Fortune's Fool

A first lottery ticket generates a crisis of conscience.

It was actually my idea. On that midweek evening, I was down in the dumps about having to leave the house and abandon the children so I could give a speech before an audience in a library up north. This was not an offer I could refuse - particularly when all the economic experts predict a lean year ahead.

The depressed feeling was heightened by the Palestinian radio station that blares into life when I start the car. It's not a station of my choosing and isn't preset, but somehow, whenever the engine shuts down and is restarted, my radio insists that I listen to this Palestinian station, and at full blast. I asked my wife what she thought about the phenomenon. She said the station is clearly some sort of a divine reminder in case I have forgotten where I belong.

Sayed Kashua

The first thing I do when I get into the car is to lower the volume and press the button for the station of my choice. But as I lowered the volume that Tuesday, I decided to stay with the Palestinian station. There was a discussion about suicides of young people in the West Bank - private, solo suicides, not nationalist-driven. The presenter said that the figures were rising steadily, that every year there were hundreds of attempted suicides among young Palestinians, dozens of which were "successful."

A Palestinian social worker who specializes in family health talked about the dramatic rise in suicides. Most of the attempts are made by women, she noted, but men are more likely to actually succeed in taking their own lives. The tone of the expert's voice suggested that she was lightly scolding the delicate lasses who decide to commit suicide and end up cutting some vein, bleeding a little and somehow managing to live.

Another guest on the program was a Palestinian psychiatrist who more or less said that he fully understood the youngsters who decide to end their lives. He mentioned economic distress, a feeling of being imprisoned, the dark future and a general sense of hopelessness. The psychiatrist left me with the impression that he himself had tried a few times to end it all.

By the time the Hebron police chief came on the air and provided statistical data about the suicides in his region, I understood I had to fill out a Lotto form. It wasn't actually just an understanding, or some passing idea, but something else entirely: a powerful feeling that seemed more like a sign from heaven, an overwhelming emotion that filled my being with hope and pride. A vague excitement tinged with hope accompanied me all the way to the library.

My mistake was to share my enlightenment with my red-haired director at the studio the next day.

"Lotto?" he said. "So fill out a form. What's the problem?"

"I don't know," I replied. "I've never done Lotto. I don't have a clue how to do it."

"You know what?" he said, and then I began to suspect that he had grasped the potential here, "the lottery can really help us in these hard times. Yallah, let's do it." He got up, announcing: "We're going to a Lotto booth. There's a draw tonight and there's a booth five minutes from here."

"Forty million," the woman in the colorful booth replied to the director's question of what the first prize was this week.

"What can I tell you, it's for nothing," he joked with her. "For NIS 60 you give me NIS 40 million?"

She tried to force a laugh and asked us how many tickets we wanted.

"What do you say?" the director asked me, taking advantage of the unexpected opportunity. "We'll buy one together?"

"Uhhhh," I stammered and stuttered. "Yes. All right. I mean, can we do that?"

"We certainly can," he said.

I gave him NIS 30.

"Would you like to choose the numbers?" he asked. "Or should we let the machine do it?"

"The machine can choose for us?"

"Aha, you've never done Lotto," he said, and asked the woman at the booth to have the machine do it. When she removed the ticket, he stuck it into his jacket pocket.

"Yallah, sababa," he laughed. "Twenty for you and 20 for me. Not bad, eh?"

That evening I waited for the draw and wrote down the winning numbers. I had no idea what ours were, but I jotted down the numbers anyway and waited for the director to call. But no call came, and close to midnight I couldn't restrain myself any longer and called his mobile. There was no reply. He must be sleeping, I thought, trying to comfort myself; we are close friends and he would never do that to me. I know I would never do it to him, would I? Not ever. I've always been honest, at least when it comes to money.

"Tell me," I said to my wife, who was already fast asleep. She woke up in a fright. "What happened? Has something happened?"

"No," I reassured her. "Let's say you were partners with someone, a friend, and you could cheat him out of 20 million, would you consider it?"

"What? What do you want from me? What time is it, anyway?"

I didn't sleep a wink all night. Well, how could I sleep when you can't even trust your closest friends, not to mention the human race in general?

The phone rang early in the morning and the red-haired director's name appeared on the screen. He must have fallen asleep and just checked the numbers now, I thought to myself, and tried to catch my breath before answering. How could I have suspected him? I'm a real paranoid.

"What's up?" he asked. "Everything okay? I saw that you called after midnight."

"What? Yeah, it was nothing, I thought maybe you were awake, I had a thought about the script."

"Hey, I got scared when I saw an 'unanswered call.'"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to. Tell me, did you by any chance check the ticket?"

"Of course," he said. "I waited for the draw. Nothing. Twenty million down the tubes," he laughed. "Okay - see you in the office?"

"Yeah," I said, "but tell me, did you check well? I had a good feeling. Bring the ticket to the office, we'll go over it again and ..."

"I checked, believe me," he said, cutting me off. "I threw the ticket out and they've already taken away the garbage."

I didn't say a word. I tried to behave naturally. It was my mistake to have given him the thing. But I will keep my mouth shut, even though I could swear that in the picture of the happy winner holding the check I saw a wayward red curl sticking out of the mask. Now he'll have to live with the consequences. The poor guy: All his life he'll suffer pangs of conscience.