always did," he said. "We just do them better."
Burnie likes the new house, his new truck, his interest in a race car, but he still shops garage sales and buys his clothes at Kmart. His children gave him a $2,500 watch, but he wears one he got free for cigarette labels. Jean bought him a $65 pair of shoes, but he leaves them in the closet for special occasions. He said he comes from a long line of working people, "living off of what we make,'' and he had a hard time understanding that their bank account was growing, by interest alone, at a rate of $400 a day.
"In September, we're going to get $500,000 more,'' Burnie said. "We got everything we need. What are we going to do with that?"
"Oh, I'm sure we'll find something," said Jean, with a laugh.
Before the Grahams won, their names were never in the phone book, and afterward, Jean fibbed to reporters that they were from Humble. Consequently, they haven't been deluged with pleas from strangers and accountants, and, fortunately, those people who know of their wealth generally leave them to it. More than any other, then, it seems their relationship with the bank has altered most. "Just let us walk in there," said Burnie. "Them people stand at attention!"
The bankers pester Jean to invest her money, but she tells them, "We're old. We're going to spend it." She's a fervent believer now in the easy life, but it's a new faith, and there are still times when she regrets being cloistered away. In one moment, she'll say, "I'm so happy not to work.'' And then in a different mood, she'll say, "I miss work more than anything in the world."
She fried up pork chops for lunch that day, boiled some butter beans and collard greens, and laid them on the table. "All we missing now is cornbread," said Burnie, and Jean answered, "I know Burnie, I know, but I'm feeling kind of lazy today."
How had they spent the day before? Jean said they watched The Price Is Right ("Oh that's fun!"), and then after that, the O.J. trial. ("We argue about that all the time.")
But what had they actually done?
They paused to think. Did the grandkids come over? No, they didn't, and Burnie couldn't remember doing anything. They've hired a yardman and a housekeeper; he had given away his riding lawn mower and woodworking tools. "Didn't you clean off the breakfast table?" Jean offered. That's right, Burnie said, and he also took out the garbage.
Into Burnie's lap just then jumped the new Chihuahua that Eddie gave him when he noticed Burnie staring day after day out the window. Jean told Coco to get down. She said she couldn't understand why that dog was always begging for food when its dish was always full.
Jean spends about $30 a week now trying to win the lottery again. She figures if she did, she'd find a way to spend that, too. The Grahams never got ahead by their wits or their hard work, and so they've come to depend on luck. In the mornings, they ask each other what they should do with the day, and when they both answer "I dunno,'' they generally know they're going gambling. They've been to Las Vegas three times since September, but they've been to Louisiana at least ten.
Maybe that's what they'd do tomorrow. Maybe the lottery winners would take their chances in Louisiana.
"Always have been lucky," said Jean Graham. And Burnie said he was born unlucky, but his mother used to tell him one day his luck would turn around. "You remember that, Jean?"
he next morning, they were dressed in their finest gambling attire, she in a bright red jacket printed with kings and queens of diamonds, and he in a vest just like it. Not until close to 11 did the black Crown Victoria pull out of the driveway. Jean, as usual, was behind the wheel; Burnie was in the back seat.
"I guess if I had to, I could pay the bills,'' he said, apropos of nothing, "but I really don't know how, so I tell her, don't you ever leave here before I do."
"So we're going to die together," said Jean, smiling.
"And be buried in a military cemetery," Burnie added. "I got five bronze stars."
Next month, they will have been married 49 years. They grew up in north Houston on Terry Street -- Jean always wanting the latest thing and getting some cheaper knockoff, Burnie's family eating whatever his father could buy cheap in bulk. "I still won't eat a sweet potato," he said.
Jean was seven years younger than Burnie, and it wasn't until after he went off to fight World War II that she first saw his picture. She swore then to Burnie's sister that she would marry him, and when he returned at the end of the war, she dropped out of school at 16 and did just that.
Burnie found a job as a lineman for Houston Lighting & Power. Their second child had just been born in 1953 when he broke his back in a fall and shattered a leg so badly it had to be amputated below the knee.
For two years, he was out of work, and Jean took care of them all. The disability payment was only $21 a week, and so she began baby-sitting other children, sewing costumes for a stripper and working nights cleaning office buildings. Still, she remembers the barbecue she would make out of Spam and the days when she would call a neighbor "and get her potatoes together with my beans and just have picnic."
Burnie later got into air-conditioning repair, but his health over the years kept breaking down. After three heart attacks and a brain tumor, he finally retired in the late '70s. Long before then, Jean had finished school and become a nurse and had learned to be there to support the family when her husband could not.
"So, you know, it hasn't been a real bed of roses,'' Jean said, exhaling cigarette smoke. "We deserve everything we got. Yeah, we really do."
The black Ford crossed the Sabine River and sped into Louisiana. Burnie began talking about his race car, how he's teaching his driver not to try to win every race. If you don't push it, he said, you won't wreck it, and you'll be there at the end of the season, when all your third places will add up to make you the winner. It's the same way with his life, he said. He never struggled to meet a goal. He just stayed in the race.
"The winner comes out through patience,'' said Burnie. "All you have to do is wait, and time will take care of everything."
He'd like to use their money to do some good in the world, but Burnie figures time will take care of that, too. Jean figures she'll take care of it. She's in charge of the money, and now that she's rich, she's lost sympathy with the poor. She restricts their charity to family members.
"Poverty isn't an excuse. You've got to work for what you want,'' said Jean. "And, you know, if you think about it, if we gave all our money away, I don't think there would be anyone giving us anything when we went broke."
After Stuckey's, the ride went faster, and the billboards began advertising easy money. "Rustle up some cash at the Lucky Longhorn Casino," one read. The Grahams crossed the great bridge, and Burnie pointed out Lake Charles' gambling boats. Jean kept right on driving. "Can't win 20 cents there," she said, "not a penny."
She turned north finally on U.S. 165, and then they knew it wouldn't be long. "How do you feel today, Burnie?" Jean asked. "You feeling good?" And Burnie said, yeah, he was going to win. "You've got to think positive.''
Some days, Jean explained, Burnie feels good, "and then he loses his butt." This rarely happens to her, she said, and every now and then, Burnie gets lucky, too. It was only May that a slot machine coughed $20,000 into his hands.
By now, they were deep in the country outside of Kinder, and then the pine trees suddenly gave way to a clearing and to the great metal dome that is the Grand Casino Coushatta. The casino has been open seven days a week, 24 hours a day since January, and at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon, the parking lot was nearly full. The valet opened the car door, and Jean stepped out and told him she was good, thank you, and that she had come to take the money home.
Through the door in their Vegas gambling clothes, they walked like king and queen into the castle. The room stretched on for acres, hundreds of people staring at machines and clustering around tables, chasing the sound of falling money. Jean counted $500 into Burnie's palm, kept $500 for herself, and in different directions, they set off to find their latest fortune.
"A lot of people go home crying their eyeballs out, but you shouldn't be gambling the light bill," she said. "You should never bring more than you can afford to lose."
She sat down at a favorite slot machine and began pumping it three dollars at a time. She won $10 in her first spin. Ten minutes later, she had lost $100. It takes money to make money, so Jean kept on going.
"This machine is completely off," she concluded, $100 later. She got up to find another, and she hadn't been seated long before a lady beside her began convulsing with joy. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,'' the woman squealed. She had won $1,200 and was holding her cheeks just like a player on The Price Is Right. Jean said she was glad and quietly resumed her losing streak.
To play the slot machines requires no skill or strategy, just a measure of luck. The Grahams play nothing else. Behind Jean, beside her, in every direction, people stared into the lighted machines. It was like they were watching television, some great drama unfold, but then when you looked over their shoulders, nothing was ever there. Jean eventually got up to go to the bank machine, and afterward sat right back down. Not far away, a red-eyed man with a huge cigar was feeding three machines $25 chips as fast as he could. Another man groused that he ought to own this place, as much as he's dropped here. Another said a slot machine is like a pretty lady: "She's always teasing you."
Around 5:30, Burnie showed up and confessed he was $200 in the hole and hungry. Jean got up reluctantly. As long as you're playing, you get free drinks at the casino, but eating interrupts the cash flow, and so you have to pay. The Grahams filled their plates from the big buffet. Jean guessed that Burnie would get the fish and hushpuppies, and she was right. With his mouth full, he asked if Jean was going to try to win the Dodge Viper. No, she said, a Jaguar is more her speed, and Burnie grinned and said that's a prestige car. Well, if that's what it is, she said, she doesn't need it. She's happy with who she is.
"Gambling is just fun," said Jean. "We played the slots before, and we haven't changed. We're normal people, don't you think?"
Out in the fray a few moments later, Burnie and Jean sat side by side. They held hands and fed the machines dollar after dollar, and the light from the spinning bar shone on their faces. A waitress told Burnie he looked mighty sharp in that vest he wore, and Burnie showed her his matching suspenders and laughed at the old rascal he'd become.
Around eight o'clock, Burnie finally broke even and would play no more. Jean couldn't leave this way. She filled her bucket with $5 tokens, and when it was empty ten minutes later, her wealth was diminished $400. It was time to go. Burnie was feeling good. They stepped into the quiet night, and he told his wife she should have quit while she was ahead.
"One of these days, I'm going to hit it big,'' he said. "I've got that feeling, Jean. Don't you think the law of averages will catch up with us?''
"Burnie," she said, "I think the law of averages has been here and gone.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.