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Tales from a Midwestern Lottery Winner

By John Hendel.

The other five people knew what they were doing. They stared at the dealer and smiled and embraced the camaraderie natural to the semicircle tables where everyone shared a healthy dose of superstition and a dependency on fate. The large stomach of a 45-year-old stressed his plaid shirt so I could see the hairy skin between two of the buttons. Columbia’s smoking ban didn’t matter here in Boonville and grey filth floated through my nostrils and irritated my eyes in a way that seemed appropriate for this place, this den of money chips and gaudy lights and laughing faces. Hordes of folks, most over the age of 50 and cowboy hats not uncommon, roamed the Isle of Capri at 10 o’clock this Saturday night.

“What’ll it be?” the dealer, a man no older than 35 named Nate, asked me with artificial cheer.

My two cards added up to 14. I tapped the table in a way I learned meant “hit.”

Nate dubiously slapped down another card, a 9, and I knew my five-dollar chip would vanish. So it goes.

“You always stand when the dealer’s got a bust card,” my friend Joe whispered to me, gesturing to the dealer’s 4. “It’s in the book.”

This was the second time I ever gambled and I was 21. I had joined three friends who all had frequented the Isle of Capri before. The prospect of gambling excited them like little else. Rolling the dice struck me as a great way to lose money fast, but I wanted to witness the dilapidated Midwest grandeur of a Boonville casino boat, full of its lost souls looking for cheer and a buffet that suggested players who stayed all day. I first gambled last year in Amsterdam on Easter, where I threw 5 euros down the drain at 3 in the afternoon on a shitty slot machine. That casino also smelled of smoke.

Although gambling has never appealed to me, its fates have superficially dictated a lot of events in my life. Here’s the big one: my family won over one and a half million dollars from the Missouri state lottery in 1996 just after I turned 10 years old. We won on a December Wednesday but my family didn’t check the ticket until that Friday the 13th. It was a one in three-and-a-half million chance.

“These numbers can’t be right,” my parents whispered in disbelief as they stared at the documents on my mother’s grand piano. Those words and that tone led me to ironically fear we suffered from financial trouble until they found me downstairs in my room and told me the news, practically jumping with excitement.

We waited two weeks to cash the ticket with the lottery office for tax reasons and as a fourth-grader, I was ordered not to tell anyone we had the ticket until then, though I confided to my disbelieving friend Greg in the gym. My parents locked it in a hard grey box in our basement. When we cashed the ticket in, I still remember posing with my mom, dad, and sister in front of the lottery office for pictures. The surreal nature of winning never really hit me then. I suppose I should have known when my young third grade teacher took me out to the hallway to show off her engagement ring and to ask me all about the $1.6 million.

Our fateful win brought no fancy cars, no new house. It lent us comfort only: a decent yearly income for 20 years, free of labor. My father was already in his 70s then, a retired former Catholic priest, and my mother worked in nursing and research. The other virtues of a lottery win? Annual participation in Missouri’s “Millionaires’ Reunion,” a PR collection of lottery winners at a different Missouri location every year; a couple oversized white lottery T-shirts I wore to sleep every night for six years; three miniature yellow footballs emblazoned with the lottery logo with which I played catch with countless close friends in bedrooms and family rooms as a way to add a beat to conversation.

Really, aside from freeing my family from labor, the lottery provided us no lavish wealth at all. Our greatest extravagance manifested in two cruises to the Caribbean the summers after my sophomore and senior years of high school. The saving grace of the win came when my mom had to care for my father, who spent three years dying from bone cancer while I was in high school. His first chemotherapy treatment landed on the day I graduated from eighth grade. With my mother’s background in nursing, she had all the capacity as well as the emotional need to care for my father; the lottery allowed her to do that during those years, despite the skyrocketing medical bills that, even with the lottery win, financially hurt us. I thank fate for that.

The biggest personal effect, honestly and most fascinating for me, is that winning the lottery divorced me from the traditional labor-reward nature of capitalist life. It didn’t make me lazy, exactly; it simply directed my energies in entirely different and more creative directions. Taking a summer to carve out ten short stories to my satisfaction seemed natural to me. So did attending the 2004 Presidential Inauguration with a leadership conference and studying abroad twice in college.

The money offered a chance for, as passé as the word sounds, enrichment. I earned sixty hours of college credit in high school since I never had to slave the hours away at a fast food place. That extra breathing room opened my mind to new possibilities and some new ambitions. I still don’t know how to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. It’s a bizarre reality to grow up in when an annual check just unerringly arrives each February. Nothing can convey how that changes priorities and a kid’s perception of life.

Then and now, I look around and countless people have more money than my family. We’re certainly not rich, though none of us have complaints. I’m not even sure what we’d do with more money.

Yet gambling and its hopeful reliance on fate permeate my family’s life. My 62-year-old mother still visits the boats with her brothers and sisters in St. Louis. She buys lottery tickets. When my maternal relatives, a Polish and Russian bunch, get together on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, they talk about gambling and the Catholic Church the whole time.

My recent visit to the Boonville casino didn’t spark any similar addiction in me. I liked winning back money I lost but it was far from divine.

It did trigger a few of these thoughts and memories. While we may be the architects of our own fates, living the one-in-a-million lifetime of a lottery win offers some refreshing distance and perspective from the constant frenzy to make ends meet and on what utter fate can do. Perhaps my life wouldn’t be too different without the win, but perhaps it would. I’ll never know and in the meantime only feel a real enthusiasm for escaping that past and leaping around the job market. My choices I control; the rest falls down to blind luck and hope.

I can only cross my fingers.

John Hendel is a young man living and writing somewhere in Missouri, usually pretending to be a journalist. His writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers, some local and some less so. He shares his birthday with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Kurt Vonnegut.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 21st, 2009.