About the Book
When her father is given a ticket that wins the state lottery, fourteen-year old Tray thinks her life is about to change. And it does. It is 1975, an ordinary year for an ordinary Southern family. Tray Dunaway, like thousands of teenagers around the country, longs to be part of the popular set at school. She’s growing too fast, and her clothes no longer fit right. The only person who understands is her grandmother, but the kids at school make fun of her when she wears Gram’s hand-sewn clothes. She is tired of being too tall, too bony, too uncoordinated.
Tray’s mother, Evelyn, lies in bed most days with a headache, and her bipolar tendency toward extreme highs or desperate lows veers more and more often toward depression. Gram, who lives with the family, still grieves the loss of her husband. It’s been six years, though, and she knows he would want her to get on with her life. She believes it’s time for her to move out—if she could afford to—and find a place of her own, maybe even a new romance. Given the state of the family’s finances, this doesn’t look likely.
Then something extraordinary happens. A down-and-out friend of the family buys an extra lottery ticket. He gives it to Tray’s dad as a thank-you for driving him to Hazard, Illinois, where he purchased the tickets. And what do you know?
I cannot take my eyes off my mother. I’m frozen—the way you are in those nightmares where you really need to act or run but you can’t move at all—while I watch Mama grab the arm of one of the younger men. He’s looking through the lens of his camera, though not in Mama’s direction. Through clenched teeth, she tells him, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” and she looks like she’s about to die laughing at something she’s just thought of.
“What do you think about all this?” someone on the camera crew asks. I pull my eyes from my mother’s troublesome expression to meet his gaze. He is sort of cute, about twenty or thereabouts, sandy hair, friendly brown eyes, and an eager to please expression. Like a puppy. For a moment, I wonder what he means. Is he asking what I think about winning the lottery or about my crazy family?
Before I can answer, my attention is drawn by a sudden shift, a stillness in the room. All the cameras point at Dad. An older gentleman with a pointed beard and bushy white eyebrows hands him an enormous check, bigger than the posters I sometimes do for school. Surely this is a joke. You can’t go to the bank with a check that size, can you?
Dad takes the check, smiles a broad, strained smile, and glances in the direction of Mama, who lunges toward him at lightning speed.
An explosion of flashes from cameras illuminates him like an angel about to ascend, and then Mama snatches the check and giggles. “I’ll take that,” she says.
Another flash of light and I realize that, outside, actual lightning is adding to the effect.
“What are you going to do with the money?” Puppy Eyes asks me. He does not have a camera, though he has some sort of device hooked to a belt around his waist.
“I don’t think that’s up to me to decide,” I say, thinking of the new clothes I am longing for and of my one pair of new socks. But, maybe, now that we really have the money … maybe things will be different.
Mama, holding the gigantic check, now postures for the cameraman. I am mortified. What will the kids at school think of this fiasco? Gram stands quietly out of the way, and I shoot her a nervous but grateful smile. Why can’t my family act normal for even one day?
Another flash of lightning and the door rattles. Everyone looks in its direction. Pee Wee Johnson stands there, hands on hips, dripping with rain. He wears cowboy boots, and a Stetson hat replaces his usual baseball cap. A crackle of thunder supplies the only thing needed to make the ridiculous show complete. My eyes drop to Pee Wee’s hip, where I’m half expecting to see a holster and gun. “I’m the one what bought that ticket,” he says.
A corner of my brain registers that his grammar isn’t usually so bad. Or is it? Maybe he’s posturing for the camera, too? Silence falls, and the cameras point once more at Jesse. “Is that true?”
Dad hesitates for just an instant before nodding.
The cameramen glance at each other. Then a tall man in a tee-shirt and jeans makes a brief motion with his forefinger. At this signal, they all move toward Pee Wee. Quickly. As if capturing an action sequence in a war zone. One of them asks Pee Wee, “Tell us—tell us everything.”
Pee Wee talks, his expression a little smug. I notice, as I have not noticed before, that he speaks with a strong southern twang. There’s no question now: we will all surely come across as a bunch of loony hicks. Longing to escape to my room, I instead remain frozen in place, listening to Pee Wee’s story. It has the ring of truth.
“See, I always buy the numbers from my mother’s birthday for myself,” he explains. “Usually my buddy Jay-bird drives me and him to Hazard, Illinois, to buy our tickets. But Jay-bird’s car was in the shop, so we asked Jesse—he’s Jay-bird’s brother-in-law—to drive us over. I don’t drive m’self. A lousy couple of tickets and they’ll take your license away, you know? Anyway, riding my bike keeps me fit. To make a long story short, ole Jesse said okay, he’d give us a lift. But when we git there, Jesse says he’ll just sit in the car. He don’t even want to go in and buy a ticket. Are you sure, I ask him, not believin’ my ears. He says he is, he don’t believe in throwin’ his money away on no lottery ticket. So to thank him an’ all, I bought him a ticket. But for Jesse’s ticket, I just changed one number on my mother’s birthday, making her a year younger as it were. So when I heard the winnin’ number announced, I knew right off it was the one I bought. So I called ole Jesse right away—he never would-a even knowed he won if I hadn’t, not bein’ a lottery man hisself—and I told him the good news. I ain’t thinkin’ he believed me at first. But I just told him, like I’m a-telling all of you out there in television land … I only want a little share.”
Pee Wee pauses and looks imploringly from one cameraman to another. “It’s only fair,” he says. “Don’t you agree?”
Okay, I have to admit it does sound fair. Mama lets out a small sound, her mouth round. I’m not sure, but I think it is the word “no”—or maybe it’s “oh.” Her face is about to crumple into tears, and the cameras are all over her now. The cameramen are intent, but there is a hidden smile in their busyness. They are eating this up.
I move quickly to Mama’s side, taking her arm and pulling her out of the line of flashing cameras. “Excuse us, please,” I mutter. Then, with as much dignity as I can muster—not just for me, but for Mama too—I escort her from the room.
About the Author
A Vanderbilt University professor, Debra Coleman Jeter has published fiction and nonfiction in popular magazines, including Working Woman, New Woman, Self, Home Life, Savvy, Christian Woman, and American Baby. Her story, “Recovery,” won first prize in a Christian Woman short story competition, and her nonfiction book “Pshaw, It’s Me Grandson”: Tales of a Young Actor was a finalist in the 2007 USA Book News Awards. She is a co-writer of the screenplay for Jess + Moss, a feature film which premiered in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival, screened at nearly forty film festivals around the world, and captured several international awards. She lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, with her husband.
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