Winning Big

Winning Big

Sometimes the real treasure isn’t money at all.

I pore over stories about lottery winners, fascinated by sudden reversals of fortune. My own wins have been thrilling but modest: I won a Schwinn bike when I was 5 by entering a safety contest, and decades later, dinner for two at a fancy restaurant by correctly guessing the number of macaroni in a jar. I’ve won a concert at a vineyard and tickets to a nightclub, and at my high school reunion, I won an inflatable boat. But what would it feel like to be able to throw over endless daily worry, to have the time and means to do what I want, not just cultivate snippets of dreams in between errands and work and obligations? Once in awhile I even buy a lottery ticket, just to see if I can beat my previous windfall of $16.

Years ago, on my way to meet a friend for lunch, I took a roundabout route through the park to get to the highway. On this crisp winter day, the crown of morning fog had long since toppled from the hills to reveal a bright blue January sky. I remember the way the sun spun out through the pines as I made my way up the steep grade to the top of the Berkeley hills. I started down again, winding along the road that led east to the highway, singing along with an old Donovan song playing on the radio. I congratulated myself for circumventing the noonday traffic, which I could see exiting the tunnel below like a trail of ants. Without warning, my car wheels suddenly went into a spin.

I reacted quickly, steering sharply enough to recover the road. The car righted, wheels moving forward again steady and straight. I let out a nervous breath and rolled my eyes, feeling relieved and chagrined. That was a close one—I’d skidded on an invisibly oily patch of pavement—but luck was with me. It was midday, with no cars nearby on the access road that I could have hit, and no bikes on the road, either. Could have been worse. And then, unimaginably, it was, for the car slid into a second more violent spin. I remember the surprise of it, the moment of realizing this wasn’t a close call anymore; it was real and irrevocable.

Time slowed and stretched like fabric. I could feel each element of the scene around me, without being able to quite put them together: the postcard-perfect day with barely a cloud overhead, the trail of cars spilling out of the tunnel at the bottom of the incline, birds swooping and calling overhead. Deer munching winter grass on a hillside farther away. The jarringly wrong descent of a bronze-colored Honda Prelude flying sideways down the hillside.

The car is going much too fast, bouncing and flattening bushes, catching on a wire fence and tearing away again, only to lurch and twist forward over and over. This scene is not just wrong, it’s a violation of normalcy, like a movie stunt gone awry. I clutch the steering wheel tightly with gloved hands, watching the hillside fly by under me. At times the car’s nose is vertical, and the trip to the bottom seems endless.

My sunglasses fall off and I struggle to stay still, though at least the seatbelt keeps me from hitting my head on the ceiling as the car bounces over the rough terrain. The access road is far behind me. This is pastureland, rocky and fenced, not meant even for hiking. Gravity pulls the Honda forward onto the freeway at a hideous angle, just in front of the Caldecott Tunnel. I land in the middle lane, with steering and brakes virtually gone. The car’s fenders are bent, tires punctured, and still it keeps moving. I can’t think what to do. I pray I don’t hit anyone.

Just then an unseen presence guides my right hand to the emergency brake, and pulls it backward, while my left hand battles the frozen wheel and forces it to turn ever so slightly. Without knowing how, I manage to bump the bent and broken car to the right side of the freeway, cars swerving around me every which way to avoid impact. The emergency brake forces the vehicle to slow enough that it finally come to rest, like a rock thrown from a great height.

The car is totaled. I seem to be alive and unhurt. Soon there is loud knocking on my door, which turns out to be an elderly woman who stopped by the side of the road to see if I’m all right, unconcerned about the danger to herself. She points me firmly to her Buick and takes me to a gas station in the village close by. While I wait for the California Highway Patrol, she pats my hand and gives me a peppermint. I feel like a child.

I won the lottery that day, though I didn’t realize I was even playing. For the next week I walked around in the dizzying luxury of being alive, before the shakes inevitably set in. Once they subsided a bit, I realized my good fortune. There at the bottom of the hill, I’d found real treasure. Instead of money, I won another chance to live my life. I won back the smell of tangerines, and bookstore visits and hikes and dinner with friends. I won the chance to call my brother again, and take a nap with my cat on my stomach. I won the chance to change my job and my house and the way I spend my time. The largesse was already surrounding me, not dangling precariously in some lucky tomorrow. All of this bounty safe and sound, within easy reach. Lucky things large and small, mine just for the taking.

Stacy Appel of Lafayette is an award-winning writer whose work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She has also written for National Public Radio. And she is a contributor to the book You Know You’re a Writer When . . . by Adair Lara. Contact her at

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