“Excuse me,” I said, “can you help me with this? I have no idea what I’m doing.”
The twenty-something man—Kurt was on the nametag, with Can I Help You? under that—looked at me and smiled. When he did, the ring in his nose inched upward in a way that reminded me of winking. I fought the urge to reach out and pull on it.
“First time?” he asked.
“Well, things are tough all over, right?”
Since it’s just the two of us, he makes his way around the counter. The first shift at the factory would be over in fifteen minutes, which meant he had about twenty to get me taken care of before the afternoon rush. No problem. I’d be out of there by then.
“Here.” He pulled one of the slips from the kiosk and reached for a tiny green pencil with VA LOTTERY stamped on the side. “Here’s your ticket. You have five choices, just fill in the numbers you want.” He pointed to one of the boxes at the bottom—“Powerball goes here. Easy peasy.”
I thanked Kurt and he left me to brew more coffee and add another roll of quarters to the register drawer. If I’d asked him, he would have said he was getting ready for the rush. But I suspect that’s a lie, the truth being something a bit more esoteric—a person needs his privacy while choosing his lotto numbers.
That was the first time I’d ever played the lottery. And while Kurt was right when he said things were tough all over, that’s not why I played. It’s research for my next novel, a story in which the lottery plays an important role. And since I couldn’t very well write about something I didn’t know, off to the 7-11 I went.
But there was more than simple ignorance working against me. There was also disdain. I’ve never been a fan of the lottery. I’ve seen what it does to people. I frequent the 7-11 in town often, and each time I see the poorer folk of my fair town preyed upon by the false gods of riches and good fortune, plunking down dollar after dollar that would be better spent on bills and groceries. They say the Virginia lottery paves our roads and saves us money. That might be so. But all that makes me do is think about my smooth ride to and from work and how my comfort is surfaced by the unrealized dreams of others.
But I played anyway. Just to learn, just to write. Filled out one ticket and handed it to Kurt, who exchanged it for a receipt that went into my pocket. I left just as the afternoon rush pulled in.
The Powerball drawing was that night at 10:55 pm. I’ll be honest, I thought about my ticket more than a few times. Thought about it when the mailman shoved six bills into the box. When I remembered the grumblings of cutbacks at work. When I thought about just how better my family’s life could be with a few million dollars in the bank.
You don’t have to say it. The “Money isn’t everything” line , I mean. I know that. Believe it, too.
I sat there in front of the television and waited for the man in the cheap tuxedo and the woman in the sequined dress whom Kurt said would announce the winner. Sat there and watched as the big lotto machine whirred to life and all those numbered ping pong balls fluttered in the air. Sat there and dreamed of a life when finally—finally—I wouldn’t have to worry about electric bills and gas money and if the water heater was going kaput.
And you know what? It was a good life. It really was.
And also a life that evaporated in the twelve seconds it took for the machine to spit out the winning numbers.
I’d lost. Terribly. I’d lost as bad as a person could. Didn’t even get one number right.
Yet I still remember that world my longings built, one where want and worry were nonexistent and where I could exchange one set of problems for other, hopefully less intense ones. And I suppose that’s why so many people line up in front of Kurt each day. They don’t want to let that dream go, no matter how elusive and impossible—perhaps even immoral—they may be.
But then I ponder the fact that we all long for fairer lands, no matter how fair our surroundings here are. We’ll always want more or better or different. The learned among us call that a flaw.
I think longing is a blessing. No matter how much its barbs and spurs prick, I welcome them.
Because we all long for fairer lands, and that is a holy longing. A beacon from God.
Guiding us home.