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The Luck of the One-Sixteenth Irish

    When Colleen O’Brien was a young girl, there weren’t many ways for a family such as hers to get rich quick. There wasn’t a race track nearby, the state lottery hadn’t been approved yet, and casinos existed only for the elite who could travel to glamorous distant places like Monte Carlo and Las Vegas. Playing the numbers was illegal and confined to the bad neighborhoods in her town. But Colleen and some members of her family – especially her father – found hope for wealth and happiness in the Irish Sweepstakes. For some mysterious reason the sweepstakes wasn’t considered illegal and each year her father would try his luck. For weeks before the deciding race was run he would talk excitedly about winning. Colleen’s mother didn’t share his enthusiasm.

      “It’s a waste of hard-earned money,” she would say. “You might as well take cash and toss it into the garbage.” 

      “You’re never going to win anything with that attitude,” Colleen’s father would say.

      “Attitude has nothing to do with it,” her mother would reply. “Either the numbers are right or they’re wrong. Believing won’t make your horse win.”

      But that year, 1960, Colleen was fairly sure would be their year. She knew exactly what would happen when they won. They would sell their crummy house in their crummy town – which was called a city but was really just a big factory town – and they would move to New York. New York was a real city and there she would have a chance to become the star she was meant to be. She had already played the lead in three school plays and her father said she was destined to be an actress and the toast of Broadway. He whispered it to her every evening when he kissed her goodnight. Plus she knew all about show business from watching TV and going to the movies. Besides having talent, which Colleen knew she had, it was all about being in the right place and knowing the right people. And luck – lots of luck.

      So when they won the sweepstakes, Colleen figured, they could move to New York and with her family’s money she would be able to make the right connections and meet the right people and in no time she would be the toast of Broadway. The fact that she was only twelve years old would not matter. She looked very mature and besides, by the time she became established she would probably be closer to sixteen. She could envision it all when she lay in her bed at night. In her mind she wasn’t lying in a twin bed separated from her younger sister only by a nightstand and from her two younger brothers’ room only by a thin wall. She saw herself in her own room in a New York penthouse, in a bed that might have a canopy. Perhaps there would even be a maid to call her Miss Colleen and bring her morning tea. She hadn’t thought it all out yet. But she could see herself at the opening night party in their glamorous living room where they would wait for the newspapers to read the rave reviews she would get. And maybe she’d even win a Tony Award for her performance. Maybe Laurence Olivier would present it to her. But there were many hurdles to clear first. First, her father had to have the winning sweepstakes ticket.

 

      Colleen’s father, as near as she could figure, was only one-quarter Irish, which made her one-sixteenth Irish. But Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother O’Brien, who had been born on The Ould Sod and provided the Irish genes, seemed to have dominated and influenced the succeeding generations. At least Colleen’s father appeared to take their Irishness very seriously. His name was John, but he had all his friends call him Shawn. He called the corner bar where he spent a good bit of every Saturday afternoon “The Pub,” even though it was named the Mai Kai and had a mural of a gigantic glass of champagne complete with bubbles painted on one outside wall. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day Colleen and her sister and brothers had to dress in green from head to foot, except for their shoes, which were always black. Her mother, whose heritage was mostly Russian and Italian, drew the line at green shoes, just as she drew the line at being called Katie Darlin’ by the man who sauntered in the kitchen door on Saturday evenings smelling of beer.

      “When you can call me by my right name you’ll get your dinner,” she would say. Her right name was Katherine.

      “Fine, Kathie Darlin’,” he would say and try to give her a kiss. She would squirm away from him and try to finish cooking the dinner.

      Colleen had watched the scene a number of times and thought it was funny. At least her parents seemed to be having fun. But it wouldn’t be like that they moved to New York. There could be no more Mai Kai bar and no more beer. They would have cocktail parties and her father would dress better. But of course he wouldn’t need to wear his work clothes because he wouldn’t be working in the factory. And her mother wouldn’t have to be in the kitchen because the maid would cook the dinner. Or maybe they would dine out in fancy restaurants. She would have to wait and see what happened.

 

      Kids weren’t supposed to go inside the Mai Kai, but the side door was usually open. That would be where the children, on orders from their mothers, stuck their heads in to call for their fathers when it was time for dinner. It was also where they could hang around for awhile and find out what was going on inside the bar. That was where Colleen was standing when she heard her father’s voice.

      “There’s no doubt about it. As sure as there’ll be a Kennedy in the White House, it will be Shawn O’Brien in the winner’s circle and then I’ll be buying a round for everyone.”

      Colleen could see him from where she stood, raising a glass of beer to toast the large radio in the corner. Below the banter of the men at the bar she could hear a radio announcer’s voice. He had what sounded like a British accent. She couldn’t tell for sure because of all the noise.

      “Shawn O’Brien buying rounds, that’ll be a first.”

      “About as likely as a Mick in the White House.”

      They all seemed to be having a good time. One of the men slapped Colleen’s father on the back and they both laughed.

      Colleen leaned against the cinderblock outer wall of the Mai Kai and tried to listen. She didn’t want to get her hopes up too high but she did feel lucky, as though finally this was the year. Inside the bar, she knew, her fate was being sealed. The voice on the radio would bring the news that would change everything. She had heard her parents talking about it that morning. Well, more like arguing about it.

 

       “This has to be the last time, John,” Kathie said. “I do my best to make your paycheck stretch, but we’re at our limit and we have no savings.”

      “Now Katie, that’s no way to talk, you’ll jinx it,” John said. “And doesn’t Shawn O’Brien make a fair livin’ to take care of his wife and the bairns?”

      “Oh Christ, are you drunk already? It’s not even noon.”

      “Now don’t be callin’ me a drunkard, Missus,” John said, his brogue thickening with each word. “You know I never set foot in The Pub this early. And it’s not to get drunk. It’s just for the company. A man needs a little time with his lads. And it’s only three beers I’m havin’ for the whole time. Maybe four if it’s a special day. If a hard-workin’ man can’t have three beers on a Saturday afternoon what’s the point?”

      “The point is that you threw away five dollars on sweepstakes tickets. I swear to God, John, you don’t know the value of a dollar. Do you know how far five dollars can go to feed this family?”

      “Now don’t you go sayin’ I let my family starve. Don’t Shawn O’Brien’s children always have food on the table and a roof over their heads and shoes on their feet? So what’s a couple of dollars for a chance at the sweepstakes now and then? Can’t a man spend his own money on a dream?”

      “Of course you can dream,” Kathie said with a sigh. “But it seems like all we ever have is dreams. If it’s not winning the sweepstakes or some raffle it’s your becoming foreman or telling the boys they can be baseball stars or that Maureen could be a model or Colleen be a Broadway star.”

      Colleen had been listening to her parents attentively, but her ears really perked up at the sound of her name and her sister’s. So her father thought Maureen could be a model? That made it even more likely that they would move to New York when they won the sweepstakes. Where better than New York to launch a girl’s modeling career?

      But her mother’s voice interrupted Colleen’s thought. She was talking more quietly, and Colleen had to really strain to hear. 

      “I’ve got nothing against dreams,” Kathie said, “but it’s cruel to fill the children’s heads with blarney.”

      “And why is it blarney?” John said sadly, his brogue suddenly vanished. “Don’t the boys love to play baseball? And isn’t Maureen pretty enough to be a model? And wasn’t Colleen great in those school plays? Why can’t it all be true?”

      “I’m not saying it can’t, I’m just saying let’s be more practical and more realistic. If we want all those things for the kids, let’s work toward it. Let’s get the boys into Little League and let the girls go to charm school, or maybe take dance lessons or something. If they want those things, let’s help them out.”

      “Now look who’s dreaming,” John said. “You said yourself we’ve no money in the bank. Those things all cost money and I only get one paycheck. And like you said, it takes all we’ve got to feed and clothe them.”

      “Well maybe it’s time I went back to work,” Kathie said. “It won’t be long before the stores start looking for people for the holidays. And in the meantime, if we cut back on some of the luxuries for ourselves maybe we can afford some extras for the children.”

      “Luxuries. What luxuries do we have to cut back on?”

      “Oh, I don’t know…beer? Raffle chances? Sweepstakes tickets?”

      John laughed weakly and put his arms around Kathie.

      “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If we don’t win today, there’ll be no more sweepstakes tickets and no more raffles and I’ll cut back to two beers a week.” Kathie smiled and hugged him.

      “But if we do win…” he said slyly.

      Kathie pulled back slapped him gently on the arm. Then they both laughed.

 

      Colleen stepped away from the wall of the Mai Kai and looked up at the champagne glass mural. That mural, along with the bar and the rest of the street, had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. It was only a matter of minutes now, seconds possibly, before she knew. Maybe at this time next year, she’d be looking at a real champagne glass, maybe a whole tray of them. It might be her family’s housewarming party at their New York penthouse. And maybe in two or three years it would be the party for the opening night of Colleen’s first Broadway show. There would be lots of important people there celebrating. Maybe even some talent scouts for a modeling agency or a baseball team. Now that she’d become a famous Broadway star, Colleen thought, she could look out for her sister and brothers – sort of share the wealth. She could really picture it. A crowd of elegantly dressed people would be gathered at her penthouse, waiting for her triumphant return from theater. Then she would sweep through the doorway dressed in a satin ball gown and everyone would cheer. Colleen envisioned herself about to take a bow when she realized that the cheering was real and it was coming from inside the Mai Kai bar. Tentatively, almost fearfully, she peeked through the open side door.

      “It’s a great day for the Irish,” the man seated at the bar next to her father said, raising his glass. Colleen’s father’s glass was already raised.

      “It’s a great day for us all,” John said. “And as a man of me word, this round’s on me.”

      Colleen stood frozen in the doorway looking at the scene of revelry. Everyone in the room was crowded around the bar and many of them seemed to be slapping her father on the back. It could mean only one thing: Shawn O’Brien had won the Irish Sweepstakes.

      If seemed like forever until Colleen’s father glanced toward the door. “Well there’s me girl now,” he called. “Come give your old Da a hug.” He extended his arms and Colleen figured it must be ok to go inside. She ran to him and received the biggest hug of her life. The bar noises were muffled a little while her head was pressed against her father’s chest. She smelled the familiar hint of beer on the sleeve of John’s flannel shirt as his arms enfolded her and the thought crossed her mind that this might be the last time she smelled beer and felt the soft flannel against her cheek. Soon her father would be drinking nothing but champagne and wearing…what? Silk shirts? A tuxedo? Suddenly it seemed a little scary that so much was going to change so quickly. But of course it wouldn’t happen that quickly. They wouldn’t just move to New York tomorrow. That thought made her feel better. After all, what was there to be worried about? The O’Brien family had won the Irish Sweepstakes and everything was going to be wonderful.

      Colleen’s father released her and she was able to look up into his face. He looked so happy it seemed silly to ask, but she had to know. She had to find out if it was true.

      “Are we rich now, Daddy?”

      Her quiet words brought a fresh round of laughter, with her father laughing the heartiest of all. “Richer than we were this morning, me girl,” he said, hugging her with one arm as he reached for his beer glass on the bar.

      “Rich as you’ll ever be,” someone behind him said. Then there was more laughter.

      “Now don’t you be listening to them,” John said. “It’s good luck we’ve had today. Good luck and a small fortune. Our share will come to about five hundred dollars!”

      Colleen drew back in shock. “Our share?” she said. Her father nodded.

      “Of course, we have to split it with the rest of the group from Russ Bailey’s lodge,” John said. “You see, we each put in five dollars and Russ buys a bundle of tickets from someone he knows. And if one of the tickets wins, we each get a share. It increases our chances of winning. And it worked today, by God!”

      John raised his glass again and clinked it against someone else’s. Colleen felt his arm drop from around her shoulders and she moved away from him a little. Suddenly she didn’t want to stand so close to him and she didn’t even really want to look at him. Suddenly the wooden floor beneath her feet seemed quite fascinating and she just stared at it. Five hundred dollars. She didn’t know a lot about money but she knew that five hundred dollars wasn’t all that much. She’d heard her father remark that he made almost five hundred dollars a month before taxes. She’d seen a new color television set in the window of a store and the price tag read “only $495.” Five hundred dollars wasn’t enough to get them a penthouse in New York. It wasn’t enough to make them rich and make all their dreams come true. All around her everyone was acting like it was a big deal that her father had won five hundred dollars but it was really nothing, nothing at all. A month’s pay before taxes. The price of a new color TV set. The laughter she was hearing seemed to be aimed at her and she wanted most desperately to escape but her feet seemed to be nailed to that fascinating wood floor.

      A small voice sounded above the noise of the bar: “Mother says it’s time for dinner.” Colleen looked up to see her sister standing in the doorway. Maureen nodded decisively toward her father, then scampered away, apparently without seeing Colleen.

      “Well, four’s me limit even on a special day,” John said, lowering his empty glass onto the bar. “Come on, me girl, let’s go see what wonders yer mither has made for our Saturday supper. I swear to you all, my missus can whip up a casserole that’s more satisfyin’ than a T-bone steak dinner.”

 

       The air felt strangely cold after the atmosphere of the bar. Colleen walked slowly, trailing behind her father and studying the sidewalk carefully. Then she saw her father’s feet planted in the spot where he’d stopped to let her catch up. She raised her eyes to look up at his top shirt button, but no higher. John took her hand and they resumed the walk home.

      “You know,” he said. “Five hundred dollars is a lot of money, especially if you use it right. Your mother is very clever with money and she knows how to use it realistically.”

      Colleen knew what that meant. She heard about being realistic every time she got money from her grandparents. Realistic meant new shoes, or maybe new clothes for school. That was what would happen with the five hundred dollars her father would be getting from his share of the sweepstakes winnings. It would go for shoes and clothes and food and other boring stuff. They probably wouldn’t even get a new TV set.

      “We were talking about it just this morning, your mother and I,” John continued. “That if we had a little extra money we could do some nice things. Like maybe next summer the boys could play in the Little League. And maybe you and your sister could go to charm school or dance classes or something like that. Would you like that?”

      Colleen felt her shoulders straighten and discovered that she was looking into her father’s eyes. “Dance classes?” she said hopefully.

      “If you like,” her father said. “It would be like an investment, you see. All the Broadway stars need to know how to sing and dance, don’t they?” Colleen nodded. “So we’d be investing in your future, setting you on the road to Broadway stardom. And I guess it would be charm school for Maureen, since all the famous models go to charm school. And Little League for Michael and Danny. That’s where all the baseball stars get their start. Yes, that sounds like a good way to invest some of our winnings. And the rest could go in the bank. I’m sure your mother would approve.”

      Colleen smiled and nodded, and promised herself never to let on that she had overheard her parents’ conversation and knew the truth.

 

      It was very late when Colleen awoke from a light sleep. From the living room she could hear the Star Spangled Banner playing on the television, meaning that the station her parents were watching was signing off for the night. Colleen looked up at the ceiling and tried to envision a canopy over her head, but somehow it didn’t feel right. She turned over onto her side and looked toward her sister, who was sound asleep. Well, it looked like they’d have to share a bedroom for a while longer. Five hundred dollars wasn’t going to bring the O’Brien girls separate rooms in a New York penthouse. But there would be dance lessons for her, and charm school for Maureen and maybe that was a good start. And who knows what their luck would bring them next time…

      “Next time?” Colleen heard her mother’s voice faintly. It seemed to be coming from her parents’ bedroom. “You said you’d be cuttin’ back to two beers and givin’ up the raffles and the sweepstakes,” she said. Her voice sounded funny, like she was joking around, and she was talking with an Irish brogue.

      “I said if we lost,” her father said. He seemed to be joking too. “But we won now, didn’t we, Katie me darlin’?”

      “Oh, Shawn!”

      Her mother’s soft laughter was the last thing Colleen heard before she fell asleep.

 

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