Games of Chance
Four rejection letters arrive in less than eight hours. A frustrated new low surges through me. Why couldn’t I just get real already? Accept that I was unlikely to win at the publishing game? To somehow change my expectations—to be a little more oblivious—so that I could keep going in spite of the losses? Funny, but the situation made me think of my dad. He could never face the odds either. But the games he played were much costlier than my own.
As a child, I helped my mom with the grocery shopping each weekend. After winding our way through aisles of milk, bread and bananas—Mom always hypervigilant about what actually made it into the cart, a cost/need analysis performed on every item, aside from the carton of cigarettes we picked up for Dad—our journey culminated at the emerald green lottery machine by the exit. Mom bought several tickets, playing the numbers Dad gave her, purchasing a Quick Pick or two—depending on the size of the jackpot and Dad’s instructions—then selecting her own numbers, maybe even letting me choose a few.
Mom played the games because it was important to Dad, because he commanded her to do so. Dad played the games like a religion—because he believed.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Oregon State Lottery had just been voted into existence in 1984, fully launching when I was six years old, on April 25, 1985. Within the first twenty-four hours of operation, the number of ticket sales (approximately three million) exceeded the entire population of the state (2.7 million). My parents, spurred on by my dad’s fervor, caught lotto fever from the very beginning.
I’ve been thinking about my father’s undaunted confidence lately—how for twenty-eight years he never doubted he was on the verge of winning— and wondering: What would it feel like to have just a drop of his unflappable faith applied towards my own pursuits in publishing? Was there something buried deep within, a lesson ready for extraction, from his seemingly nonsensical steadfastness?
Mom and Dad entered both drawings each week—Oregon’s Megabucks and the national jackpot, Powerball—and gave scratchers for presents at birthdays and Christmas. For one dollar a piece, the lottery machine spat out rectangular slips of salmon-colored paper with faint grey numbers imprinted on them. Even as a kid, I never assumed those random assortments of digits had the power to reverse our fortune. I figured we probably had better luck with more practical tactics, like wishing wells and birthday candles.
A discarded pile of losing tickets and scratched off scratchers could always be found lying about—in Dad’s car tucked behind the sun visor and shoved into the glove box, or nestled onto counters in between his prescriptions and pens and keys—the thought being that one day the lottery would manifest our destiny. One day our lives would change for the better; one day we would be winners. Well, that’s what Dad said.
He never took the losses to heart and never grew discouraged, even with the best odds of any of the lottery games he played being 1 in 250,000. His belief transcended logic.
Not long ago, I submitted an essay to a journal that had a less than 1% acceptance rate. The thought struck me that I must possess some of my father’s ability to discount probabilities. That there must be some piece of me that actually thinks I have a chance of being chosen—of “winning”—otherwise, why would I submit?
People might say getting published is nothing like playing the lottery. That if one works hard and gets better, results will follow. But talent aside, there’s also the subjective taste of editors, how one’s writing fits in with others, if a journal happened to recently accept a similar piece. So many extraneous factors needing to align, it does start to feel like I’m playing my own form of lottery, hoping for an impossible combination of perfect circumstances.
The Washington jackpot had soared to new heights and Dad knew this was going to be The One. On Mom’s singular afternoon off, he sent her on a journey across state lines for lottery tickets.
The drive up to Washington took over an hour. The wait in the parking lot while Mom procured the tickets seemed to take equally as long. I sat in the backseat of the car, eight years old and antsy. My brother, seven years my senior, sat in the front seat, while Mom entered a low-slung building with deteriorating clapboard siding, a glowing neon sign on the exterior indicating the establishment was an authorized lottery vendor.
Staring out the window at the dusty pavement, engines revving as cars came and went, the scent of exhaust hanging in the air, I kept hoping for time to skip ahead on fast forward, so we could get on with our lives. Our time together for anything beyond completing chores was limited. Why couldn’t we have spent the day at a park or the movies?
Every time the door to the bar swung open, it allowed a glimpse into the gaping black hole of the tavern’s interior. When Mom finally emerged from the vortex, a cloud of smoky air followed. Her brow furrowed, irritation dripped from her voice, “Let’s get out of here. The line in there for tickets was ridiculous.”
Over the years, Oregon voters have elected to use a percentage of lottery funds for public programs. Whenever my father learned about the passing of some new legislation, siphoning off lottery revenue for education or state parks, he’d lament, “The state is really screwing us over. The money we put into the lottery is supposed to go back into the winnings, and they keep taking more and more out for this other stuff.”
Although the Oregon State Lottery’s website says a cross-section of people play the various games, I’m doubtful of that fact. Sure, there might be a couple middle class constituents who purchase scratchers in a tongue-in-cheek way as a gag gift or an office crew who go in on a pool when the jackpots get high, but these are not the people who sustain the lottery. The lottery is propped up by a working-class congregation of folks exhibiting unqualified devotion to the idea these games will transform their existence: people like my dad who thought there was nothing more sensible than inserting a dollar bill into a vending machine in order to turn life’s hardships into luxury. Because if that didn’t work, what other options existed?
Dad stood in the kitchen while I sat eating my breakfast, thirteen years old at the time, no longer a child and three years past Dad’s initial deadline of becoming a millionaire. He’d sworn the lottery would come through for him by the time he turned fifty. As Dad passed this notable milestone, no closer to lavish wealth than at any other point in his life, he still proclaimed millionaire-dom was in his future, but he’d dropped the specific timeline.
Dad rifled through the newspaper, searching for the previous night’s drawing. “Any day now,” he informed me, “my numbers are going to come up.”
By then, I’d spent seven years watching my parents dump a minimum weekly allotment of $5-20 into the lottery void. But how could they spend this $5-20 each week when I wasn’t permitted indulgences like fudge-covered Oreos or name-brand shampoos because these products were deemed too expensive for our household budget?
I couldn’t stand it anymore. In a very practical, grown up sort of way, I said, “You don’t really believe that do you? You know you’re not really going to win the lottery, right?”
Surely, I couldn’t be telling him anything new.
Dad slammed his open palm against the counter. His 6’ 3” frame shaking, face flushed red. He bellowed, “Great! You just jinxed me!”
As terrifying and unexpected as his fury was, it was flattering in a way too. To think that I held the power to invalidate his years of hard work, tithing to the lottery gods.
I recently heard an anecdote about a well-established author who received thirty rejections on a piece before it was accepted for publication—and that the work ultimately went on to win a Pushcart Prize. Not that I think any such thing is going to happen to me, but the story made me remember there can be hope in the publishing process, in perseverance. That betting on oneself—on the value of one’s work—is a gamble worth taking.
“What can we do to get more money?” Mom demanded, accosting my dad about their future, trying to jolt him from his typical complacency. “I don’t want to keep working forever,” she said, her desperation filling the space between them, the thought of one-more worried, sleepless night, one more over-stretched day, racking up a hefty toll. “Don’t you ever think about retirement?”
Dad just shook his head blithely, as if, like Peter Pan, he’d never grow to an age when a word like “retirement” would apply to him. But Mom was already fifty by then; and Dad was pushing fifty-seven—leaving those Lost Boys well behind.
The next morning, Mom stood in the kitchen, her feet shuffling against the faded vinyl floor, completing her tasks under one dim sink light (always moving in near-darkness, since less electricity meant a lower bill).
Dad approached her: “I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I have a plan.”
She paused, mid-wiping of the yellow Formica counters, mid-loading of the dishwasher, mid-preparation of her day’s sack lunch (a swipe of peanut butter on bread or some leftover soup from the night before): “You do?” A sense of relief seemed to wedge its way into her bones, into her blood. Maybe she’d thought he would share ideas about getting a second job, or how to identify a high-interest savings account. “What is it?” she inquired, allowing an optimistic expectation to seep into her voice.
“We can play Keno,” Dad responded, his manner assured. The assumption being that the addition of a new game would diversify their “portfolio.”
Mom turned her back to him, shoved her lunch into a bag and left for work.
Although his conviction in the lottery remained unwavering until the end, my father passed away as in debt as ever. Not long ago, I paid a visit to the Mill Casino on the Oregon Coast, the trip offering a kind of homage to him and our family. Dad was a homebody, and the regional casinos were the only places we could get him to visit with any enthusiasm. After I moved out, the casino buffet served Mom and Dad their Thanksgiving meal. The casinos provided my brother with his steadiest employment.
Walking through the gaming floor at the Mill Casino, the establishment brimmed with people hunched over the beaming lights of modern-day slot machines and video poker screens. People rooted in place. Smoking. Coughing. Tired eyes. Starting another round the moment the last one finished. Hoping. Waiting. That was not a cross-section of the State. Those were the underpaid, the underemployed, the underinsured. I felt both an immediate kinship (a subtle desire tickled my fingers, to pause and slip a dollar into one of the machines for old times’ sake), and an equally intense urge to flee the smoke-filled cavern—tears already welling in my eyes—and never look back. I recognized those people, my people. The lifeblood of the lottery system.
And in some form, that same lifeblood continues to course through me. The blood that allows me to hold out hope for something greater, seemingly just beyond my reach, and disregard facts that clearly indicate an impossibility.
But these days, when I receive a rejection note—saying my writing is not the right fit, best of luck elsewhere—I’ve started quietly sliding the message out of my inbox, archiving it for future reference if needed. Tempering my emotions of self-doubt and disappointment by re-playing the words of my father. How, after he’d compared his numbers to the weekly drawing and confirmed their losing status, he placed the tickets to the side of the kitchen counter or folded them back into his pocket, forgetting them there, and simply said, “Well then, next week.”
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in Full Grown People, Pithead Chapel, Arkana, and elsewhere. Games of Chance is her second appearance in Longridge Review. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com