Volume 28, Number 3

A Ticket to Savor

Lauranna Johnson

She never really thought she would win. Her usual two-dollar scratch tickets were just something to free a stifled imagination after another long week of tracking the incremental progress the heads-down engineers made on their software projects. To lose was nothing. It was a small disappointment in a world where much greater ones loomed with every passing year. Already so lucky, Sandra had sufficient pay and a bright apartment. She never invested in too much to lose.

The expensive tickets had multiple ways to win. Like the one-armed bandits in casinos, winning depended on matching three symbols. Sandra took out a shiny penny she found—heads up for luck—in the parking lot of the Friday evening grocery store packed with a rush of people seeking supplies for the holiday weekend. It was a sign; today was the day to do something exceptional.

She fumbled in her leather bag for her wallet and got in line at the ATM. When it was her turn, she hesitated, her heart riding a wave of warning. There were so many better ways to spend twenty dollars.

A crisp twenty fresh out of the ATM went a long way for a woman with modest demands. It bought a healthy meal or a bottle of wine, that new book by her favorite author, a half dozen trout flies or gas for a day trip to the backcountry ghost town she always wanted to visit. Having choices was nice; she knew she should be grateful. She also knew no amount of money would ever make up for the loss of her friends. They did not like her job. They did not like her bright apartment with the killer view of the western mountains.

Jan and Trey liked communes. A husband and wife team with three followers who could grow anything, they left the sunny state for a rainy one where pot farms proliferated like weeds. Sandra was happy for them.

“You’ll do well. With so many elderly people now, medical marijuana will continue to be in high demand.”

Her strange friend’s face blanched before it darkened with contempt. Sandra tried to remember how Jan’s strong arms dragged her away from the shattered glass of the bank window, both their visions blinded by pepper spray. Tear gas choked their lungs. Jan still had an odd cough that often appeared out of nowhere. Sometimes Sandra had a feeling that not all of Jan’s coughs were real.

“Oh, no, no, no. We’re not going to farm pot. That kind of money just attracts the wrong element.”

Sandra clamped her jaws to stop the defensive comeback. Jan had been on Big Pharma’s antidepressants for years.

“But how will you support yourselves?”

Trey, her tall husband, stepped up and loomed like a shadow. He seemed to cast darkness over everything he neared. The fire left Jan’s eyes after she got engaged to him. He was the wrong man, the also-ran in a love triangle. The right one—a secret crush Jan told no one about until it was too late—liked Sandra. Their first date to a raucous club was a disaster. A second date did not follow. Jan never forgave her.

There were a lot of people Jan did not forgive—especially the ones who became successful. She believed the fight for a better world was best waged by the poor. Jan wanted nothing more than the authenticity of being one of them. She and her husband wore thrift store clothes and dirty hands like badges of honor. White and educated, they had a choice. She answered Sandra’s bewildered question with a note of triumph in her voice.

“Our community will be self-sustaining. We’ll grow our own food and build everything by hand.”

Jan’s eyes lit with the false-fire of the true believer.

“People will come from all over the world to learn about sustainable farming. Trey’s a great teacher.”

Trey had never risen beyond adjunct professor with its part-time wages and no benefits. He kept falling out with the administration that insisted his art history classes follow curriculum. In the ten years she had known him, he never spoke more than a handful of words to her. His disappointment that she had not won the heart of Jan’s true love was palpable. He cast shadows while a greater one loomed over all his plans. Without Jan he was lost.

They bought a rundown farm and strangers came from all over the world. In exchange for their labor, they received room and board. With instruction from Trey, they lovingly restored the old house and barn and fence. They dug wells and planted orchards. They had harvest festivals and moon dances and long conversations about plant-based revolutions. Then the young people went home to whatever place they were trying to escape. No matter how many weeds they pulled out by the roots, they could not escape their own.

Sandra watched it all unfold through Jan’s enthusiastic letters. The photos she sent were filled with lush, growing things. Happy twenty-somethings labored in every scene. Eventually the letters slowed to one yearly update. With everything restored, there was only hay to cut and cows to milk—all by hand. Then an embittered volunteer wrote a book about his time on Trey’s farm and others like it. He gave the grinding labor a name that stuck: eco-sharecropping.

Young, strong backs dried up. Trey sold the land for three times what he paid for it. Jan gave all but gas money to charity, and then they drove home to Ohio seeking refuge. A Mennonite family took them in.

Sandra placed the twenty-dollar bill on the counter and requested the scratch ticket that had a two-million-dollar payout. As usual, her plan was to try and make the entertainment value of the purchase last as long as possible. She walked over to the café area near the hot food service and found a table among the working-class men, all of them eating alone.

Her stomach rumbled. She was ready for that Friday night glass of wine. It was something to look forward to after she lost her twenty dollars. Creeping guilt began to bother her. She decided to buy the cheaper bottle of wine. It lessened the hit on her wallet. This was nothing. Some people blew many times her scratch-ticket wager on a Friday night out.

Sandra got her lucky penny and scratched off the gray material from the dollar amount on the first row of symbols. She always started prize-first. Reading the number, she brushed away the scrapings and put her penny down on the greasy table to savor the moment. She closed her eyes. None of the working men noticed. They were hunched over their food.

The first prize was for ten thousand dollars. Sandra quickly moved to the next row. Ten thousand dollars belong to the bank for future dental expenses. She ground her teeth in her sleep and her dentist warned her that she was facing several implants if she neglected her night guard. Sandra hated the thing. Like a twin bed, it smacked of utter resignation to ever having a partner with whom to sleep.

The next row said twenty-five thousand dollars. Sandra smiled, visions of a new car expanding her horizons. The old one got her the ten miles to work and back, but it had been towed to the repair shop twice in the last year. The little hatchback could not be trusted in the mountains. She had to rent a car if she wanted to go on long road trips or if distant family came to town, which was rare. Both her parents were dead, sent to early graves by ambition and loss.

Systematically scratching her way down the ever-increasing dollar prizes, Sandra racked up her imaginary winnings, each of them even more promising than the last. At fifty thousand dollars, she could take a year off work and travel to world-famous places she always wanted to see, places with lots of ruins. Ruins gave Sandra hope. Cities were not eternal. She did not have to live trapped in the concrete jungle until her death in a machine-filled room with no windows.

At a hundred thousand dollars, a fat down payment on a cottage with a yard was possible. Add a small town to a modest job and escape from the polluted city became possible. At two hundred and fifty thousand, a cottage by the sea was within reach. She heard the sea-shell chime knocking in the ocean breeze.

Sandra stopped scratching with the penny and sighed. These winnings were nice, they provided a measure of security and stability, but they were not yet a life. What do you want to do with your life? The question had dogged her since high school. Well-meaning people asked the question as if she had all the choices in the world.

Paycheck-to-paycheck survival made the question go away. So did the gray hairs at her temples. She was now the age when people stopped inquiring about a lot of things. Even in interviews, employers no longer asked her where she saw herself in ten years. Sandra’s forty-second birthday was around the corner. A knee was starting to hurt. It was now or never.

What do you want to do with your life?

She knew the answer. It waited like a coiled thing deep in her soul.

She scratched the last prize on the ticket and stared at the two and the six zeroes. That much money meant no more tedious jobs, no more rent checks, no more America. She could live the ex-pat lifestyle anywhere in the world. She could be an international, learn a new language. She could eat from one side of the planet to the other.

Sandra pictured the smorgasbord and then looked out the cafe window. Feasting might last a year, maybe two, and then the bedeviling question would start again. What do you want to do with your life?

Die in battle.

She felt the pepper spray burning her eyes, the terror of permanent blindness.

The penny gleamed, and she pressed its clean edge to the top of the scratch ticket. In the first row, all the symbols were different. She only won the prize if all the symbols matched. By the third row, she felt an old, angry fire growing. When she was arrested for throwing a bottle at a skirmish line of National Guard soldiers, no one clapped her on the back for her daring. They went tsk-tsk like scolds. The movement wanted lawyers and lawsuits not warriors.

She looked up from the scratch ticket and her face turned dreamy. Far across the sea, in a worn and desolate land, there was a rebel group fighting to regain its ancestral territory. The rebel women had their own military units. News reports said the thugs holding the rebels’ land fled in terror at the site of these armed women, so great was their fear of defeat at female hands.

Sandra could not pronounce the rebel group’s name. She did not speak their language. It did not matter. The rebels welcomed international volunteers to come and join them. Sandra scratched the last row of symbols and barely glanced down, another loss certain.

She narrowed her eyes. What the terrorists did to the women and children was known around the world, yet here she sat in a crap café with a crap life and a crap job and the last of her youthful strength slipping away day by day. Sandra crushed the ticket in her hand. With all of her soul, she wanted to shoot one of those rapists right in the face.

A man looked up from his food. Sandra slowly smoothed the ticket back into shape. The symbols on the last row came into focus. Her dark fantasy dissolved and her mouth fell open. She rubbed her eyes. It could not be true. All the symbols matched. She bolted up, and her chair clattered to the floor behind her. She refused to look again and stumbled on numb legs toward the ticket seller. There had to be something wrong. It was a misprint.

The teenager took the card from her shaking hand. He did not look her in the eyes. She watched his face as he scanned the card. The machine beeped. He hesitated. He swallowed hard and then shook his head.

“Not a winner.”

He turned to throw the card in the trash.

Sandra blew a shaky sigh of relief, and by the time she reached the car, her heart had stopped pounding. She forgot to buy the wine and was glad that she did. The key turned over in the ignition and the old engine sputtered to life. Sandra looked over her shoulder before backing out. The teenager’s face rose before her eyes like a specter. He had hesitated. His voice was hollow. Sandra faced forward, her heart once again pounding.

Her knuckles went white on the steering wheel. She had to confront him. She had to make a scene, to demand the return of the ticket. It was a winner. It was a winner! The boy had lied. Still, she found she could not move. She hated making scenes. It reminded her too much of her father, who berated clerks and waiters for the slightest inconvenience. His behavior was crass and she loathed him for it. He once snatched back a generous tip she left for a waitress.

“She doesn’t deserve that,” he said, leaving the gray-haired woman nothing.

Sandra did not contradict him, but she stopped coming home from college after that dinner.

She tried to channel her fear of her father and her contempt for him. She needed something to get her out of the car seat. An alternate future flashed before her like it so often did these days. She saw herself in a foxhole, a rifle resting on sandbags. Through the scope, she took aim at terrorists in white trucks coming down the road to take the land and the women. Every day, her contact on the Internet called for volunteers. The calls had grown urgent.

Sandra forced her hands off the steering wheel and cursed herself out loud.

“Oh, for god’s sake! You can imagine shooting brown-skinned terrorists but you can’t get off your ass and confront one white teenager over the theft of two million dollars? What stupid, stupid cowardice!”

The car door rattled with the violent slam. She flew across the parking lot and back into the store.

The teenager turned pale when he saw her. He was leaving early.

“Give me back my ticket.”

He swallowed again, harder this time.

“I threw it away.”

“Hand me the trash can.”

He bent over, and Sandra saw him reach into the pocket of his gray hoodie. He turned around smoothly, dropping the ticket in the trash with a practiced slight-of-hand. He must have seen the killer look in her eyes. She felt the bolt of her hunting rifle smoothly chamber a round. With a little more training, with conditioning hikes in the mountains, she would be ready.

“Scan it again.”

“Yeah, sorry. It looks like you won.”

“How much?”

He refused to say.

“You need to take this ticket to the lottery office. You have to work with them. And you better get lawyer.”

Leaving through the employee-only exit, he slammed the door behind him.

A month later, the lawyer called her. She stepped away from the firing range to answer her cell phone. Bunny rabbits munching at the green lawn scattered into the taller grass. The range sat on the far side of a state park.

“Your final directives are in order. The lottery officials have put the first payment into your account. They will do so every month for the next twenty years. Are you sure about your other decision? Bringing a body back from the Middle East can be very daunting.”

“Yes, I’m sure. If I die, I want my story told. But I do not want the resistance to incur the shipping costs. My contact will call you if something goes wrong.”

“Have you given any thought to what will happen if our government declares the rebels terrorists? You could lose all your money. You might never be able to come home.”

Sandra looked at the bunny rabbits returning to the green lawn now that she stood perfectly still. The range master said they were deaf from the pounding of the guns. Sandra’s limbs went cold. She pressed the phone close to her ear, the lawyer’s voice like a lifeline thrown to a drowning woman. He was right. She might never be allowed to return.

“I know,” she said, before she disconnected the call. “I’m counting on it.”