By Marie LeClaire
She sat in the dark, looking at the tiny sparkling lights. Shiny ball ornaments reflected the colors giving the tree a greeting-card feel. She savored this moment, just before dawn, when the world was quiet. It wouldn’t be long before the light of day filled in the holiday picture with the broken down RV she called home. But for now, for a few moments, in the twinkles of LED color, she could imagine a better life for herself and her unborn baby.
It wasn’t a grand life. She didn’t need a lot. A modest house in good repair, steady work and someone trustworthy to watch the baby during the day. Mostly she wanted these things for her baby. She’d grown up with next to nothing hence she required, or maybe expected, little more as an adult.
“You should think BIG, REALLY BIG,” her sister would say as they drank beer on the dirt patch just outside the trailer door that they pathetically referred to as the patio. “A mansion on the other side of town. Maids to clean, a chef to cook.” She would wave her hands in the air indicating a big screen on which she was viewing this imagined life. One more beer and it would all seem possible.
But Marissa wasn’t interested in that. To her, it all sounded like a façade that needed constant maintenance, like keeping up with the Jones’. Considering the circumstances, she thought maybe her sister was at least a little right. Maybe she needed to think bigger now, for the baby.
She wasn’t even sure how to do that. Most of her information came from TV shows and commercials. The happy family gathered around a Butterball turkey for Christmas dinner or friends laughing and toasting with Starbucks coffee. Did those people really exist? If they did, she didn’t know them or know anyone who did know them.
Movement at the other end of the trailer disrupted her peace.
“Are you sitting in the dark again?” her sister’s sleepy voice croaked from the bedroom doorway, her silhouette taking on shadows of color from the tree.
“Yeah, savoring a moment of peace before the day starts.”
“Get it while you can. It’s going to be crazy today.” Pat was referring to the morning rush hour. It was two days before Christmas and traffic would be horrendous – for everyone else anyway. For them, it would be great. “And if that drunk is on our corner again, there’s going to be trouble.” Pat was already gearing up for a fight.
Predawn peace was officially over. “Settle down, already, Pat. We’ll just invite him to move along, like we did last time.”
They went about their usual routine, silently washing up and getting dressed. They put on their old grubby clothes for work. They had nicer things, but not by much, that they saved for going shopping and for doctor’s appointments. Besides, the dinge of hand-me-downs elicited the sympathy response from passing cars. Soon, Marissa’s would be too tight and they would have to figure out a new wardrobe. For now, she made due by opening the buttons on her jeans and loosening the belt a little more as the days went by. She wasn’t sure how she felt about being pregnant. Like everything else in her life, it was just something that was happening to her. It didn’t really matter how she felt.
They made coffee in the trailer, then got an egg sandwich at the gas station on their way to the traffic lights. The stove in the RV was inconsistent, and the microwave broke two months ago. At least they still had the frig, thank God, if there was a God.
“Which side do you want, Ris?” Pat asked as they sat at the bus stop to eat breakfast. Pat had been differing to her lately on account of her condition.
“I’ll take eastbound. I like the morning sun. I might want to switch later if that’s okay?”
“No problem. Say the word.”
They crumpled up their sandwich wrappings then detoured by the trash can on the way to their spots. Fortunately, no interlopers challenged them this morning, but an empty fifth of something and a McDonald’s bag full of trash indicated nighttime activity. Marissa gingerly picked them up along with a few other things and walked back over to the gast station to throw them away before setting up shop.
‘Shop’ didn’t consist of much. She had an old rickety folding chair that she stashed out of sight overnight. She used it in quieter moments during the day but experience taught her that people were less generous if they thought she actually got off her feet for a minute or two.
The only other prop was the classic cardboard sign. She had upgraded once to a piece of foam core but apparently it implied too much affluence for the average Joe. She was trying a different marketing strategy with her current sign which read “Digging out from a string of bad luck. Thanks for your help.” It implied that she had some expectation that she would get out of her plight, which she didn’t. She wasn’t sure where life was taking her. She knew it could be worse. She wasn’t sure it could be better.
As expected, traffic was high and the openheartedness of the season made December the Black Friday of pan handlers. Christmas Money, as they called it, had to last through the lean first quarter when people were in shock after the first credit card bills came in. Weather was also a problem, with snow and cold keeping them huddled near the trailer’s one space heater for days at a time.
Today was going well so far. Rush hour wasn’t that lucrative, with drivers more focused on getting to work, but the nine to twelve crowd had time to reflect for a moment at the red light and were more inclined to reach into their wallets for a buck or two. As if in response to her sign, the last car in line handed her a lottery ticket. She gave it a quick look while the light was green. It was the scratch kind. The words across the top said $50,000 a Year For Life. She stuck it in her pocket when the light turned red and traffic started to back up again. She waved at the cars, Beauty Queen style she called it. It brought a genuine smile to her face.
The lottery ticket was on her mind all day. How much was $50,000 a year? She couldn’t fathom it. Was it enough to buy a house? Rent an apartment? Get a used car? Get her license? Go to college? One thing was for sure. It wasn’t buying tonight’s dinner, so she returned her attention back to the hustle.
Her sister stopped on the way home and to pick up the six pack and cigarettes that would get her through the night. She didn’t think Pat had a drinking problem. Pat had a life problem and drinking was the only solution that she could afford. It was therapy, leisure time, socializing and future planning all rolled into one 12 oz. can, or maybe more, usually more.
They were sitting in the RV easy chairs, heater at their feet, Christmas tree lights on, and Pat cracking open a beer, when Marissa remembered the lottery ticket. She pulled it out of her pocket and with a dirty fingernail scratched off the Winning Numbers column.
She read them off to Pat. “34, 21, 57, 4, and 11.”
“Lucky numbers if I’ve ever heard any,” Pat commented.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Marissa raised an eyebrow.
She began scratching off all the possible matches under Your Numbers, then checked back to the Winning Numbers. Her eyes hesitated over number 11. They went back and forth. She wiped away the excess scrapings and checked again. She held it up to the light.
Noticing the silence, Pat quizzed her. “What do we have there, Ris? A free ticket? Woo Woo. Twenty bucks and we can go out to breakfast Christmas Day.”
Marissa silently handed her the ticket.
Curious now, Pat put the beer down and sat up a little straighter to get better light. “What? A hundred? That will be sweet.” She tipped the card toward the light. She spotted the match quickly. Number 11 appeared on both lists and underneath it, in fine print, it said 50K for life. She looked over at Marissa with wide eyes and saw astonishment staring back at her. Smiles of awareness crept across their faces as they sat back in their chairs, speechless, joy slowly overcoming hopelessness. Pat raised her hands and spread them across the imaginary movie screen. Then she pushed the play button of the imaginary remote.