The biggest difference between Mexico and El Norte: the lottery.
My father once used all of our birthdays to try and win thirteen million dollars: 10,12,74,25,72,7. When he came up empty handed, his spirit was crushed. “No valen nada!” he said. “You all ain’t worth nothing.”
That summer, anything that went wrong with the place, the car that spoke in smog, my bike that shed parts like a snake, releasing bolts, nuts, loosing itself under the weight of it all, Pops stared at the situation and with a conviction that I had never seen, repeated, “Things wouldn’t be this way if I woulda won. They just wouldn’t.”
Pops changed his tune when the Mexicans, Mexicans of all people, kept appearing weekly on The Big Spin, a TV lottery show where participants spun a colorful wheel, hoping that the ping pong ball landed on red: the color of a new life.
“Chex,” my father yelled while filing his nails. “Fix the TV.”
“Ain’t no Checho here.” I checked my nose, made sure it wasn’t dripping blood. I wondered if my uncle drank from me, needed my blood to calm his throat. I took a sip from my water bottle. It tasted old, more like plastic than water. “Don’t call me that. I’m Penny.”
“Get your ass over here,” my dad yelled louder. “Quick, before it’s too late.”
I took the water bottle to the living room, the size of two janitor closets. I smacked the TV, the biggest thing in the house next to Pops, until the picture stopped shaking, but it was still fuzzy.
“First thing I do when I hit the lottery, guess what I’m a gonna do, Chex.” I worked the coat hanger. I ignored him.
“I’m a buy me a TV. A new one. Brand new.” He inspected his nails, thick and solid as nickels, blowing away dust. “Things wouldn’t be like this, you know. They just wouldn’t.” His heavy breaths made the hairs on his chest act like a wheat field on a windy day. “Hear me?”
“Yup,” I responded.
The host of the show asked the contestant, “What are you going to do if you win a million dollars?” The interpreter, a woman in a shiny red dress, wearing lipstick the color of pomegranate blood, repeated the words in Spanish. The people that looked like my father, worn by the sun, thick black hair, replied, “Ayudar a mi familia.” The interpreter would repeat to the host, “Take care of my family.” And the audience applauded so loud, the worn-out speaker inside the TV rattled.
“I think I know that guy,” my father whispered, inspected the dude on the TV, looking deep, trying to see the dude’s fingerprints or something. “I swear he looks familiar.”
Inspired by that contestant who my dad swore he knew on a small ranch in Mexico, he came home with two hundred lottery tickets. Since I signed his checks, I knew that the tickets had nearly swallowed his week’s worth of work.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he said, looking like he always did: scared and hopeful. “Scratch ’em till your nails bleed.” I wanted to run away with the tickets, all connected in sequence, make them fly like a kite tail. Even before we scratched, I had a feeling that nothing would be gained from it. Nothing at all.
Hector and I scratched. We studied each naked ticket, tried to find any winning combination. Even after the ticket was finished, I scratched out of anger, rubbing the numbers invisible until all that was left was a white, shredded paper.
“God damn,” said Hector. “We’ve scratched fifty, and I only got fifteen dollars; three five dollar tickets. What you got?”
I blew away the ticket scratch that looked like the remains of an eraser, trying to clear a big mistake. “Two dollars. Two bucks. Can you believe that?”
“Seventeen dollars. Fifty tickets,” he said. He had punched numbers in the calculator. He turned the calculator off. I took it and to ease the stress, told my brother a joke. “Check it. There’s one girl,” and I punched “1” on the calculator, “who was sixteen, got fucked sixty-nine times by three guys,” and the calculator screen read, “11669x3.”
“What was she,” I said, my finger on the equals button.
Hector looked right past me. He didn’t even listen.
I punched the equals sign: 35007. I turned the calculator upside down. “She was loose,” I said to myself.
My brother tapped his fingers against the table that curved to the weight of plastic roses covered in dust. We both stood silent, listened to the rats scratch their way in between the walls. Outside, children laughed and the jump rope beat the pavement.
“Here,” my brother gave me a five dollar ticket. “You got seven dollars now.”
“You ever heard that joke,” I said.
“Shut up and take the tickets. Let’s scratch.”
Had I won only two bucks, my father would have blamed me for the misfortune. It would have been my fault. Everything was. “Thanks.”
“You know what the odds are,” my brother said, scratching at the next fifty, “of winning the lottery?”
I listened but refused to answer.
“You know what they are? The odds?”
I took a sip of water and thought of another joke. I thought about our birthdays, mad that I wasn’t born on a date that could have won my father some money. I would have bought them a new sun. I thought about death, how each year we pass the day we are going to die. Like Checho, they said he died on July seventh. Every year of his life he passed his death date without knowing—32 times. I was born in October, when the night froze the rain puddles stiff enough to dance on. I had passed fifteen Octobers and each year, without knowing, the day I would die on would pass without warning.
Four hours. Two hundred lottery tickets. Seventy dollars.
“Should we go steal something?” I said. I had an image of myself walking towards the pawnshop as I carried a piano like an ant carrying a hollowed grasshopper carcass. I had dreams of having pockets the size of potato sacks, filled with money the size of greeting cards, embroidered with sequins, sparkling. The idea of getting money to protect our asses always came up. “What are we going to tell him?”
When I got bad grades, I lied and said it was the teacher. When my bike was stolen, left unattended outside the liquor store as I took my time deciding what flavored licorice to buy, I told him that the local thugs beat me up. I was a good liar given the right situation. As it stood, with the pudding right in front of us, the only lie I could think of was that the liquor store owner, the Arab, hated Mexicans. Or maybe we were just cursed by my uncle’s spirit.
“The hell with stealing. It’s like buying seventy dollars for two hundred.” Hector had the answer to math problems that made his forehead grow deep lines, as though the numbers subtracted away from his life. “I just don’t know.”
My nose bled.
My father got really religious when he bought lottery tickets. He went to mass, knelt right along with my mother, talked to people he normally ignored. He begged that Moms iron his clothes, insisted that poverty lived in wrinkles, laid eggs like cockroaches: one problem due to poverty was solved, six others hatched.
“Mijos,” my father said, returning from confession. When he was in a good mood, he put deodorant on. Maybe it was his foul smelling pits that put him in such a bad mood. There was something about the raw smell of Pops that announced danger. “How much?”
“How much?” my brother repeated, counting the tickets as though bucks.
I stood quiet, stared at the plastic roses, remembered when I bought them for mi ama for Mother’s Day. Three dollars, half a dozen. Moms didn’t say thank you, just took them and placed them inside an empty coke bottle. She hugged me and I felt like I was young enough to think the world was fine. I thought of a joke, the one about the blonde that looked at the carton of orange juice because it said, concentrate.
My father walked into the kitchen and looked at the two stacks of scratched lottery tickets on the table: the winning and the losing.
He didn’t say anything. I braced myself by clutching the end of the table. Hector took off his glasses, cleaned them, and set them on the table. I concentrated on the tickets, hoping I could change them into winning if I thought long and hard enough. I prayed.
“Seventy,” said my brother, squinting at my father. Although a nerd and a school boy, I admired my brother’s balls.
“Seventy?” repeated my dad. “Thass’ it?” He looked at the twelve winning tickets. “It looks like more, much more.”
“They’re almost all two’s,” I said, my voice shook. “Can you believe that?”
“Count them again,” he said, throwing the tickets in the air in disgust. “Go. Do it.”
My brother and I looked over the tickets again, hungry, scared that we weren’t going to eat for a while. My brother thumbed through all of the tickets, the end of his thumbs black. Pops looked over his shoulder. “Count ’em. Just count ’em. I want to see all two hundred.” Hector counted one hundred ninety three. I counted one hundred ninety seven but decided to keep it to myself. If we had one hundred ninety-nine, it was still a loss.
“Where are the other seven!” my dad demanded. I looked around the table, behind the toaster, in it, trying to find them. Stuff just happened to disappear around the house. After parking another bike outside to get a glass of water, I walked outside to find it missing. I lied and told my father I sold it.
“Are they in your pockets? Let me see both of your pockets,” my father demanded. Hector took his glasses from the table and wrapped them in napkins. “You all better find them.”
It didn’t matter. He was seventeen. He couldn’t cash them. I was thirteen. I couldn’t. My father was forty-seven. Mi ama, forty. My dog, Neto, thirteen in dog years. Was that it? Were those the numbers that could have saved us that night?
What were the odds?