It was a game unlike any other ever before played. Street people, Jesus people, homeless people, hungry people – all bartered, all begged, all borrowed and all stole for a chance to win a nationwide game of chance that had the same odds of winning as the one Vinnie the Gimp had run in my Dad’s old neighborhood back in the Fifties. Lotteries and bookies and numbers had come and gone before, but here was a game any man, woman or child could play and actually win vast, life-altering sums of money. Sure it was charity, but it was private industry at its best. We were saving the poor from themselves and turning a handsome profit. Had I not seen the money rolling in from all corners of the globe, I would not have believed it could be possible.
And yet, there it all was.
Before and after pictures of families posted like playbills on every street corner light pole, every bulletin board and even in the small town I had driven to see family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. Make no mistake; Kendalia was a small, isolated town in the middle of the Texas Hill Country. The neighbor’s guinea hens ran wild near the town’s only library – a double-wide that sat proudly next door to the neighborhood chapel. On the bulletin board right outside the sliding glass door entrance of the double-wide home of Kendalia’s literary class was the before and after black and white photograph of the Hauser family. Xerox-copied from another copy that someone had taken from a bulletin board in Sisterdale – that one probably copied, too – showing them all smiling brightly and confidently in front of the home of their new found wealth. They all seemed so happy standing in their new front yard, the carpet of grass already up to their ankles in height. Life would be very different for the Hauser’s now that they had moved from a land of limestone rock quarries, cedar trees and the often-unbearable Texas heat. I wondered why they would leave the small town they’d known for generations, but I reasoned that they thought Kendalia was a good place to be from.
As I rounded the last corner of the two-lane blacktop leading to and from this neglected little hamlet, the smell of turkey fat, cornbread stuffing and gravy made its way to my nose tucked safely behind the windshield of my little sports car. One very nice thing about living in Texas is that the top can stay down most of the year and this day was no exception. A perfect chill of Fall air chased away all traces of the Summer heat and humidity before it, leaving the sky a lovely shade of blue.
Pulling into the dirt and gravel driveway of my Aunt Grace’s tiny house, the smell of cooking bird was most intense. She may have been cooking for the whole town and, from the looks of things that was exactly what was happening.
“I need another three cans of condensed milk! Is that too much to ask,” Aunt Gracie pleaded. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Game is on, Gracie. We tol’ ya’ yesserday.”
“Oh c’mon…the bird’ll burn! Ain’t there a grateful man ‘mung ya’?”
“Aggie’s is a-losin’, Grace.” Faces hung low in the livingroom in front of the old 19-inch with the rabbit ears perched strategically on top.
“Well, lookie-here, boys! It’s cousin Pat from the City!” Aunt Gracie’s face lit up with a bright smile, slightly fewer teeth than the last time I saw her.
“Aunt Gracie, so good to see you,” we embraced, warmly, patting each other on our backs for having lasted as long as we had. “Smells so good coming in! You must have been cookin’ all day.” The smile ran off Gracie’s face with a flash of shame.
“I’m afraid I’ve gone and ruined the meal, Pat. I’ve run up against the game and I’m short some things.” Gracie grabbed her long apron to clean her hands and in a twist was headed back to the kitchen. Nearly forgetting my manners, I rocked back on my heels for a moment, and then I followed her past the swinging doors into the kitchen.
“Aunt Grace,” I started.
“Oh, I don’t know why I try so hard. One day outa the year and…”
“Stop,” I grabbed her by the shoulders, and, as she spun in perfect Scarlet O’Hara fashion, my index finger went right to her lips. “I’ll go into Comfort to Super S and get what you need. Just give me a list and I’m gone.”
“You were always such a good boy.” Her arms surrounded me in another hug, this time without the patting; this time, she was falling into me.
“Not a problem, Grace. I’m a ‘horns fan, anyway.”
Times had not been kind to the rural fans of the Bush Family. Backing out of the driveway and heading farther down the road towards Comfort, I could see the familiar look of alternating stubbornness and disbelief on the faces heading up to Gracie’s for Thanksgiving dinner. Five years after the last crash and these people would rather be dead than admit they’d been taken as tender-hearted fools. With pinpoint accuracy.
The road into Comfort is a pretty drive in itself, so my selflessness was not entirely without motive. But I wasn’t able to enjoy the rolling hills and curves as much as usual; all the old farmhouses were boarded-up. All the families had either won the Lottery and left, or just left outright. The Lottery was a blessing, but it was also a curse. The Lottery sounded so good at first, such a perfect solution – but everything comes at a price. I and my family would be fine, but the families that had spent generations passing land down to their children and grandchildren were relegated to abject poverty. The droughts left the topsoil bleached and barren, so a prize steer could walk for hours trying to get enough to graze. Those who were close enough to water to irrigate couldn’t get any seed that would produce a second crop. Those who had saved their seed from years past were priced out of the market. Every agricultural solution had been perfectly globalized to return an optimum corporate profit, leaving those who loved and cherished the soil on which they were born completely unable to support themselves. The only ranchers making a decent living were running corporate farms – de facto sharecroppers with a 401K.
“Paper or plastic,” the young girl at the end of the checkout counter asked as she bagged Gracie’s groceries.
“Better make it paper this time,” I answered.
“You thinkin’ a-startin’ a fire,” the checkout girl asked, a smirk appearing at the corner of her mouth.
“No, ma’am. But my aunt might. In her fireplace.”
“Well, you just be careful now, here.”
“You want some Lottery tickets to go with those good looks?”
“No, ma’am. I can’t play.”
“No, ma’am…I work for them. If I win, I couldn’t….” She stared right into my eyes batting her lashes in perfect southern fashion.
“You could just buy a couple for a po’ ol’ shop girl, now, couldn’t ya’?” The girl doing the bagging at the end of the counter practically threw the rest of my groceries into a bag and onto my cart, walking off in disgust.
“I’m not in the habit of buying Lottery tickets for just anyone, ma’am.”
“So who would you buy Lottery tickets for, Mr. Lottery Man?” Not the arched neck with the palms turned up and into the counter look. Not that.
“A respectful, kind-hearted Texas woman who just wouldn’t think of saying, ‘No.’ Have any idea where I might find one of those?” Here we go again.
“I just might. Come back around 6 and I’ll take you to meet her.”
“I just might do that.”
“A smart man would.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“I’ll see you.”
I waved my arm as I left, more for surrender than anything else. I wouldn’t be back and she knew that already. This was just a sporting exchange between players – a warm-up. The real victim was the shop girl’s boss who was likely watching us from any one of several camera angles behind the one-way glass at the back of the store. She had him but good. I was lucky I got off with just a flesh wound. That poor son of a bitch would pay and pay right through her fortieth birthday. Maybe beyond. I’d be right there with him, but I just got tired of handing out cash and prizes to every woman with the good sense to take me up on my hormone-laden offers. One good woman is all any man needs. If he wants for anything after that, he’s either a masochist or just not paying attention. They have professionals for one of those conditions and for the rest there is Provigil.
[to be continued….]