Short Story / Writers / Writing

Numbers by Rae Spencer

            On Tuesday night the cashier waited patiently while Edward thumbed through a fistful of receipts and discount cards. Edward mumbled an apology, which the cashier didn’t acknowledge, and groped deeper into his jacket pocket. He felt the stiff edge of his driver’s license and the peeling face of his Medicare card. A few soft bills slithered away from his fingers, but he managed to catch one by the fold and tug it free. A five, which just covered the cost of his frozen lasagna and Agnes’s lottery ticket.
            Edward would have preferred to buy a week’s worth of lasagna, rather than stopping every night after work, but he didn’t have room in the freezer. During Agnes’s illness and after her funeral there had been a deluge of casseroles. His sister had wrapped the extras in foil and stored them in the freezer, but she neglected to leave instructions for thawing and reheating. Those foil-wrapped dishes still squatted in his freezer, crusted over with four years of rime.
            Unlike the foil enigmas in his freezer, frozen lasagna came with clear instructions—cut a slit in the plastic, microwave on high, let sit for a minute before eating. Edward’s doctor kept recommending healthier meals, and Edward kept meaning to check the boxes on either side of the lasagna in the freezer case, but Tuesday night he was too tired to bother. So he bought the lasagna and ate his scalded supper straight from its plastic tray before settling into his recliner with a book of New York Times crossword puzzles. At ten P.M., he turned on the television.
            The late news began with a car accident, one fatality. A weather update, hot. A commercial break, used cars. Then the cheerful lottery hostess appeared, wearing her clumsy headset. Edward smiled and wished she could see that he was returning her smile. He wished she didn’t have to wear the bulky, out-of-date headset. Its earphones crushed her hair and the spongy mike hid one side of her mouth.
            She stood between two glass tanks that teemed with numbered ping-pong balls. White balls in the tank on the right, yellow on the left. The camera zoomed close as the drawing began, focusing on the first tank’s opening, where air-propelled balls popped through one by one. The hostess straightened them for the camera, turning each number toward the screen.
            Edward liked her smooth hands and red-polished nails.
            “Tonight’s first number is 7.”
            “25, 41, and 14.”
            Two white balls collided near the tank’s exit, then “13.”
            The hostess turned to her second tank. A single selection finished the drawing. “And your final number is 2. Good luck, and we hope to see some of you soon with your winning tickets.” She smiled brightly until she faded from screen.
            Agnes would have been miserable, near tears with frustration. Each number was one too high. 7-13-14-25-41 (2). Not Agnes’s numbers, which were her birthday, June 13, 1940, and their wedding anniversary, Christmas Eve 1961. 6-12-13-24-40 (1). Agnes had played the same lottery numbers for two decades. Edward overheard her, once, telling a friend that she would have used the children’s birthdays, if she and Edward had been able to have children. Not that she minded, anymore, not having children. And what did it matter, really, which numbers she chose, as long as she stuck with them.
            Tuesday’s numbers were the closest Edward could remember, and the near miss made his week feel shorter than usual. He bought Friday’s ticket and lasagna with more enthusiasm than usual and had trouble concentrating that evening. He finished only two crosswords before the drawing.
            Friday’s newscast started with a stock market update, trading was down. The weather, still hot. Edward fidgeted through a teaser about lettuce contamination and a furniture sale commercial. By the time the lottery hostess appeared, he was scolding himself for feeling so excited. How silly, to get worked up over a lottery drawing. Agnes had been the one who loved the lottery, not Edward. And there was the heavy headset again! Why didn’t they give her a new headset?
            Then the number 13 appeared, and he couldn’t help holding his breath. He didn’t breathe through 25, 41, 14, and 7. He didn’t breathe as the yellow 2 rolled into place.
            “Good luck, and we hope to see some of you soon with your winning tickets!” Her gleaming smile seemed to linger as Edward began breathing again.
            The used car commercial blared overloud, flashing red and yellow through the room. Edward stared at his ticket. Each number only one off. Tuesday’s numbers. Again. How odd. The hostess hadn’t seemed to notice. Maybe she was just doing her job, smiling at the camera until she could take off the uncomfortable headset and go home.
            Saturday morning headlines were all lottery. Twenty-four hour news networks led with “the great lottery scandal”. Edward thought these stories might have had more bite if someone had won, but no winning tickets had been sold. The jackpot rose.
            Sunday morning he watched two mathematicians argue over the odds of sequential lottery drawings yielding identical numbers. He considered checking their calculations. After all, he was a CPA. Numbers were his occupation. But it was Sunday, and he needed to tidy the kitchen and bath.
            Agnes would have settled in front of the television and said everything else could wait. Then again, nothing would have needed tidying in the first place. In Agnes’s house there had been no damp towels on the bathroom floor, no crumbs on the kitchen counter, and no casseroles in the freezer.
            Mid-morning, someone interviewed the lottery hostess. Edward’s idle dishrag dripped on the floor as he stood in front of the small kitchen television. She was even more attractive without her headset, just as he had imagined. He smiled when she said, “I didn’t realize what was happening. I’m not allowed to play, so I don’t pay attention from one drawing to the next. I just concentrate on making sure I read the numbers right.”
            The lottery news kept time running at its new, quickened pace. Two of the younger accountants in Edward’s office had checked the statisticians’ numbers, which prompted everyone else to check their numbers, and no two answers agreed. They spent much of Monday and Tuesday debating the various methods of calculation and making far-fetched predictions for when the numbers might come around again.
            Tuesday night Edward meant to shop for something other than lasagna, but he felt too impatient and ended up with lasagna again. He finished one crossword and started another, then gave up and turned on the television early. He caught the last fifteen minutes of a singing competition and thought the youngest singer, a teenage girl with short hair and square-rimmed glasses, was quite good. Then the news came on, and finally the lottery. Edward closed his recliner and scooted forward. The lottery hostess had company.
            “Good evening. Because of the extreme rarity of Friday night’s results, we have a special guest monitoring tonight’s drawing. Here’s Mr. James Whitfen, of the overseeing body that administers security for the lottery.”
            A tall thin man with receding blonde hair and half-rimmed eyeglasses, Mr. James Whitfen’s stern presence crowded the familiar, friendly lottery hostess. He took up space she needed for her ungainly headset. A modern, streamlined mike clung to his lapel.
            Edward grunted when the first ball rolled into the tube. The hostess squeaked into her mike. Mr. Whitfen cleared his throat.
            “hrhm… 7.”
            Then, louder, “HRHM… 13”
            Mr. Whitfen lifted his glasses to look under them. “Wow, is this ever irregular. 14.”
            Mr. Whitfen pulled down his glasses to look over them. “25. 41.” And then, as if he had forgotten the live telecast, he mumbled, “I’ll be damned.”
            Edward cheered and clapped. So did the lottery hostess. Static erupted as she whipped off her headset, elbowed Mr. Whitfen aside, and straightened the numbers with shaking hands. Her nails were brilliant pink.
            When the yellow 2 appeared, it wasn’t even a surprise.
            Mr. Whitfen coughed and cleared his throat again. “It goes without saying that a thorough investigation is in order.”
            Fifteen thousand eight hundred and ninety-one winning tickets had been sold.
            The lottery suspended drawings while the FBI investigated. A Senate hearing was scheduled. The winners made rounds on talk shows and local news stations. Their winnings were modest, but they were the crazy, or brave, individuals who bought numbers that had already hit twice in a row. Besides the winners there were conspiracy theorists, mathematicians, statisticians, CPA’s, religious leaders, quantum physicists, UFO skeptics and believers, politicians, mystery writers, and professional gamblers.
            Edward could hardly wait to get home each night and turn on the television, all the televisions, so he wouldn’t miss anything between rooms. He kept all three of his lottery tickets pinned to the refrigerator with a magnet.
            One man from Edward’s hometown produced a winning ticket the man claimed had been generated by the automated system, causing a new uproar among statisticians. But the cashier who had sold this man his ticket came forward to say the man was lying. Security tape confirmed the cashier’s story, clearly showed the man marking a card. Then the cashier made her own round of talk shows, watching the tape over and over with various hosts and audiences. She was young and confident, a student working her way through college. No one ever made her wear a bulky headset.
            Meanwhile, Edward conducted his usual routine with unusually high spirits. He called his sister, on or near her birthday, and learned she had argued with her husband because she wanted to buy the magic numbers, but Charles talked her out of it. That piece of information worried Edward. He tried to imagine Agnes saying, “Let’s go for it, Edward! Let’s try these other numbers.” He couldn’t. Instead she laughed, as she would have done when she was alive. It was easier to imagine her saying, “I’ll change my numbers when you agree to retire. Which means never!”
            He watched Senate hearings and listened to broadcasts that detailed the final Senate report, which confirmed the findings of every other investigative body. There had been no discernable irregularities. The drawings were simply a statistical rarity. A fluke. No arguments could be made against re-instating the lottery.
            The teenage girl finished second in the singing competition, and Edward wrote her name on the cover of his crossword dictionary. He wanted to buy her first album, if she ever recorded one.
            As much as Edward enjoyed the commentary and special reports, and the singing competition, he missed the lottery hostess. And somehow he missed Agnes more during those months. Her death had always been unfair. It was doubly so now. She would have loved the commotion.
            Christmas Eve fell on Tuesday, and lottery officials lauded the “happy circumstance” when they announced that drawings would resume on December 24th. Turmoil greeted the first day of ticket sales, despite the modest starting jackpot. Gaggling lines formed. Talk shows and news stations conducted long debates and sent reporters into the field. They interviewed realists, who bought tickets as usual, and faith buyers, who stuck with 7-13-14-25-41 (2).
            On Christmas Eve, Edward stood in line for three hours to buy his ticket. His lasagna thawed completely, but he didn’t care. He enjoyed the carnival-atmosphere wait and wished a news crew would film him standing in line. Agnes would have spoken the wish out loud.
            The woman in front of him, Martha, wanted the Numbers of Faith. Tiffany, the girl behind him, did not. Martha and Tiffany talked incessantly, discussing intricate theories that revealed the Faith Numbers in biblical codes, in the Declaration of Independence, and in Mr. James Whitfen’s grandchildren’s birthdates.
            Martha and Tiffany asked Edward what numbers he would buy, and, to his surprise, he told them. Somewhat shocked by his eagerness, he told complete strangers about his wife’s lottery numbers. When they pressed, he told them about Agnes’s cancer.
            Martha squinted at him. “You’re a good man, aren’t you? And she was a good woman?”
            “I don’t know about the first part, but Agnes was the finest woman who ever lived.”
            And Edward cringed at his tears.
            Martha fussed in her purse while he fished in his pocket. Tiffany patted his arm while he wiped his eyes. They all stooped to retrieve his receipts, which fluttered free when he found his handkerchief.
            As Martha reached the counter, she dropped her tissue, picked it up, dropped her keys, picked them up, and shredded her lottery cards. She snatched a blank card and scribbled new numbers.
            The cashier, who maybe once had been young but now just looked tired, pursed her lips, fingers drumming. She glanced at Edward, to see if he would complain about the delay, then rolled her eyes when he shrugged.
            When Martha handed over a five-dollar-bill, it fell behind the counter. The cashier swore, seemingly beyond polite limits, and bent to retrieve the bill while Martha showed Edward her card: 6-12-13-24-40 (1). She said, “You don’t mind, do you?”
            Still tearing, Edward smiled. “No. Agnes wouldn’t mind, either.”
            While the cashier counted Martha’s change, Martha told her about Agnes, about Agnes’s numbers, and how Edward loved Agnes so much, still, that he stayed with her numbers even in the face of what might have been a miracle. Around the edges of Martha’s outburst, Edward heard Tiffany telling the next person in line about Agnes’s numbers.
            The exhausted cashier glowered. Martha clutched her tissue, took her ticket, and waltzed out of the store. Then the cashier snapped at Edward, “Are you crazy, too?”
            Edward beamed. “Yes. One ticket please.” He handed over his card, marked 6-12-13-24-40 (1).
            As he left with his ticket, he heard Agnes’s numbers follow him down the line. All the way home, he wondered why he didn’t feel guilty about Martha, who bought Agnes’s numbers because he had cried. He worried the idea until lottery time.
            There was a new hostess. Too young, she glittered too much for Edward. Her hair hung straight and glossy, unencumbered. A neat mike hid on her collar, disguised as a button. For a moment, Edward was so disappointed he nearly turned off the television.
            Then he watched in amazement as Agnes’s numbers floated into the tube. 6-12-13-24-40. After that, the yellow 1 wasn’t even a surprise.
            The next morning, television and radio rioted with a new lottery scandal.
            “Fifty-five winning tickets were sold at the same store, by the same cashier, within a single one-hour period last night. Lottery officials promise to look into the situation and have suspended the lottery indefinitely pending investigation. No winnings will be awarded until the investigation is complete.”
            They showed a photo of the scowling cashier. They showed a live shot of the store, packed with reporters.
            Edward heard Agnes laughing, her big laugh that sometimes made her snort and ask, “Did I embarrass you? Do you wish I wouldn’t laugh?” Her laughter followed him as he walked into the kitchen, opened his freezer, and began tossing casseroles into the trashcan.
                                                                                    ***
Rae Spencer is a writer and veterinarian living in Virginia. Her poetry has been published in print and online, receiving multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. She can be found on the web at raespencer.com.

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