By: Ruth Deming
She took to sleeping on her screened-in back porch during these terribly hot nights in August. A long chaise lounge took up half the room and lay on the green carpeting that looked like freshly mown grass. Her sleep was intermittent. She’d awaken herself with a loud man-like snore then quickly enter the realm of sleep again. She had friends – like her, they were all in their late seventies – who slept with those dreadful C-Pap machines, or newer ones that her friend Dennis had which adjusted to the rhythm of your breathing. She’d rather die than wear a contraption that would make her feel like a deep-sea diver.
Shana finally had enough. Sitting upright on the chaise lounge she watched as several fireflies blinked across the dark lawn, princes getting ready to leave the ball where their Cinderellas still lay in wait. With her flashlight she returned to the house, walked up a flight of stairs and reluctantly turned on the room air-conditioning unit. She had almost made it through the night. 2:45 now. She lay down in her seafoam green negligee, and clicked on the remote. That’s right, she remembered, Turner Classic Films were having an Edward G. Robinson Day. Could she bear to watch The Stranger again? Robinson was sent to a small town in New England on the trail of the fictitious Mister Retton, a Nazi – whom gorgeous wide-eyed Loretta Young just married. She refused to believe that the love of her life was a Nazi, which she pronounced “Nah-zee” – one of the greatest assassinators of Jews in the Second World War.
Shana changed the channel, once, twice and a third time.
“I guess I’ll have to live with the commercials,” she sighed to herself as a channel that called itself COZI came on like the roar of lions. Its commercials were deafening.
“What are you waiting for? Buy your Pennsylvania State Lottery Ticket now!” blasted the television. “It benefits our senior citizens.” Shana laughed to herself as a melange of smiling faces flitted across the screen. Winners all. Families. Singles. Corporations.
Shana could count the number of times she’d bought a lottery ticket. In an office, maybe in Harrisburg, the state capital, she imagined a mastermind who thought up ways of luring the millions of gullible citizens over 21 who played Wonder Bucks, Power Ball, Millionaire Raffle, and $100,000 Home Makeover.
She laughed aloud as a white-haired woman named Cynthia R. was briefly profiled. A regular player of every type of lottery game, Cynthia won a million dollars. One million dollars.
It could have been her, Shana Fitzpatrick, RN, retired charge nurse on the telemetry unit at Abington hospital. Yes, she knew everyone thought the same thing. Just the way the artist Jasper Johns made a name for himself by drawing maps and the American flag.
“Oh, I could do that!” was the common response to the man whose flag paintings fetched $63 million.
By now, Shana’s mind was wired, off and running like the frog at Calaveras County.
“Damn,” she said, getting out of bed and throwing a long striped shirt over her negligee that no man ever looked at. At 4:30 in the morning it was still dark as she went into the car port of her two-story stone house. Her small red Fiat shone like a jewel in the night.
She backed slowly out the drive, having slipped on her driving glasses. She thought of her Glenside neighborhood as covered with a huge patchwork quilt to protect everyone from harm. Her next door neighbor, Mrs. Joan Bannigan, was housing her sister, Winnie, who was dying slowly of various types of abdominal cancers. Shana would visit and bring them Tavenor’s Olde English hard candies. The In and Out convenience store was around the corner. Its lights summoned like a ballroom.
Who would be minding the store? Why, it was the teenager. He should be in bed, she thought, getting his proper rest. He sat on a tall stool behind the counter reading what looked to be a textbook. They were certainly no slouches, these Chaudburys.
“Good morning,” said Shana in a voice that surprised her by being so cheerful, even though her veins flowed with exhaustion. She fluffed up her white hair and wondered idly if he thought her attractive, if she looked younger than her 78 years.
“You do serve tea here…”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and pointed to a dozen varieties.
She studied the colorful packaging and selected an Earl Grey, pulled out one tea bag from the open bottom.
“Please,” she said. “Just the tea, no sugar or cream.”
The young man took the tea bag, put it in a copper-colored paper cup, poured hot water over it, and presented it, hot and steaming, to her. She sniffed the steam with a satisfied look on her face.
“I’d also like a lottery ticket,” she said. They were locked up in a glass cabinet beneath the counter.
“Oh, so that’s where you keep them,” she said, and took a sip on her tea. A hum of delight escaped from her lips.
With her hand on her chin, she viewed all the colorful tickets that the bureaucrat in Harrisburg had designed.
“Have you ever sold a winning ticket?” she asked, with a yawn.
“Small change,” he said. “Never a big winner. My folks won’t let me buy one.”
Shana covered her eyes and pointed.
“The big winner,” laughed the boy.
“I’m Mrs. Fitzpatrick,” she said, “and you are…..?”
“Allan,” he said. “Two ‘LLs’ spelt the British way.”
He gave her the ticket and pushed a nickel her way to scratch the surface to see whether or not she’d won.
“Say,” she said. “You’re in high school, right?”
“Germantown Friends,” he said. So his parents paid for a private school. Big hopes for their boy.
“Ever hear of the short story ‘The Lottery?’”
He made a face and shook his head no.
“Before your time,” said Shana. “By Shirley Jackson. Whatever else she wrote, she’ll always be famous for this one story.”
The boy looked her in the eye.
“Yes, Allan Chaudbury, it’s a book you must read. Will you do that for me?”
“I suppose so,” he said, with no trace of accent and watched her sip on her tea.
She pushed the nickel away and told him she’d do it at home. Such a private act, she thought, like opening a love letter. She couldn’t possibly let another soul see it.
He toted up the amount due on his register.
She opened up her little purse, it was beaded, and paid him $9.78. They both heard a car drive up and saw the lights flash through the shop.
“You ever think you’ll get robbed?” she asked.
“All the time,” he said seriously. “Maybe this is the moment.”
“Could be,” she said and walked quickly out the store.
As she drove home, dawn was lighting up the top of the sky. What could be more beautiful, she thought. Earl Grey had a small amount of caffeine but when she walked into her bedroom, she fairly collapsed on top of her lavender colored sheets.
She awoke in the morning to loud honking down the street.
“Already?” she thought. “8:45?”
It was the special “Connect” bus picking up Jerry and David, the Down syndrome twins who worked in the sheltered workshop, bagging nuts and bolts, and earning real money they spent on Bazooka Bubble Gum and Tootsie Rolls. She’d see them blowing bubbles and reading the comics inside the gum to one another. They laughed and laughed and she always hoped they’d see her reading on her front porch and visit her.
She fell back asleep and arose for good at 10 a.m., her trip to the convenience store all but forgotten.
Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata was on the classical music station. Yes, she thought, she should start playing her piano again. Her three children had all studied piano. Wendy had been quite good, but life had other ideas and none of them even touched the piano when they came to visit her.
She saw her long striped shirt flung across the kitchen table and remembered the adventure from last night.
“Oh, all right,” she thought. “I’ll get it over with.”
Opening her beaded purse, she fingered her change and pulled out a shiny new nickel, a work of art, she thought, for the very first time. “In God We Trust” was inscribed over an uncommonly good-looking gentleman, the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson. Well, who’s perfect, anyway, the bastard, refusing to free Sally Hemings upon his death.
The lottery ticket was in the breast pocket of the shirt. She placed it carefully on the table so it wouldn’t get wet from the small puddle left by her oatmeal and black coffee.
She flexed her hands several times. Arthritis was creeping into her joints as slowly as the summer weeds crept into her garden.
The moment the scratching began, she saw it. It was no hallucination. No mirage. The first number revealed she had won a million dollars. Just like that Cynthia R.
Shana’s hand itched to call her children, Wendy, Heidi and David. Instead she called out to her late husband, “Erwin, do you fucking believe this? A million dollars.” Should she go back to the convenience store and announce her victory against the odds and make the Chaudburys feel proud and give them the reward due them.
She had four days to decide what to do. And she moved with the grace and dignity of an “almost” old lady. She had no compunctions about what she would do. She would savor her victory. She went out onto the front porch, stood up and looked down her street. She owned the entire street, Tyson Road, at this moment. A million dollars would not cure Winnie Bannigan’s cancer, it would not remove the extra male chromosome from Jerry and David, nor would it make her, Shana Fitzpatrick, retired charge nurse in telemetry at Abington hospital, young again.
She waited until Action News came on at six o’clock. The first one they talk about, she thought.
Shana mailed the lottery ticket to a black family whose house was burned down while they slept. A neighbor smelled smoke and roused the family in southwest Philly. Jondelle and Ron Hodges were saved, as were their three children, all under the age of 7. Their bleary-eyes had microphones jabbed into their faces in the blazing light of morning.
Shana walked into the living room and drew open the drapes. She lifted up the piano bench to select a piece of music, an easy piece, that she could learn to play again. Had she really played Bach’s Inventions? She smoothed it on the music stand and stared at the notes.
Then she began to play, with the studied grace of a slowly aging beauty. The notes floated throughout the old stone house and perhaps even down the street.