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I can’t say that Friday, April 13, was a good day even though that’s when I won the lottery.
It’s not that my standards are too high. It certainly wasn’t a bad day. It was more like a complex day: That Friday took my simple kid’s life and made it as knotty as a sweater knit by a squirrel who just got off a roller coaster.
You’d think that having money would make everything easy. If you get grass stains on your best pants, you just reach into your closet where another hundred pairs hang. If you can’t decide which video game to buy, you buy them both and throw another dozen into the shopping cart…which is being pushed by your butler. But being rich had exactly the opposite effect on me. Maybe it was because I became so rich so suddenly. Or maybe it was because of the way I became rich. Or maybe it was because buying pants and video games is the easy part.
Or maybe it was because … Well, it’s a long story.
On the Monday before that Friday the 13th, I was at the Pick-a-Chick. That’s what the sign said outside, although it wasn’t really a Pick-a-Chick anymore. It was Herb’s This ‘n That Store. I’m only a kid, and I can name three other businesses that used to own that store. First it was McCardle’s Milk, which was cool because they had Pop Gums, a slime-green ice cream bar with bubble gum in the middle of it. Then it was Moishe’s Meats, which pretty much put it off my map since when I was seven I was unlikely to want to browse in a butcher’s store that had slabs of dead cows and featherless chickens in its window as if that would really draw people in. I think that’d be true even if I weren’t a vegetarian. Then it was The Nickel House, which sold newspapers and comics and other things that cost a lot more than a nickel. They went out of business, maybe because you can’t lie in your store’s name and expect to get away with it for long. And then someone named Herb bought it and I guess gave up on trying to figure out what he would be selling, so it became the This ‘n That Store, which was exactly what it was. But, throughout all this time, the old Pick-a-Chick sign stayed where it was, running the long way up the side of the brick building. By the time it got to Herb, the Pick-a-Chick sign was practically a local landmark. So, there the sign hung on the This ’n That store although chicken was one of the few things you absolutely couldn’t get there.
My parents hadn’t exactly outlawed Herb’s, but they weren’t crazy about my going there since there was hardly anything in there that was Good For Me. Candy but no fruit. Comics but no books. Joke soap that turns your hands black but no ruled notebook paper. So, when I went, I tried to do it on the way to somewhere else so I could just sort of sidle on in.
Sidling is the right word because Herb – whoever he was – had put in three rows of shelves where only two really fit. So you had to walk sideways, and if you ran into someone in the same aisle, one of you had to back up all the way and move down another aisle. In fact, I always thought it cruel that Herb put the diet foods in the middle of one of the aisles, because if you really needed them, you probably wouldn’t be able to fit in to get them.
But that’s not why I was there on that Monday. My violin lesson was over and I thought I would treat myself to a Ding Dong Doggie before walking the eight blocks back home. You know you have to really like Ding Dong Doggies to be willing to ask for one by name. What Ding and Dong and Doggie had to do with a butterscotch cake with vanilla creme insides I’ll never know. But I liked them, and so I sidled on in to the Pick-a-Chick.
I had my Ding Dong Doggie – please, can I just call it a “triple D” from now on? – I had my Triple D in my hand and headed to the counter to pay for it. But there was a woman ahead of me buying lottery tickets. She had filled out 20 forms where you choose what number you want to bet on, and Mrs. Karchov was typing the numbers into the lottery machine on the counter. One by one. At that rate, before I got home I’d be old enough to shave.
So, I dug my hand into my pocket and fished for coins. But a Triple D costs 85 cents – and is worth every penny – and who ever has 85 cents in coins? If I did I could have just left them on the counter and showed the Triple D to Mrs. Karchov. It’s the type of cutting ahead in line that you’re allowed to do, at least according to my father who sometimes pays for newspapers that way. But, since I didn’t have the coins, all I could do is leave the dollar bill I had clutched in my hand. And I’d be darned if I was going to pay an extra fifteen cents for a Triple D. Money doesn’t grow on trees you know. (By the way, neither do anvils. And it’s a good thing.)
So, I waited. And waited. And Mrs. Karchov typed and typed. And I watched the lady in front of me. She was older than my mother but not as old as my grandmother. Somewhere in between. But nothing else was in-between about her. She was built like the original Starship Enterprise: not very high, very wide, and, because of her hat, flat on top. Without her hat, she wouldn’t have looked very much like a starship at all. The hat was round like a pancake with a double pat of butter on top. It was blue, like the color of fake blueberry syrup. It looked like it was made out of some sort of shiny plastic that was sticky the way your fingers are when you’re done with your pancakes. In fact, the whole thing looked like maybe she’d gotten it at the International House of Bad Hats.
And the woman seemed a bit nervous or unsure of herself. She kept muttering apologies and politenesses like, “Here’s another, if you don’t mind,” and “I’m sorry to be such a bother,” and “I do appreciate all your help.” And after about every third ticket was typed in, she’d turn to me and half smile to let me know she felt bad about holding me up.
The thing was that she didn’t have to make Mrs. Karchov do all that typing. The lottery machine in the store is a computer and it’s perfectly happy to choose numbers for you. There’s no reason to pick your own numbers, unless you think that you have some type of direct connection to the bouncing balls they use to pick the winning numbers every week. The only thing picking your own numbers does is make Mrs. Karchov stand there and type them in.
I know about this because my dad is the type of parent who doesn’t just tell you not to do something but has to explain to you every detail of what it is that you’re not supposed to do. For example, when he told me not to pour paint remover down the sink after washing out the brushes I’d used to decorate a model car, he didn’t just tell me not to, he also told me everything human beings have learned about the effect of flammable solutions on the environment.
And when he told me not to play the lottery, I also learned everything known to science about it. Oh, this was a rich topic for Dad. It took most of the trip to overnight camp – a three hour drive – for me to find out exactly how lotteries work, their effect on the economy, their history throughout the ages, and why they are evil. As a result, I knew more about the lottery than I learned about U.S. history in an entire year of seventh grade. (No offense, Mr. Saperstein!)
Too bad the woman ahead of me didn’t know what I knew. If she did, she wouldn’t be playing the lottery at all, or else she’d have just let the machine pick her numbers for her. And my entire amazing experience wouldn’t have happened.
Or if I’d just been willing to give up the fifteen cents, I would have slapped the dollar on the counter and been on my semi-merry way.
But no, I waited while Mrs. Karchov typed and the woman ahead of me kept looking at me apologetically. And finally, the woman was done. Almost. She paid for her lottery tickets with a crisp twenty dollar bill. And, then, at the last minute, when I thought my turn had finally come, she remembered she had also bought a bag of buttons. She pulled it out of the pocket of her orange jacket, and said, “Oh my! I almost walked out of here without paying for these!” Another two dollars changed hands, and at long last the woman was done. Nothing stood between me and my Triple D except handing Mrs. Karchov my dollar bill and getting my change back.
I placed the bill on the counter and heard the sound of about a hundred little taps. Without even looking I knew the lady had dropped the bag of buttons. “Oh my!” she said.
The floor was polka-dotted with buttons. “Let me help,” said I, for I happen to be a nice boy…you can ask anyone. The woman barely fit in the Pick-a-Chick at all, and there was no way she was going to be able to squat and pick up the buttons.
So, down I went on my knees, and gathered the buttons, at first several at a time, and then, as they became harder to find, one by one. And I did a good job. Some were obvious, but others had skittered under shelves like mice afraid of a cat. But I peered and bent and twisted and felt until I thought I had them all.
“Thank you so much,” the woman said over and over again as I hunted down the buttons. And when I was done, she said, “You really are the kindest boy. Your parents must be very proud of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said because it seemed like the sort of thing a kind boy would say, especially if his parents were very proud of him. In fact, I think it was probably the first and only time I ever called anyone “ma’am.” The truth is, all I could think about was getting my Triple D and rushing on home before my parents started picking a photo for the “Have you seen …” posters they’d be putting on the telephone poles.
“Here,” she said, “you must take one of these as a reward,” handing me the top lottery ticket in her pile.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I said, thinking about the expression on my parents’ faces if I came home not only late but with a lottery ticket in my hand.
“Oh, you really must,” she said, handing it to me. And being a nice boy, and a kind boy, and a boy who really wanted to eat a Ding Ding Doggie, I said, “OK. Thank you very much.” And, without thinking much about it, I opened my violin case a crack and shoved the ticket into it.
“And if you win,” said the woman, “you can think of me as your fairy godmother.”
“Thank you. Goodbye,” I said, in a pretend cheerful voice. But what I was thinking was, “Yeah, and the day I win the lottery will be the same day I’ll think that my sister Maddie is fun to be with and, oh yeah, pigs can fly.”
It just shows you how wrong you can be.