i’m loving grad school – wonderfully busy. here’s the essay that was due today in my creative nonfiction class. the assignment was to write 1200-1500 words, with an episodic element.
If I Had a Million Dollars
“If I had a million dollars,
If I had a million dollars,
I’d buy you a house,
I would buy you a house.
If I had a million dollars,
If I had a million dollars,
I’d buy you furniture for your house,
Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman.”
~ Barenaked Ladies
When the quick phone conversation with Dr. Benton ended, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was about four in the afternoon, and he had just told me that the MRI I’d had at noon to rule out a brain tumor as the cause of my hearing loss had in fact revealed a very large tumor on the nerve connecting my ear to my brain. He suggested that I speak with a neurosurgeon within the next day or two. Conveniently, I already had one of those – my uncle Yancey. But before I called him, or called my parents, I felt like there was something else I should do next. Unfortunately, sorting through the things I’d learned so far in my thirty-six years of life revealed that I had never been told what you should do when you find out that you have a one-in-a-million brain tumor.
So I did the only logical thing I could think of. I walked out my front door, across the street, and into 7-Eleven, where I bought myself a slurpee and a lottery ticket.
When I was a kid, my parents and I spent many weekends in a cabin two hours east of our home in a Los Angeles suburb. The cabin had no phone, no TV. It had a swing and decks of cards and bird feeders and trails in the “wilderness” down the driveway. In the nearby town of Big Bear, across the street from the Italian restaurant where about once a month we ate a 5-course meal with cheese and apples for dessert, there was an arcade. I traded in my allowance for tokens, passed by Ms. Pac Man and shooting games and the contraption that would flatten your penny and give it back to you with a bear where Lincoln had just been, and spent all my money on Skeeball. I waited all month to hear the sound of the wooden balls rolling down the chute after I put in my token and pulled the lever. The scuffed balls were the perfect fit for my hands, still a little sticky from garlic bread.
I didn’t play Skeeball for the blue tickets that folded out of the machine at my feet. I played for the thrill of watching the ball move away from me at just the right speed, just the right angle, to jump the concentric circles and disappear down the hole marked 50.
It is true that, in each house I’ve lived in since those days, I’ve set aside some space in my mental floorplan for the happy day when I become the owner of my very own Skeeball machine.
Since I sold my car a few years ago, I’ve become a frequent bus rider. The stop down the block from my old house has a shelter, and now I live a short walk from the Transit Center, where each bus line begins and ends with its own refuge from the rain. But this being the Pacific Northwest, in other parts of town I’m often soggy when the bus arrives. While riding bus 6 through my old neighborhood I’ve often admired a wooden shelter, clearly build by someone on the block. A few times I’ve gotten off at that stop just to spend thirty minutes sitting there in that safe haven until the next bus comes by and stops for me.
As I’m carried around town, with the freedom to gaze out the window that I didn’t had during my two decades as a driver, I imagine organizing residents and business owners to build shrines to public transportation at each stop along each route. In my mind I can see these sanctuaries most clearly when it’s raining.
My walk to the other side of downtown often leads me through my neighborhood used book store, usually in search of titles in the trashy paperback series I read to clear my literary palate. This summer I repeatedly found myself drawn to a hardback book with a book jacket the perfect shade of yellow, which I put back on the shelf because I couldn’t justify spending close to thirty dollars on a book when I had a bookcase at home filled with titles I’d yet to read.
The day before I headed out of town on an end of summer adventure with a friend, leaving behind a season of strained family relations and ushering in my triumphant return to a college campus, there I was back in the bookstore with the yellow book in my hands. I decided that this was the time to give in to temptation, so I bought it.
In my rhetoric class, I’ve learned that they call what happened kairos – the right place at the right time. My agnostic friend Jesse calls it synchronicity – paying attention to things that seem to happen for a reason without giving them any kind of divine meaning. This is How, by Augusten Burroughs, turned out to be exactly the book I needed to read on that very day. I never had to use the flap of the jacket as a bookmark because I read it straight through; I inhaled it. I immediately re-read it, loving its weight in my hands, thinking that it wouldn’t have meant quite as much without the security of its thick cover. On a trip that included time on three boats, it was just the anchor I needed.
I grew up in the suburbs – it was a steep walk to the black metal mailbox that tilted on a stand with four others at the end of my driveway. When I’d go with my parents to the post office to buy stamps, I was captivated by the orderly rows of tiny doors, each with their own small lock. I grew up to become an habitual letter-writer, and I still find myself fantasizing about adding a tiny key to my keychain, blithely filling out change-of-address forms in my imagination.
One of my pen pals, Meghan, is a friend from a summer I spent as an exchange student. Meghan lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she minds a lighthouse and her two spirited sons, not to mention her recent reanimation of the tiny schoolhouse in her village. Just what I would expect from a woman with a 2-digit post-office box number.
Each autumn I send out dozens of Thanksgiving cards, with gratitude for the people who bring good into my life. In the last year I’ve become friends with Jessica, who lives in my same city. I asked her for her address, and when she responded with a two-digit PO Box number, I decided that the time had come for me to channel my envy into figuring out how to get one of my own. Maybe Jessica and Meghan can write letters of recommendation for my application.
I buy exactly two lottery tickets each year, and always on the anniversary of that cardinal MRI (my ‘Scanniversary’). One I include in a letter I write to Dr. Benton, with gratitude for saving my life. The other I allow myself to slowly scratch with a penny from my pocket, like Charlie peeling away the wrapper on his precious bar of chocolate. He opened three Wonka bars before he found the golden ticket – maybe I’ll allow myself two more lottery tickets next year.