The Lottery Game

Dawn Corrigan

There were plenty of amusements to choose from in the city where Tommy and Annette lived — concerts, the theatre, the famous circus from Moscow. But what they liked best was dining out. And the love affair was mutual. Wherever they went, maitre d’s softened at the sight of the glowing young pair. Waiters and musicians fluttered around Annette as though she were a movie star.

During their first year of marriage, they dined out every Friday night. The next morning, they would sleep in for as long as they liked, then prepare an enormous breakfast. But once the pancakes and sausages were consumed and the dishes were washed, the reality of their week began. Together they’d sit down with the checkbook to calculate what they owed that week — to the landlord, the electric company, and the church, for they’d financed their own wedding and were still paying off the debt — and determine what small amount was left for food and other daily expenses. They’d decide how much could be spent at the butcher, the greengrocer’s, and the bakery. Then Annette would set off to do the shopping.

At first, Tommy had gone with Annette. Then he noticed the way the shopkeepers looked at her, and he surmised their grocery money might stretch a little further if Annette went on her own. After that he kissed her each Saturday afternoon and sent her on her way. And it was true: afterward she often came home with an extra pound of meat, or a cut above what she’d actually ordered, after a trip to the butcher’s; and one Saturday when she ordered a loaf of sliced pumpernickel from the baker she returned with a loaf of sliced pumpernickel and a caramel cake that was so delicious Tommy had eaten the whole thing by Sunday night.

The following Saturday as Annette was heading out to run her errands, Tommy stopped her at the door. “You’re wearing that?” he asked.

Annette looked down at her navy blue suit in surprise. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing at all,” Tommy said, hustling her back toward the bedroom. “Only this is even prettier,” he added, picking a flowered dress out of the wardrobe. “Especially when you wear it with a ribbon in your hair.”

Suddenly Annette understood. “You want another cake!” she exclaimed, snatching the hair ribbon out of his hand. “And you think this is going to get it for you!”

“Please, honey. I need that cake.”

That night, and for many Saturdays to come, there was caramel cake for dessert. Tommy, who’d weighed 120 at their wedding, gained thirty pounds within six months. But far from tiring of the cake his craving for it only seemed to grow; so now, on their Friday evenings out, though he enjoyed the rest of the meal as much as ever, he was always disappointed during dessert; for no restaurant offering, no matter how creamy or chocolaty or light or rich or dense or dark, could compare with his weekly caramel cake from the neighborhood bakery.

But one Saturday when Annette went out to do her chores, the bakery had disappeared. The “Walker’s” sign was gone. The large plate glass window, which had formerly been filled with pastry and rolls, was boarded up. When Annette peered through the crack between two boards she saw that everything inside had disappeared as well: no cash register, no display cases, not even a discarded curl of red-and-white string remained.

Annette rushed into the fish market next door. “Where’s the bakery?” she exclaimed, but the fishmonger just shrugged and shook his head sadly, as though to indicate that the story of the baker’s disappearance was too tragic for words, though perhaps he only meant he didn’t know. Annette tried at the dry cleaners and the five-and-dime as well, but nobody could tell her what had happened.

When she’d asked everyone on the block, Annette turned her heavy steps toward home, stopping only at her butcher’s and at another bakery located next door to it. Though they couldn’t really afford it, she splurged and bought some steak at the butcher’s. At the new bakery she bought the week’s bread and a chocolate cake.

Annette debated long and hard about the latter purchase, because she knew Tommy wouldn’t be easily placated by the loss of the caramel cakes. She didn’t want to seem cavalier about his loss. But finally she thought, “Well, a person must have something for dessert.”

But when she arrived home Tommy’s reaction to the news was even worse than she’d feared. “Oh, no!” he moaned, and sank down on the couch in a swoon, rising only to eat the steak and a salad she’d prepared, and, after a show of some reluctance, a large slice of the chocolate cake. His face wore an expression of anguish the entire time he consumed his dessert.

Forever after this period in their lives, the caramel cake, and eventually even the lost baker himself, became the symbol of a kind of perfection for Tommy.

On Saturday evenings Tommy had to work at the Post Office. After dinner he’d go back to the bedroom to change into his uniform, emerging a moment later with the blue shirt draped over one arm and his other hand held before his mouth in the shape of a bugle, pretending to blow taps. When he finished he’d snap his heels together and salute Annette. Then he’d don his work shirt and leave the apartment.

Sometimes on Saturday nights Annette went out with friends from work, but more often she stayed home to clean house and watch a little TV. With Tommy gone it was more evident to her how poor they were. She’d walk from room to room surveying the cracks in the ceiling, the scratched surfaces of worn Formica, the odd tilt of walls and floor that nowhere met at ninety-degree angles. Some nights she cried herself to sleep.

Unfortunately, Sunday morning wasn’t much better. Tommy arrived home from work, but though he often brought some donuts with him, or a wedge of Gouda, his mood was foul. Before his coat was even off he’d be railing about the profound stupidity of the man who worked at the next sorter over, or the vicious stupidity of his supervisor.

Annette knew Tommy’s diatribe wasn’t directed against her, that she was its audience and not its cause. Still, she didn’t like it. Sundays tended to make Annette sad anyway: the weather always seemed gray on Sundays, and even when the sun was shining, it shone less brightly than on other days.

All these elements conspired against Annette’s normally buoyant heart, so a Sunday afternoon often found her in tears. Then Tommy would shake off his own bad mood, wrap his arms around her, and pull her onto his lap. “Come on now,” he’d say, “it’s all right. There’s nothing to cry about. Let’s go for a walk. We’ll walk around to the drugstore and buy a lottery ticket.”

Then Annette dried her eyes and grabbed her coat and they went out for a stroll about the neighborhood, winding up at Nicky’s soda counter. There they bought their tickets. Some weeks, when money was extra tight, they’d purchase only one number; other times, if the jackpot was up and they could afford it, they’d buy as many as five.

Tommy was not above grabbing a QuikPick now and then, but Annette disapproved. “We have to work for that money,” she’d say. Sometimes she’d try combinations of numbers imbued with personal meaning: their birthdays, anniversary, and street address; other weeks she’d poise her pen over the Lotto card like the pointer of a Ouija board and wait for inspiration to strike. At home she even set up a bowl with forty little pieces of paper crumpled permanently inside, and some weeks she drew numbers from the bowl.

When they finished they’d return home and Tommy would put on a cup of tea. Then they’d sit across from each other at the kitchen table and play the Lottery Game.

“Who will go first?”

“You go.”

“No you.”

“No, you go ahead.”

“All right, I’ll go. The first thing I’ll do,” here Tommy threw his hands up in the air and waved them like a boxer after a victorious championship bout, “is quit the Post Office!” He made a sound like stadium cheering. “And you’ll quit your job, too.”

“Well, maybe I won’t right away. They’ll need me through the holidays. Maybe I’ll just work through the holidays and then I’ll quit.”

“Annette, don’t be ridiculous! Let them find someone else to work through the holidays!”

“We’ll see.”

“Annette, it’s my turn! When it’s your turn you can think about staying on at your silly job — though let me add right now, as your spouse I advise against it. But in my turn we definitely both quit our jobs first thing.”

“All right.”

“Then we’ll move.”


“I’m going to tell you! . . . I don’t know. Where do you want to move?”

“I don’t know. Where do you want to move?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere by the ocean.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Okay. We’ll buy a nice house by the ocean — ”


“And we’ll move into it.”


“And we’ll live happily ever after.”

“That’s it?” Annette exclaimed. “That’s your plan?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s not a plan at all! It’s only the first step in a plan! A plan has to have more than one step! Besides, what about all the people we have to take care of?”

“Like who?” Tommy asked.

“Like your mother! Like my mother! And what about my brother and Teresa?”

“What about Teresa?”

“What do you mean, what about Teresa? Just because she’s my stepmom you think I don’t want to take care of her? She’s been very good to me, just like a mother. And Sammie is my sister!”

“Well, of course,” Tommy said, grinning at her.

“Well that means we have to take care of them when we win!”

“Of course. But I’m leaving all of that up to you. After we buy the house — which I’d like to have a say in selecting — you’re handling the money.”

“Well then it’s my turn.”

“That’s right.”

“Well then,” Annette began, making a frame with her hands and gazing through it as though she could see their future caught in some tree branches out the window, “first we’ll get Teresa out of that factory and move her and Sammie into a nice little house. Then we’ll buy a little theatre for Eddie so he can direct his plays in it. Then we’ll give something to Suzie — maybe we’ll buy her a little house, too. Yes, that seems only fair. Then we’ll have to give something to your mother and George; but how are we going to stop them from gambling away anything we give them?”

“There’s no way to stop that from happening,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “No way in hell.”

“That’s what I thought too. But then I thought, maybe we could set up a trust fund for them.”

“Sure. What’s a trust fund?”

“It’s what rich people use to take care of their children and other people who aren’t really capable of handling money on their own. I think they get it in installments or something.”

“They should call it a no-trust fund, then,” Tommy laughed. “Anyway, it’s trust funds all around for this family!” He swung his teacup merrily through the air. “A trust fund in every pot! Life, liberty, and the pursuit of trust funds! Hey, maybe we should set up a trust fund for ourselves!”

The lottery drawing was on Wednesday night. The broadcast came on at 11:00, after the news, and was hosted by a man named Bob and his assistant Sonya. The whole process was conducted with a great deal of pomp and ceremony, and Bob and Sonya dressed appropriately for it: Bob wore a tuxedo, and Sonya wore glittering evening gowns of a different primary color each week, to be shown off on the new color TVs that were being installed in living rooms throughout the city.

When Sonya appeared on the screen Tommy exclaimed, “Look at Sonya! Doesn’t she look beautiful this week?”

“She certainly does,” Annette agreed. “She has such lovely taste in gowns.”

“And look at her hair!” Tommy went on. “I think she’s wearing it in a new style.”

“Indeed she is,” Annette said. “And it’s even more flattering than last week’s style.”

But when the numbers had been drawn and they did not match the Hogans’, their tone changed. “What a hag,” Tommy snarled. And Annette chimed in: “That Sonya is an overly-made-up tart.”

As though not winning the lottery wasn’t bad enough, on Thursdays Annette and Tommy had dinner with Tommy’s mother, Margaret, and her new husband, George.

Margaret had her own version of the lottery game. It went like this: when she grew angry at Tommy — when, though he generally tried very hard not to, he had offended her in some fashion, she’d turn to him and pout, “When I win the lottery, you aren’t getting any!” Then she’d elaborate a long list of who would receive her bounty, so Tommy could feel the full weight of his imaginary loss.

Later, when peace had been restored and Tommy was in her good graces again, Margaret would blow him kisses and say, “When I win I’m giving you everything! Forget about everyone else! It’s all for you!”

Tommy’s response to both phases of Margaret’s game — the part where he was penniless, and the part where he’d been awarded the whole prize — was always the same. “I don’t want your money, Ma.”

The next lottery Tommy participated in was one he would have been happy to lose. The country had gone to war, a terrible war in the name of which young men were being scooped up and flown away. Many never returned. The men were picked by lottery. All males over 18 had to register with the government, which then assigned their lottery numbers.

When his time came, Tommy had gotten drunk before staggering in to register at the branch of the Post Office where he worked, where for once the older men eyed him sympathetically. Ever since, he’d been dreading the arrival of the mimeographed notice that would mean his number had been picked.

On the day it came, Tommy carried it in to show Annette with a stricken look on his face.

“I have something to tell you,” Annette said. “I’m pregnant.”

Tommy swooped over and gave her a big hug. Any misgivings he might have felt about incipient fatherhood were swept away by one crucial, beautiful fact: the government wasn’t taking men who were fathers to fight in its war. Not yet, anyway. And by the time it was, Tommy was too old, according to the government’s own reckoning, to fight; and so he was safe.

When Mary, their firstborn, was a toddler, and Annette was pregnant with Peter, their second, they decided that the city where they’d grown up, though beloved to them in many ways, not least in its variety of restaurants, was not where they wanted to raise their children. So they scraped together some money, took out a loan, and bought a little house by the sea.

And though with hard work and prudence they eventually eked their way out of poverty, they still continued to play the lottery game in their new home. They played it for so long that eventually everything around them learned to play it too.

Their little house said to the house next door, When I win the lottery, I’ll have new siding that won’t rust.

The cat said to the squirrels, When I win the lottery, Peter will bring me chicken every day for lunch.

One Japanese maple said to the other, When we win, we’ll have fertilizer sprinkled with jewels and gold dust.

DAWN CORRIGAN’s poetry and prose have appeared in a number of print and online journals. Her debut novel, an environmental mystery called Mitigating Circumstances, was published by Five Star/Cengage in January 2014. She lives in Gulf Breeze, Florida and works in the affordable housing industry.

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