THIS IS A DRAFT
It'll change. It'll get better. So read it kindly.
It is copyright (c) David Weinberger 2002. Because it's a draft, you don't have permission to quote from it without asking my permission first. But I do encourage you to discuss it on the discussion boards listed on the home page. My email address is [email protected] Let me know what you think.
- David Weinberger
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Friday, April 13, was the worst day of my life.
That's the day I won the lottery.
One hundred million dollars.
Here's what happened on the Monday before the Friday the 13th that was the worst day of my life.
I was at the Pick-a-Chick. That's what the sign said outside, although it wasn't really a Pick-a-Chick anymore. It was Herb's This 'n That Store. I'm only thirteen, and I already can tell you three other businesses that used to own that store. First it was McCardle's Milk, which was cool because they had Pop Gums, a slime-green ice cream bar with bubble gum in the middle of it. Then it was Moishe's Meats, which pretty much put it off my map since when I was seven I was unlikely to want to browse in a butcher's store, especially one that had big slabs of dead meat in its window. Then it was The Nickel Press, which sold newspapers and comics and other things that cost a lot more than a nickel. They went out of business maybe because you can't lie in your store's name and expect to get away with it for long. And then someone named Herb bought and I guess gave up on trying to figure out what he would be selling, so it became the This 'n That Store, which was exactly what it was. But, throughout all this time, the old Pick-a-Chick sign stayed up, running the long way up the side of the brick building. I guess every owner decided it was just too weird a sign to take down, so they kept it. And by the time it got to Herb, the Pick-a-Chick sign was a local landmark. So, there the sign hung on the This 'n That store although chicken was one of the few things you absolutely get there. I guess chicken isn't this and it certainly isn't that.
My parents hadn't exactly outlawed Herb's, but they weren't too crazy about my going there since there was hardly anything in there that was Good For Me. Candy but no fruit. Comics but no books. Joke soap that turns your hands black but no ruled paper with three holes. So, when I went, I tried to do it on the way to somewhere else so I could just sort of sidle on in.
On that Monday, I had sidled into Herb's. And sidling is the right word because Herb - whoever he was - had put in three rows of shelves where only two really fit. So you had to walk sideways, and if you ever ran into someone in the same aisle, one of you had to back up to all the way and move down another aisle. In fact, I always thought it cruel that Herb put the diet foods in the middle of one of the aisles, because if you really needed it, you probably wouldn't be able to fit in to get it.
But that's not why I was there. I was there because my violin lesson was over and I thought I would treat myself to a Dong Dong Doggie before hopping on the street car to travel the eight blocks back home. You know you have to really like Dong Dong Doggies to be willing to actually ask for one by name. What Dong and Dong and Doggie had to do with a butterscotch cake with vanilla creme insides I'll never know. But I liked them, and so I sidled on in to the This 'n That store.
I had my Dong Dong Doggie - please, can I just call it a "triple D" from now on? - I had my Triple D in my hand and headed to the counter to pay for it. But there was a woman ahead of me buying lottery tickets. She had filled out maybe 20 forms where you choose what number you want to bet on, and Mrs. Karchov was typing the numbers into the lottery machine on the counter. One by one. At this rate, it'd take me so long that I'd have to explain why I'd missed dinner and maybe breakfast the next day too.
So, I dug my hand into my pocket and fished for coins. But a Triple D costs 85 cents - and is worth every penny - and who ever has 85 cents in coins? Not me. If I'd had the coins, I could have just left them on the counter and showed the Triple D to Mrs. Karchov. It's the type of cutting ahead in line that you're allowed to do, at least according to my father who sometimes pays for newspapers that way. But, since I didn't have the coins, all I could do is leave the dollar bill I had clutched in my hand. And I'd be darned if I was going to pay an extra fifteen cents for a Triple D. Money doesn't grow on trees you know. (By the way, neither do water balloons. And it's a good thing. How'd you like to be walking down the street when suddenly a big old water balloon drops on your head?)
So, I waited. And waited. And Mrs. Karchov typed and typed. And I watched the lady in front of me. She was older than my mother but not as old as my grandmother. Somewhere in between. But nothing else was in between about her. She was built like the Starship Enterprise: not very high, very wide, and flat-headed on top. Of course, without her hat, she wouldn't have looked very much like a Starship at all. But the hat was very noticeable, and not at all in-between. It was round like a pancake with a double pat of butter on top. It was blue, like the color of fake blueberry syrup. It looked like it was made out of some sort of shiny plastic that was sticky the way your fingers were when you were done with your pancakes. In fact, the whole thing looked like maybe she'd gotten it at the International House of Bad Hats.
And the woman seemed a bit nervous or unsure of herself. She kept muttering apologies and politenesses like, "Here's another, if you don't mind," and "I'm sorry to be such a bother" and "I do appreciate all your help." And after about every third ticket was typed in, she'd turn to me and half smile to let me know she felt bad about holding me up.
The thing was that she didn't have to make Mrs. Karchov do all that typing. The lottery machine in the store is a type of computer and it's perfectly happy to choose numbers for you. There's no reason to pick your own numbers, unless you think that you have some type of direct connection to the bouncing balls they use to pick the winning numbers every week. The only thing picking your own numbers does is make Mrs. Karchov stand there and type them in.
I know about this because my dad is the type of parent who doesn't just tell you not to do something but has to explain to you every detail of what it is that you're not supposed to do. For example, when he told me not to pour paint remover down the sink after washing out the brushes I'd used to decorate a model car, he didn't just tell me not to, he also told me everything human beings have learned about the effect of flammable solutions on the environment.
And when he told me not to play the lottery, I also learned everything known to science about it. Oh, this was a rich topic for Dad. It took most of the trip to overnight camp - a three hour drive - for me to find out exactly how lotteries work, their effect on the economy, their history throughout the ages, and why they are evil. As a result, I knew more about the lottery than I learned about U.S. history in an entire year of seventh grade. (No offense, Mr. Saperstein!)
Too bad the woman ahead of me didn't know what I knew. If she did, she wouldn't be playing the lottery at all, or else she'd have just let the machine pick her numbers for her. And my entire miserable experience wouldn't have happened.
Or if I'd just been willing to give up the fifteen cents, I would have slapped the dollar on the counter and been on my semi-merry way.
But no, I waited while Mrs. Karchov typed and the woman ahead of me kept looking at me apologetically. And finally, the woman was done. Almost. She paid for her lottery tickets with a crisp twenty dollar bill. And, then, at the last minute, when I thought my turn had finally come, she remembered she had also bought a bag of buttons. She pulled it out of the pocket of her orange jacket, and said, "Oh, I almost forgot! I almost walked out of here without paying for these!" Another two dollars changed hands, and at long last the woman was done. Nothing stood between me and my Triple D except handing Mrs. Karchov my dollar bill and getting my change back.
I placed the bill on the counter and heard the sound of about a hundred little taps. Without even looking I knew the lady had dropped the bag of buttons. "Oh my!" she said.
The floor was polka dotted with buttons. "Let me help," said I, for, if I haven't mentioned this before, I happen to be a nice boy. The woman barely fit in the This 'n That at all, and there was no way she was going to be able to squat and pick up the buttons.
So, down I went on my knees, and gathered the buttons, at first several at a time, and then, as they became harder to find, one at a time. And I did a good job. Some were obvious, but others had skittered under shelves like mice afraid of a cat. But I peered and bent and twisted and felt until I thought I had them all.
"Thank you so much," the woman said over and over again as I hunted down the buttons. And when I was done, she said, "You really are the kindest boy. Your parents must be very proud of you."
"Yes, ma'am," I said because it seemed like the sort of thing a kind boy would say, especially if his parents were very proud of him. In fact, I think it was probably the first and only time I ever called anyone "ma'am." The truth is, all I could think about was getting my Triple D and rushing on home before my parents had the police stapling "Have you seen ..." posters on the local telephone poles.
"Here," she said, "you must take one of these as a reward," handing me the top lottery ticket in her pile.
"Oh, I couldn't," I said, thinking about the expression on my parents' faces if I came home not only late but with a lottery ticket in my hand.
"Oh, you really must," she said, handing it to me. And being a nice boy, and a kind boy, and a boy who really wanted to get out of there, I said, "Oh, OK. Thank you very much." And, without thinking much about it, I opened my violin case a crack and shoved the ticket into it.
"And if you win," said the woman, "you can think of me as your fairy godmother."
"Thanks. Goodbye," I said, in a pretend cheerful voice. But what I was thinking was, "Yeah, and that'll be the same day I'll think that my sister Maddie is fun to be with and, oh yeah, pigs can fly."
It just shows you how wrong you can be.
I didn't think about the ticket again until Tuesday night. After all, everyone knows that if you have a violin lesson on Monday, you don't have to practice until twenty-four hours later. Even parents understand this. It's practically a law of nature.
So, of course, I didn't open my violin case until Tuesday night. I had just finished my math homework and figured I'd get my violin practicing over with. This turned out to be lucky for me for two reasons. First, it meant that I opened up my case in my room, instead of in the den where I usually practice, so that when the lottery ticket fluttered out, no one saw it but me. Second, having just finished working on math problems put me in the right frame of mind.
I had just been busting my brain on these problems where you have to figure out what the next number is by catching on to the pattern in the numbers before it. For example, if the series were 1,3,7,15 the next number would be 31 because between 1 and 3 is 2, and between 3 and 7 is 4, and between 7 and 15 is 8, so you catch on that you keep multiplying the difference by two and adding it. Get it?
So, when the lottery ticket floated off of my violin and fluttered down to the floor, I for the first time saw the number that the lady had picked. 35-8-27-9-18-9. Now, normally I have a hard time with these types of problems, but this one I got right away, even though there was no reason to think there was anything to get. Maybe that's why I got it. Or maybe it was just that I noticed that the digits of the first number - 35 - added up to the second number. And, then, while I was at it, I noticed that if you subtract the second number from the first one - 35 minus 8 - you get the third number. And, wouldn't you know it, if you add the digits of the third number, you get the fourth. And if you subtract the fourth from the third, you get the fifth. And if you add the digits of the fifth, you get the sixth.
Coincidence? Maybe. If you look hard enough at any series you can begin to find ways they s least sort of work out. But this was too neat. The woman in the This 'N That must have had her own twisted mathematical mind working overtime in picking her numbers.
But I had more important things to worry about: I had to finish my violin practicing in time to be able to watch The Simpsons rerun on TV. So, I put the ticket back in my violin case and got to work.
And there it stayed ... until the next day.
I was in the den, playing Commander Keen on the kid's computer. Keen's an old game, but it's a real time waster and because there's no blood and gore, my parents practically encourage me to play it. My mother was sitting at the rolltop desk, going over the bills, opening envelopes and shaking her head. And in comes Maddie, holding the ticket, and saying, "What's this?" all innocently.
Maddie, you have to understand, is seven years old and enough to drive any brother insane. She's the worst variety of cute: the type that's cute and knows it. All she has to do is pull her little lower lip under her upper one and look at her shoes and shuffle her feet, and you can practically hear a crowd say "Awww," and then she gets what she wants.
Not that there's anything really wrong with that. I'd do it too, if I could get away with it. And Maddie seemed to me to be doing it more and more, as if recognizing that she was only about a birthday away from having it not work for her anymore. You had to give her credit. She was milking it for all it was worth.
The truth is that we usually get along OK, except when she hangs around when I have friends over or when she goes into my things without asking.
Which is pretty clearly what had just happened. There she was, waving my ticket as if it were a flag and she wanted everyone to salute. I was out of my seat in a flash, and was thinking about how I could explain how I ended up with the ticket when, to my amazement, my mother actually ignored Maddie. The telephone rang, and Mom was annoyed enough about being interrupted while working on the bills that she went for the phone to stop it from ringing as if it were a splinter she had to pull out. So, while Mom was on the phone with someone trying to sell her another credit card - I pity the poor slob on the other end of the line - I was in Maddie's face and had grabbed the ticket from her.
"But what is it?" she asked, as if she didn't know.
"I'll tell you later. Now just keep quiet or I'll tell Mom you were playing with my violin again." Quickly shoving the ticket into my pocket, I went back to Keen, Maddie wandered back to her room, and my mother hung up on the guy from the credit card company.
That night, Maddie came into my room to borrow my good markers. There was a reason why they were mine and not Maddie's. They were permanent. Very permanent. I'd proved this when I was her age and decided that the living room couch would look much better with a picture of our dog on it. Five years later our dog was gone, the couch was in the "recreation room" in the basement, and my lovely drawing was still there in all its original color. Permanently. (By the way, you may be able to figure out why we call the recreation room the "wreck" room for short.)
"No," I said to Maddie, "you know you're not supposed to use these markers."
"But I have to color in a poster for school tomorrow."
"So what's wrong with yours?"
"They stink," she whined. Normally I would have corrected her language, not because I really care about the word "stink" but because it's my obligation as an older brother to be as annoying as possible. But I had to admit that her markers really did stink. The yellow stank like old bananas, the brown like fake chocolate, the red like cherry-flavored cough medicine. Her markers really stank. Plus, they didn't draw very well.
"Well, OK, but if you get a single dot on anything except the paper, I'm the one who's going to be blamed. And I'll take it out on you," I promised. I got down the marker set and, holding it just out of her reach, added, "There's just one thing I need from you in return."
"What?" she asked, trying to jump up to reach the markers.
"You have to do my chores on Thursday."
"Yes, way. What's the big deal? All you have to do is tie up the newspapers for recycling and take an extra turn cleaning the bird cage."
"I can't even tie a knot."
"Yes you can. Besides, if you can't tie the papers up, you can just put them into paper bags."
"But I just did the bird cage."
"That's because it was your turn, numbskull!"
"Give me the markers."
"Uh uh. Not unless you agree."
"Give me the markers or I'll tell Mom and Dad that you bought a lottery ticket."
I instantly put the markers back up on my highest shelf. "Deal's off," I said.
"OK, then I'm going to tell anyways."
I have to admit, Maddie knew how to fight. She learned everything she knew from watching me. That's the problem with being the oldest - all the techniques you struggled to invent are stolen by the ones who come after you. I guess it's the price of being a pioneer.
So I thought for a moment. There was really only one way to absolutely force Maddie to keep the lottery ticket a secret. "Maddie," I said, "I'll tell you what. I'm going to give you a great deal. Bargain of a lifetime. Do my chores on Thursday and shut up about the ticket, and not only will I lend you my markers, but I'll let you share my ticket. Ninety/ten."
"What do you mean?"
The poor thing hadn't gotten to percentages yet in school. "That means that if I win, I'll give you ten cents out of every dollar that I win."
"You'll give me ten cents?" She seemed happy enough with the ten pennies, but I didn't feel like I could really cheat her that way.
"Not exactly. I'll give you ten cents for every dollar I win. So, if I win fifty dollars, I'll give you five dollars and I'll keep 45 dollars. And if I win hundred dollars, I'll give you ten dollars and I'll keep ninety dollars."
"You're going to give me ten dollars?" This was just about beyond her comprehension.
"Yes, but only if the ticket wins a hundred dollars. Never mind, just believe me that it's a great deal."
"I'm going to get ten dollars!"
I'd created a monster. Somehow now she believed that not only was I lending her the markers, but I was going to fork over ten bucks. I gave it one last try: "But only if the lottery ticket wins. If it doesn't win, neither of us will get any dollars at all."
"Ten dollars!" she said, as I handed her the marker set.
She may have been confused, but at least now she was my partner in crime and wouldn't go blabbing to our parents - not if it was going to cost her ten dollars.
So, confident that my secret was safe - because now it was our secret - I tucked the ticket back into my violin case and began practicing "A Sailor's Shanty" over and over and over again.
Here's why I wanted Maddie to do my chores on Thursday.
Life at Horace J. Oakes Middle School is far more complex than most people realize. It's a school where popularity counts more than just about anything. You could be the captain of the hockey team, a straight A student, great looking, and the star of this year's play - "The Music Man," in case you were wondering - but if word got out that you were unpopular, well, you might as well find a cave with cable TV because you're not going to be doing a lot else with your time.
Of course, if you were all those things, you'd probably be popular too. But that's the thing - it's only a probability. Popularity is one of those things that's hard to judge, like trying to decide if you're good looking by staring into a mirror. You just can't tell. You can tell if you're smart by looking at a report card (at least kind of), and you can tell if you're a good athlete by seeing how fast you run a race, but popularity is hard to measure.
And it's also a little bit like being a celebrity who's famous just for being famous. Once word gets out that you're popular, well then, you're popular. But if you're popular and know one knows it, then you're not really popular. You can't say, "I'm popular, although everyone disagrees," any more than you can say, "I'm famous, but no one knows it."
Mind if I change the subject? I'm beginning to get a headache ...
Anyway, the truth is that I could not claim to be one of the most popular kids in school. It's not that if you were to divide the school into two teams, I would be made the captain of the Unpopulars. In fact, you'd really have to make a third team, the Who Cares, and I definitely would be on the starting line up.
It beats me why. I'm not the irritating sort of kid who tries to get people to notice him by hanging upside down on the jungle gym in the playground until the change drops out of pockets and his face turns red, and his shirt has fallen so that his flabby belly is on display, and drool starts dribbling from his mouth, and he's yelling, "I'm Bat Boy! I'm Bat Boy!" No, that's not me. That's my best friend Ari.
I just get along with most everyone and am especially noticed by just about no one.
But at the beginning of the school year, I figured out a way to fix all that. Since you're popular if people think you're popular, Ari and I decided to create a club for popular people. It was a very exclusive club. Invitation only. And secret. The only two known members were Ari and me.
We called it "The Cutliffe Society" because "Cutliffe" didn't mean anything but sounded rich and swanky. The Cutliffe Society had a secret meeting place, secret meetings, secret activities, and secret members.
Of course there wasn't really any such thing.
But we started dropping hints about it. I printed up a notice of an upcoming meeting, and then crumpled it a little and left it in the hallway near a garbage can, hoping someone would notice it and read it.
I wrote up the minutes of a meeting and left it in a desk in study hall so that the next occupant would find it. The minutes referred to members by code names that I hoped would be obvious to anyone who read it. For example, Joel Hess (captain of the soccer team and immensely popular - and obnoxious) was "Jewel Heist" and Kathy Picatino (fluent in French, awesomely beautiful - and obnoxious) was "Café Pick-a-Time-o." Ok, so it wasn't so subtle, but the whole point was for the names to be understood.
Then I sent in an anonymous tip to Louellen Parness who wrote a gossip column for the Oakes Observer, our school paper. "Pop Quiz: What is the secret Cutliffe Society all about?" she wrote. "And just how popular do you have to be to get in? Give yourself a B if you answer: Very. But give yourself an A if you didn't even have to ask."
I even printed up some stickers on my computer that said "The Cutliffes? Shhh!" and stuck them on the lockers of the most popular kids in school - and mine and Ari's.
Well, this turned out to be just about as dumb as it sounds. Yes, there was some buzz about the Cutliffes. But it was mixed with a lot of confusion and even more shrugs of indifference. And no one really associated me and Ari with it. Besides, if anything it sounded like a dorky secret society, not like a club for the popular kids. Popular kids don't have to have secret societies.
So, by this time of the year, I had pretty well lost interest in it. But not Ari. He kept wanting to have meetings, and was planning on running for vice president. I kept telling him it was all just a trick, a ruse, a ploy, that there wasn't really any club called the Cutliffe Society, and he'd get it straight for a day or two, but then he'd be back asking when the next meeting would be.
Well, this Thursday, he wasn't asking for a normal meeting. He had a different idea. He wanted to form a rock and roll band called - guess what? - The Cutliffes. And I had agreed to try it out.
You see, although I struggle along with the violin, I'm actually an ok guitar player without any lessons. My mother plays - she was in a rock band when she was in high school, which I cannot possibly picture - so it was easy for me to pick it up. If you never heard me play violin, you might almost think that I have some musical talent.
So, I had agreed to go over to Ari's house for the first rehearsal of The Cutliffes. My father drove me over since it'd be a little hard to fit my guitar and amplifier in my bike basket. When I got there, Ari was already banging away at his drums in his garage, and Mimi was playing bass. The result some might call progressive jazz and others might call modern music. I'd call it just plain bad.
But that's ok. It was our first rehearsal and the guitar player - me - hadn't even plugged in yet.
Mimi was my oldest friend. In fact, she was such an old friend that "friend" isn't even the right word. Mimi and I were in the same playgroup when we were six months old. When my Mom had to run out to take Maddie to the emergency room to have a Captain Galactica Thermo Nuclear Ray Gun rocket extracted from her nose, she called Marcie, Mimi's mom, to watch over me. When Marcie had an extra ticket for the Ice-O-Rama traveling skating extravaganza, it was natural for her to offer to take me. In fact, in the ultimate show of trust, at the beginning of second grade, my mother actually let Marcie take me and Mimi shopping for clothes. Now that's trust.
So, Mimi felt more like my sister than like a friend. I didn't have to work at having her like me. She knew that I sometimes sing to my pet fish, and I knew that she wrote poetry that rhymed although she wouldn't show it to me. I also knew that she could come up with math answers in her head without knowing how she did it, gave a new dress she really liked to Good Will when she was seven because she felt bad for poor people, and has to sculpt mashed potatoes before she will eat them.
So, I didn't feel too bad when I laughed in her face when I saw her sitting on Ari's little brother's tricycle, dressed in pink shorts, red sneakers, and a purple tee shirt that said "Just Say Huh?" - the very picture of a rock 'n roll queen.
We didn't play too much music that first rehearsal. We spent most of the time doing the basics: trying to tune our instruments, trying to get Ari to play softer, and arguing over the name of our first album - Ari liked "Meet the Cutliffes," Mimi liked "The Cutliffe's Second Album" and I preferred "The Cutliffe Cut One."
At the end of the rehearsal, Mimi brushed her bangs out of her eyes and said, "Well, that was sort of fun," and we all agreed. Actually, it sort of was.
And who knows? If the Cutliffes actually became a popular band, wouldn't the three members of the Cutliffes themselves have to become popular? Maybe The Cutliffe Society, in its own way, was going to put us into the world of the popular.
Or so it seemed the day before I won the lottery.
Friday was press day for my father. He published the local newspaper that came out once a week. For the longest time I thought he hated it because whenever he talked about it, he was complaining: the local businesses weren't advertising, the ones who advertised weren't paying, the local residents weren't subscribing, the reporters weren't reporting. One complaint after another, sometimes for an entire dinner or Sunday morning walk.
So, when I asked him a few years ago why he didn't quit, he looked shocked. "Quit?? Jake, I love the Gaz. I wouldn't do anything else!" (The Gaz was short for The Melville Gazette.) "Why do you ask such a thing?" When I told him that all I ever heard from him were complaints about the Gaz, you could see it sink in. It's what parents mean when they say that sometimes you have to see things through a child's eyes - at least, that's what they say on TV shows. After that, he didn't complain so much, or at least he threw in something positive now and then.
Fridays are tense days for my dad because that's the day the paper actually gets printed. It means he has to go to the printing plant to oversee the production. But it's also the last chance to discover and fix any last minute problems - and to find out that you made mistakes that now you can't fix because the paper's been printed.
So, at dinner on Friday, when my mom asks how Dad's day was, it's not like the other days where you just expect a "Fine" that doesn't mean anything. On Friday, Dad's answer will tell us what the mood of dinner and the rest of the evening will be like.
Tonight, we got "Well, it's done, anyway," which long years of listening to my father had taught me means: "Rough day, but in the end the newspaper turned out fine."
It seems that at the last minute, Dad had to drop an article from the front page because the town committee on recycling hadn't met, so there was nothing to report about. "So, I pulled my editorial about lotteries onto the front page. I don't like putting editorials on the front page, but it was the only thing that would fit." (It's always surprising to me to find out that what goes on the front page of a newspaper can depend on things like what article is the right length instead of purely on what's most important. Another illusion shattered.)
"This is the last in the series, isn't it?" my mother asked as my Dad served her oven roasted potatoes.
"Yup. Which makes more sense than putting one in the middle of the series on the front page. In this last one, I summarize all the others."
I suddenly lost interest in the potatoes on my plate, normally one of my favorite foods. The fact that my father's hatred of the lottery was on the front page of the newspaper while I had a lottery ticket sitting upstairs was making me uncomfortable.
I'd read Dad's editorials on the topic. My Dad is a good writer, I'll give him that. And I can't say I really disagreed with him about this. Let met tell you his reasons:
So, as you can see, my father wasn't a fanatic about this. He actually was very reasonable on the topic. He just didn't always act that way. Once you got him started on the topic, he could go on for hours and it would seem like it was a matter of life and death. His face would turn red, his eyebrows would just about tie themselves in a knot, and he'd lean into whoever he was talking with as if he were just waiting for a chance to tell him why they were all wrong.
I don't think there was any other topic my father felt this way about.
Which is why the editorial ended up on the front page.
The first two parts of the series had gotten a lot of people to send in letters, mainly disagreeing with him. Being a fair person, he had printed them all in the Letters to the Editor section - except one that began "Dear Jerk-faced Weasel."
"You know what the lottery is worth this week?" my father asked with just a little bitterness. "One hundred and eleven million dollars. One hundred and eleven! Can you believe it? When I drove home, I saw a line actually coming out of Harry's This 'n That store. People lined up to buy their tickets, last minute. Poor suckers. They might as well just put their dollar bills into the trash can in front of the store and skip the line."
I didn't ask him if he saw a woman there who looked like the Starship Enterprise. And I decided right after supper to make sure that my ticket was still safely hidden in my violin case.
So, we made it through our dinner, and I practiced violin (and checked on my ticket), and then spent an hour working on some songs for The Cutliffes. In other words, it was turning into a normal Friday night.
The normal Friday routine is that I'm allowed to stay up until eleven to watch my favorite program - although, the truth is that I wouldn't like it nearly so much if it didn't give me an excuse to say up until eleven. And my parents know it. Then I go off to bed and my parents watch the local news on channel 5.
Between my show and the start of the news, channel 5 televises the drawing of the state lottery.
Having stayed up through the credits of my show, on the grounds that the credits are legally a part of the show, we were still engaged in the standard good night chit chat when the sparkly toothed Ginny Wombach came on screen to announce the winner. Behind her was a machine that jumbled numbered ping pong balls as if they were stuck in a berserk popcorn popper.
"Well, you'd better be turning in, Jake," said my father as the first number jumped out of the tumbler and was announced by the ever-smiling Ginny. It was 35. So far so good! But, I realized the odds of the next one being an eight - my next number - were 40 to one. There were thirty nine ways the wrong number could come up, and just one way the right one could. And that'd be true for the next five numbers. The odds were ridiculously bad.
But getting that first one right sure got my attention! So I stalled a bit, while pretending to pay no attention to the television. "Yeah," I said, "I'm pretty tired." Then a nice long yawn.
Ginny said, "And the next number is 8!" as if eight were a really exciting number for her.
Well, it was to me. 35-8-27-9-18-9. Those were my magic numbers. There were burned in my brain because of the sequence I had discovered within them.
"You know," I said, trying to keep my parents distracted from the TV, "tonight's episode was sort of disappointing. Predictable plot."
"Isn't it predictable every week?" Mom said, without looking up from her knitting. "Bad guys do something wrong, good guys catch them."
"Well, yes," I said as Ginny said "27!" I tried not to show that I was paying any attention to what Ginny was saying, but all I could think of was the next number: 9, 9, 9, 9! I continued, "But usually you can't figure out how they're going to catch them."
"That's true," said my father. "You could say the same thing about every mystery novel ever written. Bad guy murders someone, detective figures out who." My mother loves mystery novels.
This might have been fascinating conversation, but all I heard was Ginny saying, "And the next number is 9!" I was just two numbers away from winning!
At this point I was too distracted to be able to participate in the conversation and I just hoped the discussion I'd started would be carried on by Mom and Dad without me. I was looking at them, but my ears heard nothing but Ginny. Ginny was suddenly my favorite person in the whole wide world.
And Ginny said my favorite words in the whole world: "Eighteen!" she squealed. It was all I could do not to squeal along with her. One number away.
Oh my gosh, I thought. Suppose I actually win. A hundred and eleven million dollars! But I wasn't thinking about what I could do with the money. I was thinking about how I'd ever tell my parents about it.
Still, there was one number to go. One chance in 40 that I'd win.
I'll never know how it happened, but that's the moment my mother noticed that the lottery was on TV, and that's the moment she turned it off, saying, "What are we doing with this on!" I don't know if she noticed that I was paying attention to Ginny, or whether the conversation about how predictable mystery novels are just got too boring. But just as the ping pong ball popped out of the lottery basket and Ginny was inhaling to say the exciting last number ... Click!
"Ok, Jake, time for bed," said my father.
"You've been up late enough already," said my mother.
"Um, ok, I guess I'll be going to bed," I said, as if I weren't one number away from a hundred and eleven million dollars.
So I went to bed.
But not to sleep.
David Weinberger Page 1 7/14/2002
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