Don José Wins the Lottery

by | Apr 24, 2021 | Wendy Day 1 - Group B | 10 comments

My dad was not the José who made his thumb disappear. That was Don José.

On Thursdays, Don José would wheel in a wooden cart that squeaked downhill to our cul-de-sac and groaned on its way up. He would fill the cart with the piles of newspapers we kept for him in a corner of the kitchen and sold the paper by the kilo at a recycling center, back when those centers were small and dingy.

Don José was endless to me, tall enough for him to crouch if he wanted me to hear him, old enough for his age to exceed what my body could count. Beyond the white sleeves, below the undersized pants, every bit of his skin was rutted. His hair was white enough to write on. Just about anything you said made a toothless cackle rise from his throat and bounce off the brick walls, the grooves of his skin sucking in his eyes, fogged irises and all.

Every Thursday, he opened up his left hand and asked if I wanted to see his thumb disappear. Every Thursday, I said yes and hid behind my nanny’s legs while he shook his hands, made a whacking motion with his left hand on his right fingers—and the right thumb was gone. I looked at mine, looked at his. Gone. His cackle bounced off the walls. A couple times he explained there was no trick—he had cut it clean off when working on sugarcane fields many years ago. I couldn’t fit his many into my many. But there was a trick. He had turned absence into magic.

One Thursday, the pile of newspapers turned into piles. And piles next to piles the following weeks. I asked about Don José over dinner. Mom and Dad traded looks. My mom said he had, umm, won the lottery. He wouldn’t be working anymore. “Why?” I asked. Because he didn’t need to, she said. He could go to the beach now. He could do whatever. My dad shot her a look, one eyebrow up, the other straight. “That’s weird,” I said, twirling the lentils on the plate. Of course, Dad cleared his throat, people should work, even if they made a fortune. The lack of drive is what’s keeping this country poor. “It’s weird,” I said, “because he loved what he did. He laughed all the time. Why would he give that up?” But that’s exactly what he did, Mom said, swallowing hard, moving on to grownup things like bills and politics. But I knew better. I knew his tricks. I knew exactly what we could do with his absence.

10 Comments

  1. Benjamin Niespodziany

    “Don José was endless to me, tall enough for him to crouch if he wanted me to hear him, old enough for his age to exceed what my body could count. Beyond the white sleeves, below the undersized pants, every bit of his skin was rutted. His hair was white enough to write on. Just about anything you said made a toothless cackle rise from his throat and bounce off the brick walls, the grooves of his skin sucking in his eyes, fogged irises and all.” — Quoting this entire paragraph because holy smokes! Masterful, masterful

    Great character piece! Full of strong descriptions and plenty of heart. The continuation of magic/absence is great here, and I love it when the narrator isn’t in on the truth but everyone else (including the reader) knows what’s up. I do feel like he maybe dies a bit abruptly? I’d love to hear one more anecdote/paragraph on Don Jose in between those final two paragraphs. To extend his life a bit and bring in the reader some more if only to wreck us all by the end 😭 really well done

  2. Randal Houle

    “I couldn’t fit his many into my many” so powerful, I did stop to think about that and what it meant to the child narrator. And that last line “I knew what he could do with his absence” leaves eh reader feeling the same and thinking back on the piece to read it again.

  3. Nancy Stohlman

    A powerful opening line! Pulls you right into a story that exists beyond the page…
    And I love the freshness of this: His hair was white enough to write on.
    Love the turn in this story–what we knew about him, what we know in our hearts, is not matching up to the official story. There is a fatal discrepancy…one that will haunt us.

  4. Judy Bates

    You’ve created an interesting character. I can hear the squeak of his Don Jose’s cart.
    Favorite Lines; “Hair white enough to write on.” “He turned absence into magic.”
    Your write a charming scene when he makes his thumb disappear and the child hides behind Nanny’s legs.
    I like your craft of white space about where Don Jose has gone.

  5. Sara Comito

    Aw, wow. He disappeared just like his thumb did! The narrator knows a trick when he sees one, eh? It’s a beautiful and heartwarming story. Endless is right. I wonder how some big, magical realism details could work, but it’s all right here as it is. Thanks for this!

  6. Jan Elman Stout

    Federico. what a touching story. Your descriptions of Don Jose are terrific. I particularly love the descriptions that reveal how children don’t have the capacity to think and view things like adults. Like: “Don José was endless to me, tall enough for him to crouch if he wanted me to hear him, old enough for his age to exceed what my body could count.” and “His hair was white enough to write on.” and more. I thought using the father as being not Don Jose in the opening was brilliant in how it prepared the reader for both the missing digit and the character’s death. Really liked how the dad’s facial expression (i.e., eyebrows) clued the reader in to what really happened to Don Jose. Much goodness here.

  7. Suzanne van de Velde

    Federico, this is really wonderful. You made this world transparent, yet still mysterious.
    I love how you use the child’s innocent but unflinching gaze. He shows us how powerful emotional connections can teach us about how to live. Thank you for this!

  8. Wendy Oleson

    Federico, I’m not entirely sure how you did it, but tears came to my eyes as I read that final paragraph. I’d only just met Don José, yet it hurt to lose him. You’ve rendered that moment between the parents—their knowing looks and the raised eyebrow from the father when the mother gets too specific: “He could go to the beach now,” and then the additional layering when the father brings ideology into it: “Dad cleared his throat, people should work, even if they made a fortune. The lack of drive is what’s keeping this country poor.” There’s so much nuance and so many layers in “Don José Wins the Lottery.” It’s such a gift that the narrator, despite his young age, imbues the story with this magic that allows us to shift perspectives: “But I knew better. I knew his tricks. I knew exactly what we could do with his absence.” It’s marvelous the way you bring this together in that final paragraph!

    The opening line, however, is pretty great, too! “My dad was not the José who made his thumb disappear. That was Don José.” You give us the voice right away, and then the story never withholds great details. It was as though every new detail about Don José filled in the image more for me: “Beyond the white sleeves, below the undersized pants, every bit of his skin was rutted. His hair was white enough to write on. Just about anything you said made a toothless cackle rise from his throat and bounce off the brick walls, the grooves of his skin sucking in his eyes, fogged irises and all.” I’d never heard that before—hair being white enough “to write on”—and those undersized pants! And the grotesqueness of the skin rutted and the cackle—skin sucking in, fogged irises! It’s such a nice combination of humor and the grotesque that comes together with the magic trick and the humanity of this person who lost his finger working day after day and smiling. Which is a lot to ask of a person yet somehow not for Don José. Maybe I feel like the narrator here: “I couldn’t fit his many into my many”– Don José makes me want to look for magic where I think there’s nothing.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    My best,
    Wendy

  9. Trent

    Federico –

    some great texture here, with the relationships and the contrasts.

    A kind of trust with Jose, vs the withholding of the parents.

    I’d agree with Benjamin – the only other “consider this” would be some kind of PS. Maybe a blurb or something about the aftermath
    of his disappearance, in the papers that now don’t get collected. Regardless, excellent work~!

  10. David O'Connor

    Fredrico, this is a great line: “His hair was white enough to write on.” Another winner: “I couldn’t fit his many into my many.” What a beautiful flash, understated but world-creating, so many layers here: old looking at young, parents trying to protect the young, sprinkles of the spiritual, (reminds me of early Joycean epiphanies) This is a winner, tight and good, send it into the world!

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