It was, after all, a bright sunny day. That should have been the biggest clue, because upstate New York doesn’t have many of those in mid-February. A powdery snow had fallen but the thermometer had not, holding at an impressive forty-eight degrees (by the neon sign as I drove past the bank) but with the promise of reaching past fifty-five for the day (by the Channel 10 website I’d viewed before leaving for the grocery store). I was thinking of possibly taking a walk instead of a nap later in the day as I grabbed a shopping cart, threw in some bread, baloney, hard salami, high-fat cheddar, Doritos barbeque chips, Claussen halves and coarse ground mustard. I drove into another aisle, threw in some Lorna Doones, then backtracked to the produce and slapped a pre-packaged Dole Italian salad and a peach from Chile or a hydro-hot bed in the Cornell experimental lab or, well, Chile (who knew these days?). I slid behind a full-carted customer to wait, leafing through a copy of Good Housekeeping which I never intended to buy. When my turn finally came, I had figured out what makes spicy hummus and cold cucumber salad a healthy combo for afternoon socials and how to pick the appropriate gardening tool for rooting out Bishop’s Weed, ammi majus, in Latin, or Queen Anne’s Lace from my flower beds. I was still left wondering why the Bishop was considered a weed while the Queen was considered a flower and thinking maybe a compromise might be to call both a “flowering weed,” when the checker began cheerfully zapping her way through my two paper bags-full of groceries (neither quite full but looking with two as though I got more bang for my buck).
I was all but out the door to my car when my cart hit a speed bump of a partly dropped something or other. By the time I got the wheels moving again, I realized I’d purchased a lotto ticket at the customer service counter a few days before. Since this was Sunday morning, yesterday’s drawing would be posted. I took out my wallet, withdrew the ticket and gave it a quick swipe through the scanner. I smiled at the clerk who was coming to help me when the buzzer went off with this little song and the small moving message stated clearly in glowing letters, “Congratulations, you are a winner.” I stood with my ticket in my hand, shaking a little now, as an odd chilling shudder ran through my body. By the time, the buzzer stopped, I was a millionaire. I just didn’t know how many times over.
“Wow,” said the clerk.
“Wow,” I said. And several people in the check-out lines began to talk to each other noisily, waving my way, and by the time I started to hand the clerk my ticket to check the number, a woman had left her cart and started walking excitedly toward me, shouting, “Congratulations, how much did you win?”
“Million!” the clerk called out before I could respond. Everybody in the check-out lines burst into applause. The woman, now by my side, acted with great familiarity, as though I knew her. I studied her face, in turn, as though I should recognize her and realized I was in a dream. But her hand was real to the touch when she reached over to turn my hand with the ticket toward her. I instinctively drew it back. “What were your numbers?” she asked, looking into my face with genuine interest, as though her knowing would verify the validity of my win. I was in no dream. My God, this was happening. To me!
Stunned, I looked down and said, “I don’t know…I just…I did a quick pick.” The numbers were under my pinched fingers and irrationally I was afraid to untighten the grip I had on them. I looked up into the clerk’s questioning face.
The woman laughed, as though this were a joke, and trilled, “A quick pick. Imagine that!” She whirled around and shouted, “She’s won millions on a quick pick!” But she didn’t leave. She just stood there with me.
“Whatta I do…next?” I asked the clerk who was turning to the manager who had come to her aid.
Stepping forward, the manager held out her hand. “I’d have to read what’s on the back of the ticket,” she said. “It’s all there, I think.”
I retreated a bit, looking down at my cart, then at the ticket still tightly pinched in my fingers. I said rapidly, “It’s all right. I’ll go to the website at home.” Then, so that I wouldn’t leave her thinking I was rude, “How much did I win?”
The manager didn’t hesitate. She said “Fifteen million dollars,” as though she’d had it on the tip of her tongue when she rolled out of bed that morning. By now a crowd had gathered around me while I stood staring down at the ticket in my hand. And then it hit me, how dangerous it was for me to walk to the parking lot, ticket in my hand, or for that matter, in my wallet or pocket or even my underwear. Somebody could easily waylay me next to my car, follow me out the door and entice me to the wrong side of the fire lane in their car or race ahead of me and block entrance to my driveway at home.
“Uh, could you call a cop?” I asked the manager.
“What?” I looked into her eyes and saw that she was as stunned as I was over this change in my life. It was as though she couldn’t think either, or hear or react quite normally.
“I think I need a policeman to escort me to my car,” I said, turning and scanning the crowd for any face that might demonstrate the slightest capacity for thievery.
The manager let out a burst of laughter so enormous, she spit on the counter and her sleeve. And with that burst, I saw how the millionaires live. I had been born and raised in a culture of lack. I lived with a complementary bias that had instilled in me the belief that others pretty much thought and lived as I did. Oh, I knew about the rich—Elton John, Oprah, Warren Buffet and Mark-the-Facebook-Guy. They lived between the pages of magazines or as widgets on the internet, sliding into my consciousness every now and then when I gazed at them there, otherwise only coming to mind when I couldn’t pay my water bill. They weren’t real. I looked past the crowd and settled on the cover of the Good Housekeeping I’d been reading while in the check-out line, the broad smile of Covert Affairs star, Piper Perabo, with her suggestion of dieting without effort. What was she worth? What did she do with it? Where did she bank? Did she use one bank, two, four with one in Switzerland? Did she have an accountant? No, who was her accountant? How did she manage her money, her Financial Affairs? I didn’t know where to start.
“Are you serious?” the manager asked me.
“What?” I look into her face again. Did I see suspicion there? What? Jealousy? Disgust?
“The cop,” she said, a little spiteful. “Do you really want me to call the cop?”
“Uh…” I glanced down at the ticket again, thinking now to turn in over to read instructions on the back which were written in light red and too small to make out. Everybody was still standing there, held by my next move, waiting for me to do something. Did they want to be released to go back to their normal life? What were they waiting for?
I held the ticket up in the air and they all gasp at once. They think I’m going to throw it to them, like a bride with her bouquet of flowers at a wedding.
And in one swift motion, I tore the ticket in half, brought my hands down and tore it again and again and again. It was amazing to me how the faces around me turned from surprise to anger. They were suddenly a mob, ordinary people gone mad. The slanders came with such immediate venom it threw me back against the counter. One man ran to me and dug around in the pocket of my jacket for the pieces of the ticket I’d shoved there, clawing until he had ripped the pocket back and the sleeve had partially come off at the shoulder. He stepped back with pieces of the ticket in his hand, throwing them in the air like confetti and cursing back at me, he promptly left the store, his cart full of groceries still in line. The others either left or went back to check-out, some glaring my way, others standing outside the sliding doors talking with their hands flapping the air, still others pacing in small steps with arms tightly pressed against their stomachs. Terrified of moving a muscle from my body press against the counter, I saw out of the corner of my eye, the manager punching in the number for the police. As she hung up, she glared at me, saying only one word: “Stupid.”
While I waited in the store for the police, I had a succession of thoughts which had only partially come to mind when I tore up the ticket: Once the buzzer went off, I had no choice but to have the police escort me home and guard my house until the ticket was secure; I had no choice but to move from town; and I had to get a lawyer whom I would pay well to stay honest and silent so that I could get the money into several banks under various names so that I would not be hounded to death by friends, relatives and telemarketers. Then the task would be to hold onto it and make more so that what this ticket had given me wouldn’t leave my new lifestyle as depleted as I’d been before—there are taxes, after all.
I’ve had lots of time to think about this and more while I’m waiting on the closure on my house and my anticipated move to Portland, Oregon, where my sister lives, and who, by the way, doesn’t know I won lotto. I have to admit, I’ve sneaked back, tail between my legs, to the New York State Lottery website and taken a look at my winning numbers which stared back at me, lifeless and unforgiving. 1, 8, 9, 26, 30, 36. They were the identification numbers I’d found in the inside case of an antique gold pocket watch I bought in a pawn shop on Long Island years ago and had played on a lotto ticket almost every week until I decided the other day to go for a quick pick.