El Gordo

Leslie Wines

Sabina’s heavy, calloused feet hurt like hell. She had been pounding the pavement of Malaga’s historic central district for five hours, making her circular rounds in old flip flops that were coming apart at the toes. Not only was she in pain, but her lottery tickets were selling at a glacial rate of one every hour and fifteen minutes. Her repetitious job had never been fun or a gold mine. But now, at 62, she found it painful as well.

“El Gordo!” Sabina called out in a hoarse voice, trying to interest the mid-afternoon patrons in the outdoor cafes near Malaga’s famous old cathedral. At a minimum cost of 20 euros apiece, El Gordo tickets represented a chance to win one of Spain’s massive Christmastime jackpots, fortunes so large that they often altered the winners’ lives for good.

Few of the restaurant patrons in the cathedral square bothered to acknowledge her weary sales efforts. Many seemed to look right through Sabina, a sturdy-looking woman dressed in nondescript clothes. But she trudged on. She was used to not getting much response. Finally she caught the attention of a British tourist couple enjoying the typical holiday maker’s meal of paella with Sangria. The husband and wife were both quite tall and seemed, to Sabina, unaccountably euphoric.

“Over here dear!” the wife called out, sounding as if she and Sabina were long-time intimates. The woman was dressed in bright orange Capri pants and a wild-looking leopard print top. She looked as if she might recently have been released from prison and wanted to make up for years of dull garb by wearing the gaudiest clothes she could find. Malaga’s sea air, sunshine and carefree ambiance had a strangely emboldening effect on many foreigners, Sabina had often thought.

“How much does a ticket cost dear?” asked the friendly woman.

“From twenty to two hundred euros each,” Sabina replied, summoning a little English.

“No!” the woman gasped.

Sabina always enjoyed the shocked responses of foreigners to the steep price of El Gordo tickets. She told the couple, as she always did in these situations, that she also had other tickets in much smaller denominations for an upcoming weekly lottery. El Gordo tickets, Sabina believed, were much too expensive and intricately designed for most foreign visitors. Besides it was late September and the drawing would not take place until December 22. By then the couple would be back in Britain most likely. Sabina made a quick sale, her fifth of the afternoon. Her feet now were throbbing so badly she could barely stand up straight.

She limped from the cathedral square to the tiny Loteria y Apuestos del Estado location nearby on Calle Bolsa. The street was named for the small stock-trading operation inside the Unicaja branch across from the lottery office. Sabina’s brother-in-law Fernando operated the small office and she needed to turn in the day’s proceeds to him.

“Hola, mi amor,” Fernando called out in a noisy baritone as she entered the office. Fernando, who was almost the same height as Sabina and nearly as round as he was tall, rushed to kiss his sister-in-law on both cheeks and appraise her  appearance. He quickly let out a squeal of pleasure.  

Sabina laughed because, although she felt older than God after spending the day on her feet, Fernando was behaving as if she were the most ravishing woman in the world. They had been performing this little routine once a week for two decades but it was always fun. As if  by magic, Sabina forgot her swollen feet and no longer felt tired.

Maria and Julia, wispily thin,middle-aged sisters and the only other workers in the office, shot each other incredulous glances. Fernando and Sabina’s powerful chemistry, which they found thoroughly inappropriate, was the sole intrigue in their tiny office. The sisters knew that Fernando was the bachelor brother of Sabina’s late husband Luis. Fernando had given her the part time job 20 years earlier when Luis unexpectedly died of a heart attack, leaving Sabina with her teenage son Jose to bring up on her own.

In the office both sisters behaved timidly. But when the two went to lunch by themselves they enjoyed lurid gossip. Maria often would ask Julia whether she thought Sabina and Fernando were lovers or possibly secretly married. They had conducted this conversation so many times that it had the feel of a well-rehearsed play. Maria always became particularly lively when she speculated that Sabina’s only child by Luis, Jose, was really Fernando’s son. She also relished asking Julia if she thought it possible that Fernando had poisoned his brother to rid himself of some extremely inconvenient competition.

Curious though she was, Julia would only shrug at Maria’s battery of questions about Sabina and Fernando. The answers, she believed, would remain mysteries forever because Sabina and Fernando always reacted with indignation to any hint that there was an illicit aspect to their flamboyant delight in each other’s company. The pair’s icy stares always put an end to the sisters’ prying. Still Maria and Julia had never seen two people so clearly magnetized by each other.

Eager to sit after her exertions in the streets of Malaga, Sabina pulled up a chair beside Fernando’s desk. She removed her change belt and began handing over the money and paperwork for the day. It was time for one of their lengthy chats. She knew it would be another conversation that Maria and Julia would pretend not to hear while, in fact, taking in and analyzing every word.

“The last ticket I sold was to a British lady,” she told Fernando. “She did not even ask how she could find out if she wins or not. It’s very strange, but such things often happen with foreign tourists. They sit out in the sun, have a drink or two, and suddenly they become careless. They don’t seem to know what they are doing and they buy tickets that they seem to forget about almost instantly.”

“Why do they do that, my love?” asked Fernando.

He beamed at his sister-in-law and patted her hand.  Working only in the tiny office he was accustomed mainly to the stock brokers from the other side of Calle Bolsa. The brokers were a serious lot dressed in dark suits with grave looks on their faces. They made their lottery ticket purchases quickly then walked back together to the stock exchange as if in a trance. They looked a bit as if they were part of one of Malaga’s frequent outdoor religious processions.  Fernando had little experience with the carefree, rather reckless tourists Sabina knew so well.

“The tourists may buy the tickets just for the fun of purchasing them,” Sabina answered.  “It seems to be something that makes them happy in the moment and then, often as not, they forget all about the tickets.”

“How strange,” her brother-in-law said.  “My customers are much more serious about their money. They would never spend it just to buy a second or two of fun.”

“Maybe the tourists don’t buy the tickets so mindlessly when they are in their own countries,” Sabina replied.  “But when they are here, they become someone else for a while. Maybe that is why they come to Malaga.”

“Hmm,” said Fernando as he counted up the money and matched it to Sabina’s   receipts. “Everything is in order, perfect as usual.”

He patted Sabina’s hand enthusiastically once more. To Maria and Julia, who kept their heads down, Fernando sounded as if he were on the verge of drooling.

Sabina stood up, hugged her brother-in-law warmly and got ready to leave. She was conscious of the two curious sisters. She beamed at them mischievously, wished them a wonderful afternoon and then disappeared onto the street.

On the nearby Alameda Principal Sabina caught a bus and headed to her home in the seaside district of Rincon de la Victoria. She lived right in front of the beach in a small apartment. Next door lived her son Jose, daughter-in-law Marite and grandson Mario.

A few of the people on the bus recognized her and smiled and nodded. She didn’t really know them, but it was almost as if she did. In a way she enjoyed a bit of fame. These people had seen her many times, sometimes aboard the bus and sometimes making her sales rounds in the center of Malaga. A few of Sabina’s fellow riders bought lottery tickets from her now and again. None appeared to be especially heavy gamblers though.

It always bothered Sabina that, to the best of her knowledge, none of her customers ever had won more than 70 euros. So many years of endlessly circling the city center and never had she sold a ticket to an El Gordo winner.  What had she worn down her aging feet to near stubs for? Well, of course, she had worked in order to care for Jose after the death of Luis. But wouldn’t it have been fantastic just once to have been part a part, even a small ancillary part, of one of Spain’s famous late year lottery miracles?

In all the world there was no lottery more beloved, closely watched and theatrical than El Gordo, a massive undertaking in which at least two thirds of Spain’s population participated. Spaniards liked to mention the fact that the 200-year-old lottery had continued even during the dark days of the country’s civil war. At the height of the war in 1938, separate lotteries were held – one in Francoist Burgos and another in Republican Barcelona - but the tradition had persisted. It was an indestructible institution.

Because of the expense of the tickets most Spaniards played in groups of families, offices, sports teams and churches. Entire neighborhoods sometimes played as one. Later, if lucky, these groups divided their spoils.

The last week of each year the Spanish newspapers brimmed with stories about El Gordo winners who, often as not, turned out to be marginal figures lifted from obscurity to sudden great prominence. It wasn’t always possible for the newspapers to ferret out the winners’ stories though. One year the mysterious citizens of a tiny town near Madrid, who all shared in a multi-million euro prize, made a peculiar pact of silence. Whenever reporters arrived to interview them the townspeople would scatter, retire to their homes, bolt their doors and close their blinds. Were they hiding some sort of crime? No one ever could figure out why they acted this way.

One of the most amazing stories of recent times was that of a Senegalese family which, only a year before their huge win, had entered Spain as refugees on foot after landing on the Costa del Sol in a leaky dinghy. On learning the news the father broke into tears, marveling that his family was now free, safe and rich. Sabina enjoyed this sort of improbably perfect ending much more than she did looking at photos of snobby people drinking champagne in fancy Madrid neighborhoods after becoming even richer due to El Gordo’s bounty.

Sabina reached her home shortly before 6 pm. The next door apartment occupied by her son Jose and his family was quiet, which gave her a bit of time to rest her swollen feet and nap. She entered the small bedroom she had once shared with her late husband Luis.

There were moments, especially in the early evening, when she sensed Luis’ presence in the room, as if he had been waiting all day for her return. She still kept their wedding photo and a number of other pictures of him on her dresser. If no one else was around she addressed the photos, describing the events of the day to the ever patient, if silent, Luis.

“Luis, I am not sure I can stand this work much longer,” she said. “My feet feel like they are going to explode. I think I will quit in the next few weeks. Our son Jose is grown and has his own family now. I can manage on just a little bit of money.”

“I wish your foolish brother would retire soon and relax too,” she continued. “He is as fat as you were and I am afraid he will die of a heart attack too. Behind his back those little hypocrites Maria and Julia joke that he is the real El Gordo. Why did I of all people have to love two dangerously overweight men?”

Sabina was never shy about discussing Fernando during her evening chats with her late husband. The couple had not avoided the topic of Fernando when Luis was alive. Why would they dance around it now that Luis was dead? Out of respect for Luis and young Jose, Sabina and Fernando had never been lovers and that remained the case even after Luis’ early death.

Remarkably Luis had not been especially jealous of the volcanic feelings between his brother and his wife. That was because, as he once told Sabina, he saw himself not as the odd man out in their peculiar triangle, but as its essential apex. His insecure younger brother had fallen in love with Sabina because he followed and tried to imitate Luis in just about everything, a childhood pattern that persisted into adulthood.Fernando was Luis’ shadow, not the reverse. His little brother’s love for Sabina was just a pale copy of his own love for his wife.

However, Sabina’s feelings for his little brother had been a shock to Luis. But he also was a Stoic and chose to view the unconsummated love affair as one of the unavoidable workings of fate.  Who could say why life had bound the three of them together in this strange way?

“Do you remember how when we were young I would point out eligible women to Fernando and he would just look into space?” Sabina asked her late husband’s photo.  “One day you told me that my attempts were futile and I finally realized why Fernando was not interested in these women. But then I also realized that I was in love with him too. I was flattered into loving by his complete fascination with me. I felt guilty for your sake, but I could not imagine any way out of the situation. The fact that I was not supposed to fall in love with him only made my feelings stronger.”

“And everything worked out for all of us, didn’t it?” she asked Luis.

That statement was true, but only up to a point. None of the three had been miserable, and yet they also would not have chosen their situation. Sabina always thought spending a life split between two brothers, and not being able to please herself or either of them fully, had been hardest on her. There were many times when feeling the object of both men’s desires had felt exhausting and unnatural.

Sabina stopped addressing Luis when she heard her grandson Mario enter the adjoining apartment. She did not want to explain to Mario that she still spoke sometimes to the late grandfather he had never known. She thought the subject was beyond a 13-year-old lover of skateboards.

“Hola Abuela!” Mario called out, bursting into her apartment without knocking. He kissed her and asked her how her day had gone. So Sabina repeated, pretty much word for word, the same anecdotes she had just shared with Luis, except for the story of his grandparents’ strange love triangle.

As Christmas drew nearer, Sabina worked more and more hours, wearily hawking El Gordo tickets near the cathedral. As usual, December was turning out to be the most lucrative month of the year. The rapid approach of the lottery drawing brought out many ticket buyers. Sabina swore to herself that she would quit her job by the first of the year. The rewards were not worth the physical pain or being treated like a non-entity by tourists and wealthy Malaguenos.

One mid-December day when unexpected showers drove the customers from the outdoor tables at the cafes, Sabina decided to make an early exit. Returning to the lottery offices on Calle Bolsa she found Maria and Julia in a state of hysteria.

“Fernando was just taken to Hospital Carlos Haya,” Maria explained to Sabina. “He suddenly keeled over at his desk. He looked like a tree branch knocked over in the wind.”

"We were so worried,” Julia said. “We called for an ambulance and it came and got him. At the time he was taken out of the office Fernando seemed to be breathing. But he did not open his eyes. It seemed like he was having a heart attack.”

For once the sisters conveyed more compassion than sniggering disapproval. Maria was breathing so hard that she too appeared to be at risk for an attack of some sort. Sabina, too stunned to feel much of anything, said nothing and bolted to catch a cab to Hospital Carlos Haya. Maria ran after her and handed her an envelope she had seen on top of Fernando’s desk. It was addressed to Sabina in her brother-in-law’s handwriting.

By the time Sabina reached the hospital, Fernando was already dead. An administrator took her aside and helped her make arrangements for the body to be taken to a funeral home. Sabina felt as if she were experiencing an eerie replay of Luis’ death. She had imagined the possibility of Fernando’s early death many times, given his precarious health. But now that he was dead she was shocked.

Sabina next spent three extremely long hours at a nearby funeral home, but she was unable to get a grip on herself or anything else. So she returned home. Fortunately, her son and his family were not home yet and she had a few vital minutes by herself, although not entirely alone, in her bedroom.

“Luis, the day that I always feared finally arrived,” Sabina gloomily reported. She doubted he would be at all surprised, given how frequently she had told Luis about her concern for Fernando’s health.

“Your poor brother fell over at his desk and was gone within minutes,” she continued. “It was such a sad and unnecessary death, just like yours. I feel as if I have lost the same man twice. What strange luck our family has had.”

Fernando’s funeral was held just a block from the little office on Calle Bolsa at the impressive towering cathedral built from the remains of a mosque. Sabina wanted a show of grandeur for the man who had accepted his unlucky personal circumstances without much complaint. She didn’t want his quiet life to culminate in an unremarkable ceremony. She was not particularly religious, but she hated the way the brokers from the stock exchange and other rich locals behaved as if the massive church belonged exclusively to them. She thought Fernando had contributed as much as they had to the city and world, even if they could not see that.

The enormity of the cathedral made the small turnout look even sparser than it was. But at least the two gossipy sisters made an appearance and behaved with a degree of respect. Sabina was certain, however, that once out of earshot their sly jokes would resume.

The following week Sabina returned to the cathedral square to sell lottery tickets for the last time. By the end of the afternoon her earnings were scant relative to her efforts, as usual. This time when she returned to the lottery office she turned her receipts into Maria, who seemed genuinely sorry that Sabina was leaving.

“Did you open the envelope in Fernando’s handwriting that I gave you the day he died?” Maria asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Sabina answered. “But it looks like a card.” She was irritated that Maria felt free to bring up such a personal matter. Sabina did not plan on talking to Fernando the way she still did with Luis. After all, Fernando had not been her husband and in her own way she observed the proprieties. The envelope’s contents represented her final contact with her love Fernando and the last person she wanted to insert herself into that extremely private moment was the gossip monger Maria.

“I will open the envelope on December 22 when I watch the lottery on television with my grandson,” Sabina said with finality.

“I am asking about it because I had a strange thought,” Maria said defensively. “What if Fernando found a way to figure out the winning lottery numbers in advance. He could have slipped you a winning El Gordo ticket!”

“That’s absurd,” Sabina replied angrily. “We all know this lottery cannot be fixed. The winning numbers are determined by a ball toss and announced on the spot by school children on national television. There is no way that anyone can know in advance. And besides Fernando was the last person in the world who would have done something like that.”

Maria wanted to say that just about anything can be fixed and that there had been many cases of rigged lottery drawings around the world. But she understood that she had gone too far for Sabina’s tastes and she fell quiet.

But in truth Maria had planted an intriguing thought in Sabina’s mind. Fernando had been far from crooked, but he always had been generous with her. She was his one passion and that passion might have driven him to do something unusual just once. After all, she thought, everyone steps out of character now and again, just like the foreign tourists who behave so giddily on vacation.  She discussed the matter with Luis that evening.

“Luis, do you think Fernando’s last act was to make me rich?” she asked. “God knows that none of us were ever rich and we never cared about that very much. But it always offended Fernando that we earned so little money while working for an agency that helped others make great fortunes. Could he have decided to play a little trick on the national government just once?You know dear, I think it is possible.”

Luis maintained his habitual silence, but Sabina sensed that he agreed with her theory. Her mind filled with thoughts about what she might do with her El Gordo jackpot. Would she buy a house in the luxurious Pedrogalo district? Visit a cousin in Palma de Majorca?  Get a facelift? The possibilities were endless and took her mind off her loneliness and the strangeness of being a sort of double widow.

On December 22 Sabina and her grandson Mario, along with most of Spain, watched the El Gordo drawing, which was telecast from a Madrid theatre. Grandmother and grandson planted themselves in front of Sabina’s enormous television set which had been a gift from Fernando. They watched raptly as ethereal-looking school children, one boy and one girl, chanted out the winning numbers in high-pitched voices.

The continuous singing of numbers by children went on for hours, but Sabina and Mario didn’t mind. Watching it each year while seated side by side was one of their many cozy rituals. Their ease with each other was a sharp contrast to the torture Sabina had endured during her son Jose’s adolescence after the death of her husband. As a teenager Jose, mortified by the magnetic attraction between his mother and uncle, was morose and unapproachable much of the time. He never said that he sensed something unwholesome afoot in the household, but he radiated disapproval. Sabina sometimes wondered if self-piteous Jose ever had grasped that she and Fernando had never been lovers largely for his and his father’s sake.  

Thinking about her distrustful relationship with her morose son made Sabina wonder if things might improve now that Fernando was dead.  Perhaps without either his father or uncle around, Jose would be able to see his mother for who she actually was:  a hard worker who had brought him up without much help. Then she remembered the letter left by Fernando, the one that just might contain a winning ticket. She went into her bedroom to search for the card.

“Abuela, what are you doing?” Mario asked. “Are you looking for something?”

“Yes, amor, I am looking for a letter from your uncle,” she replied. “He wrote it just before he died and left it in his desk at work.”

At length she produced the envelope from her dresser where she had misplaced it beneath Luis’ photo. She returned to the living room and opened the envelope in front of Mario. Her grandson knew nothing about Sabina’s hope that she would find a ticket for a substantial reward. But he noted the disappointment on her face when it turned out the envelope did not contain a card, much less a winning lottery ticket. Instead Fernando had left several receipts for Sabina for some tickets she had sold.

“Abuela, you look so sad,” Mario said.  

“I know it sounds crazy, amor, but I had begun to suspect that your great uncle had left us a winning lottery ticket,” she said.

“But how could he have done that?” Mario asked. “He has been dead for almost two weeks and the numbers are just being called tonight. Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Sabina said. “You are right. What could have made me think that a dead man could suddenly make us rich?”

The next day Sabina poured over the newspapers, which were full of stories of multiple winners in the town of Coin, which was just 40 minutes by car from Malaga. Sabina didn’t know any of the winners, but she had visited the picturesque little mountain town often. She was jolted when she read that all the adults in town, except for a man named Alberto Vargas, were now richer by at least 110,000 euros. The luckless Vargas had not been at home the day a group of locals had gone door to door amassing funds for group tickets for the townspeople. Vargas was now giving interviews in which he railed against his sorry fate. Sabina thought Vargas might be insinuating that the others had tricked him purposefully.

“That poor devil Vargas must feel worse than I do,” she said to Luis that afternoon. “He is surrounded by all those grinning winners. That must be horrible. But I didn’t really lose. I just shouldn’t have fooled myself into thinking I might win in the first place. And maybe I did win in my own way even if I did not receive any money: I will never have to totter through central Malaga selling those damn tickets again and I won’t have to put up with Maria and Julia anymore either.”

And there was another way that she had won, she realized now that everything was over: she was no longer caught in an impossible trap between Luis and Fernando.  But she did not mention that to her husband. Luis had been through a great deal and she did not want him to interpret the sudden lift in her spirits the wrong way. After all, he had been the apex of their triangle.

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