A few weeks ago, I was standing next to my stepmom in a grocery store. It was a Friday night. She and my dad had flown across the country to visit. The two of us — designated shoppers for our family units — had already bought the groceries, but now she was at the customer service counter, scooping pennies and nickels out of her purse. She was buying something extra for my dad: lottery tickets. The Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots were high, and he didn’t want to miss his weekly shot at instant wealth. As she explained this to me, we somehow managed to lock eyes and roll them at the same time. Dear old Dad, still playing footsie with Lady Luck after all these years.
Back when I was in grade school, my dad’s grocery shopping always ended with a few lottery tickets. Our trips to the store were impromptu — when an empty pantry coincided with an un-empty wallet. He’d load me and my brother into the car, and the three of us would push the cart up and down the aisles. There was never a list but always a calculator. We kept a running total as we pitched items into the basket. Our debt limit was whatever currency he had on him. Sometimes, we messed up the addition somewhere in the frozen foods or the pasta and pickles aisle. Then, the grocery line horror: taking food off the conveyor belt, the cashier voiding items one at a time, calling for a manager over the intercom. What’s taking so long up there? I imagined the people behind us thinking. I judged what stayed on the belt as a stranger would. Did we really need four boxes of macaroni and cheese? Those 2-liter bottles of coke? Those towers of ramen noodles? My brother was too young to feel the shame of that situation, and Dad was wrapped up in haggling. I carried the embarrassment for all of us.
Even then, he’d keep a little cash in reserve to stop at the customer service counter for the sacred lottery ritual. Like a eucharist, it’s one I didn’t know until he taught it to me, and I remember it clearly. It begins with the numbers. What numbers are special to you? Ages? Calendar dates? A player’s jersey? A Bible verse? Once you’ve got your numbers in your head, you get the paper. A rectangle, cheap and thin. Numbers printed on it in circles, stacked in columns, laid in rows. Find your numbers on the page. Have they somehow made a straight line on the paper? Bad choice — no way the numbers line up that way in real life. Better think of some new ones. Fill in the circles, just like a test at school. Finish your assignment, hand it over to Dad. He adds a dollar bill and hands it to the clerk, gets the receipt, the evidence, the proof you’ll use to claim the jackpot.
Why did he count out the last of his coins to buy three lottery tickets that he knew would never hit? He did it because he’s a swashbuckler. That’s the only way I can say it.
And now the best part: the time between. After the pick, before the drawing. When your future is as Schrodinger’s cat. Both entirely normal and entirely changed at the same time. When your imagination runs wild. When you dream out loud about the capitalistic cornucopia you’ll seize with your millions. The conjuring of a new life, lived in an outlandish way.
What I wanted back then was a walkman, and a bunch of cassette tapes to go with it. Def Leppard, Bad English, Phil Collins. I wanted a Nintendo — the first one, that came with Super Mario Bros. and a plastic pistol to shoot animated ducks. I wanted cool clothes, a Trapper Keeper, and contact lenses to wipe the glasses off my face. My dad wanted cars. A Karmann Ghia. A Datsun 240z. A Triumph Spitfire. Shiny, fast, and thrilling. My brother wanted G.I. Joe action figures, a basketball hoop and an older brother who didn’t give him two for flinching.
We’d chatter about these desires, the three of us, building a new world together, all evening, full of ramen and buzzing from soda. Then came the drawing on live television. Ping pong balls in a container, bouncing around under plexiglass, appearing one by one in the tube, straightened by hand for the camera. Check the ticket! Did we win? Did we win?!
But that was never the point.
So why did he do it? Why did he count out the last of his coins to buy three tickets that he knew would never hit? He did it because he’s a swashbuckler. That’s the only way I can say it.
He’s a man who’s immune to stress and anxiety, whose failures and shortcomings disappear from memory and vanish in the mirror. He’s a man whose own confidence about his ability to handle what life throws at him often outpaces his actual abilities — but who carries on nonetheless. He’s a man who talks his way into jobs, into good tables at restaurants, out of traffic tickets. A man strangers confide in. A man used to benefitting from serendipity. A man who dreams big despite all the dashed dreams in his past. A man who cranks the engine of a 1978 Volkswagen van fifty times in a row because this might be the time the engine sputters to life. A man who’d take a bucket of bolts through the Kessel run and make it in less than 12 parsecs. Never tell this man the odds. The odds are irrelevant.
Here’s an example: About 25 years ago, he began dating a woman who owned an old house on several acres of land. He convinced her that a tree on her property should be cut down and that he was the man to do it. He hadn’t held a chainsaw in more than a decade, but he had confidence in himself. He cut down the tree. It missed the house, but it destroyed part of the backyard fence. In the midst of my forced labor to help rebuild it, I remember thinking, No way this relationship lasts. It wouldn’t have for another man, for someone inclined to slink away in shame. Not for my dad and his chutzpah. That woman is my stepmother, and that event is now a funny story they tell at parties.
Such is the power of his persuasion. It would have served him well with his first love: the theater. Long before he had kids and an ex-wife and a career and obligations, he fell in love with the stage. He was intoxicated by the transformation of cheap costumes and balsa wood sets into an English courtyard, by the rhythm of the dialog, the melody of the tune, the flash of grand gestures.
He seized an inexpensive opportunity to perform a verbal sleight-of-hand, to whisk our attention away from all that we lacked in order to create something magical together.
Each time he laid down money for lottery tickets when my brother and I were young, he wasn’t playing to win. He was playing to play — creating a live improv experience for an audience of two. He looked at his kids, shuttling between single-parent households twice a week, carrying hand-me-down clothes in duffel bags, opening used toys on Christmas morning, punching numbers into a calculator at the grocery store, and the actor’s swashbuckling impulse took over. He seized an inexpensive opportunity to perform a verbal sleight-of-hand, to whisk our attention away from all that we lacked in order to create something magical together.
The key is being able to enjoy the magic of creation without believing that it will actually come true.
And that’s where the two of us differ. I couldn’t stand the snap back to reality. The wrong numbers would appear on the TV screen — meaningless numbers, who could pick such a lousy string of unrelated values? — the world I’d imagined dissolving from my imagination. Eventually, it got to be too draining for me, rebuilding that world every week. Something about my personality is too tethered to float away completely. It’s why I can’t fully enjoy the theater. No matter how captivating the performance, my attention, gnawing at detail, latches onto the stage hand yawning in the wings or the flimsy wobble of the hero’s plastic sword. The magic evaporates.
He’s a man who talks his way into jobs, into good tables at restaurants, out of traffic tickets. A man strangers confide in. A man used to benefitting from serendipity. A man who dreams big despite all the dashed dreams in his past.
I don’t remember a final lottery play with my dad. I’m sure the ritual simply petered out, as I grew older and my daily routine became more about hanging out with friends than tagging along with my parents. Still, I’m glad he played and lost with us. I don’t consider it wasted money. Take all that he’s ever spent, add it up, and you can’t buy a mint condition Datsun 240z. It’s not even close.
As an adult, I’ve played the lottery half-heartedly a few times. Only when it seems the whole country is playing, too, and the jackpot equals the balance of Warren Buffett’s checking account. My wife talks about what she’d do with the money —vacation homes and endless travel. But I find myself caught up in the burden of the winnings: how to claim the cash anonymously, how to set up blind trusts and annuity payments. There’s no thrill in it for me, no world-building. Only another problem to solve, another detail to set right.
For my dad, the bad days of empty wallets are long gone. He has a rust-free, reliable car. A mortgage. A regular paycheck, health insurance, retirement accounts. It’s all there. Why’s he still playing? Chance? Destiny? Karma? Patterns? Positive energy?
Maybe he’s not done with the story.
After he and my stepmom flew back home, he called me up. They’d left the house in the middle of the night to make it to the airport on time. He wanted to let me know they’d arrived safely. He wanted to chit chat about the trip, relive fresh memories, tie up loose ends. The way two grown men do when they’re grasping at the vanishing wisps of a visit, wishing for more time together. Something jogged his memory. “Hey,” he said. “I won four bucks on that ticket, but I can’t cash it here. I’ll mail it to you.”
When it arrives in the mailbox, I don’t think I’ll cash it either. Do I need four dollars? It seems a meager payout. Not much of a world can be built on that budget. Better to keep the ticket in the top drawer of my dresser, with old movie stubs and handmade cards. Maybe I’ll use it as a bookmark, hold it in my hand as I slide into another world, create of it a talisman, an invitation to imagine, perchance even to dream.