Dear Mr. or Mrs. Lottery Winner

Recently, a talented photographer/illustrator named Jessica Poundstone commented that she enjoys getting inspired to write by the things she reads here.

That's about the noblest service I can provide, the way I see it, because I personally find writing terribly intimidating and hard to talk myself into. Anything that gives me that shove in the right direction is greatly appreciated. So for her, and me, and anybody else interested, I'm passing along an Official Writing Assignment.


I saw in the news that a couple weeks ago, a record number of people in Iowa won the Powerball lottery on the same day, and an unusual number of entrants played the exact same set of numbers. Eventually, somebody asked some of these winners where they got the numbers, and it turned out they all came from fortune cookies.

Obviously fortune cookie messages are mass-produced and distributed, and somebody is responsible for writing those messages. So imagine you're the CookieCo employee who made up that series of numbers that went in the cookies - 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39. (You missed the Powerball, by the way - your final number was 40 and the winner was 42. Otherwise they'd all have won $25.5 million.)

Nonetheless, because of this turn of events and the various intricacies of the lottery program, 89 people won $100,000 each, and 21 more won $500,000. 110 people ended up with almost twenty million dollars altogether - thanks to your numbers.

Now: write one of them a letter. It can say whatever you want. You can try persuading them to share the wealth, or just congratulate them, or just amuse them, or yourself, or whatever.


One letter from you, fortune cookie number-maker-upper, to them, recent winners of the West Des Moines Multi-State Lottery. It sounds kind of hard, as I sit here thinking about it, but maybe it'll be fun as well.

I promise I'll do the assignment too.


Jessica said...

Wrote this right after you posted the challenge - it wrote itself really. Came out of nowhere. Didn't put the finishing touches on it until now. Still a little rough, but two years is more than long enough to wait. Longest comment ever - here goes:
Dear April 14 Winners of the West Des Moines Multi-State Lottery:

I recently became aware of your lucrative winnings, and the fact that you all played a sequence of numbers you found in a fortune cookie. Off the jackpot by just one number -- the last number should have been 42, not 40. Well, I wrote the number sequence in that cookie. Not that it won me anything. But since the circumstances under which that particular sequence was written were rather extraordinary, I thought you should know.

It began with the fact that I couldn’t stop dreaming fortunes.

Well, actually, I guess I’d better start at the very beginning.

I write fortune cookie fortunes for a living. Originally the numbers were just a break. I mean, originally they wanted two fortunes per cookie, one on each side. But it’s called a “fortune” cookie, not a “fortunes” cookie, I insisted. Hence the numbers. Filler. But after I started writing number sequences, I could hardly get away from them. Everywhere I turned I was looking for sequences that sounded good. I had never been preoccupied with how numbers sounded when read, but now I was entranced. I started dreaming floating trains of numbers - just black numbers floating in white space. My wife said she would hear me in my sleep reading them off: ”Seventeen, twenty-four, thirty-nine, forty-two…” She said it sounded like I was in love.

Frankly, this was a pleasant break from the recurring fortune dream I’d been having almost every night since I got the fortune writing gig. Basically consisted of an old guy, wearing a long peach cloak-type thing standing in the middle of a dimly-lit, empty room, smoking a cigarette, and looking both distracted and pissed off as he tossed off one fortune after another with hardly any break between them. “You are coming to a great crossroads. The closest friends are sometimes the farthest away. Life is like a tree.” Some of them I could use if I remembered them later; others were just stupid.

Let me get to the point. I had been writing numbers for a while, maybe a couple of months. One morning, I was walking down the street on my way to work. All of a sudden, in a doorway I had never noticed, I see a curl of cigarette smoke, and the edge of a peach-colored sleeve. I keep walking, getting closer to the doorway, and the figure is revealed. It’s the guy. It’s seriously him. I thought I was hallucinating – and who knows, maybe I was. I went right up to him and got a good look. He looked back at me. The only difference between the guy in person and the guy in my dreams was the color of his hair. In the dreams: long, scraggly and dark brown. In life: long, scraggly and iron gray. We locked eyes, and I swear he recognized me too. He took a drag off his cigarette, held in the smoke, exhaled, looked at me cryptically, opened his mouth and started to whisper. I leaned in. “Twenty-two,” he said. “Twenty-eight, thirty-two,” he continued, looking slightly amused. “Thirty-three, thirty-nine….” and then he dissolved into a colossal coughing fit. Truly, the worst coughing fit I have ever witnessed. I tried to reach out to whack him on the back, but he spun away and hobbled off down the street. I watched him go. At the end of the block he gave a half wave, and I saw him lift the cigarette up to his lips again before disappearing around the corner.

He had given me five numbers. But I needed six for a fortune cookie sequence. It was like he was leaving it up to me. It was like this was our pact. It was like he was saying “You control your destiny. You choose the final number.” And forty most definitely seemed like the right number.

So, sorry about that, people. I picked the wrong final number. I mean, 22, 32 and 42 in the same sequence? I never would have picked 42, though it does have a pleasing poetic resonance.

Since that street encounter, all work-related dreams have stopped, and I’ve never seen the guy again, in dreams or in life. Which I think is nice for both of us, since he never seemed to want to be there, and I always felt bad for making him stay.

I guess you could say I’m making up 100% of my own fortunes now. And with the $100,000 grand plus each of you people won, you can make up your own fortunes too. You have my address now - send me a cut if you think you should. Enjoy the enclosed cookie.

Colin said...

Wow, wow, wow. I love every word and comma of that story. It's lyrical and imaginative, and natural and evocative, and everything mine was not. You make me want to go back and rewrite, according to *your* assignment. Then again, I'm tempted to just leave yours perfect and unanswered.


Jessica said...

You're too, too kind - glad you enjoyed it, and thanks again for the truly fantastic prompt.