Janice scraped off the metallic ink with her lucky nickel, revealing each number, one by one. The usual feeling of anticipation, the bottled up joy, bubbling in her heart, was waiting to pop as the numbers were exposed. She rubbed at each square, brushing the tiny curls of silver and black off the card, never looking directly at the numbers until they were all clear.
Every bit of the blind had to be neatly removed before she peeked. She wasn’t like some other lottery gamblers, who would take a few swipes just to see what was there, with no respect or regard for the beauty of the object. The ticket was almost clean now, this would be a winner, she was sure. Then, with a shallow breath, she looked at the numbers.
Nothing. Another losing ticket. She sighed and put it in the pocket of her jeans. She kept them all, the losers, to remind her of her efforts. Someday she’d take them, the instant scratch-off’s, the Power Balls, the Mega Millions, the daily Numbers, and burn them in a bonfire of celebration, when she won big. She smiled at that thought and picked up the iron to finish the week’s worth of shirts she was pressing for her husband, Bob. Smoothing out the white cotton, folding the collars just right, making sure the shoulders didn’t catch any wrinkles, she worked carefully. She tried to find some satisfaction in doing the shirts each week and she sometimes found it in the artistry of perfection. Although, let’s face it, she thought as she turned the collar down, it usually just felt like punishment. They ironed in prison too, didn’t they? She stopped for a moment to ponder that image. Suddenly she felt a tug at the shirt and the ironing board almost tipped over.
“What the heck?” she muttered. It was the cat, Jazzman. He had been pawing at the sleeve of the shirt and caught his nails in the cloth. Janice held the ironing board steady with one hand and untangled the cat with the other. He was always getting into something.
“Shoo, you silly cat.” She said gently. It had been her idea to get the cat when their three boys were young. She wanted a pet and thought she would counter the masculine/feminine balance in the house by getting a female cat. A kindred soul she could feel was on her side. They picked a cute kitten at the animal shelter and were told it was a female. They even named it Jasmine as they played with it there. The boys fell for the gray striped tabby immediately. But then as they filled out the paperwork, another worker told them it was a male. The boys wouldn’t choose another, they already had their hearts set on him. So they brought him home, changing his name to Jazzman. Janice sighed as she remembered. Her attempt had been futile. It was times like that when she felt there was no point in trying to influence her destiny. Let it come as it may.
It must’ve been about that time when she started to play the lottery, she thought as she worked on the last shirt. If destiny was that strong, then she would play the game. Buying her tickets had become such a part of her routine, she hardly remembered how it started. But that was then and this is today. Just another day in the long line of analogous days that made up her life.
But no, today is Tuesday, she thought and Tuesday is special. Tuesday is the day the Mega Millions number is announced. She always waited until Tuesday to buy her Mega Millions ticket. She never bought it in advance. Yes, it was part superstition, but she had another reason. Manny was behind the counter where she bought her tickets on Tuesdays. The steam rose from the iron and for a moment, as it enveloped her face and then dissipated, she felt the heat, like a blush. Or maybe it was the thought of Manny. He was the tall, dark and handsome owner of the store where she bought all her lottery tickets.
All In The Cards also sold greeting cards, gifts and magazines. Manny had a few employees that took most of the shifts at the register, but not on Tuesdays. Tuesdays it was always Manny. As Janice thought about him, working behind the counter, punching in her numbers so the machine would spit out her tickets, she felt almost dizzy. There was something about Manny that made her head spin. The way he spoke to her, so gently while he looked directly into her eyes. The way he laughed at her feeble attempts at humor. The way he handed her the tickets and said, “Good luck,” so warm and sincere. She’d never been unfaithful to Bob, but sometimes she thought, if Manny, if he ever made an advance…well that was probably about as likely as wining the lottery, wasn’t it?
Janice put on a clean blouse, a soft wine shade that brought out the rose in her cheeks, and looked in the mirror. Not bad for a broad of fifty-two she thought, and she smiled at herself. She brushed on a little eye shadow and mascara just enough to wake up her eyes. She and Bob had been married for thirty years and while she had been raising their three boys she’d all but stopped using make-up. In the last year or so since she and Bob had become empty nesters, she’d found the time to take better care of herself. She went to the gym almost every day, spent time buying clothes that fit her well and, yes, had even started using make-up again. Sometimes, as she stroked the mascara onto her lashes, she felt like a teenager. It felt like it had been that long.
On the drive over to All In The Cards, she contemplated the numbers she’d play. She needed six. Sometimes she played the birth months and days of her sons, sometimes her favorite numbers seven, eighteen and twenty-four, adding her birthday, four, fifteen, sixty. Some days she just told Manny to hit the random button and give her whatever numbers came out. What did it matter? If she was meant to win, she’d win. It wasn’t about having some kind of skill to pick the right numbers. It was either her destiny or it wasn’t.
She stopped at the last light before All In The Cards. Sitting there facing west, at the red light, thinking about seeing Manny, she almost missed noticing Bob’s car crossing right in front of her, traveling north on Washington Avenue. But wait, was it Bob’s car? He wasn’t alone. Well, why not? It was near the lunch hour, he was probably taking lunch with a co-worker from the bank. Janice’s red light turned green and she turned right, following Bob, with just a few cars between them. They drove a few blocks, All In The Cards was the next left. But Janice didn’t turn into the parking lot, she kept going straight. Bob’s car was still up ahead. The passenger was shorter than Bob, and had curly hair. Rather a lot of hair for a banker, Janice thought, unless it’s a woman. So, what? Bob could be having lunch with any of the other vice presidents or directors at the bank, and they weren’t all men.
They passed Dougie’s Pizza, D’Angelo’s Grilled Sandwiches, and the Friendly’s. What am I doing, she thought, is this wrong?
Bob’s car kept driving, and Janice kept following. They drove under the highway and she saw that he put his blinker on to turn left. He was turning into the Holiday Inn parking lot. Janice passed the hotel and kept driving north. Of course he must be having lunch at Harry’s Sports Grill inside the hotel. Why not? It was a perfectly good alternative. Bob loved their fish and chips. Janice turned right, into the abandoned parking lot of the State Fair grounds. Her wheels crunched gravel as she turned around and faced Washington Avenue to turn left, back towards All In The Cards. Traffic was light for lunchtime, and she pulled back onto the main road. It must be a special occasion for Bob to go to Harry’s Sports Grill, it was a little farther out of the way than he usually travelled for lunch. He must be with a client. That was it, of course, someone from out of town, maybe from the main office in the city, she thought as she drove ahead. Then suddenly Janice turned right into the Holiday Inn parking lot.
What am I doing, she thought to herself as she held her breath, circling the parking lot, half crouching under the steering wheel, looking for Bob’s car. It wasn’t near the restaurant entrance. She turned toward the back parking lot of the hotel, passing the line of midsize sedans and SUV’s. Suddenly she pulled over to the right and put on the brakes. Up ahead, walking away from her, was Bob and a woman. They had gotten out of the car and were walking toward the back entrance of the hotel. They were holding hands. Janice felt a tightening in her chest, and realized she had stopped breathing. She forced herself to inhale, then exhale. What was she seeing?
She racked her brain, how could this be happening? Had Bob been different lately? Had he pulled away from her? Was he acting differently? No, he was the same as he’d ever been. Bob was reserved and aloof, an introvert who didn’t talk much and was more comfortable with the boys than he ever had been with her. She had learned to accept their relationship, many years ago, and while sometimes it felt lonely, she had her own friends that seemed to make up for it. Bob never fought, he was generous, an attentive father and a good provider. He was great with the boys and never criticized her. All valuable elements in a long-term relationship, she had always thought. She had learned to be happy, in spite of the lack of what some people might call love.
But had she been happy? Had he? Apparently not! Janice pulled out of the parking lot with a chirp of her tires. Was this Anger? Disappointment? Jealousy? Maybe it felt more like Liberty. Did he want out of the marriage? Did she? Her indifference surprised her. She drove straight to the card shop.
Manny was behind the counter, as he was every Tuesday.
“Hi, Janice,” he smiled cheerfully as she entered the store. “How are you today?”
Janice walked up to the counter and smiled back at him. His dark eyes had a light in them that she never saw in Bob’s.
“I’m fine thanks,” she answered, “quite fine. And you?”
“I’m well, thanks.” Manny answered. He paused a moment, waiting for her to take the lead. But she was quiet, just looking at him and thinking how nice it was to be there, on a Tuesday, exchanging pleasantries with Manny. Maybe she was a little bit in shock. Maybe she was feeling the impact of her discovery about Bob. I don’t feel sad, she thought, I feel…open.
“Would you like to buy a lottery ticket today, Janice?” Manny asked. He was a bit perplexed by her silence. Janice was usually upbeat and chatty with him. They’d talked a lot in the past year, since she’d been coming in, and he looked forward to her visit on Tuesdays. In fact, he thought of her more as a friend than a customer.
“I don’t know, Manny,” Janice began. “I did come here to buy a lottery ticket, but…”
“But?” he said after the moment hung in the air. “Can’t think of the right numbers?”
She laughed. The right numbers, she thought, is there such a thing? He smiled without knowing why she laughed, but he didn’t mind.
“Manny,” Janice began.
“Yes, Janice?” Manny said.
“Actually, I don’t think I’ll need a lottery ticket today.” She said, surprising herself. “But I was wondering, sometime when you’re free, if maybe you’d like to have a cup of coffee with me. Or maybe lunch. No, wait, how about dinner.” Her smile grew wider. “In fact, Manny, are you free tonight?”