lottery

A longtime family friend sends scratch-off lottery tickets in the mail and my aunt uses the blade of a knife to scrape away at them while I peel carrots. She narrates:

“Match two amounts and uncover the dollar sign to win the amount shown. There’s fifty. There’s five hundred. And there’s one hundred. Nope. Didn’t win that one!”

I dice a few carrots, move on to the celery.

“Oh on this one, I could win five thousand dollars. That would be nice. Five thousand. I never win anything. I don’t know why she keeps sending these. I won forty dollars once. That was it.”

There are five tickets, none of them a winner and she uses a paper towel to dust off the little bits of silver latex that have collected on the kitchen counter.

“I never win anything, but I keep on trying.” She pauses for a moment and watches me peel an onion. “What do you think, are you someone who wins things?”

In the living room, the boy is playing with trucks. The television has been left on to hum and flicker in the background. I stand there for a moment to watch him. On the screen, a woman stands behind a clear plastic lottery machine and a fan beneath the machine forces white balls through tubes. The woman calls off the winning numbers. One can imagine the groans of disappointment rippling through the station’s viewing region.

For a time, my father worked as a security guard at a hospital. On weekends, he worked a late shift, leaving home after midnight. Before he went to bed – which was usually just after dinner – he would ask us to make sure we watched the lottery drawing and wrote down the week’s winning numbers. Often, he had bought a ticket – sometimes more than one – but even when he had not, he wanted the numbers so that he could record them in his notebook.

Spiral bound with a worn green cover, his notebook documented years of winning lottery numbers. Each row of numbers was carefully rendered in blue ink by his cramped hand. Some combinations circled, some underlined. “I’m going to crack the code,” he told me once, while he transferred numbers from a scrap of paper into his notebook. “There is only a certain number of possible combinations, you know. But you have to know what you’re looking for.”


“What would you do if you won a million dollars?” It was not an uncommon question to be heard around the dinner table of my childhood. We dreamed aloud of trips – to Europe and Asia. Of houses by the ocean. The parents promised loan-free college years to the children and we, in turn vowed to take care of them: “You would be set for life,” we said. “You would never have to worry about money.”

On occasion, my father would interject an observation about taxes or how, exactly, the money was paid out over time, and gradually the amount was increased – a kind of cost of living adjustment: “What would you do with five million?” And sometimes, just to hear the gasps elicited around the table, I would say, my voice all whispery: “Why not a hundred million?”

We are always waiting for something to happen. Some stroke of fortune, some divine intervention, some sign that will draw us up and out of our daily lives – some bright spot on the horizon to which we can yearn, toward which we can orient our longing.

We buy our lottery tickets. Work out our formulas, our calculations. We try to imagine the future we might have one day, if only…

I recall my father winning once – a couple hundred dollars – the result of having chosen two or three of the six winning numbers. This was nowhere near the jackpot of several million dollars of course, but it was enough to keep him in the game: standing in line at the delicatessen to buy tickets week after week; sitting hunched at the kitchen table and filling in the forms in pencil; choosing the numbers that had been divined for him by the formulas and calculations in his spiral notebook.

He was methodical, but also it seemed to me, a bit superstitious: “You can’t keep changing your numbers all the time. You have to be willing to play the same ones for a while – maybe a long while – so you have to get ones you feel good about. And stay with them. At least for as long as they feel right.”

My mother: “If I won a million dollars, I would walk into the office tomorrow and tell them that I’m not coming back. I would get on a plane to Portugal and stay there for a month. I would finally go to DC in the spring, just to see the cherry blossoms. Do you know I have never seen the cherry blossoms in the spring?”

We all take our chances, don’t we? We pick our numbers. Play them for a while, for as long as it feels right. And when we start to doubt them, we turn back to our notebooks, scour the long rows and columns for what we may have missed. Then, with our adjustments made, don’t we just find ourselves back at the end of that line, waiting our turn to have another go? And when the fan starts whirring beneath the clear plastic drum, don’t we all stand around there watching, holding our breath, to see what pops up?