“The Lottery,” a story by Charlotte Davies, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 56th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
by Charlotte Davies
…..A young man was walking up one of the roads that climbed out of the town, into the hills. He was tall, probably in his late teens, appeared fit and strong – looked like he’d pass a physical. Dark curly hair which was too long, but that could be easily taken care of, of course – give him a haircut, swap the t-shirt and shorts for an olive green uniform, the glasses for a pair of regulation army specs, and he’d look the part.
…..The young man, whose name was Mark Herbert, born 12th January 1952, now turned off the road to the left and followed a small track that ran through trees and bushes a short way before emerging into the open again, onto the bare hill, with its covering of pale grass. He traversed the hillside a short way until he reached his spot, in the lee of a rocky outcrop. Here he sat down cross legged, removed a bottle of beer from his rucksack and pried off the cap with his penknife. He took a swig, then set about rolling a cigarette. Spread out below him was the flat expanse of land where the town lay, bordered by a great sandy-coloured ridge of land on the other side.
…..He looked out across the puffy green tree crowns, the pale buildings reflecting the sun. There was a breeze up here, and he could hear the soft rushing sound it made in the long needles of the nearby pine trees. Otherwise, there was a hush in this spot, it was peaceful and undisturbed. The calm before the storm, he thought, with a grim smile. The storm being twofold: firstly, the family party that was being held to celebrate his mother Joyce’s 40th birthday in about an hour’s time. Secondly, and far more seriously, the storm that had been brewing on the horizon of his life for the last few years – the dark clouds of war and of conscription. With the drawing of the Draft Lottery that evening, these were now poised to descend on him.
…..Today is the day when our fates will be decided, Mark murmured to himself. The Lottery would be broadcast live on national TV and radio, and he had initially suggested he opt out of the party to follow the results, sitting in his room with the radio whilst the others celebrated in the yard. It was a convenient excuse in some ways – he had little desire to make small talk with the neighbours or his mother’s friends from school and church. Besides, jollity wasn’t really his thing. “But if the result’s not good and Mom finds out, it’ll ruin her special day,” his sister Robin said. “It’ll sure as heck ruin my day” returned Mark wryly. In the end they had agreed that it would be better for everyone if he attended the party, and went to get the results from the newspaper the following morning.
…..The deal with the Lottery was as follows: if your birthday drew a high number, you were in the clear, and could carry on with your life as planned. A middling number left you with an anxious wait to see what the highest number called up in the coming year would be. And if your number was low – well, in that case you were toast. Unless you could find a way out, and that was what he fully intended to do, if it came to it.
…..Ever since he had first been forced to contemplate being called for service, he had sworn that they would never make him a soldier. “I want to stop wars, not fight them!” had been his words, impassioned, in a letter to a friend. Seeking conscientious objector status was his first thought, but that wasn’t easy to come by. The college deferment would have offered at least a temporary reprieve, but now they were phasing it out. After much deliberation, he had resolved that if his was a low number, he would emigrate to Canada.
…..Of course, there was talk of doing your duty, serving your country – it was “the honourable thing,” they said. All propaganda in his eyes, designed to convince people that going half-way across the world to kill other human beings, or get killed yourself, was somehow a good idea. And pretty unconvincing when veterans were throwing their medals on the steps of the Capitol. He didn’t have any moral qualms about joining the ranks of the draft dodgers – quite the opposite. But the practicalities were difficult – how to get there, where to live once he arrived and how to earn money. Giving up his college place, and the financial aid that was to fund it, would be a huge blow too. As for saying goodbye to this country, to his family: well, he’d always wanted to roam, to leave this place behind. But forever?
…..He gazed out at the little houses nestled amongst the trees, the fluffy clouds sailing in the distance, casting their blueish shadows on those dry, placid hills. By tomorrow morning, he would know. He looked at his watch and saw that it was nearly four o’clock. Time to get back. He ground the cigarette butt into the earth with his heel and started off back down the hill.
…..A couple of hours later, the party was in full swing. Beneath strings of bunting, neighbours and friends sat on folding chairs or on blankets on the ground, eating deviled eggs and Waldorf salad from paper plates. The sound of their chatter and laughter filled the air. Mark’s little brother Greg, with short dark-blonde hair and still-boyish features, was on the other side of the fence throwing and catching a baseball with a couple of other kids. Guests dropped coins and bills into a cardboard box next to the buffet table: donations to the church fund for the needy, which Joyce had requested in lieu of gifts.
…..Mark took a sip of overly sweet fruit punch from a paper cup. His mother was teetotaling and there was no alcohol at the party, which was a drag. Still, it struck him now how glad he was not to be listening to the draw on the radio this evening, or worse still, watching it – it would seem like legitimizing the whole charade. He could picture that photograph from the 1969 lottery: the old politician, like the host of some macabre game show, flanked by two other old white guys as he drew the first capsule from the drum. The young “contestants,” meanwhile, waited anything but eagerly to find out if they had won the prize of being sent off to war.
…..His younger sister Robin, hair dark like his and wearing a red dress, moved about between the guests, being an attentive hostess. Now she was standing by the chair of an elderly neighbour, smiling and saying “is there anything I can get for you Mrs Dawson?” She had a real way of being cheerful and personable when she needed to be, he reflected, unlike himself. Since his return from his American Field Service year in Sweden, he had struggled to readjust, to reconnect with folks here. The time in Europe had been indescribable. The people, the way they thought, behaved, ran their society; the culture and atmosphere of a country that had existed for so many centuries. How could he ever express what he had felt, what he had experienced in that year to his family – to any of these people who all the while had remained here, in this sleepy old town, in the wilds of Eastern Oregon?
…..So he sat alone at the back of the garden, apart from the other guests, a detached observer. At some point, a neighbour came around the corner of the house with a large cake covered in pink and white icing, the candles ablaze, and the party launched into a chorus of Happy Birthday. Joyce, in a pale blue sleeveless shift dress and pearls, smiled broadly and clasped her hands to her chest. She blew out the candles, and once the cheers had subsided, thanked everybody for coming. Then somebody called out “Sing!” and other voices chimed in – “yes, let’s have a song!”
…..His mother loved to sing (she mentioned sometimes that she had dreamed of being a professional singer in her younger days). She sang at every opportunity, and mostly it grated on him. He rolled his eyes now as she cleared her throat and prepared to oblige her expectant guests.
…..Then she began: “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam…”. It was one of her favourite songs; he remembered that she used to sing it to him as a little boy. “Home, home on the range,” she sang in her wholesome voice, and other people joined in. “How corny,” Mark thought. But he felt a lump in his throat, and had to hastily take a gulp of punch and swallow hard.
…..“The Lottery.” The words were there in his mind the moment he began to emerge from sleep the next morning, and they jolted him awake. He remained lying there under the plaid bedspread for a few minutes, staring at the ceiling.
…..“Want me to fix you some toast? I’ve got a few minutes before I go,” his mother said when he came into the kitchen. She didn’t usually offer to make his breakfast. But he wouldn’t be able to eat anything this morning, he knew that. “No thanks, I’m not hungry.” “Well at least let me get you some coffee,” she said. He didn’t reply, but pulled out a chair and sat down. Joyce poured him a mug from the pot and put it in front of him.
…..Greg was at the table eating a bowl of cornflakes and reading a comic. Blissfully unaware, Mark thought, envying him momentarily. When their father left, Greg had been too young to understand – or to realize the implications of the family breadwinner being off the scene. Too young to feel betrayed. And now much too young to be drafted, of course. It would be another eight years before it was his turn, Mark calculated. With any luck the world would be a better, more peaceful place by then.
…..Mark sat hunched, sipping his coffee, staring in front of him. The kitchen was so very orange – rows of cupboards at both floor and eye level made of orangey wood, a vinyl floor covering teeming with red and orange squares. He thought back to breakfasts in the kitchen of the house in Sweden, with its wooden furniture painted in soothing white and pale green. Making up his smörgås with a slice of cheese and some slivers of cucumber, conversing confidently in Swedish with his host parents. He had been more or less fluent by the end.
…..“Good morning,” Robin said brightly, coming into the room. She was dressed for work in a skirt and blouse – she had a holiday job as a secretary. “Morning honey. There’s coffee in the pot.” “Thanks Mom” she said, going over to the counter to make toast.
…..Joyce was getting ready to leave. “Alright, I gotta get going, I’m giving some kids extra tutoring this morning. I’ll see you all later. Greg, you’re going over to play at the Ashton’s, right? Take some of the leftover cake for them. Mark, can you take out the trash?” she called from the hall. Then the sound of the front door closing.
…..After their mother had left, Greg finally looked up from his comic. “So what’re you gonna do if you get drafted? Would you go and fight in ‘Nam? Or would you be a draft dodger?” Greg asked, saying the last words with gusto, as if draft dodger were a villain from his comic book. “Greg!” Robin said in a cautioning tone. “We’ll see,” Mark said gruffly. He got up from the table and took his empty mug to the sink, then turned to leave the room.
…..“I’d offer to come with you Mark if I didn’t have to work,” said Robin, looking at him with an expression of concern. “I don’t need anyone to come with me,” he replied shortly. She took a bite of toast. “But thanks, sis” he forced himself to say.
…..She meant well, of course. But she thought that he was afraid, and that irked him. It wasn’t that he was a coward. That wasn’t the reason that he would refuse to fight. No, he was following a moral imperative – it might even be described as a spiritual feeling, he thought to himself, as he left the house and began striding along the pavement in the direction of the corner store. Past the clapboard houses, telegraph poles, fire hydrants, mailboxes, in and out of the shadows, feeling the morning sun and the cool of the shade. His head was held high, looking away to the hills. Even if his number was low, there was no need to panic. He would simply begin to put his plan into action, rationally and calmly.
…..Turning onto the street where the corner store was though, he felt his heartrate quicken. He endeavoured to keep striding ahead, but his pace slackened – his legs no longer felt strong and sturdy. There was the store up ahead, its painted walls advertising ice cream and coca cola, magazines and cigarettes. His steps took him closer, closer until he was standing outside, where he remained for a moment, breathing in all the way down to the bottom of his lungs and blowing the air out again slowly through his mouth. Then he stepped purposefully forward and opened the door.
…..“Good morning,” drawled the thin lady with blonde permed hair and large glasses, who had worked there for as long as he could remember. “Morning,” he croaked back. He could see the newspaper stand ahead of him. The thud of his heart was audible now, so loud that he wondered if she would hear it.
…..He picked up the New York Times, and began to leaf through the pages, the paper quivering as he held onto it with shaking hands. He found the table of birthdays and draft numbers, noting vaguely that it was next to an advert for leather jackets. Scanning the top of the table, he saw the number 90, and felt a surge of panic. But no, that was January 11th. The number for January 12th was 228. A wave of relief broke over him.
…..He turned and moved towards the door, his hand still clutching the paper. “You’re going to need to buy that honey, if you want to take it out of the store!” called the woman behind the counter. “Oh. Sure thing. Sorry.” He hadn’t intended to buy it, but it would look silly to go and put it back on the shelf now. He pulled some coins out of his pocket and paid.
…..Outside on the street corner, the sunlight was momentarily dazzling. A car drove past, a blue mustang with the window wound down, a Herb Alpert tune playing on the car radio. Two young girls were coming along the opposite sidewalk, one carrying a skipping rope. They crossed the road towards the store, going to spend their pocket money on candy, probably. Mark turned and followed the sidewalk, walking slowly at first, feeling the sun’s warmth on his bare arms. It was going to be another hot day.
…..It could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse of course. The highest number called in the previous year had been 195. He was probably safe, and the Canada scheme could be shelved for now. He would start college in the fall as planned, and likely make it through next year without getting called up.
…..But what about all the guys who’d drawn 1 last night? Or 2 or 3 or 20? Some of those poor kids were going to end up getting gunned down on a battlefield thousands of miles away, others might wind up being involved in the murder of civilians. It was all so wrong, so reprehensible. Passing a trash can, he lifted the metal lid and tossed the newspaper inside, before replacing the lid with a clang.
…..He realized he had been storming along the street, not really paying attention to where he was going. But if he walked another three blocks, he would be at the diner, where he could get breakfast – yes, that sounded like a good idea.
…..He took a seat on a padded stool at a table by the window, and ordered pancakes and a coffee. Feeling calmer now, he stared out at the street, the parked cars, the lawns and trees, the sign for the paint and glass shop opposite. Of all the places in the world, he mused, why was it that he had grown up here, in this town, in this landscape? Was there perhaps some sort of cosmic lottery that determined when and where you were born? And, more disquietingly, when you were going to die? The waitress came over with the coffee pot and poured him a cup, and he watched the steam curl up from the white porcelain mug. Even assuming he escaped being drafted next year, there was no knowing what twists of fate lay in store. An image came into his head of an old man in a long white robe, sitting on a cloud, drawing plastic balls from a drum. He smiled to himself. No, he didn’t believe in that guy, his mother’s god. But you couldn’t rule out the possibility that some higher force was at work, he supposed.
…..His pancakes arrived, a stack of them topped with a slab of butter, which slid slowly from the centre as it melted and mingled with the amber syrup. He took up his knife and fork with relish. You just had to get out there and live as much as you could in the time you had. Absorb as much as you could from the vast body of human knowledge – that’s what he would do at college. And when that great project of learning was over, he’d take a backpack and return to Europe – there was a whole continent to explore.
…..A young man, not yet 20 years old, sitting alone in a diner eating breakfast. Gazing out of the window, far away into the years ahead, dreaming of what they might bring.
Charlotte Davies is originally from the UK, but currently lives in Germany, where she earns her living as a German-English translator. In writing “The Lottery,” she drew on her North American heritage; the first-person testimonies at www.vietnamwardraftlottery.com were also a helpful resource. In her free time she loves dancing to music of the swing era, among many other things.
Listen to a 1969 recording of guitarist Grant Green playing “Cease the Bombing”