The Lottery II
By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 2 August 2013
Tuan-mu Tzu wished to drop the
custom of sacrificing a sheep
to announce to the ancestors
the beginning of each new month.
The Master said, "You are in
love with the sheep; I, with the ceremony."
-- Sayings of Confucius
Martin Fuller stood in the middle of the Royal Hill green, his back to the white church, the town hall to the right. Immediately in front of him, Highway 62 curved off to the left, past the general store and the post office. It connected with the expressway a half mile down the hill.
Quite a few people were on the green this morning, setting up craft booths, a popcorn wagon, doughnut and coffee tents. Half of the VFW ladies, having spent the night frying doughnuts, waited for the other half, who were to sell the doughnuts during the day. The tired fryers were silent, having said all they wished to say during the long night around the pans of hot oil in the church kitchen.
Martin looked at the green, the fire truck ready for kid's rides, and the antique farm implements on display. He was filing information away inside his bald head, a mine of Royal Hill trivia. The town's old families, its buildings, and especially its famous lottery, were a passion with him. He swung around to look at the church steps. The high school boys were there, quiet for the most part, but occasionally giving each other a quick punch to the shoulder or a fake kick.
Their talk was not of school -- it rarely was -- and it was sometimes difficult to figure out what it was about at all. Someone told an involved story about a party, a fight, a lot to drink. As far as Martin could figure out, it was an eyewitness account. Two minutes into the story, however, the speaker insisted that he personally hadn't been drinking, hadn't been fighting, hadn't been there. Then it turned out that various members of the sheriff's department did not believe the speaker's version. The story finally drifted off into complaints about injustice, high-sounding, even idealistic, if you hadn't heard the sordid preamble.
Arthur Bank came up to Martin while he was listening to the teenagers. His step and voice were chipper, his khakis pressed, his hair neat. "Think we'll get a crowd?" he asked.
"Probably," answered Martin, in his best Yankee drawl. He exaggerated it a bit when he talked to Arthur, to emphasize that he was a native Vermonter, in contrast to Arthur.
"Let's go check the signs." Arthur and several others had put up signs at the Royal Hill exit the night before. They said, "This way to the Royal Hill Lottery" and "Exit here for the stoning." Arthur wanted to make sure they hadn't been vandalized during the night.
Arthur and Martin walked around the roped-off area where the tennis balls were lying in a heap, an orange-green mound about two feet high. They were for the "stoning" that would take place later in the morning.
"Who's going to win the lottery this year, Martin?" asked Arthur, when they had settled into Arthur's Chrysler and headed down to the exit.
"Jim Vincent. He's been school board president for two years now. It's time he won."
"Didn't the lottery start out as chance kind of thing? I mean, picking people by families, and all that?"
"It was absolutely a chance thing," said Martin. "Folks said it was rigged, that nobody high up had ever won. They forget about George Hill, in the '22 lottery, and Richard Forrest, in '34. Both of them rich men. There was a lottery in the last century that killed the minister. 1893. Reverend Michael Butler."
"But it's not chance any more. I mean, you just pick someone, someone prominent, and everybody knows who it is, except the tourists. Did you do that when you started using tennis balls instead of stones, or what?"
"Well, now Arthur, you're getting a little ahead of the story, here. About ten years ahead. We didn't have any lottery at all between 1948 and 1952. None at all."
"Well, the legislature killed it off, didn't they? Didn't they pass a resolution, or something?"
"They passed a resolution, all right. Have you seen it?"
"I probably did, when I looked at your display. When I first moved here, you know."
The display was Martin's labor of love, which had taken him years to collect and build. In oak cases around the walls of the town hall, he had placed rocks actually used in the last lethal lottery, the black box that had held the names of the townspeople, and a list of all the people killed since the town's founding in 1765.
There were also copies of documents, including the state senate resolution which Arthur had remembered. It had called the lottery "a barbarous and savage custom, which should be condemned by all right-thinking persons." There were also letters and editorials from all over the nation. They tried to outdo each other in the use of derogatory phrases: "unconscionable primitivism"; "unworthy of civilized men"; "backwoods Old Testament religion."
There was the original magazine story, which had first brought the light of national publicity to Royal Hill. There were all the doctoral theses written: "Pharmakos and Royal Hill"; "Mythic structure of Royal Hill's Lottery"; "Lottery and Town Meeting: a Study in Archetypes," and so on.
"Is that what killed it off, then?" Arthur asked.
"No, it wasn't the senate, and it wasn't the bad publicity, either. Boston and New York are pretty far off, and so's Montpelier, for that matter. If we'd wanted a lottery, we could have had one. No, it was curiosity, all the prying. Not just anthropologists, either. Reporters and tourists would show up, hang around the store, want to see the black box. Then they'd start up with all kinds of questions about our beliefs and our culture and our this and that until it made us sick. Felt like freaks. They'd ask some little kid if he threw stones. Of course he did. Everyone did.
"We didn't have any lottery at all for about four years, real or fake. Then the state started a lottery of its own. Drawings on TV, and all. For a joke, people would throw tennis balls at a winner -- just here in Royal Hill. Well, we put two and two together. Bring back the lottery, make it a kind of attraction. Bring money into town."
"Well, it does that, all right," said Arthur. "It must bring in about two or three thousand, counting everything. Five hundred in popcorn alone, last year. But it's different now, isn't it? I mean, besides using tennis balls instead of rocks?"
"Sure it's different. Things change, even in Royal Hill. You mean, why isn't it strictly by chance any more? Why do we always have the sheriff win, or the principal of the high school?"
"Yeah. I wondered about that."
"You know, '65, '66 came around. Kids started getting drafted. The college boys came home and made some connections in their minds. Draft equals lottery. Of course they all thought the draft was unfair. About five of them stood on the green, summer of '67, holding a sign that said "The Lottery. A joke for the old; a deadly reality for the young."
They were at the exit. Arthur stopped the car and the two men walked down the ramp to the signs. They had been defaced. One was down and the other now read "Get stoned at Royal Hill." Arthur said he had some extra signs at home and could have them up in forty minutes. They got back into the car and headed back to the green.
"So you figured, if the kids were getting drafted," Arthur said, "the least the old folks could do was risk a few tennis balls."
"Something like that. It's not exactly a fair exchange, but hey, we were subject to the draft too, at one time."
"And the Lottery."
"Sure. I could have picked the black ticket any time up to age fifteen. That's how old I was when we had the last real Lottery. I could have been drafted, too."
Back at the green Martin's wife Emily was waiting for him. She was there for the craft booths, mainly; Emily Fuller wasn't much for the history of the lottery, nor the other Royal Hill lore that so interested her husband. She was interested in the people of today, the people who lived now in Royal Hill. If, for example, you mentioned the Livingston house, Martin could tell you who built it in 1865 (George Livingston), what the politics of the builders were (antislavery, prowar), and how it was added to over the years (kitchen wing, 1909).
Emily, on the other hand, was much more likely to talk about the present inhabitants, the Overmans. She could tell you why young Wilt was flunking out of the University of Vermont (drugs), who among the daughters had had an abortion (Susan), and why the present man of the house went to Springfield every Wednesday (mistress).
Martin came up behind her at the woodcarving booth, where she was thoughtfully fingering a basswood duck. He did not surprise her. She turned before he came close and said, "Mart. Come with me, now. I want to show you something."
Martin's eyes rolled. This was code for "I want to buy something, and I want you to pay for it." They walked over to the pottery tent and Emily showed him a dull red pot, ribbed, elongated, which, she claimed, would be perfect for the mantel. Fifteen dollars. Martin paid, and then picked out a souvenir wind chime for himself. The chimes were shaped like small gray stones.
Emily disapproved of his purchase. She said that it was going to make her sick the way he carried on about the lottery. You'd think he wanted to go back to the way it was before. He wasn't going to hang that thing on her porch. In this day and age it did not seem right that they had the lottery at all. Even as a joke.
"This day and age. You're always going on about this day and age. What is so wonderful and new about this day and age, that we have to forget everything about what happened before?"
"Martin. We are a peaceful people. We try not to do harm. Having fun by throwing things at people just isn't right. Not any more."
"Peaceful people. That's a good one." Martin gestured toward the youths on the church steps. "Look at them. Are they peaceful today? Are they ever peaceful except when they're so stoned they're asleep?" As if reacting to his gesture, the boys began to leave the church steps and move slowly toward their cars, parked behind the old church. Someone turned his car radio up.
"They're not so bad, Martin."
"What about Mrs. Moore? She wasn't peaceful. Neither her life nor her death. Not one bit peaceful." Mrs. Hazel Moore had been a not-so-secret drunk, a harridan who had ruined two marriages, one business partnership, and numberless town meetings with her accusations. The less said about the marriages, the better. The business had been her husband's and her brother's; and the town meetings were, of course, Royal Hill's, where everyone was embarrassed by her unsteady gaze, her pointed finger, and her even more pointed questions.
Trouble was, she was absolutely right about ninety percent of the time. Her husband was cheating on her and embezzling from the business to finance his affairs. The town government had been a hotbed of corruption and favoritism. But it was still a shock when she was found one February morning, kneeling at the woodblock at the back of her house, an axe cleaving the back of her head lengthwise. No one had been charged with the murder.
"Mrs. Moore was killed by people from away," said Emily.
"You're so sure of that. How do you know? It could have been anyone. It could have been someone right here on the green today."
"Don't say that."
"What about Mary Vincent? Locked out of her house by that drunk in a snowstorm. Lucky she didn't die."
"That drunk" was not Mrs. Moore, but Jim Vincent, Mary Vincent's husband. This was also the same Jim Vincent who, as president of the school board, was scheduled to be "stoned" today.
"I'd like to throw a tennis ball at him myself," said Emily.
"Better throw a few tennis balls," said Martin. "One for his wife and two more for those kids he beats up."
"Well, now, you don't know about that, Martin. You don't know that he hits those kids."
"I can make some pretty good guesses."
"Well, what's the point?"
"The point is, this day and age is no different from any other. It's just like 1946, or 1846, or any other time. We've got plenty of violence right here. We are not a peaceful people, not so you'd notice. At least back then we faced up to it, did it out in the open, and didn't deny it."
"I think you're going crazy, Martin. The lottery was terrible. We all got together and killed people with stones. I mean ..."
"Uhhuh. That's a lot different, from using a 1982 Plymouth, or a fireplace poker. Or an axe."
"Well. Of course. I mean, that isn't us. Whoever killed Mrs. Moore isn't us. That was one person killing another. You can't compare."
"But I can compare. I can. It is 'us.' The folks of Royal Hill have killed nineteen people in the last twenty years. It's the same thing."
"It's apples and oranges, Martin."
"Right. They're both fruit. This is all murder."
Arthur Bank and his wife Bea strolled up to Martin and Emily. "Got those signs back up," said Arthur.
"Good," said Martin.
"Martin, here, wants to bring back the old lottery," said Emily. "He thinks there is something false and dishonest in throwing tennis balls. Bring back the rocks. Good old days."
"I do not want to bring back the old lottery. I want you and the rest of this town to stop kidding yourselves about what fine enlightened modern folks you all are. That's all."
Arthur and Bea acted shocked. "Bring back the old lottery? Why, that's terrible."
"I do not want to bring it back. I said that. The old way was terrible, a vicious act. But we knew who we were. We were the people who had the lottery. We threw it out and didn't replace it with anything. Nothing holds us together."
Emily looked at Bea and Arthur. They all shook their heads.
The lottery started. Old John Evans, the storekeeper, carried out the black box. He set it on a stand next to the pile of tennis balls. Then he lifted Mary Ellen Fitzgerald up to the box, so she could pick names, and he called them out as she handed them to him.
One by one, they came up to Mr. Evans and got their slips, each one folded to cover up the possible black smudge that would mark the sacrificial victim. Arthur Bank asked Martin, "Didn't this used to go by family? Didn't each grown man used to go up and draw for his wife and kids? And then have a little family lottery to pick the one who ... ?"
"Yes, that's right," answered Martin. "It all went by family. We did it that way in '52, when we started it up again, too. But in the next twenty years or so things got a bit confusing. People got divorced, remarried, had kids out of wedlock. I remember a year when Joey Granger had to pick three times: for his mother, because he was the oldest boy; for Susie, his wife; and for Louise Albert, because she'd had the twins before he ever married Susie. He was the man for three families, you might say, except he didn't actually support any of them. The only job he ever had in his life was picking apples three weeks out of the year."
Mr. Evans read all the names in his firm booming voice. Soon everyone had his or her slip, and they opened them together. Jim Vincent tried to look surprised.
The boys reappeared from behind the church, forgetting to turn off the loud radio. They sauntered over to the pile of balls. Everyone -- boys, tourists, townsfolk, picked up balls. They gathered around Jim Vincent and began throwing. Martin had tennis balls in both hands and in his jacket pockets, and threw joyfully and accurately. Balls were bouncing off the ground, flying past Vincent and into the opposite side of the circle of townsfolk. Vincent went into a crouch, protecting his nose and eyes.
Suddenly, he went down. Both of his legs twitched. Balls kept flying until Martin noticed a red stain in the dust behind his head. "Stop it. Stop," he yelled. "Get back from him. That's blood, there. That's blood."
The people stopped throwing. Jim Vincent got to his knees, slowly, and then to his feet. Doctor Brown approached him and looked into his eyes. "What happened?" he asked, loudly enough for the crowd to hear. Vincent muttered something as they walked toward a bench on the green. Blood matted his hair and stained the collar of his shirt.
Doctor Brown looked worried. He glanced at Martin. "Get your van," he said. "We're going to have to get him to a hospital."
Martin and Emily went into the church. His museum had been there ever since the last pastor departed with the choir teacher.
"Too bad about Jim Vincent," Emily said. "Dead on the operating table."
"Yeah. I didn't expect that. Probably one of his kids threw a real rock."
"Or his wife."
"You know, it just seems like Royal Hill has to kill someone every year or so," Martin said. "It's like a lightning rod. One dies, everyone else lives. Otherwise there'd be --"
"Oh, I know, Martin. There would be total anarchy. Honestly, your opinion of humanity is about as low as it can get. We are getting better, you know."
"Not so I notice. You know what the problem is -- a real death means something. Something symbolic like the tennis balls is useless. The lightning rod isn't connected to the ground."
"So it's a real death or a useless symbol? Too bad we couldn't have a death that was real, but didn't cause real bloodshed. Would that satisfy you?"
"Sure it would. But it would have to keep happening over and over. That would take a miracle."