The truth was that Ruth Hennessey from the Stanton New Covenant Community Church was on her way with two bags of groceries from the food pantry and a check from the women’s guild to tide us over until my mom got her paycheck.
The truth was that my mom was whipping up a molasses ginger cake with maple frosting for my thirteenth birthday. Of course, all the ingredients weren’t edible until mixed together and baked, so I wasn’t counting the flour, eggs, and other stuff that went into it. Until the cake was finished, all we had were corn flakes. No milk either. Just the cereal.
“Did we win anything yet?” asked Mom. A halo of flour dust surrounded her as she dumped cupfuls into a mixing bowl.
I scratched off the second number on the Bingo Birthday Bash lottery ticket. “Just started,” I said.
Swiping at the sweat drops tickling my eyelid, I studied the grid of twenty numbers to use on the four bingo cards. It was hot for June. The small kitchen with its one window facing east drew in the early morning sun and all the heat that radiated off the Super Pantry parking lot next door to our house.
“That’s what I like about those things,” said Mom. “They take forever to scratch. Like you’re getting your money’s worth.” Her back was to me, so she talked over her shoulder, while her whole body shook with the effort of mixing. She stood on her tiptoes while she scraped the sides of the bowl free of batter.
I scratched away, my new charm bracelet clinking on the tabletop. Mom made it for me, a bracelet with baseball charms — a bat, baseball, a bear cub.
Across from me, my little sister, J.C., sighed. “I’m going crazy with all that scratching and jangling.” Her hand shot out, trying to swipe my lottery ticket, but I pulled it away just in time.
“Calm down,” I said. “It’s always all about you, you, you.” I leaned on the wobbly table to keep scratching. That made J.C.’s pencil dash across her workbook, ripping the page.
“J.C., go to your room if you need quiet,” said Mom.
“It’s too hot in there.”
Mom glanced at me as she slid the pan into the oven. “Just think, if that ticket’s a winner, maybe next year we could rent one of those party rooms − what do they call them? SkyBoxes, that’s it − at Wrigley Field for an early birthday present on opening day? How’d that be?”
“That’d cost a zillion dollars,” J.C. grumbled.
Mom gave her a look. “She’s worth it. Just like you.”
“I love being queen for the day,” I mumbled loud enough for J.C. to hear. She narrowed her eyes at me and looked ready to pop a vein.
“Scratch quieter, or I’m ripping up that ticket.” Her long hair fell like a curtain as she leaned over her library book again, trying to shut me out.
The lottery ticket had been tucked inside my birthday card when I opened it, a family tradition. “I’ll only allow it a few times a year; anything more than that is the start of a bad habit,” Mom always reminded us. Never mind that she had no business buying a ten dollar lottery ticket this year, considering how broke we were. But things have a way of taking care of themselves, she said.
The ticket was as big as a postcard. There were four different bingo games on the card; so if I bombed one game, I could always win one of the other three. A long, vertical box marked ‘Player’s Numbers’ on the left of the ticket hid all of the bingo numbers. Lucky me if the number appeared on more than one game.
I checked the first couple of numbers. Nothing. So I set the dime’s edge on another spot in the box and scratched away the pink coating. It was 17 and showed up in the I column on three of the four cards. Yessss!
The top prize was ten million dollars, but the chance of getting that was 28,000,000 to 1. I was hoping for a $10 prize, so Mom could get her money back. The odds of that were only 12 to 1. Then we could buy milk.
“You’re still being noisy,” J.C. said. She tried kicking me under the table, but caught the table leg instead. My corn flakes spilled onto the table. I stuck my tongue out. She did the same. Mom washed the mixing bowl, none the wiser.
“Do you remember why I decided to name you Summer?” Mom looked over at me when I didn’t answer right away. I’d only heard this story every year for the last hundred years. She reminisced on every birthday.
“I do and I don’t want to hear it again,” said J.C. She rested her forehead on the table.
“Hush up, J.C.,” Mom said.
“Then let me tell it,” J.C. said, suddenly animated. She stood up on her chair. “It was the first day of summer, June twenty-first,” J.C cooed. She almost lost her balance, and her hand shot out to grab the back of her chair. I laughed. What a dork.
“And I was twenty-one that year,” Mom said. “A lucky number, that twenty-one.”
J.C. continued in a sing-songy voice. “It was a sunny day, and the baby was shining like a new penny with the sun coming through the hospital window. Mom thought a shiny, new baby should have a shiny, new name.” J.C. sure was a storyteller.
“I thought it was a happy name,” added Mom.
J.C. jumped off the chair. “I think it’s dull and boring.”
Mom shook her head and sighed. “Sometimes, I wonder how I could have had two wonderful, but totally opposite, daughters. I sure wish you two got along.”
Impossible. My eleven-year-old sister opened her mouth without thinking, couldn’t sit still unless there was a book or math problem to hold her attention, and liked glitter, the color pink, and any type of music except country. She also looked different. Mom and I could be sisters, we were told, with our copper-colored hair. My dad, who died before I was born, did pass his brown eyes onto me. J.C. looked like her father, my step-dad, who was still very much alive but who-knows-where. She was tall as a fence post with green eyes and a long face, framed by a lot of straight, black hair. My sister reminded me of a young horse, bony and full of the devil, like my step-dad.
I started scratching again. The number 21 showed up on all four games in the N columns. Three of them had B7. I kept scratching while J.C.’s chatter filled the hot kitchen. I wasn’t tracking my progress, but I noticed that I had a bunch of the Bs scratched on all four grids. A fair number of Gs already. Hardly any Ns.
I was concentrating so hard on the game that I jumped when the doorbell rang.
Mom slid the bowl into the cabinet with a clatter. “Come in!”
Mrs. Hennessey balanced a grocery bag on each hip as she eased into the kitchen.
“Hey, girls. Give me a little hand here with these bags. One’s starting to rip. Be careful now,” she said, wiping her neck with a paper napkin after I took a bag. “There’s a few more in the car, too.”
We knocked into each other trying to help Mrs. Hennessey through the door with the groceries. J.C. went for the other bags.
“Oh my,” she huffed, leaning against the counter, out of breath. Mrs. Hennessey smoothed the pink sundress that fit her a little too tight around the middle.
“Happy birthday, Summer,” she said, glancing over my shoulder after I sat down again. “What have you got there? A lottery ticket?”
“We get one every year for our birthday,” I said. I saw a sheepish expression cloud Mom’s face when she looked at Mrs. Hennessey, then at the grocery bags on the kitchen table. She brushed back a wisp of hair that was sticking to her neck and set to unloading the bags.
Back to the ticket.
N23. Got it on three games.
O67. Got that, too.
N27. Cool, I was rolling.
“Summer’s going to win us ten million dollars,” said J.C. in a monotone as she set two more bags onto the counter.
I scowled at her. “I’m not sharing with you if I do.”
Mrs. Hennessey fanned her face with both hands. “Well, until you get your millions, here are a few things to keep you fed.” She pulled two boxes of macaroni and cheese and a family-sized can of ravioli out of the other bag and handed it to Mom. “Any word on when you’ll get your check, Maggie?”
“It was supposed to come yesterday, but no luck. I haven’t checked today’s mail yet,” said Mom, looking into her bag. “Trina Laskos got hers. She talked to our manager who said the bank definitely foreclosed on the place. No chance of them opening back up anytime soon.”
Mrs. Hennessey shook her head. “Any other job leads?”
“Got an interview at the Food Mart tomorrow for a checker position.”
Mom and Mrs. Hennessey gabbed on and on. I stopped listening as I rubbed off the last number, then turned the ticket over to read the “How to Win” paragraph. Excitement rippled in my stomach. I knew we had won something since a lot of the pink coating was gone. Exactly what, I didn’t know.
Diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines were the usual patterns. Then another diagram showed that a four-corner pattern could be a winner. That one was pretty uncommon. Even greater odds was the “X” pattern. I flipped the ticket over again to see if there was an “X” pattern on any of the games. That was the big winner. Wishful thinking.
“And Summer, I hear you’re going to be. . .”
But I didn’t hear the last part of Mrs. Hennessey’s question.
I checked the pattern again on the back. Flip.
And then the ones on my games. Flip.
The air was suffocating, like the kitchen was an oven cranked up to four hundred degrees. My whole face felt flushed. I blinked, thinking the heat was playing tricks with my brain.
There was an “X” on each of the four games.
Suddenly the oven timer went off.
“Cake’s done,” J.C. crowed.
“We won,” I said. I could barely get the words out.
Everyone shut up.
Even the timer stopped buzzing.
“We won.” I said it again. “Ten million dollars.”
Mrs. Hennessey dropped a carton of eggs. Yoke splattered onto Mom’s bare toes, but she didn’t even notice.
“Say that again?” Mom whispered.
But I couldn’t. I just nodded.
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