If she heard that suave, cheery voice just one more time, La’Wandja worried that she might go back to smoking crack just to block it out. He spoke with the honeyed articulation of false promises. She could not resist, though; he drew her in, making her want to believe. She looked up, and there he was, making direct, blue-eyed contact with her soul through the television, as real to her as if he was sitting across the table.
“Tonight could be your night to get rich. Tonight, the Cosmo-Lotto grand prize will be a record eight hundred million dollars. Tonight, the odds are that there will be a winner. Tonight, somebody’s life will change – why not you?”
The spokesman with the earnest voice, infectious smile, and mesmerizing eyes was standing in front of a backdrop of the American flag, next to a rotating drum with flashing, multi-colored lights and full of white ping pong balls tumbling in a way that, if you watched closely, seemed to reveal fractal patterns. He opened his arms, an invitation, and tilted his head as if giving friendly advice.
“You sure better ‘nuff hope that some fool wins this week,” La’Wandja back talked to the face on the television, “’cause if not, there damn may be riots in the streets.” Then she ground her teeth, angry at herself for having, again, allowed him to get under her skin. His casual charm and guileless good looks masked what she considered to be an insidious message – that you can beat the odds. “Why not you?,” was his tagline, which he delivered in candid close-up, with raised brows and an airy inflection, the face of somebody who cares. To validate his message, every time there was a winner he was photographed with that person – usually, somebody that you could relate to, a longshot underdog with a sympathetic backstory – shaking his or her hand, the two of them holding the ends of an oversize check, surrounded by family and loved ones, and balloons, always shiny, bright, air-headed balloons.
This was the eighth consecutive week without a grand prize winner, and with each of the last three weeks, the payoff had reached unprecedented, increasingly exorbitant amounts. Whenever the jackpot exceeded a couple hundred million, folks started going berserk. The regular cretins, compulsive gamblers, and life’s losers with dreams of grandeur doubled their wagers. La’Wandja knew of some sickos who would use their children’s milk money to purchase lottery tickets. Even people who seldom played became convinced that they’d be missing on some important cultural phenomenon if they didn’t participate. The longer the prize went unclaimed, the more frantic and desperate – even angry – the population became. Rumors spread that the system was rigged, so that government fatcats skimmed the proceeds directly into their Swiss banks accounts. Or, some claimed that the Cosmo-Lotto’s system had been hacked, its funds having been drained down the last cent by an evil genius programmer who probably lived in Hong Kong. When, finally, a winner did emerge, the situation often seemed dubious or contrived, like when an Iraq war vet who’d lost both legs won and thanked “God and America” for his good fortune, or when the prize went to an 85 year old nursing home resident who, inexplicably, chose to receive her loot in monthly installments for the rest of her natural life instead of a lump sum. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, though, those same people who believed wholeheartedly that the entire system was fixed still played, with their last dollars if necessary. Hope was worth it.
Personally, though, the only thing that mattered to La’Wandja was that when the jackpot got this big, the lines to purchase tickets at her place of employment, the Zippy Mart in the working class neighborhoods off High Street north of Hudson, would be backed out the door. Six or seven years ago, a motor pool worker at The Ohio State University matched five numbers and won a million dollars with a ticket that he’d purchased there, so of course now everybody believed that the store possessed some kind of lucky mojo. The staff at Zippy Mart referred to the last eight hours of public insanity before lottery sales closed as the “Cosmo Shift,” and most of them would rather work on national holidays or permanent graveyard shift than be stuck at the service counter for that ordeal. La’Wandja, though, didn’t have a choice. She knew that she was fortunate that her parole officer had been able to refer her to any job at all, anywhere, doing anything.
At least, she figured, she wasn’t a dumb as her customers. It didn’t matter how astronomically remote the odds were, they attached their only dreams to a probability that was less likely than an asteroid smashing into the Earth and annihilating every living creature. La’Wandja didn’t need dreams like those. If the odds weren’t in her favor, she wasn’t going to play. La’Wandja believed that when her numbers were due to come up, she’d know it, and when that happened she’d guard that secret, holding the Cosmo-Lotto and its whole system of dreams and wishes hostage, until folks finally just gave up… and only then, when nobody else cared any more, she’d steal the lottery for herself. Nobody would even know that she’d won.
On that fine day, the first thing that she’d do, sure as she’d been to hell and back, was quit her crappy job, with its crappy boss, and all of the crappy people that depended on her to do what she didn’t want to do. The she’d just disappear…
“I have a system,” Corrina explained to Cheshire – speaking out loud helped her to think it through, and the cat actually seemed to be listening.
“It’s scientific, based upon predictable probabilities. Most people don’t even try to understand the big picture. Obviously, the chance of any single ball being picked first from the cylinder is one out of fifty. That’s true for every draw. So, the odds are that any given number will be chosen twice out of one hundred times. But, if a number happens to be picked twice consecutively, the longer term odds have been satisfied for the next 98 draws, so in my system that number goes to the bottom of the list of likely winning numbers. It gets more complicated when you start factoring in all successive draws, but I keep track of the history of the lottery on my spreadsheets. Over time, I can identify numbers with the highest likelihood of being picked, and the more data that I gather, the more the odds shift in my favor. Oh, sure, it isn’t a perfect system.” She blinked at the computer monitor and saved her file. “Some luck is involved.”
Corrina suspected that Cheshire’s attentiveness was largely an aspect of expecting to be rewarded with a pinch of catnip, which it accepted with long, grumbly purr that seemed to say, finally. For a cat that only came out from under the bed to be fed or use the litter box, this passed as a bonding moment. Cheshire had been her mother’s cat, after all, and sometimes it seemed, eerily, that it looked at her with the old lady’s exact same patronizing expression. One of Corinna’s charitable investments, after she won the big payout, would be financing animal rescue and adoption agencies, in her mother’s name.
Mornings on days when the Cosmo-Lotto was drawn were always busy for Corinna, in much the same way as days when she’d had a test in college, because there was always last minute cramming to do before she felt prepared. In school, her system had paid off; she’d carried a 3.7 grade point average – cum laude, which she highlighted on her resume, underlined, next to listing her BA degree in Communications. From her chats with co-workers at the Buckeye Brew coffee shop, she knew that most of them, too, had graduated with honors in English, Sociology, Women’s Studies, or other fields that she personally found very interesting. However enlightened the managers of the Buckeye Brew were concerning hiring well-educated baristas, though, they were ruthlessly intolerant of their reporting late for work. Corinna would have liked to re-calculate her numbers once more, but she also knew that, if traffic was heavy, the eight minutes of buffer time that she allotted for her commute would just barely be enough.
Because of the time, she realized that she’d have no choice but to dash into the nearby Zippy Mart after work to play her lottery numbers. As a rule, she disliked waiting until so late in the day before getting her ticket. Also, she did not appreciate the snarky attitude of some of the cashiers there, like they were doing her a favor by selling a ticket. Still, part of her was sympathetic for them. Working at the Buckeye Brew wasn’t exactly the career in marketing that she envisioned for herself, but at least it was better than selling beer, cigarettes, junk food, and, yes, lottery tickets to the unwashed masses. She had to admit that theirs was a harder lot in life than hers. But, then, none of them were cum laude graduates, either.
Corinna poured some milk in a saucer, leaving it on the table for Cheshire to drink later. Wrapping herself in her pink crochet shawl, she stepped outside and paused on the cinder block porch step, closed her eyes, and took in a slow, cleansing breath to start the day. Why not me?, she paused to reflect.
Middle of the week days blurred as to any distinction or significance, apart from the occasional afternoon ball game that provided some distraction from the utter failure that his life had become. Not that Billy was complaining. Even before he’d gotten laid off from his job with OSU campus security, he’d begun to suspect that ambition was overrated, and while he remained nominally committed to the goal of becoming a cadet in the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy, he was getting close to the age limit, still couldn’t run a fast enough mile, and – his greatest secret worry – wasn’t anxious to submit to the required polygraph test. (Seriously, they could ask anything…) In the meantime, it gave him small but sufficient satisfaction to bide his time collecting unemployment and taking online courses in criminology from Kaplan University. Having long-term goals liberated him from guilt and left him free to occupy his weekdays with time-consuming but inconsequential undertakings, like running errands, walking the dogs, tinkering with stuff, and submitting fruitless job applications into the void of auto responses and form rejections. He’d had no plans whatsoever for that particular day, until she saw Helen rummaging her oversized purse, which could mean only one thing…
It was Wednesday, the mid-week drawing of the Cosmo-Lotto.
When Helen emerged from the bedroom, dressed in her nurse’s scrubs, while he sat in pajamas mulling the morning newspaper, Billy knew that he was in no position to deny her any requests. It irked him that she seemed to believe that just because he was currently unemployed, he had nothing to do all day and, more to the point, was thus available to perform favors at her bidding. Helen checked the clock while pouring coffee into her commuter mug with one hand and grabbing the keys with the other (she got the car, of course, leaving him to ride the busses). By that glance, they both knew that she was pressed for time, and Billy further realized that meant that he would be asked to arrange his day’s affairs around a trip to the Zippy Mart, to purchase her damn lottery tickets.
“What’ve you got going on today?,” Helen asked – not really a question, but rather a way to introduce a task into his agenda.
Anticipating her tactics, Billy already had an answer. “I’m going to the Workforce Development office downtown, to use their computers.”
“Something will turn up,” she chirped.
Then, reaching into her massive purse, she retrieved six Cosmo-Lotto ticket cards, with six different sequences of digits blackened into the boxes on each. (Once, Billy had made the mistake of asking her about the algorithm that she employed for selecting these particular sets of numbers, which excused her to explicate at length the significant dates and life events that she had quantified into her own highly symbolic calculus for capturing good luck. One of her sheets was devoted to important landmarks in their life together – when they met, their first date, first kiss, first “intimate interlude,” etc. It was all that Billy could do to restrain himself from rolling his eyes.) “On your way, would you please stop and play my numbers?”
“I guess. I mean, sure.”
Billy accepted the tickets and noted that they were getting ragged around the edges. Sometimes, the computer couldn’t process them if they were too worn. Still, part of Helen’s system involved re-playing the same cards over and over, as if some kind of karma attached to the actual sheet of paper with each failed attempt. He flattened them against the table and asked: “Do you, uh, have any cash?”
Helen pulled out a ball of currency that looked like had gone through the laundry. One at a time, she laid single dollar bills in front of Billy… until she realized that she did not have enough and, sighing, picked them up and handed him a crumpled twenty, instead.
‘Twenty dollars,’ Billy thought, calculating that the change would leave enough to buy a six pack of Olde English 800 malt liquor, tall boys. He reasoned that was a fair fee for his services.
“Make sure the clerk enters each ticket in the order that I gave them to you,” Helen stipulated. “And if you feel like saying a silent prayer, it couldn’t hurt.”
Billy agreed, “OK,” even though he had no intention whatsoever of doing so.
“Good boy.” She bent over to kiss his cheek while, in the same motion, shouldering her bag. “Maybe tomorrow at this time, we’ll be rich.”
“Sure. Maybe. Why not?”
Dr. Krisha Ramadanjuptha squinted at his computer monitor, rubbed his thumbs into his temples, and flinched with a sudden brain cramp caused by the painfully esoteric material he was reading. He was not convinced that the interpretations of the spin and parity of the unknown particle were consistent with its truly being a Higgs boson – what the media called a “God particle”… but then he also had to admit that his skepticism owed a great deal to his secret hope that, ultimately, it would not be confirmed. The older he got, the more he appreciated the security provided by unproven theories than the disruption attached to their validation. Now that the Higgs had finally been detected, proton decay and magnetic monopoles probably weren’t far behind. Krishna told his students that he was “exhilarated” by these advances in the field, because he more or less had to put on a good face for their sake. Still, it sometimes seemed that with every new issue of Physics Review, he personally sank deeper into irrelevance. While it was true that the future of high energy physics was “mind blowing,” he knew that he wasn’t going to be part of it. His mind was already blown.
Fortunately, as a long-tenured member of the Physics Department, Ramadanjuptha could rest on the laurels of articles that he’d published two decades ago, and, where necessary, insinuate himself into the lead author position on papers written by his graduate students. Some of his younger, more cutting-edge faculty colleagues recognized him as a hanger-on, but they were generally reluctant to accuse him because, first, he made them look good and, second, they saw in him an aspirational future for themselves. Everybody in physics knew that it was a young person’s game.
The department’s secretary – what was this one’s name? – tapped at his office door with her knuckles, protecting her nails. “Still here, Doctor Rama?”
If she was asking, that meant that he should’ve left long ago. Had he actually dozed off? Doctor Ramadanjuptha scooted aside so that she could see the cryptic mathematics on his computer screen. “Obviously,” he grunted.
“It’s after five. I’m outta here.”
“And this you are telling me because?”
“I’m just saying…” Behind his back, she called him Doctor Rama-lama-ding-dong.
“Oh, I see. Yes. It is Wednesday, correct? Would you, then, please when you stop at the market for your, uh, cigarettes, purchase one computer pick for the Cosmo-Lotto on my behalf?”
Doctor Rama dug into his pocket for his wallet, but the secretary made a windshield wiper gesture with her finger. “I can’t stop for you tonight. Sorry. My boyfriend, he’s picking me up, and we’re going to dinner at Fish & Grill. It’s his birthday.”
“So are you then telling me that you will not stop, not even for but a minute? To buy a ticket for yourself, perhaps?”
“Naw. I don’t buy no tickets when the prize gets so big, ‘cause that’s when everybody plays. I like the odds better when not so many people are playing.”
Doctor Ramadanjuptha started to explain to her that the number of participants in the lottery had no impact whatsoever upon individual chances, but then he realized that discussing the infinitesimal improbability of the odds while at the same time asking her to purchase a ticket for him presented a logical conundrum that he preferred to avoid. That was why, in fact, he routinely asked her to do so, for he, personally, as a man of science, did not wish to be seen participating in the public’s statistical ignorance. What if one of his students saw him? Twenty years ago he would not have cared what they or anybody else thought. On the other hand, twenty years ago he would not have wasted even a dollar on any insulting proposition that offered an absurd one in 175,223,510 chance of success.
If a Higgs boson could exist, though, who could say what else might be possible? If you whirl subatomic particles or lottery balls around fast enough, anything might happen. The harder question was – why?; but that was a question which, as a scientist, he knew was pointless to ask; so, instead, as he pushed back from his desk and shut down his computer, he asked: why not?
La’Wandja froze at the bottom step of the bus and cringed as the voice in her head begged her to turn around, get back on, and just ride wherever it went for the rest of the day. The parking lot outside the Zippy Mart was crammed. She could see that, inside, the line at the Cosmo-Lotto machine snaked around the coffee station, and people gripping their tickets in hand were leaning against the beer cooler, waiting for their turns. Behind her, a man wearing dark glasses but whom she suspected was not really blind poked her with his cane. She pivoted, glowering at him, hoping that he could really see, before hopping off the bus.
“Good to see you, Ms. Price,” Hogle, the store manager, hollered at La’Wandja when she entered. He was being snide, of course, because she was ten minutes late, but also sincere because he was hustling to work the counter alone… which meant of course that skank Leona Brown had not shown up for work, probably because she was stoned again, and because of that, La’Wandja was going to have to work side-by-side with Hogle until – and if – the night crew reported. This day just kept getting more annoying.
“Help customers at the lottery machine,” Hogle instructed her.
Dr. Krisha Ramadanjuptha sat in his car, gripping the wheel while waiting for a parking spot. This digression had already imposed upon more of his personal time than he’d expected, which only intensified his distaste for having to do it. Earlier, he’d driven right by the campus convenience store, the nearest authorized Cosmo-Lotto dealer, because he saw Dean Brockington’s car parked in front of it. The next nearest alternative ticket source that he knew of was a Zippy Mart, some two miles north of campus, which seemed remote enough to be safe, so even though he didn’t like the neighborhood, he made that his destination. However, waiting just for the privilege of parking, compounded by the discouraging length of the lines that he could see inside, seemed entirely unfair in proportion to any reasonable benefit that he expected from this errand. He scolded himself for waiting, but waited anyway.
In the corner of the lot, a car full of teenagers who’d been smoking under the awning ground out their cigarettes and squeezed into a Toyota Camry. With designs on their spot, Krihsna nudged his car forward, closer, until, impatient with how long it was taking them to move, he blasted the horn. Instead of turning away from Krishna, the teenagers backed their vehicle in his direction, forcing him to retreat. Meanwhile, another car entering the parking lot from the opposite side swept in and took the spot.
“This is an outrage!,” Krishna shouted, while pounding the horn and gesturing palms-up at the woman who stepped out of the car that had stolen his place. She shrugged and, pulling her pink crochet shawl tighter around her shoulders, mouthed the word “Sorry.”
It took a moment for Corinna to size up the situation. Time had conspired against her on that day, due to a late surge of business at the Buckeye Brew that prevented her from clocking out until twelve minutes after the hour. For every additional minute that she’d been delayed, she imagined one more person joining the line to purchase lottery tickets ahead of her. Sure enough, the gathering around the counter more resembled a swarm than an orderly queue, where the regular after work crowd buying their dog food and loaves of bread jostled with those, like herself, who had no purpose other than to get their Cosmo-Lotto tickets. In such a queue, where every transaction was different, it was almost impossible to estimate a wait time. Sighing, Corinna slid into place at the end of the line, giving wide berth to the man in front of her, who was wearing a baseball cap over his eyes, carrying a six pack of malt liquor in one hand and about half a dozen tickets in the other.
To occupy her mind while waiting, Corinna focused on the video monitor mounted on a display next to the Cosmo-Lotto machine, which played a continuous loop featuring a head shot of the lottery spokesman. The flesh on his cheeks looked like freshly baked bread. He said: “Across this country, hundreds of people have won millions of dollars in the Cosmo-Lotto. Winning changes peoples’ lives in ways that they could never have imagined. And it can happen to anybody. Why not you?”
Just after Corinna joined the line, a second cashier appeared, still attaching her “Welcome to Zippy Mart My name is…” tag, which dangled crookedly, so that it looked like the letters in her name were sliding downhill:
Corinna wondered if she was just being careless, or if it was intended as some kind of statement. Either way, she disapproved.
The next person entering the store was that brusque and obnoxious man who had honked at Corinna in the parking lot. Clutching her shawl, she turned to the wall when he stepped into line directly behind her. She felt his breath on the backs of her earlobes. He cleared his throat, as if preparing to say something, and in the event that he might, Corinna began thinking about what she would say back to him. She reminded herself to be polite, but firm.
It had been another long day of faint prospects and diminishing hopes, but even so, this seemed like the biggest waste of time. Billy wanted nothing more in life than finish his task and be gone from the Zippy Mart, finally free to pop open the cold malt liquor that he thirsted for so badly he could almost taste it through his fingertips. But then he sighed realizing that, without the twenty dollars provided to him for this explicit purpose, there’d be no extra money for beer, so in a way he was earning it. This was the closest thing that he’d had to a paying job in months. When the new cashier declared that this line was for lottery-only transactions, Billy stayed put, because he was too close to the front to give up his place.
The worst part was that he disliked looking like he was just another one of these dupes going out of their way, crowding like hogs at a trough, clamoring for a shot at the unlikeliest of long shots. That was the difference between him and Helen. He got by with modest expectations, which kept his capacities for both hope and disappointment under control. By contrast, Helen’s spirit was open to grand possibilities, but which were only possible, she explained, if you really, truly believed that they could happen. However foolish he thought they were, Billy felt accountable for doing whatever he could to sustain her fantasies. To do less, he worried, might cause her to wonder what use he was to her. That, and he got to keep the change.
Billy kept his head down, because it felt less crowded that way. He shuffled forward when he sensed that space had opened in front of him, but he was still startled when he heard the voice call “Next!.”
The line in front of La’Wandja seemed like a living, regenerative creature. As soon as she concluded a transaction for one customer, the next was already demanding service, and the departing person’s place in the queue was almost instantly filled by another new arrival at the opposite end. La’Wandja kept business to the minimum – no chatting, no comments, not even the obligatory “good luck.” She focused on the screen of the Cosmo-Lotto machine, which prompted and acknowledged her input in a way that she couldn’t help but regard as condescending: “Congratulations, you have successfully played the Cosmo-Lotto,” like that was some kind of accomplishment.
“Next,” she called.
The man who approached the counter was cradling a six pack of malt liquor against his chest while fanning himself with a handful of lottery cards. He seemed confused as to whether to play the cards or pay for the beer first.
“You gonna give me those tickets?,” La’Wandja asked.
As soon as she felt them in her palm, La’Wandja knew these game cards were too badly warped for the machine to read properly. Still, telling him that probably wouldn’t convince him, so although she knew better, she inserted the first card into the scanner. Just as she’d expected, the screen blinked “Input Error.”
“These cards are too wonky,” she explained. “You gonna have t’ fill out new ones.”
From farther down the line, a man with an accent objected. “If this is so, then I should be permitted to go ahead, yes, because I only wish one computer pick.”
“Excuse me…” interrupted a woman wearing a pink shawl, “But I’m next in line, and I have my tickets ready to play now.”
The man who was also buying the beer was not about to yield priority, tough. “Couldn’t you just punch in these numbers manually?”
Hogle, breathing like a hound dog, seemed to be waiting to see how La’Wandja handled this situation.
La’Wandja felt a spasm on her shoulders spread across her chest and back. She lifted her head, sweeping her vision across the faces that awaited her response. None of them deserved any favors, she figured, and they certainly weren’t worthy of winning eight hundred million dollars. Beneath the counter, she wrapped the lottery machine’s power cord around her ankle, while forcing a smile and answering the man who was buying the beer, “Sure. I’ll take care of what’s that for you.”
When the man handed the cards to La’Wandja, she let them slip through her fingers and flutter to the floor. Bending over, she feigned a loss of balance, and while planting her foot, yanked the power cord right out of its socket.
The machine’s screen blinked bright yellow, then went black. On the video monitor, the spokesperson’s face broke up into pixelated blocks, and his voice drawled, “Wwwwhhhhyyyyy…”
For a wondrous moment, everything was still and quiet. La’Wandja felt her aura surge.
“Oh, no!,” Hogle exclaimed, dropping to his knees to replace the power cord. “This is bad.” He stared down his nose at La’Wandja, who mumbled “sorry,” even though they both could read each other’s thoughts clearly enough.
Voices from the line: “What’s the matter?” “Let’s go, already.” “We don’t have all day…”
The power was restored, but the screen on the Cosmo-Lotto machine flashed a “Fatal Error” message. In his mind, Hogle began rehearsing the things that he’d say to La’Wandja when he got his chance to fire her, but at the moment, he was stuck with her, and his bigger worry was that he might have a rebellion on his hands.
“Folks, I’m very, very sorry…,” he began.
While deferring the apologies to her boss man, La’Wandja stood behind him, so that he couldn’t see her, and she lifted her chin, allowing her features to settle into a satisfied smirk, for everybody in line to see, and to watch their hopes plummet. This, she supposed, was the next best thing to winning the jackpot.
The next morning, after the balls had fallen and the numbers had been played in every combination permitted by fate and fortune, there was still no winner anywhere in the vast land. And so it began anew, with the spokesman on the television, “What would you do, if you won this week’s billion dollar jackpot? It’s just waiting for somebody. Why not you?”
Since publication of his first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” in 2011 by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press, Gregg placed new stories in Zodiac Review, Imaginaire, Defenestration, Marathon Review, Writing Tomorrow, Midwestern Gothic, and others. He has just finished a new novel based upon the folklore of Johnny Appleseed. For more about him and his work, see www.dollarapalooza.com.