On the Tuesday before election day, the men filled up the town square, a flood of life and limb. The man went along, rushed along with the crowd, to repay the fact that there was a crisp $20 bill in his hand. A fat stage swallowed up the south end of the square. A fat man swallowed up the space on the stage, and he shouted into the microphone. “When I am President, I will… You my brothers understand! Yes, together we must… against tyranny and oppression… for jobs and for our wives… “
The other men participated. Boos for the opponents, hisses for the incumbent, and ecstatic euphoria for the politician. “That’s all? That’s all he wants for $20?” The man asked one of the men whose elbow jammed eagerly into his left rib when the crowd let loose a reckless cheer.
“Yes, because this is a democracy,” his informant replied.
“This is not correct.” The man said to his friends when they gathered over pitchers of beer on the walk home from the rally. “The politician wants more than just our cheers, for $20.”
“No, no that’s really all he wants— democracy, you know. He wants democracy, and so he has bought it.”
“Impossible. $20 a head, and thousands of us attended—and he’s had rallies every day for three weeks, in different towns. He cannot be so rich.”
“Men are very rich, just not men here.”
And another friend added, “It is a—what do you call it?—an investment, because if he does not pay, he will not win.”
The man’s eyes lit up with comprehension. “So who repays his investment when he wins?”
In response he received nothing but shrugs. “That is what happens when you win, that is all.”
But man left dissatisfied, despite the $20 in his pocket. Why does the politician need nothing more than cheers and votes? There is something missing, something off balance. The man went to work in his field. He saw five men approaching. He looked long enough to count them and guess their weight, then bent down, working slowly and rhythmically, as he weighed his options. No weapons in their hands, so they will kill me with my own farm tools. If I run, they will know that I know. If I stay, I will be dead. If I hurry to town and sound alarmed, no one will believe me, for they love the politician’s twenty dollars. If I hurry to town but say nothing, they will come again tomorrow, or at night when I am sleeping.
He moved quickly but not suddenly. Fast go his feet, down the trail, to town. The men could not keep up with him, because he knew the trails better than they do, because they were from out-of-town. In town he bought his friends beer. They said:
“Already he is spending big!”
Confused, he asked, “Already before what?”
“The lottery! Haven’t the men found you? You won!” They congratulated him.
The man shook his head. “I don’t play the lottery. They have lied to you.”
“That’s what we told them. But they showed us: an official letter. You have been the one who has been lying, old friend! And we, nothing but the fools who believed you. Ten thousand dollars!” Again they congratulated him.
“But I did not play the lottery. They are lying to you,” the man repeated. “Why do they want to hurt me? I am nothing but a farmer.”
“Hurt you? Yes, money is very heavy, but it will not hurt you!”
“They cannot be serious. It is impossible. Because I have never played the lottery. My wife will not let me.”
His friends calmed suddenly, eerily. “Now she cannot stop you.”
He remembered that his wife is dead. “Yes. But still I don’t play the lottery.”
“You’re a stubborn fool. They offer you ten thousand! You can own this town with that!”
“What did they want? Why are they looking for me?”
“To give you the letter, old fool. And then to take you to the city in their car—maybe it is your car that you won as well?—so you can collect the money.”
“I will not go.” The man could see the five men walking up the main road. They had been lost 20 minutes. “I will not go.”
But he did go. Because the letter was signed by the politician himself.
The car rolled up to a demanding mansion—one that insisted that you look it over twice before you look away. It sprang up out of the red clay as misfit as a harlot at midday. Still, the man went inside. He did not even wait for his escorts to tell him what to do. He did want he wanted. He threw open the car door, tumbled out, hurled up the steps, yanked open the door, and--
The politician was waiting. “Scotch?”
The man took the glass, and drank it in one gulp. It tasted expensive.
“I see.” But the politician’s expression did not change. It still said, “I win.” “You are a liar. I do not play the lottery.”
Now the politician smiled benignly. “I know. I know that and everything else about you.” “I don’t care what you know about me. I care about what I don’t know about you.”
The politician laughed. “If all men were as honest and direct as you—“ but he stopped mid- sentence when he saw the man’s face. “Fine. I am a politician, running for the presidency. Your town lies at the social and cultural heart of your province. Your province is the key to the presidency. If you love me, then I will win. If you like me, I might win if your neighboring province also likes me. But if you distrust me, I have no chance.”
The man’s face remained hard as stone. “And?”
A sigh. “You are just a farmer, yes, but a respected farmer. You have no position in town politics, and no family or relations to bias you, so everyone in your town trusts you. You are honest, and you have no one worth lying about or to. Oddly, your isolated social status places you in the throbbing heart of the highly complex social network of your town and, by extension, your province.”
A double shot was poured, but the man did not drink it. He dumped it into the pot of a plastic house plant. Annoyance began to show through the politician’s slick expression. He kept speaking.
“You have been seeding distrust for me in your town. And this is after I paid you $20 as a thank you for being my friend!”
“I am not your friend.” The man held out the $20 bill, still as crisp and new as when it arrived in his hand the day before. Tactfully the politician ignored it.
“So I have entered you into the lottery, my private lottery, and you have won. Ten thousand dollars, just for you. All you must do is shake my hand.”
“I want to go home.”
“No, my friend, the car must be cleaned and all its mechanics checked before we return. I am afraid you must stay here tonight.”
“If you intend to kill me, you should consider killing me in broad daylight. Only cowards strike at midnight.”
Stunned, the politician balked. “What? Excuse me?”
“I have said what I have said.”
“Ah, I have no desire to hurt you, or to see you hurt. I want you to be happy. Why else have I offered you ten thousand? It is plenty for you, for your farm, for your whole town! They know you have won it. Take it, spend it on them. They who love you so dearly! Take it, drink it, eat it, buy a new home and another wife—my condolences—and a car!”
But the man remained silent.
Seeing that his anglings and needling were going nowhere, the politician changed tactics. “My sources tell me that the schools in your town are desperate for new textbooks, and for a new roof. Perhaps you can even build a new building? Think of the children who will remember you for giving them the gift of knowledge!”
“If I cannot go home today, I want to go to bed now.”
The politician stepped back. “Yes. I understand. A full day of work, plus such shocking news to hear that you are a rich man. Yes. It is heavy, isn’t it, money? Heavy but happy. The burden men gladly shoulder. You will carry yours well, and make many men proud to see how you do.”
“I want to go to bed.”
“Think of the money as you rest. In the morning we can talk again about what you have won.”
In the bedroom, the man unfurled on the bed like a lion stretching. It was a king sized bed. The empty space to his right reminded him of the woman who used to sleep by his side. He rolled over so that he was in the exact center of the bed. No empty space to remind.
Above his head, a ceiling fan clicked quietly. He watched one of the blades slowly circulate. It started on the left, swung to the right—so opposite of where it began—then whipped back to the left. And again, and again, and again. Circles, endless circles.
He stared at the fan as darkness crept over his world, and fitfully he fell to sleep.
“Breakfast for thieves, a feast for kings!” exclaimed the politician as he sidled up to the table. The man entered the room and stood silent in the doorway until the politician noticed his presence.
“Good morning! You have slept well, I can tell because you look so youthful and vigorous, like a man ready to take on the world. Tell me, what’s your fancy for breakfast? My cook is the absolute best in the nation. Literally—she’s been ranked.”
“I will take the money.”
“Ah. Good man.” The politician tried hard to keep his eyes on his plate, to not make a big deal out of this sudden change of heart. He was almost annoyed to not have the chance to use any of the ploys he had connived to convince the man to take the money. “Pull up a chair! Feast with me! We are both very lucky men, yes! Lucky to have fate wink down at us with an eye full of gold.”
“No thank you. I want to go home. I will take the money.”
“Certainly.” The fat politician paused. “I will be honest with you. I want you to the take the money. Yes! I am pleased for you that you will take it. But I do not understand. You are not taking the money because of anything clever I have said. You are not taking it because you are greedy. I think you are smart to take it, but I do not understand where you have become so smart so quickly.”
The man gazed blankly at the politician. “There is no air-conditioning in this mansion.”
“No. I hope you were still comfortable?”
“I stared at the fan all night. Do you know something? The blades move from one side, all the way over as far as they possibly can to the other, and then they move back again. All night. That is how they make such lovely cool air for me. By being what they are not, over and over again.”
The politician blinked. He almost understood.
“I will leave now.” The man repeated, and then he left.
The man stood on the fat stage, trying to fill up the space the way the fat politician had filled up the space. But he could not. Cleverly, he called out for a few select friends: a respected elder of the community, a young woman known for her hospitality, and a very young boy who had recently won a scholarship to a top high school in the city. Then he began.
The politician spit back the Scotch into his glass. He could not believe it. But it was true. There, on television, was his good friend, the man from the country who had won ten thousand dollars. There he was, on television, telling the world that he was running for president against the fat politician. Him, the country farmer! And the crowds roared their delight.
No, it could not be, but there it was. It was so simple, really, and so brilliant too. This farmer understood what the politician had told him. He understood it too well. But the politician had not fully understood what the man had told him. Not until now, when it was far too late to try to change the clever man’s mind. The politician sighed, running his fingers through his hair.
“Well,” he consoled himself, “I did what seemed best. But I was not the best at this game. Oh no. He outsmarted me.” The politician accepted his defeat with surprising grace. He sat in sadness for a moment, thinking of what he could have been by himself. Then he called to his aide, and made a plan.
Years later children at the Provincial School of Knowledge, which had become the best school in the nation thanks to a generous donation by a local politician, came to know this event as the alliance of the Prince and the Pauper. A fat career politician humbly serving as Vice to the President, a once-lowly farmer who had the luck to become the greatest man in the country’s history. The children sang songs about the prosperity the two men brought for the country, in the form of contracts for foreign investment. They ran down roads built with money dug from the earth. They rode in cars greased by the sweat of their country’s soil. They laughed at the foreigners who came, never for long, but always long enough to dig and suck and build, then leave.
The President himself became fat, too. He slept every night on a king-sized bed. But one thing he did not change. He never installed air-conditioning in his bedchambers. Instead, at night, he was lulled to sleep by the clicking of a simple ceiling fan, circling slowly left to right to left again.