Ethel's heart skipped. She pulled the freshly lit cigarette from her lips and set it into the ashtray. It smoldered while she stared at the six numbers in the newspaper. They matched! They matched? Couldn't be. That kind of thing never happened to her. But they matched the lotto ticket in her hand all right.
For a long time that's all she could think about. As the untouched cig burned down, it finally occurred to the old lady what those numbers added up to – 86 million dollars. She dropped the paper and took a drag off the butt. Fuck. It was excitement and terror all at once. Everything about the future was different. Just like that.
How would she tell anyone? She couldn't even imagine claiming the prize yet. It was such a big thing to wrap the mind around. She was grateful that Hal, her husband, was six years gone from lung cancer. If the cancer hadn't gotten him, cirrhosis would have, he drank so much. Lord knows what would have happened to the money if he were still around to drink it all up.
"God, " she said, gazing out the window, into the barren, weedy pasture and rolling sagebrush hills. The sun had already gone down behind the ridge, but there was still enough light to see a row of deer hopping the barbed wire fence to the west – right where the oil company wanted to put a well pad. Company men had been hounding her to lease the land. She didn't want to, but it was going to be that or she would have to move off the ranch where her daddy was born and where she'd raised her family. She could tell those oil and gas-grabbers to go fuck themselves now. The bank and all its calls to collect on the reverse mortgage – they could go fuck themselves, too. Her pulse skipped again at the thought.
Still, she was dreading the idea of telling anyone. She wasn't exactly close with her three children. She didn't want them to be as close as they might be if they knew how much money she won. They lived in the cities and spent most of their free time traveling. They rarely called or visited anymore. She had two daughters who were married with children. Her youngest child, her son, Tom, used to be close. Not anymore. She had considered him the most responsible until he quit his accounting job to rock climb more. His phone calls were getting farther and fewer between, and she no longer trusted him. She suspected drug use.
"Thankless children," she muttered to herself, lighting another cigarette. She blamed herself for that. I was too easy on them. Now they take me for granted, she thought.
Who could she talk to? Who was left for her to confide in? She went to church most Sundays and helped on some volunteer committees, but there was no one to confide in.
At that moment the phone rang. Ethel picked it up without thinking.
"Mom? Ma? ... You there?"
"Yes, hi, Tom," she finally said. "How are you?"
"Hi, good. I'm calling from a payphone in Yosemite."
"You're still there? You've been there all summer. Have you started looking for a job yet?"
"Yeah, well, I've been getting some cash for odd jobs – Hauling loads for some tourists and film crews – things like that. It's great here, though."
"That's good. I worry about you up on those rocks."
"I know, but don't worry – climbing is safer than driving on the freeway."
"I can only imagine the people you're doing that stuff with. They're people I don't understand, that's for sure."
"How are you, Ma?"
"I'm doing OK. Looks like I might not have to lease the west pasture after all."
"Really? Wow. How did that work out?"
Ethel held her breath, unsure of her response. "There was an old account your father had that I forgot about," she said.
"Well, good. I'm glad that worked out. So, hey, the reason I'm calling right now is that I'm not going to make it home for Thanksgiving like we talked about. A trip came up."
What a surprise, she thought. You don't even care what's going on here. You're just filling me in on your agenda. You just come here when you need help or reassurance. "Oh, well that's too bad," she said flatly.
A robotic female voice cut in: "PLEASE DEPOSIT 50 CENTS."
"Mom, I'm out of quarters. I have to go. Thanks for understanding. I love you." Click.
She stared into the darkness a while longer after that because another question came to mind. Would she take the money in a lump sum or an annuity? Over the long run, she would get more if she took her winnings in annual installments, but she wouldn't get near as much money all at once. The question became, what did she want in life? Travel? Fancy things?
She had lived without so many things in her 72 years. Her imagination struggled to fathom what she might spend that much money on, besides paying off the farm and maybe seeing more of her grandkids, setting up college funds, things like that. They would know something was up, though. There was no avoiding an explanation of her sudden ability to travel if she got what she wanted more than anything – a better bond with her children, her only remaining family. But how could she tell them she won the lottery and expect them not to patronize her? The winning ticket was already feeling like more of a curse.
In the days that followed, Ethel stayed in the house as much as possible while trying to go about her normal routines. Of course the news was splattered in the local paper everyday. They knew a local convenience store sold the winning ticket.
"I sure hope it's one of our residents who won all that money," the mayor was quoted in one article. "And I sure hope that person is inclined to share the wealth."
People were already angling for favors. The vultures! she thought. She even continued buying lotto tickets at her usual store so as not to arouse suspicion.
"Can't help but hope we might be so lucky, too, eh, Ethel?" the clerk bantered.
Ethel just nodded.
A week after that fateful night, her oldest daughter left a message on the answering machine: "Hi, Mom, it's Liz. I saw in the news that someone in your area won the jackpot – that's so cool! Thinking of you. Hope you're well. Bye."
The phone rang later and it was Terry, her middle child.
"Hey, Ma – Liz told me someone in your neighborhood won the jackpot. You know who it is yet?! That's crazy."
"Well, they haven't come forward so far. I haven't been out too much lately, so I haven't seen or heard anything. God help the person figure out what to do with all that money, though, my goodness. It's hard to imagine that sum in a town like this."
The conversation sputtered out from there. Ethel asked to speak to her 4-year-old grandson, who she heard jabbering in the background, but Terry declined.
"I'm trying to get him to bed and he's not listening to anything I say right now. Maybe next time."
People figured it out eventually, once she finally claimed the prize as an annuity. The phone never stopped ringing after that. It was an endless string of requests for charity and investments. She wanted none of it. She had the pleasure of paying off the bank and telling the oil company to shove it, and even placed a conservation easement on the property for good measure, but beyond that she simply didn't know where to begin. It was hard to think of places to travel because she had never entertained the thought of such pleasures before. There was always too much work to do to ever think of leaving the homestead. Maybe it was time, though. The social heat in the small town was forcing her out. It was getting so she couldn't stand the prying glances at church, and the way the pastor stared her down when the donation basket went around.
It was time to go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Someplace to figure things out. There was nothing to stop her. The Oldsmobile had some rust spots but Hal had kept it running well enough. She had the money to buy any car she wanted but it never occurred to her. She threw some bags and a haggard road atlas in the car one quiet Sunday morning and pulled out her gravel driveway with every intention of leaving the little Wyoming town in the dust. At least for a while.
Las Vegas was the closest thing to a foreign country she could imagine. Hal had always raved about his trips there in the '60s. It was his cup of tea. Ethel had never been there but in some ways she felt a connection with it from all of her husband's stories.
"We're on our way now," she said to the small urn of ashes on the back floorboards when she hit the freeway. "Let's see where this road leads."
The desert miles uncoiled like a snake slithering under an endless sky. The world had never felt so big. Money was the last thing on her mind as she gazed through the cracked windshield from behind the sunbaked dash.
She followed a scenic detour that was labeled on the old map just for the hell of it, to see something new, when she heard a BANG from the engine and lost power. She coasted to a stop in the desert hardpan just off the road. The sun was setting and for a while, she just sat there, listening to the silence as the sweltering landscape shimmered around her like a ring of invisible fire. She had no cell phone – had never thought she had the slightest need for one. Still didn't. A semi blew by, pulling a wake of air that shook the parked car even as the white trailer faded in the distance.
"Might as well have a look around," she said to the urn.
She got out and walked around to the trunk to grab a snack and some water from the cooler. Ahead of her, away from the road, the land dropped into a canyon that split small peaks of volcanic rock, and she intended to have a look as long as she was there. Her ranch boots crunched over the barren, rocky soil and she had to pick her way through all kinds of cacti – some prickly pear, some barrel, and some bushy ones she had never seen that were almost as tall as she was. She found some shade underneath a rocky overhang where she could see to the bottom of the dry canyon.
It seemed like she should be afraid, but she wasn't. She was so content she stayed there as the stars came out, brighter than any dream. The hot, hostile air subsided into a balmy night, and she laid down, ready to sleep like the rocks around her. It was a fine thing to discover she already had most of everything she ever wanted out of life.
Death or fortune – she no longer cared what the morning brought, and that was a wonderful sense of freedom indeed.