When Eduardo, Susan, James, and Norma found out they each won $4 million dollars in the Wisconsin State Lottery, they all quit their jobs at the factory except Norma, who stayed on for her full pension. The newspaper photo of them with a giant check was captioned: The Mice That Ran Away with the Cheese.
Eduardo left Veronica, his girlfriend of two years, and went back to Nicaragua to live with his wife, Consuela, and their three children. He was tired of Veronica's grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches; he missed his wife's cooking.
Eduardo was ready to leave the American winters behind too; his knees ached so badly when the cold weather rolled in, he could predict when it was going to snow. The long hours at the factory were hard on his body. He crawled under machines and conveyor belts to make repairs when they broke down. He hated the queso the factory made, it smelled of artificiality; and he didn't like how Mr. Pearson, the head of the plant, was always watching him.
His return to Nicaragua was triumphant. Eduardo hadn't seen his family in more than a year. He came bearing the best presents he could think of: a pair of diamond earrings for his wife and white Sunday dresses for each of the three girls.
He and Consuela set about building Hacienda Vargas, an estate for their family. They picked out a hillside plot overlooking their village of El Naranjo, and planted red mombin, plantain, and mango trees around the new home. A mamoncillo tree stood beside the doorway to the cocina and the scent of limes filled Consuela's kitchen, with a view of San Miguel church on the adjacent hill. The church's hill was taller than theirs, as Consuela intended. She didn't want the neighbors to think they set themselves above god.
Aside from the fruit trees, Eduardo planted hectares of Arabic coffee as a cash crop. He employed the men from the village who wanted to work, and there were many of them. Before Eduardo brought his lottery money back to Nicaragua, there were few jobs. Now he was the biggest employer in the area.
Eduardo's ex-girlfriend Veronica called his cell phone and recorded a rambling message about a month after he left. She said she was pregnant. Eduardo called his friend Hector from the factory to find out if it was true, and it was. Eduardo liked Veronica but he had no room in his life for a pregnant American girl and a jealous Nicaraguan wife who wielded razor-sharp knives in her kitchen.
Eduardo asked Hector to pay Victoria a visit, give her a few thousand dollars, and make it clear she wasn't to contact Eduardo again. She took the money, for the baby she said, but she kept calling and leaving weepy messages. Eduardo refused to speak to her, and after listening to one of her recorded crying jags, he canceled his cell phone. He couldn't sleep right for weeks. To assuage his guilt, he pledged the profits from the first coffee harvest to build a new schoolhouse – por los ni ños.
Susan was introverted. She worked on the packaging line at the factory, counting the number of bags of cheese that went into a box before it was shipped. She was a plain-looking girl living a simple existence in a trailer just outside of town.
While the lottery changed Susan's financial situation, it didn't cure how she uncomfortable she felt around other people. Her friend Katie, who sat next to her on the line, suggested Susan see the hypnotherapist who helped Katie's mother quit smoking. Katie reasoned if someone could be hypnotized to make them stop doing something, maybe they could also be mesmerized into not being shy.
After seven sessions, Susan was able to hold short conversations with people she didn't know, but the deeper effects she wanted weren't manifest. But Susan had an idea. Rather than try to cure her shyness, she asked the therapist to embed a suggestion about an object, something she could focus on while she interacted with people, which might reduce her fear.
The therapist told her it wasn't part of his standard practice. He thought it wrong to conduct untested experiments with the human subconscious, and said he couldn't be responsible for adverse reactions. Susan wasn't deterred; she decided to practice meditation and self-hypnosis to bring about the changes she wanted.
For her meditations, her object of choice was a silver bell her mother had given her on her fifth birthday. It was a harmless object, Susan thought, one she associated with good memories. She sat on a large pillow in the middle of her bedroom floor holding the bell in both hands, envisioning herself traveling the world and meeting new people.
Susan went to Europe and began collecting bells. When she was asked where she traveled, she would tell the story about how she found the bell and why she liked it. All her pictures were of bell shops. Her pictures from France were of churches hung with brass beauties. She admired the bells she found in Germany too, especially a golden one from Berlin.
She sought out the great bell makers of Europe, but it was a dying art. On an island off the coast of Brittany she found a bell man. His house was adorned with two baritones ensconced in a tower; they pealed in the Atlantic breeze. He specialized in replacing cracked cathedral bells and his work hung in Canterbury Cathedral, he said. He was a local character known for his practical jokes and easy disposition.
Susan was smitten the moment they met; and the bell man never met a woman so interested in his art. After a respectable courtship, they decided to get married in the country church on the island. He installed twelve bells in the church tower for their wedding. When they were received by the congregation as husband and wife, the sound of the bells filled Susan's heart, each clang a living vibration inside her.
James worked at the loading dock in the factory. He was an efficient forklift operator and a nephew of Mr. Pearson, the head of the plant. He moved from suburban Wisconsin, where he felt like an outsider, to New York City. Liberated by his lottery wealth, he acted on his lifelong dream and changed his name to Jamie and underwent a sex change.
Aside from a regimen of daily hormone injections, Jamie took care of herself. She endured hair removal on her face and chest and put long extensions in the hair on her head. She took lessons on how to apply makeup and wore a smoky eye matched with a red lip in the evening and pink lip stain with pale blush during the day. She filled her closets with frilly blouses and tailored pencil skirts showing off her slim hips and muscular legs. The result was striking; she transformed herself into a bona fide woman.
Jamie met Sal, a Wall Street trader, on the beer line at a Giants game and struck up a conversation. They dated a short while, but Sal was so enamored of her that he proposed. She moved into Sal's condo on Long Island to live near his large Italian family. Sunday mornings they went to Sal's Catholic church, although Jamie was agnostic. Sal encouraged her to convert.
Sunday afternoons were for the family; Sal and Jamie spent time at Sal's mother's house where Sal would watch the football game with his father and Jamie learned how to make the special family recipe for gravy from Sal's mother. In the late afternoon Sal's brother Gino would arrive with his wife and their three children and everyone would sit down to the large dinner of soup and fish and pasta that Jamie and Sal's mother prepared.
Eventually, Jamie told Sal about her past but he misunderstood. Sal said it was natural for a woman to get breast implants. He thought the scars were sexy. Unfortunately, Sal's misunderstanding also led him to believe he and Jamie would start a family. Jamie told him she was unable to have children, which was true. She suggested they adopt a girl from China, Africa, or the Eastern Bloc, but Sal said if the baby didn't have Sicilian blood it couldn't be a part of his family. The baby matter led to many arguments.
As much as she cared for him, Jamie decided to break the engagement off with Sal. While she was with him she realized she submerged her own needs and took on Sal's unrealistic dreams of the perfect family. She felt like an outsider again; outside the world of Sal's large Italian family; outside her ability to give him the life he wanted; and outside herself living as a woman transformed from a man, operating in a man's world.
Norma hadn't missed a day of work in the seventeen years she worked at the factory as the lead quality tester. She checked every batch personally as a matter of pride. Norma said the Lord gave her the gift of cheese making and she dedicated herself to the task. The head of the plant, Mr. Pearson, awarded her a perfect attendance plaque every year and an extra vacation day.
When Norma retired, her co-workers presented her with a necklace and two gold charms, a tasting spoon, and a wedge of cheese. There were more than a few in the crowd drying their eyes when she blew out the candles on her retirement cake. The cake was nostalgically covered with shredded coconut dyed a familiar shade of orange.
Her retirement coincided with her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary to her husband Duke, a mail carrier. She and Duke splurged on a family trip to Hawaii, including the kids, their spouses, a dozen grandchildren, and Norma and Duke's terriers, Cheddar and Swiss.
When Norma and Duke passed, they left enough of her lottery winnings for their kids to be comfortable, but not so much they didn't have to work. Norma and Duke believed their grandkids would be spoiled if they weren't taught the value of a dollar they earned themselves. They stipulated all monies not bequeathed should be given away.
Their daughter Linda created the Norma and Duke Peterson Foundation, which bestowed scholarships to Wisconsin high school graduates with perfect attendance. Given all the sick days high school kids took, the award wasn't given every year, which Linda felt was in keeping with her mother's hard-boiled attitudes about work.
The twelfth recipient of the scholarship went to a brown skinned boy named Edward, who graduated from Lafollette High in Madison. His mother Veronica attended the ceremony with her long time boyfriend Hector, whom everyone assumed was Edward's father.
Carol Deminski's stories appear or are forthcoming in Word Riot, PANK, Foundling Review, Metazen, Dogzplot, The Northville Review, and elsewhere. Her blog is available at http://cdeminski.wordpress.com. She lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ although not always in that order.