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The Great Lotto Caper : The California Lottery. For 10 Years It’s Haunted You With Its Promise of Untold Wealth. For 10 Years You’ve Handed Over Your Hard-Earned Dollars and Trusted Your Luck. But Luck, Luck is For Suckers. Now You Have a Plan.

Ajay Sahgal is a novelist living in Los Angeles. His last article for the magazine was about his search for Angelyne

You’re driving on the Golden State Freeway one hot Sunday afternoon, somewhere near the City of Commerce or Bell Gardens or Downey or Cudahy, someplace in the vast suburban and industrial blanket of civilization that all of those DC-10s and 747s fly over for the last 20 minutes in their approaches from JFK and Dulles and Miami International.

Up ahead in the distance, you can see the words from almost a mile away.

Who’s next?

The giant billboard looms, almost taunting you. The quasi-digital display reads $8,000,000 or $15,000,000 or $21,000,000 or higher numbers, numbers that take amorphous shape in your mind, fantastic supreme numbers, unreal and scary in their possibilities. You think to yourself: What does $21 million look like? In a pile. In a pile of twenties in the living room.

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For a buck you can play a this game called Super Lotto--this is public knowledge. For a dollar, you can walk into any number of places with the Big L logo and take your chances. They’re slim, sure, but you have faith. You have persistent and tangible belief in one day seeing that pile of twenties in your home. They take up most of the space in that living room. You can’t see the TV from the couch. You can no longer move around with ease and comfort. It’s hard to clean. You’ll simply have to get a bigger place. Because those six numbers are going to come in.

You believe.

Faith isn’t everything. There is value and weight in having faith, of course. But you need to hedge your bets and will do whatever it takes to gain that advantage.

Your plan is simple. Gain access to the source, the offices of the California Lottery, establish trust and rapport with high-ranking officials there, learn everything you can about the system and, finally, get close to the machine that decides the numbers picked each week and manipulate the results to suit your needs. You do not think of this as cheating, though that is what it’s called by so-called moral individuals, those lesser beings who feel that there is a difference between right and wrong. Wait until the $30 mil comes your way, you think. You’ll buy right and wrong.

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*

You fly to Sacramento and check in to the Holiday Inn, not because it affords you what you like in a hotel, but because of its anonymity. No one will notice you, or be able to read in your face the sinister plans you have in store--to rig the lottery, to take the millions and millions in prize money, to undress in the privacy of your new home and roll naked over hundred-dollar bills. You drive in a rented car to an industrial section of town, literally on the other side of the tracks from the tree-lined, shady streets of the capital. Here there are no espresso bars, no Tex-Mex cafes. There are only giant warehouses and an occasional office park. In one of the latter you find the offices of the California State Lottery. Several parking lots are full of what seem to be hundreds of cars. It’s a big operation and you feel a pain in your gut, nervous energy, the knowledge of imminent tampering coursing through your veins.

But you are on a mission. A mission to win. And several hundred employees are not going to intimidate you.

You announce your presence to a guard, a man behind solid two-inch-thick glass, in a booth with video monitors and surveillance equipment. He tells you to wait and you take a seat. You can smell money in the air around here.

A woman from the public relations department finally arrives to greet you. You smile, behave, shake hands and put on your charming and inquisitive face. She leads you through a series of locked doors, opening them with a complicated combination of key-cards and entry codes. Security is tight, tighter than you expected, but you look at life as a series of obstacles to be overcome.

You tell yourself: Dreamers stay dreamers; doers do.

Your plan is simple. Gain access, gain confidence, find machine, rig machine when no one is looking, say goodby, return to Los Angeles and collect $30 million. Make an appointment with David Geffen for golf at the club. Have Bill and Hillary over for cocktails, talk about policy, discreetly hand an aide a ’96 campaign contribution check because tons of money aren’t going to make you a Republican.

You are led to a room so bland and corporate it can only be described as “office-like.” The PR woman, Norma, sits you down and tells you all about the lottery and hands you piles and piles of information, press kits, brochures, statistics. Another PR person comes in and hands you more information. They ask you if you’d like a tour of the premises.

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“Yes,” you say. “A tour would be delightful.” You close your eyes, rub the bridge of your nose, trying to seem deep in thought. You count silently to seven, for maximum effect. “Can we see the ball machines?” you add, innocently.

They cast furtive and semi-suspicious glances at each other. Norma finally nods.

The operation is huge, bigger than you expected, and Norma leads you through the maze of offices. There are sales offices and marketing offices and a marketing strategy meeting is going on in a thoroughly nondescript chamber called the Jackpot Room. There are community relations offices, media relations offices and, to your dismay, security offices. Your eyes linger here and you count the people there and start to think for the first time that your plan is at best, at best , a long shot. All the while, Norma fires off details.

Ten years ago, on Oct. 3 to be precise, the first California Lottery ticket was sold. There have been a variety of games since then. Lottery Scratchers instant games feature prizes ranging from a free ticket to thousands of dollars to a chance to go the Big Spin and win up to $2 million. There is something called Decco with a top prize of $5,000--not exactly what you have in mind. Fantasy 5 has an average top prize of $114,000--two words pop into your head: chump change. Other games that Norma tells you about are just as interesting--that is, not at all.

You are interested in the Super Lotto, whose prizes have gone as high as $118.8 million. This is the big money game, this is the game you need to win. Norma tells you that each ticket in the current Super Lotto game has a 1 in 18,009,460 chance of winning. You simply must choose six numbers from one to 51 and have them all come in. You and those people with the same six numbers share equally in the jackpot, which normally starts with at least $3 million and rolls over to the next drawing if nobody picks all six numbers. It’s a parimutuel system, and rollovers grow seemingly exponentially. If no one hits all six in the twice-weekly drawings, in a month the jackpot can reach the $100-million level. If someone does, the California Lottery people purchase an annuity in the name of the winner or winners, for somewhere in the range of half the amount of the jackpot. Invested in U.S. Treasury bonds, the annuity pays out the full jackpot amount over 20 years, minus taxes and anything the winners should happen to owe the government prior to those six beautiful numbers magically falling into place. You picture some bureaucrat filling in your name on some magnificently dull form, filling out your name under the heading payee and your throat goes dry.

Super Lotto started out requiring winners to pick six numbers between one and 49, making the odds much better: one in 13,983,816. Norma tells you that in order to build super jackpots, the Lottery switched to requiring winners to pick six numbers from one to 53, with odds of winning at one in 22,957,480. Complaints came pouring in, and Lottery officials compromised at one to 51.

They seem incredible odds to beat. But you are not worried.

You have a plan.

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Norma leads you down yet more hallways, through more offices and tells you more about the lottery than you want to know. You try to concentrate, keep focused on what she’s telling you. You need to gain her confidence, so that when you yell “Fire!” she believes you and runs out of the room where they keep the machines, leaving you time to take matters into your own hands.

She tells you how the lottery dollar gets split up. Prizes awarded to winners account for 50 cents; contributions to public education, 34 cents; commissions and bonuses paid out to Lottery retailers, 6 1/2 cents; operating expenses, six cents, and the cost of the games themselves, 3 1/2 cents.

With Norma talking about pennies, your enthusiasm wanes. But you have to keep those spirits up. You’re on a quest, a sojourn into the source that will change your fate. You begin to think of those pennies multiplying into dollars with every ticket purchased, millions and millions of them. You imagine all that money, in neat stacks of fives, tens and fifties in the underground vault of your 175,000-square-foot house on the former site of the Hotel Bel-Air.

You are walking beside Norma when she stops in front of a nondescript door. It is locked and she doesn’t seem to have the key.

“What’s in here?” you ask.

“The machines,” Norma says. “It’s where we keep the machines.”

Your heart skips a beat and you discreetly look from side to side. No one is around. The machines are just a few feet away, the source of the source, the wellspring. Your plan is simple. The time is now.

“Do you feel an earthquake?” you ask, trying to look mildly panicked.

“No,” Norma says, matter-of-factly. Just then a security guard walks up, a bulky man in uniform. Norma asks him if we can get into the room and he gets on his walkie-talkie. You think of other distractions. Fire. Flash floods. Famine? Locusts? Isn’t that Gorbachev over there, standing by the bright blue Taurus? None of it seems likely to shake Norma. She is, you feel, too down to earth.

The door remains closed. Your plan seems to be failing. But if deception and subterfuge aren’t the answer, then you will find another way. There has simply got to be another way.

*

You’re watching the news at the Holiday Inn in Sacramento. Tom Brokaw relates the following information: Americans legally gamble $400 billion annually. You know now that more than $30 billion goes to lotteries. That’s billion. With a capital B. The prize money paid out nationwide is in the neighborhood of $16 billion. That kind of money you could use. That’s a very respectable neighborhood. That’s where Bill Gates lives and you think: Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy and sell little Billy Gates?

You need to think. Think. One in 18,009,460 are tough odds. Astronomical.

Astronomy.

Stars.

The universe.

God.

You’ll need God.

Praying doesn’t seem the right choice. There was that woman in New York who asked her son’s friend to pray for her and her lottery tickets. She won. He sued for half. It would seem there is precedent lurking here somewhere. In the case of the lottery it is perhaps best not to appeal directly to God.

You decide to set an example, live a good life, be kind to animals and children. Deny yourself things, eschew worldly pleasures. At least until the numbers hit and the checks start rolling in. Then, you can subsist on beef jerky and candy, drink and smoke cigars. But for now you’ll start getting up earlier, treating your body as a temple. You resolve to donate 50% of your winnings to charity, right off the top.

Having had some experience in these matters, you know that it is almost always necessary to have a Plan B.

Options. They make the world go round.

Your backup plan is this: Go forth and meet with people who have won the lottery. Eliminate all reason for objections, travel to them, take them to lunch, gain their confidence, wait for the right moment, hit them up for $5 apiece, use their money, their lucky money, to play the Super Lotto. Buy tickets with their money in stores close to their homes. Move in lucky circles, use lucky money, preferably not your own. Try to touch them, physically make contact with them as much as possible so as to let some of their luck rub off on you. Give up meat, give up fried foods. Vow to give a healthy percentage of your winnings to charity, at least 40%.

The next day you call Norma at the California State Lottery and she gives you a list of names of past winners. Not many agree to meet with you. Understandably, those who do allow you to make contact do not want their real names divulged, in an effort to keep the masses, with their dirty begging hands outstretched, at bay. Surely you will feel the same when you win, and you make a mental note to start interviewing moat contractors as soon as possible.

You spend a few days making appointments, taking in the splendor of Sacramento. You gas up and head out on the highway. You pass a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a Burger King. You reach miserably into the brown paper bag at your side and pull out yet another carrot and stuff it into your mouth.

In a neighborhood set amid rolling hills of sage and oak, you pass beautiful homes with mature trees. The first winners you meet are Mike and Jill. Their house is massive, set on acres of land. The back yard appears to have a man-made creek running through it, and peripherally you spot an arbor and grapes growing in what appears to be a small vineyard.

Mike and Jill won half of an $18-million Lotto prize in May, 1990. They were recreational players, they tell you, and you immediately make a mental note of the difference between you and them. You have faith and plans and backups and contingencies. You are determined to win and the gods are on your side, if not now, then soon, after they notice the sacrifices you are willing to make.

Mike tells you that he used to own a stationery store, then worked in sales and that things weren’t exactly happening, money-wise. After the win, which provides them about $300,000 per year, they bought and remodeled a house, sold that house and bought this current one, which Jill spends her time remodeling. They are putting their daughter through law school and their teen-age son doesn’t want for much. Mike spends his time playing golf.

All day. Every day. At the country club.

They have traveled to France and have plans to return. Mike tells me the lottery is the best investment he ever made. “There is a downside,” Jill adds.

What is she talking about? You win money. You buy a nice house. You swim, you play doubles tennis with Geffen and Bill and Hillary. You send your answer-boy Bill Gates down to the market for more ice. Your chef is busy inside whipping up a spiced pork tenderloin rubbed in cumin and ginger with a nice papaya salsa.

“It’s all of the people who feel entitled,” Jill says. “I had a hard time saying no. I had family members who went around saying ‘I’m rich.’ I hadn’t seen these people for 15 years. Who won the money? He won the money.” She points to Mike.

Mike smiles. You look on him enviously, with elements of rage and sycophancy.

“Well,” Mike says. “The attorney said we won the money.”

“I know,” Jill tells you. “I learned that after a while. I kind of like that. For me, in the beginning there was a difficulty in accepting it. I couldn’t spend it.”

You can’t believe your ears. These people are nothing like you.

“You felt it wasn’t yours?” you ask Jill.

Mike looks at his wife, deadpan. “She got over that.”

You are about to ask them for the money. You’ve gained their confidence. You are a seeker, come to hear their wisdom. What’s five bucks to them?

You test the waters, informing them that you’re running a little low on gas, and asking if there are any ATM machines nearby. Your eyes try their best to probe, to look expectant and hopeful. Their faces are a blank. Mike tells you about an ATM about two miles away.

You can’t ask outright. Everyone asks them for money. They’re hardened to such requests.

As you leave, you think about giving them each a hug, under the guise of a new friendship, but Mike merely offers his hand. A handshake will have to do. This was the hand that picked the numbers that paid off, was it not?

Down the street you shell out $10 for 10 Quick Picks with the hand that shook the hand.

Driving south down country roads, you pass open fields and see horses and shady oaks and rivers and creeks. The land is beautiful, this is picture postcard California and you think about owning it all. After an hour the landscape dries out, pales. Things become dustier, more ill-defined. You look on your map, locate your position, see places with names like Victor and Waterloo and Galt and Dogtown and Collegeville.

You pass the Mule Creek State Prison and endless green farms and come into a Central California town with subdivisions called Del Rio and River Meadows.

You pull in front of a modest newer house and, once inside, you meet Fran and Kelly and Aracely. When they won the lottery last year, they were all working at a Lucky supermarket in Stockton and shared, along with Fran’s husband, Wally, and another co-worker, a $9.3-million prize. Each receives an annual check for $66,700 for the next 19 years.

You are after bigger game. That $66,700 a year pays your manservant. At the beach house. But you listen anyway. A win is a win, and to go from decorating cakes to retiring, as Fran plans to do this month, requires luck.

Kelly has been busy. She “bought a new truck, bought a new car, bought a new boat.” She quit her job at Lucky and plans to attend college in November. Aracely has a shiny new Mustang parked out front that took half of the first check; a good portion of the other half was spent on her daughter’s quinceanera party. She wants a house. Aracely still works at Lucky, although she is thinking about retiring. Maybe. You make a mental note to shop only at Lucky, not because they are the low price leader but because of their name. If you could buy ice cream and multi-grain Cheerios and mangoes at a market called Big Winner, you would.

Fran can’t stop smiling. She’s almost too happy, a feeling you’d like to experience, sitting on the balcony of your villa in St. Barts, surveying the splendor and majesty that is your empire.

Fran and Wally bought this house with their first checks, and in July they went on an Alaskan cruise. She flips absently through a massive JC Penney catalogue.

“You can have anything you want in there,” someone says.

“Right,” Fran says giggling, overjoyed. “And I do.”

You hesitate before leaving. There is the matter of these winners giving you some of their hard-won money. But it is like facing a funding committee--all of these faces, all of these people to persuade. Besides, they still play Supper Lotto every week. Something tells you that they think the money will be better spent on their Quick Picks, not yours.

You shake hands with each of them. Twice with Wally.

Before you get back on the highway to Sacramento, you stop at a 7-Eleven and buy five more Quick Picks and try not to look at the rows of Twix and Butterfingers and Chunky bars in the candy aisle.

Your needs are simple.

All you need is a house. The house, actually. The one you think about all the time. The house so perfect in its design and decoration, the one that fits your lifestyle so perfectly. That perfect house in that perfect imagined town in your mind. That is all you need.

And a pool. You’ll need a pool to go with the house because, after all, wouldn’t it be nice to swim on those hot days in August? A pool would top it off perfectly. A house with a pool. That’s really all you need.

If you don’t count the tennis court. Because you really would look good out there in your whites, active, healthy, tanned and rested. Just playing a little tennis. Maybe later you’ll go for a little swim and cool off. Dress for dinner. Your needs are basic. A nice place to live, swim, to play a little tennis. You don’t need much more than that.

Except a nice car. The new Lexuses are nice. Quiet, roomy. And Mercedeses are getting less boxy, so maybe one of those. Still, you have always liked the Range Rover. Maybe a black one. Porsche started making the Speedster again. Now there’s a car. You can’t pull up that long private driveway in what you currently drive. You’ll need the Speedster. Give the Toyota to the cook.

Oh, you’ll need a cook. But that’s it. The house with the pool and north-south tennis court, the gleaming new Porsche and someone on staff to cook your meals.

And maybe a place to get away from it all. You’ve always liked Tahoe. Good in the winter and the summer. . . .

*

Milt lives in the hills of Sherman Oaks, just this side of Mulholland from Bel-Air. He and his wife won $27.5 million in June of 1990. You meet him early in the day, but he has been up for hours, rising each morning at 6 a.m. to watch the Money Channel, keep an eye on his investments. His check amounts to just over $900,000 a year--after taxes.

Your plan is to meet with these people, listen to their stories, touch them if possible, touch their belongings, see how they live, ask for a couple of bucks, use their lucky money to play the Lotto, stop eating red meat and cut down on processed sugars, perhaps the occasional Hershey’s with almonds but no more, reserve 35% of your winnings to give to those less fortunate then yourself, appeal silently each day with your actions to the gods to bestow upon you the life you deserve.

Milt certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of man who encourages physical contact with strangers, so you settle for touching his possessions. There are four remote controls on the table in the living room and you surreptitiously touch them all, lingering on the buttons marked power. Your movements are stealthy, unnoticed.

Prior to winning, Milt was a CPA, financial planning a specialty. Unlike most lottery winners, he was in pretty good financial shape before he won, and knew exactly what to do with the money, how to keep it safe. He wasn’t going to be one of those fools you hear about, squandering millions only to end up broke again, with 10 Cadillacs, all candidates for repossession. He is smart about his money and wants to see it work for him, wants an income after the lottery checks stop arriving 16 years from now.

You make a note to call him up for advice when you win.

“I was planning to retire and my wife was a legal secretary,” he tells you. “I’d been a partner in a national CPA firm, and a CFO for a large corporation, handling all their investments. I was driving a Ferrari.”

You wonder if the money means that much to him, seeing as he had a lot to begin with. But you quickly decide that even Warren Buffet likes an extra 900 K per.

He tells you about his vineyard in Sonoma County, how Gensler and Associates redesigned his house, how he gives money to older relatives and his children and the University of Oklahoma.

“We’ve upgraded our standard of living,” Milt says. “We used to shop at outlets and now we’re more likely to go to Nordstrom or Bullock’s.”

Again, you make a mental note of the differences between yourself and these winners. Your upgraded living standard will include having Giorgio Armani over for a Basque barbecue to discuss your personal fall line.

Of course you’ll give a healthy chunk to charity, at least 30%.

As the tour of Milt’s home comes to an end, and you take one last look around at all of that granite and marble and oak, at all of those remote controls, your realization is crystal clear: He’s not going to give you one thin dime.

You go to an elementary school in East Los Angeles to meet Andy, who won $5.28 million about seven years ago. His checks are $190,000 each year and you note that the maintenance on your co-op in Manhattan, with a view of the park and a private rooftop garden complete with dog run, will come out to approximately the same annual sum.

Andy asks to eat at the school because he’s adopted it in the Adopt-a-School program. He is, you soon find out, Mr. Charity. He is also Mr. Hard Work. Since arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, he’s washed dishes, collected golf balls at a driving range and worked as a welder. After the magic six hit for him, he retired from the small business he owned and spends most of his time involved in charity work, sponsoring golf tournaments to benefit the school’s college scholarship program. He is a founding member of the Tijuana Optimists Club, organizing an annual benefit golf tournament on their behalf. He hands you leaflets and flyers about these charities. You are beginning to think that rather than ask him for some lucky Lotto money, that you might actually open your wallet and give him $5. Your plan is coming apart at the seams. Time to abort. Guilt factor high.

Driving home down Sunset Boulevard, you feel the tension start to ease. You’ll be charitable, too, when the time comes. You have already firmly resolved to give 25% of your winnings away. A quarter off the top. Doesn’t that make you deserving?

You pull into a McDonald’s, order a small cheeseburger and devour it in seconds, and you hope the gods are not watching.

Who’s next?

On the way to Marina del Rey to meet Carl, you reorganize your thoughts, go over your plan. It is simple and clean and inspired. You will meet Carl, a Lotto winner. You will buy him lunch at an expensive restaurant by the water, overlooking boats. You will ask him about his life, how he came to win, and listen with rapt interest. You will not eat, thereby subtly shifting the forces of guilt and domination, allowing Carl to feel subconsciously sorry for you, making it more likely that he’ll hand over five of his millions of dollars, in order that you may play Super Lotto with his lucky money. You will shake his hand, try to pat him on the back, attempt to siphon luck particles off of his person. You will intentionally place a stone in your shoe, in order to achieve some kind of ascetic purity. That week you will win $30 million, all six of your numbers will match and you will calmly collect that money annually, buying a house with a pool and a tennis court, buying a ridiculously expensive car, one that cost many times more than your parents’ first home, you will give 20% of your millions to worthy causes and chunks of $25,000 to friends who need it, but not before they come over to your house and are made to wear clown suits and humiliate themselves in front of you and your guests by barking like dogs.

Carl is a big man, sophisticated, educated. He doesn’t get too excited talking about his win. “I was in Korea during the Korean War,” Carl says, in a voice that carries. “And during the experience I found myself at the receiving end of 50-caliber bullets. And that was what I considered a scary experience. That was the last time I got worked up.”

Carl checked his numbers in April of 1991, and all six came in. The jackpot that night was the largest in North American history--almost $120 million. He spent the night thinking “How much? How much?” It turns out that he was one of 10 winners who split the prize money, each receiving $11.8 million over 20 years.

Carl and his wife have since retired, he from hospital administration, she from teaching. They have helped in the education of grandchildren and nephews since winning, and taken several 85-day world cruises. He tells you about seeing the world with genuine excitement. He has not bought a new house, or new cars. He has given money to two historically black universities.

You search his eyes, looking for clues to his success. You decide to ask a ridiculous question, hoping for an answer that makes everything clear.

“How did you win?” you ask.

“I’ve always told anyone who was willing to listen that one, I’m lucky. And two, I’m blessed. Have been all my life. I’ve never focused on adversity. It’s a problem to be solved.” Carl takes a bite of his seared ahi sandwich and you hope he notices that you don’t have any food.

“It’s a game you can’t afford not to be in. Because the entry fee is so low and the winnings are so high,” Carl says. “You have to believe you’re going to win.”

“Can I have $5?” you ask, perhaps too quickly.

It’s a noisy restaurant, and Carl either ignores you or doesn’t hear what you say.

Carl talks about Korea but you have trouble concentrating. You have no reference points, nothing by which to process this kind of excitement, because you are going to purchase Disneyland with your winnings and convert it to a private residence, your own personal Magic Kingdom. And you will preside over it all as the Magic King.

You watch Carl finish his lunch. As the two of you get up, you slip one of his leftover French fries into your mouth. Lucky French fry, you think.

You have to believe. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

You drive to the nearest Lotto retailer and buy $20 worth of tickets and consider it money in the bank.

*

Sandra is the last of the winners you go to see. She asks to meet at a Coco’s restaurant north of Los Angeles and, though Coco’s isn’t exactly the style of dining you will soon be accustomed to, you agree. You need Sandra, remember?

Your plan is to meet her at a place of her choosing, buy her anything she wishes to eat or drink and thereby gain her confidence and goodwill. You will shake her hand, gently guide her to the table, subtly touching her arm as you ask her to take a seat, rubbing good luck from her person onto yours. You will order only some iced tea, a little lemon for flavor, listen to her stories about winning, winning, winning and how life is good in her new house, after the magic machine in Sacramento chose her numbers and her numbers alone in March of 1994 . You will buy Lotto tickets beforehand and rather than ask her to give you money, you will request something she can hardly refuse--you will ask her to rub your tickets.

“Rub your what?” Sandra asks.

“My tickets,” you say. “For luck.”

She obliges. You thank her, almost fawning.

Sandra won $12.98 million. Her annual check after taxes comes to $467,000.

“What are you doing with the money?” you ask her.

“Well, spending it,” she says.

Stupid question.

“Do you think you’re lucky?” you ask.

“I think I deserved it,” Sandra says. “I worked very hard. I had two jobs. I’ve had a very hard life from day one.” You make a mental note to list all of the hardships of your own life, not including not yet having won the lottery, which you consider to be a legitimate hardship, but feel that others would not.

“I’m also very spiritual, and I thought that someday I’d win,” Sandra says. “I talked about it all the time. I said when I win the lottery, I’ll have a Mazda for Monday, a Toyota for Tuesday. . . .”

“A Winnebago for Wednesday” you add.

“Right,” Sandra says, laughing.

And why shouldn’t she laugh? She’s one of the more than 1,000 people that the California State Lottery has made a millionaire. A millionaire wasn’t something Sandra sought to be; millionaire status was thrust upon her. No endless board meetings and stockholder conventions. None of the ever-attached strings of inheritance and family trusts to bother with. Simply pay your buck, beat the odds and collect. Of course she should be laughing. You watch her, nearly vibrating with envy as she gets in her Mercedes and drives off. Somewhere in her purse is an ATM receipt, and you literally shudder at the thought of what it reads under the heading available balance.

On the way back to L.A., you pass an In-N'-Out Burger and try to think pure thoughts, pledging a full 15% of all your winnings to local charities. You deserve this prize, you want it for all the right reasons, and admit to yourself none of the wrong.

No one hits all six numbers again that Wednesday, making that jackpot soar, and it’s yours and it’s beautiful. When no one hits that Saturday, the jackpot approaches $45 million.

You pull out all the stops, give up eating altogether. You subsist on vitamins and water, and you wear no shoes to protect your feet from the scalding midsummer pavement. You call financial planners and make appointments for some time next week. You let realtors in the Malibu area know that you’re looking for something in the three-bedroom range, on Broad Beach or in the Colony, surfside of course, with access to the tennis courts. You buy tickets at Allan’s Wine & Spirits in Port Hueneme, because they have had four jackpot tickets originate from there, including Sandra’s. You drive to a place called Casa de Liquor and Deli in Yorba Linda, just a few hundred yards from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace, because of their multiple jackpot winners, and because the sign on the building that reads MILLIONAIRE MADE HERE fills you with a sense of impending glory. The clerk tells you that the jackpot has reached $56 million, and you feel unbridled joy because you will soon be at Barney’s, upstairs, buying suits you’ll never wear but that will look great in neat rows, sorted by color, in your 2,000-square-foot closet with moving electric-glide racks. You drive up to Mulholland that night and look at all the blinking, twinkling lights, each one representing a hundred-dollar bill, and they are all going to be yours soon. Scanning the horizon, you think about what it will be like to have won everything as far as your eye can see.

Your plan is simple: believe. Live clean. Earn the favor of the gods of gambling, let them smile upon you and your lucky tickets.

Who’s next?

You?


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