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Friday was press day for my father. He publishes the local newspaper that comes out once a week. For the longest time I thought he hated it because whenever he talked about it, he was complaining: The local businesses weren’t advertising, the ones who advertised weren’t paying, the local residents weren’t subscribing, the reporters weren’t reporting. One complaint after another, sometimes for an entire dinner or Sunday morning walk.

So, when I asked him a few years ago why he didn’t quit, he looked shocked. “Quit?? Jake, I love The Gaz. I wouldn’t do anything else!” (The Gaz was short for The Melville Gazette.) “Why would you ask such a thing?” When I told him that all I ever heard from him were complaints, you could see it sink in. After that, my father did a terrible job trying to be positive about The Gaz around me. It was cute.

Fridays are tense days for my dad because that’s the day the paper actually gets printed. It means he has to go to the printing plant to oversee the production. But it’s also the last chance to discover and fix any last minute problems – and to find out that you made mistakes that now you can’t fix because the paper’s been printed.

So, at dinner on Friday, when my mom asks how Dad’s day was, it’s not like the other days where you just expect a “Fine” that doesn’t mean anything. On Friday, Dad’s answer tells us what the mood of dinner and of the weekend will be like.

Tonight, we got “Well, it’s done, anyway,” which long years of listening to my father have taught me means: “Rough day, but, in the end the newspaper turned out fine.”

It seems that at the last minute, Dad had to drop an article from the front page because the town committee on recycling hadn’t met, so there was nothing to report about. “So, I pulled my editorial about lotteries onto the front page. I don’t like putting editorials on the front page, but it was the only thing that would fit.” (It’s always surprising to me to find out that what goes on the front page of a newspaper can depend on things like what article is the right length instead of purely on what’s most important. Another illusion shattered.)

“This is the last in the series, isn’t it?” my mother asked as my Dad served her oven roasted potatoes.

“Yup. Which makes more sense than putting one in the middle of the series on the front page. In this last one, I summarize all the others.”

I suddenly lost interest in the potatoes, normally one of my favorite foods. The front page announcement that my father hates the lottery while I had a lottery ticket ticking upstairs was making me uncomfortable.

I’d read Dad’s editorials on the topic. My Dad is a good writer, I’ll give him that. And I can’t say I really disagreed with him. Here are his reasons:

First, the lottery was created to take the money poor people were spending on illegal gambling – a daily game called “the numbers” – and have that money come to the state government instead of to organized crime. So, the lottery started out as a way for the government to act like criminals.

Second, the lottery is a fool’s game. The odds against winning are so large that if you bet every day of your life, your chances of coming out ahead in the end were about the same as the chance that you’d be hit by a pink car driven by a clown named Moe. You’d be far better off putting the same amount of money into a bank every day.

Third, the lottery is played more by poor people than by rich people, yet the money the state makes is spread evenly across all the towns. That means poor towns end up with less money than they started with. My Dad calls this a “tax on the poor.”

Fourth, it encourages people to gamble. All the lottery advertisements make gambling sound like fun and a way to get rich quick.

Fifth, it’s an inappropriate way to pay for educational programs (which is where the money the state makes goes). Educational programs shouldn’t have to depend on people gambling.

My father wasn’t a fanatic about this. He actually was reasonable on the topic. He just didn’t always act that way. Once you got him started, he could go on for hours. His face would redden, his eyebrows would tie themselves in a knot, and he’d lean into whoever he was talking with as if he were just waiting for a chance to tell him why they were all wrong.

I don’t think there was any other topic my father felt this way about.

Which is why the editorial ended up on the front page.

The first two parts of the series he’d been writing had gotten a lot of people to send in letters, mainly disagreeing with him. Being a fair person, he had printed them all in the Letters to the Editor section – except one that began “Dear Jerk-faced Weasel.”

“You know what the lottery is worth this week?” my father asked with just a little bitterness. “Over 100 million dollars. A hundred million dollars! Can you believe it? When I drove home, I saw a line coming out of the Pick-a-Chick store. People lining up to buy their tickets, last minute. Poor suckers. They might as well just put their dollar bills into the trash can in front of the store and skip the line.”

I didn’t ask him if he saw a woman there who looked like the Starship Enterprise. And I decided right after supper to make sure that my ticket was still safely hidden in my violin case.

So, we made it through dinner, and I practiced violin (and checked on my ticket), and then spent an hour working on some songs for The Scutters. In other words, it was turning into a normal Friday night.

The normal Friday routine is that I’m allowed to stay up until eleven to watch my favorite program, a medical detective show – although, the truth is that I wouldn’t like the program nearly so much if it didn’t give me an excuse to stay up until eleven. Then I go off to bed and my parents watch the local news on channel 5.

Between my show and the start of the news, channel 5 televises the drawing of the state lottery.

Having stayed up through the credits of my show, on the grounds that the credits are legally a part of the show, we were still engaged in the standard good night chit chat when the sparkly toothed Ginny Wombach came on screen to announce the winner. Behind her was a machine that jumbled 40 numbered ping pong balls as if they were stuck in a berserk popcorn popper.

“Well, you’d better be turning in, Jake,” said my father as the first number jumped out of the tumbler and was announced by the ever-smiling Ginny. It was 35. So far so good! But, I realized the odds of the next one being an eight – my next number – were 39 to one. There were 39 ways the wrong number could come up, and just one way the right one could. And that’d be true for the next five numbers. The odds were ridiculously bad.

But getting that first one right sure got my attention! So I stalled a bit, while pretending to pay no attention to the television. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m pretty tired.” Then a nice long yawn.

Ginny said, “And the next number is 8!” as if eight were an especially exciting number.

It was to me. 35-8-27-9-18-9. Those were the magic numbers. They were burned in my brain because of the sequence I had discovered within them.

“You know,” I said, trying to keep my parents distracted from the TV, “tonight’s episode was sort of disappointing. Predictable plot.”

“Isn’t it predictable every week?” Mom said. “Bad guys do something wrong, good guys catch them.”

“Well, yes,” I said as Ginny said “27!” I tried not to show that I was paying any attention to what Ginny was saying, but all I could think of was the next number: 9, 9, 9, 9! I continued, “But usually you can’t figure out how they’re going to catch them.”

“That’s true,” said my father. “You could say the same thing about every mystery novel ever written. Bad guy murders someone, detective figures out who.” My mother loves mystery novels.

This might have been fascinating conversation, but all I heard was Ginny saying, “And the next number is 9!” I was just two numbers away from winning!

At this point I was too distracted to be able to participate in the conversation and I just hoped the discussion I’d started would be carried on by Mom and Dad without me. I was looking at them, but my ears heard nothing but Ginny. Ginny was suddenly my favorite person in the whole world.

And she said my favorite word in the whole world: “Eighteen!” she squealed. It was all I could do not to squeal along with her. One number away.

Oh my gosh, I thought. Suppose I actually win. A hundred million dollars! But I wasn’t thinking about what I could do with the money. I was thinking about how I’d ever tell my parents about it.

Still, there was one number to go. One chance in 36 that I’d win.

That’s the moment my mother noticed that the lottery was on TV, and that’s the moment she turned it off, saying, “What are we doing with this on!” I don’t know if she noticed that I was paying attention to Ginny, or whether the conversation about how predictable mystery novels are just got too boring. But just as the ball popped out of the lottery basket and Ginny inhaled to burble the exciting last number … Click!

“Ok, Jake, time for bed,” said my father.

“You’ve been up late enough already,” said my mother.

“Um, ok, I guess I’ll be going to bed,” I said, as if I weren’t one number away from a hundred million dollars.

So I went to bed.

But not to sleep.


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