Kathleen McClain – "Thousands of Chances to Win"

Every Saturday at 7:00 AM, Janine would pick up her mother Lydia and they’d drive in Janine’s old Chevy Malibu to the Food King for Lydia’s groceries. Both liked to get in early before the crowds.

A big woman, Lydia used the grocery cart instead of her cane to support herself while she lumbered down the aisles, swaying back and forth as if on treacherous seas. She carefully examined whatever was on special, but usually bought the same things: milk, eggs, bacon, bread, canned soup, cake mix, whatever fresh fruit and vegetables were cheapest, chicken thighs, some lunch meat, maybe a pork chop.

At the check out, the clerk would always ask, “Mrs. Dawson, you want Cash Five and Powerball today?” and Lydia would say, “Yes, ma’am, I do.” Some days Janine would just look disgusted and not say anything. Other days, she would say, “Now, Mamma, you know you’re just wastin your money. You know you’re never going to win nothin.” And Lydia would say, “These tickets buy me a lot of dreams.”

After Janine brought in the groceries, Lydia would always give her some money for gas and a little extra. Sometimes before the daughter would leave, her mother would say, “Janine, you need to get you a better job.”Janine would frown and irritation would seep into her voice. “Mama, we been through this a hundred times. I don’t got any education. The Quick Stop is close to me and I only have to work the hours the kids is in school.” Then she’d drive home to her kids and their favorite babysitter, Janine’s boyfriend Bobby.

After putting away her groceries, Lydia would sit in her favorite chair, which long ago had shaped to her generous figure, and think about what she would buy with the twenty million or two hundred million Powerball jackpot, or maybe the fifty thousand Cash Five. A house for Janine and her kids. For her son James, his own car repair shop. A trip for the whole family to Disneyworld. Maybe a Cadillac. She didn’t drive but her kids would drive her around in it. Maybe she’d go to Minnesota to visit her sister for a while. Maybe she’d even go to some other country, like England. On Saturday nights she’d stay up until eleven to see the winning numbers.

She’d won $100 once. James was having a rough patch then so she gave it to him. She didn’t know how Janine and James would get by without her helping out with a few dollars now and then.

In September, Lydia was diagnosed with cervical cancer. By November, Janine had to go to the grocery store for her mother. Lydia never asked Janine to buy her lottery tickets, and Janine never did. Then in December, the doctor told Lydia she probably only had another month or two. That Saturday when Janine returned from the grocery store, she stood before Lydia and, face flushed, handed her two lottery tickets. “Here, Mama. I’m sorry I didn’t get you none before.”

Janine and her little ones were staying with Lydia now because Lydia couldn’t do for herself anymore. That night Janine stayed up to watch the lottery results, hoping her Mama would win. The Powerball numbers rolled down the tube: 49. Mama had that. 52. She had that, too. 26. Janine couldn’t believe it. Mama had 26! 14. Janine jumped up, dancing around the room. She’d let her oldest, Leticia, aged eleven, stay up, and Janine grabbed her daughter’s hands and they danced together. Then the next ball came down. 16. Janine stood still and dropped Leticia’s hands. Mama didn’t have 16. But, there was still the Powerball. 44. Mama didn’t have that either.

The four numbers meant Mama had won $100. Janine was disappointed but the news might still perk Mama up. She went into her mother’s room to wake her. But Lydia wasn’t to be wakened. She had slipped away while the balls were rolling down their tube.

Janine was so broken up James had to make the funeral arrangements. Janine and Lydia often disagreed but the daughter really loved her mama. At the funeral, friends and neighbors filled every seat in the tiny church. It made Janine feel proud.

Lydia left Janine her 1950’s two-bedroom, one bath house. This was truly a blessing because the mortgage had long ago been paid off. And Janine had the added expense of a babysitter since she had gotten herself a new job close to Lydia’s home. Lydia left James the $1400 she had managed to put away for family emergencies. James had a decent-paying job now and was buying a house of his own.

*****

“Don’t forget to check all them kitchen cupboards,” Janine shouted to Leticia. Then she carried a box of toys out the front door of the faded aqua mobile home.

“What about the rest of the furniture?” said Bobby as he put Janine’s rocker in the bed of his pick-up.

“Leave it for my slimy landlord. I got Mama’s things.”

Loud rock music blared across the entire mobile home court. A couple of teenaged boys with their pants hanging so low you could see their butts watched them.

“I’m glad you’re movin out of here,” Bobby said. “It ain’t safe.” He paused, looking at the boys. “I bet they break in here tonight.”

“I don’t care,” Janine said as she put the box in her car trunk. Leticia came running outside. “Climb in,” Janine said. Smiling, the three children tumbled in.

On Monday when she started at the Food King, it seemed funny to be working at the place she’d always taken Mama. The pay was better than at the Quick Stop, and there were even some benefits.

“Hello, Mrs. Amos,” Janine said as she rang up the old woman’s groceries.

“Hello, Janine. It’s nice to have new young folks in the neighborhood.”

“I hope the kids don’t bother you none.”

“No, they’s fine kids. Mind, now, you don’t forget my Powerball ticket.”

It didn’t seem long before it was December, a year since Lydia’d died. Janine was thinking about her Mama as she watched the young Hispanic man ring up her few groceries. Impulsively she said, “Give me a Powerball ticket, Carlos.”

“Si, Ms. Brown.”

That night she watched the winning numbers roll down the tube. She had three numbers. She’d won $7. The next week she bought both a Powerball and a Cash Five ticket but didn’t win anything.

On a Saturday night a few weeks later, Janine filled the cart with a week’s worth of groceries before she left work. As the young man checked her out, she said, “Don’t you forget my lottery tickets, Carlos.”

He looked up and smiled. “I don’t, Ms. Brown.”

She smiled back. “Those tickets might just send my kids to college. Maybe get me a new car.”

“I’m hearing you, Ms. Brown.”

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