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The debate was at seven at night. By four o’clock, we were all dressed, my father had shined his shoes, and my mother had checked Maddie one more time for lice. We were a family clean and ready for TV.
The station was in the city, so we took the train in. The conductor recognized me, impressing my parents. “You’re becoming quite the traveler,” my mother said. I only hoped that we didn’t end up in a cab with one particular Haitian driver.
Fortunately, the TV station was just a few blocks from the train station. It’s odd that both TVs and trains have stations since they’re really not very much alike. While the train station was made of grimy brick and concrete, the TV station was all glass, colorful walls and carpet. The producer of the show, a woman about my mother’s age named Laurie Brooks, showed my family to the “green room” where the guests wait before they go on air.
Needless to say, the green room wasn’t green. It was a light tan. There were some not-very-comfortable couches, more mirrors than I like to see, a television set tuned to that station’s broadcast, and a table with fruit, stale donuts and coffee. Maddie went straight for one of the donuts. She doesn’t care if the donut is fresh or stale so long as it’s topped with icing.
My father sat down and immediately opened up his bulging notebook of ideas, notes and clippings.
“Don’t you think you ought to take a break?” my mother asked. “You’re going to over-prepare.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” my father replied, not looking up. “How can you be too prepared?”
“You can be too rehearsed. You know what you believe, you know all the facts that exist, you have your arguments all set…”
“Good idea. Jake, will you test me on these facts?” he asked, handing me what must have been fifteen pages stapled together.
“Don’t, Jake,” my mother said.
“Torn between two parents!” I replied. “Don’t you know what this does to my delicate emotional state?”
“We’ll pay for your psychiatrist,” my father said, the closest he’d come to a joke in a week. I was going to be very glad when this debate was over.
My father took the packet of facts back from me and started studying on his own. My mother stood up. “Maybe we should leave your father alone to over-prepare himself.”
Just as she started to lead Maddie away from the snack table, the door opened and in came Mr. Dunn with Amanda and three men in suits. He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking disapprovingly at the sofa, the food, and finally my father.
My father stood up but Mr. Dunn made no move to come greet him. “Hello,” my father said. “Ready for a good, honest debate?”
Amanda pinched a donut and dropped it in disgust.
“I’m ready to take on those who would deny our citizens the right to choose their own form of amusement,” answered Mr. Dunn. One of the men in suits leaned into him and whispered in his ear. “Who don’t trust our citizens to choose their own form of amusement,” Mr. Dunn corrected himself. Apparently “trust” was a key word for him to work into the debate.
“Well,” my father said, perhaps regretting not taking up the Fordgythe Foundation’s offer to fly Mischa out, “I’m sure it will be a good, spirited debate. That’s what democracy is all about.”
“Democracy is all about trusting citizens to choose their own form of entertainment,” said Mr. Dunn, looking at the man in the suit for approval. The man nodded.
My mother said, “Honey, I’m taking the kids out for a bite to eat. Would you like to join us?”
“No, I need to…”
“Please do join us,” my mother said firmly.
Once the door to the green room closed my mother said, “I wasn’t going to leave you there for another minute with that awful man. Let’s go get a cup of coffee and a real donut. That’ll be much better for you than sitting there as Mr. Dunn uses you for target practice.”
“He’s good,” my father said.
“He’s over-prepared,” my mother replied.
Apparently we took too long because when we came back, Laurie the producer was very glad to see us. “Thank goodness! We have to get you right into makeup.” My father made a face, which Laurie immediately understood. “If we don’t put on makeup,” she explained, “you won’t look the way you actually do.”
She led us to the chair where the makeup person started dusting him with powder. I made sure not to make fun of my father, tempting though it was. Laurie patted my father on the shoulder, and said “You’ll do fine. That other man’s just a bully.” Then she led us to our seats.
The studio was quite small with room for about 50 people, although, as a camera showed us, it looked much bigger when broadcast. I think that’s because if you show a row of ten people on TV, the viewer assumes that the row extends in both directions even when it doesn’t, like being on the ocean and assuming that the sea keeps going over past the horizon. Except you’re right when it comes to the ocean.
We were almost the first people there. Laurie pointed to a woman standing in the back of the theatre. “That’s Margaret Houle. She’s in charge of all programming for the station. If she likes how your father does today…” She left the sentence hanging and then said, “Well, I have to be getting back. I’m sure your father will do well. People will just like him when they hear him. I have an eye for these things.” I was sure she was right. Of course, my father didn’t want to be liked. He wanted to convince people that the lottery is a bad idea.
The studio was beginning to fill up. I recognized a few people who worked for Mr. Dunn, and most of the tiny staff of The Gaz was there as well. Otherwise, there was only one face that I recognized: Mrs. Fordgythe. She was in the back on the other side. She waved to me. I gave a quick wave back.
“Who’s that, dear?” my mother asked.
“Someone I met on line at the Herb’s Pick-a-Chick store.”
“She must be nice to remember you.”
“Yeah, she seemed very nice.”
Ms. Houle was still standing in the back, her arms crossed. Waiting.
The moderator of the event was the local television anchorperson, Lola Freitag. On TV she seemed to be the sort of person who could only speak from cue cards, although when she talked to the audience five minutes before the show started, she was actually quite good. She explained the rules of the half-hour debate and sternly told us not to applaud except when the “Applause” light went on. “You’ll just be taking time away from the person you’re applauding for,” she said.
A sign that tells you when to applaud. That really seems wrong.
My father and Mr. Dunn came out from the same side of the studio and walked to their podiums. From the way they didn’t look at each other, it seemed that they hadn’t gotten any friendlier. Mr. Dunn stood there, as straight as a column holding up a porch. He stared directly in front of him, his hands held just above the waist, bent at the elbows, undoubtedly as he had been taught at media school. My father was bowed over his podium, frantically spreading out notes, running his hands through his hair exactly as media school would have told him not to.
“Welcome to the great debate on the state lottery,” said Lola Freitag, and so it began. As Lola introduced the two debaters, the camera focused on each. There were monitors in the studio, of course, so we could see what the home viewers could see. Mr. Dunn looked like he was a senior news anchor, completely at home in front of the camera. My father looked like he had slept in his clothes and was slightly confused about why he was there.
Lola explained the rules. Each debater was going to be given three minutes to present his point of view. Then Lola would ask each of them some questions “to clarify their points of view.” Then the two debaters would get to ask each other questions. Finally, they’d each get a minute to conclude. It sounded simple, yet I was scared purple, especially about the part when Mr. Dunn would get to ask my father questions. I was sure that his team had worked long and hard on coming up with the questions that would make my father look as bad as possible. My father meanwhile had focused on questions that he thought would bring a reasonable person closer to the truth. The problem was that Mr. Dunn didn’t intend to be reasonable. He intended to win.
Despite starting off looking fidgety, I thought my father did great in his opening statement. True, even though he had timed himself over and over to make sure that he came in under three minutes, he ended up having to rush through the last fifteen seconds, covering the last two points in just a couple of sentences and without inhaling. That aside, he did great.
Mr. Dunn did better. Even though I disagreed with him and could see the holes in what he was saying, I had to admit that unless your father had been lecturing you all your life about why the lottery is a bad idea, you would have found Mr. Dunn’s opening comments persuasive. Plus, it was as if he was relaxing at his kitchen table after dinner, slowly and calmly explaining himself, confident that he was right and enjoying himself. He was good at TV.
My hopes that Lola would ask the questions that would show everyone what was wrong with Mr. Dunn’s argument were dashed as soon as she opened her mouth. I could see that she was reading the questions off a printed sheet. They had nothing to do with what either my father or Mr. Dunn had just said. If anything, they were harder on my father than on Mr. Dunn. For example, she asked my father what taxes he would raise to make up for the money the state would lose if it cancelled the lottery. Dad answered well, I thought: “We might not have to raise taxes. We might move the money from other programs. But, Ms. Freitag, the point to remember is that the lottery is itself a tax, a tax on the poorest in our state. We target advertisements at them, convincing them that they can magically escape their poverty, and the money that we gather from them is taken out of their community and used to finance the educational system for the rich as well as the poor. Our poorest communities are losers in this system.”
Lola might have followed up on this. She might have asked if my father would be satisfied if the state government stopped advertising the lottery. She might have asked if he’d be satisfied if more of the money that was raised was given to poor neighborhoods instead of spreading it evenly across all communities. But those questions weren’t on her prepared sheet, so she instead asked Mr. Dunn what I thought was a much easier question: “Are there any changes you’d make to the lottery system at all?” Mr. Dunn said that he’d run it more often and offer more and bigger prizes. Nice. You can’t go wrong offering people more money more often.
I only half-listened to these questions and answers. The other half of me was trying to figure out what Mr. Dunn was going to ask my father. And the remaining part me – which, when you add two halves together doesn’t leave much left over – was listening to Maddie complaining to my mother that she had to go to the bathroom. “Can you hold it for another few minutes?” my mother asked.
“I really have to go.”
My mother sighed and started to get up. Just then Mr. Dunn got to ask his first question of my father. “Mr. Richter, I understand that you are personally quite strongly opposed to the lottery. But is your family equally opposed?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” my father replied.
“You will once I tell you who is truly behind the Fordgythe Foundation.” My mother sat down again and when Maddie started to whine, she cut her off. “You’ll just have to hold it in for a few more minutes.” Maddie frowned but stopped whining.
“I thought you already cracked that one, Mr. Dunn. The Germans.”
Mr. Dunn’s faced turned an ugly violet color. I thought he might be having trouble breathing but then I realized that it was how he blushed. He did it so infrequently that it made his face look like it was bruised. “That was based on preliminary information…”
“Plastered all over your front page on Friday,” my father said. He didn’t seem fidgety and awkward any more. “So, you realize that your big breakthrough article is all wrong?”
“It was based on preliminary information. But our further investigation has turned up something even more interesting. Let me ask you: Do you think the Fordgythe Foundation is doing remarkably good work?” Mr. Dunn sure had changed his tone about the Foundation. Except now I felt like I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t like where this was heading.
“Overall, I’d have to say, yes, the Fordgythe Foundation has been a blessing to this town,” my father said, to my great relief. “Some of the donations seem a little eccentric, but it’s brought relief to people who need it and it’s supported organizations that help the neediest in our town. But from the editorials you’ve been writing about it, you, Mr. Dunn, seem to think it’s something like a gangster organization. I believe your newspaper reported that it’s being funded by drug money.”
“Preliminary investigation,” Mr. Dunn muttered quickly. “I am glad that you and I are in agreement on this crucial point. The Fordgythe Foundation has been a positive force in our community.” He paused for a drink of water that he probably didn’t need. It increased the suspense, though.
“I don’t see what this has to do with the lottery,” my father said.
Lola took this opportunity to say, “You’re supposed to be asking a question, Mr. Dunn…” but my father looked at her, patted the air in front of him, and nodded to say that he was ok with the way it was going.
Mr. Dun carefully put down the glass of water and adjusted his tie. “Suppose I were to tell you that we have discovered that the Fordgythe Foundation is in fact funded entirely and completely by the mystery winner of the $111,000,000 lottery jackpot awarded a few months ago.”
The audience didn’t breath. The silence was noticeable. I could feel all the blood leaving my face. I’m not sure where it went, but I was positive my face was white with fear about what was about to happen. My mother looked at me, concerned.
Mr. Dunn’s gaze swept the audience from one side to another as his tight-lipped smile seemed to say, “You agree that I just won the debate, don’t you?”
As Mr. Dunn was about to talk again, my father said, “I know. The winner is my son.”
The audience gasped. The camera looked at my father. It looked at Mr. Dunn. It looked at Lola. It looked back at my father who was staring straight at me. The camera followed his eyes and found me. It zoomed in until all you could see was my face, white as snow, and next to me Maddie jumping up and down in her seat, yelling, “Yay! We won! I get 10 dollars!” The things that little kids remember.
“Yes,” thundered Mr. Dunn. “Your son! Your very own son! Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the living proof that good things come from the lottery. And not in some roundabout or complicated way, but right in the home of the leading opponent of the lottery. I rest my case.” And with that, Mr. Dunn crossed his arms and leaned back, away from the microphone on his podium.
But my father didn’t look like a man who had lost a debate. He stood up straighter. Suddenly his clothes hung on him right. His voice was firm. Looking directly at Mr. Dunn who refused to turn towards him, my father said, “How dare you, Mr. Dunn? How dare you? My son was given a lottery ticket by a kind elderly lady whom he had helped. He kept the fact that he won secret from everyone except a couple of friends because he knew we disapproved.” How did my father know all this? “I only found out about this yesterday. My wife found out a few days before. We haven’t even told our son that we know because we respect him. And let me tell you something: He has earned our respect. Can you imagine being a young man with such a secret? Can you imagine the sort of character it takes to do what he’s done with the Fordgythe Foundation?”
My father looked at me. I think everyone in the audience, in the studio or at home, must have seen how much he loves me. It was embarrassing, but I’ll never forget that look.
“So, you think you’ve made a mighty point about the lottery by betraying this good-hearted boy’s secret. But you haven’t at all. You think that you’ve proved that people who win the lottery use the money for good, giving back to the community. But you know that that’s not true. People use the money for whatever they want to use the money for. Sometimes it’s a tremendous help to them and their loved ones. And sometimes it destroys their lives. But that has nothing to do with why I’m opposed to the lottery. It’s not because of what it does to the winners. It’s because of what it does to the losers and what promoting the lottery does to our idea of what our government is about. I think that it turns our government into a casino that’s trying to trick us out of our hard-earned money. But I’ve made that case here tonight and you’ve chosen to ignore it. Instead, you’d rather betray the secrets of the biggest-hearted child you’ll ever have the privilege to meet.”
But he wasn’t done. “Let me be clear here tonight, Mr. Dunn. You see my son as a point you can use for your side. That’s all he is to you. But the point doesn’t even work. The fact is that what my son has done is truly exceptional. Who among us, if we’d won all that money, would think only about how best he could give it away? Who would find in his riches a connection to the poorest, the weakest, those most needing help? Would you, Mr. Dunn? Have you, Mr. Dunn? With all your riches, have you? You don’t need to answer that. The fact is that my son is one in a one hundred and eleven million. So you can’t use him as an argument in favor of the lottery. He’s exceptional. That means he’s what usually doesn’t happen when people win a lottery.”
Dad continued, “He’s my son, Mr. Dunn, and you and this community are lucky that he’s the one who won. And we are the luckiest parents in the world, not because our son won the lottery but because we have such a son. So, no, Mr. Dunn, your amazing fact doesn’t change my mind one bit.”
I think there was applause. Probably a lot. I know there was a whole bunch of hugging. I remember hugging Mrs. Fordgythe, and only reaching about a third of the way around her. And since the biggest hug came from my father and since I didn’t go up on stage, I think the debate must have ended at that point.
One thing I remember very clearly, though: Maddie saying, “Oops. Too late.”