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The Raffle

By: Bill Wucinich

Dorothy lived only two streets from me but for some reason, I never noticed her. Then one day she walked by me at the Cook Park swimming pool. She looked different. I felt funny. I thought that at age 12, I had seen and experienced everything. But something was different. All I knew was that from that day forward, I was looking at the same person but seeing someone else.

My problem, though, was that she wasn't looking at me at all. Day after day she paraded past me at the pool as if I was part of the bathhouse. I did everything I could think of to show her that I existed. I dove off the high board; I talked a little louder anytime she was around; I played hard to get; I even combed my hair. But nothing worked. Then, one day while pondering what to do next, I happened to look at the marquis of the Windsor Theater and there was my answer. How could I have missed it? The sign shouted at me in bold letters ONLY THREE WEEKS!!! THIS BIKE CAN BE YOURS!!! It was so simple. All I had to do was win the annual bicycle raffle and my problem with Dorothy would be over. It was as if destiny had touched me on the head and granted my wish. How could she not notice once I rode by her on a new Schwinn equipped with all the chrome in the world and a rear fender reflector to boot?

The three weeks before the raffle went by as slowly as the last week of school before summer vacation. Day after day I looked at the bicycle in the theater lobby. It sat there mocking me with its glimmering perfection knowing that it held the key to the rest of my life. My eyes watered at the sight of its spokes gleaming like cat's eyes on a dark night and the palms of my hands oozed sweat when I imagined holding its chrome handlebars that sparkled like newly washed windows. I even went to the hardware store and bought a can of chrome polish and a chamois. In my dreams I saw myself riding to the pool with Dorothy as everyone stopped and stared.

Finally, raffle day arrived. For this one afternoon, John Wayne, the Durango Kid and Charlie Chan would have to win wars and fight bad guys without my help. Only the bike mattered. Because with it, I could ride home while everyone else walked; I wouldn't have to worry about a narrow skinny line of mud running down my back every time it rained because my bike would be equipped with a rear fender. Nor would I have to stop at every air pump on my way to anywhere to keep my tires inflated. But, most importantly, I wouldn't be alone. It would be Dorothy and me. All this would be mine if five numbers were called in the same sequence printed on my ticket.

The drawing was always held on a Saturday afternoon between the feature films. As soon as the first was over, the theater was darkened for a moment. In the darkness, all of us ran toward the stage sounding like mice scurrying around in a dark barn. When the theater lights came on, the bike and the ticket barrel were rolled onto stage to the accompaniment of "OOH's" and "Ah's" from everyone in the theater. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Scanlon, the theater manager, walked on the stage and raffle began.

Like a religious celebration, it had its own ritual. He always started by assuring us that he understood how anxious we were to get on with the drawing. But first he had to thank the sponsors for donating the prize. He then instructed us on the proper positioning of the tickets in our hands. We were told to put them before our eyes and to make sure that we were looking at five numbers and not the name of the theater. He further explained that in the event we found ourselves looking at the name of the theater, we were to turn the tickets over to find the numbers. I knew these words so well that I mouthed them as he spoke. All this took about five minutes or a lifetime depending on your frame of reference.

The final moments of agony were spent choosing the person who would pull the ticket from the barrel. By this time, no one cared if Attila the Hun did it - just so somebody reached into the barrel. In the end, the choice was always the same. He always picked the cutest girl in the audience. This year the one chosen was Dorothy.

As she walked towards the stage, I couldn't help but think of that day three weeks ago when I first looked at her. It had to be something more than fate that caused me to look a second time. What about the theater marquis? Why did I look at it on that particular day? After all, I had walked by all summer without paying any attention to it. But the clincher was when Dorothy was chosen to pull the ticket. Why was she chosen this year? Why not last year or the one before that? No, something else was at work. I could feel it.

The final step before the raffle was the interview. Normally, I didn't rally care what Miss Annual Bike Raffle's name was or where she lived or anything else she did to make her parents proud of her. All I worried about was whether she was smart enough to reach into the barrel, pull out a ticket and hand it to the nice man standing beside her. But today was different. Dorothy and I were as one setting about to complete the biggest day of our lives. Karma was in the air. So another few minutes wouldn't matter.

Finally realizing that he couldn't hold the mob off any longer, Mr. Scanlon spun the barrel. My eyes followed the tickets as they dropped from one side of the barrel to the other in rhythm with the motion. I forgot money, glory, ends of rainbows and four-leaf clovers and any other keys to a fulfilled life. This day it was a wooden barrel that held the power to grant all my wishes and give meaning to my existence. Finally it stopped and Dorothy reached in and pulled a ticket.

Many theories have been used to explain the relationship between the position of a ticket in a barrel and its chances of being the winner. Depending on what expert had the floor, the possibility that a particular ticket would be pulled was increased or decreased if it lay at the bottom, in the middle, at the very top or to the right or left of the door. My theory was simple - it only had to be in the right place one time.

To this day, I don't remember where the winning ticket was located - I only know that it was mine! I vaguely remember running down the aisle and jumping up to the stage without bothering with the steps. I must have given my ticket to Mr. Scanlon because the next thing I remember was jumping from one foot to the other while he compared the numbers on my ticket with his. Finally, with a nod of his head, he raised my hand as if I'd just won a prizefight, pointed to the bike and shouted the words that I had been waiting three weeks to hear.

"It's all yours!"

Since I didn't know what to do first, I started doing three things at once. I began thanking Dorothy for pulling my ticket; grabbed Mr. Scanlon's hand with both of mine and pumped it up and down like a handle at a water spigot while dragging him toward the bike. For almost a minute, I was a perpetual motion machine moving in every direction without going anywhere. Finally, Mr. Scanlon freed his hand from my death grip and helped me move the bike off the stage. Once he got me to the aisle, I made one feeble attempt at accepting my good luck with a modes Ah Shucks look on my face. But I couldn't get the silly grin off my face. So I finally gave up and started pushing the bike up the aisle. By the time I reached the lobby, I was drained of all emotion. I stood looking at the bike, rubbing my hands over its smooth chrome and turning its front wheel this way and that.

When the movie was over, the congratulations began all over again. Everyone leaving the theater had to stop for one last longing look at my bike. I gave everyone a plastic smile and mechanical thanks but my eyes were glued to the door. Dorothy had to come out sometimes. Without her, all I had was bike. Finally she came through the door and with a big smile headed in my direction.

My knees began to shake and I started to worry that they wouldn't hold me up. My plan was to squint at her like Humphrey Bogart did at Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and utter his immortal words "Here's lookin' at you kid." But my body wouldn't cooperate. Instead of squinting, my eyes completely closed. Then for a split second, I thought I'd lost my hands! Luckily, I found them still attached to arms that were drooping at my sides like flags on a windless day. But it was too late to fix anything and I didn't even have time to check my hair.

She continued walking toward me with that glorious smile. I kept mumbling thanks and freezing my face with a plastic smile like a department store mannequin even though by this time I had stopped hearing anything anyone was saying. She was now right in front of me. But instead of stopping to ask for a ride, she went right by as if I was a cardboard advertisement for the coming attractions! Then the awful truth hit me. That glorious smile was never meant for me. It was for the bronzed lifeguard at the pool standing behind me wearing a high school football jacket. I couldn't believe it - she had left me for an older man!

There are a million words to describe my feelings at that moment, although only a few such as crushed, life without meaning, destroyed, monastery ran through my mind. But none fit. All I had was this dumb bike, a lot of chrome, a can of polish and a chamois. And I didn't want any of it.

"What a beautiful bike. I would give anything to own it."

In my misery, I turned toward the voice. It was Joyce my neighbor from down the street. I mumbled thanks and then looked again. I felt funny. It was as if this was the first time I had really looked at her. I thought by the age of 12, I had seen and experienced everything. But something about her was different.

"Hi Joyce. Yeah, neat isn't it. Want a ride?"

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