Your Worst Nightmare
“The Odds” by Paisley Kauffmann is one of the most heartbreaking stories we’ve published in Chronicle. There are many stories of loss and broken romance, but “The Odds” horrifies because it flips the best-case scenario into a not-so-slow descent toward nihilism. We can spend a lot of time worrying about the deaths of loved ones, many of us probably do, but Kauffmann’s story uniquely grounds itself in the present moment of clear-cut desperation: the protagonist choosing the numbers for his Powerball ticket. How do we approach a story that forces us to confront our most deeply-seeded fears of death and abandonment?
Structure, Technique, Form
The crucial thing in “The Odds,” is the way Kauffmann ties each flashback moment to a Powerball number. This structure is a stroke of masterwork: if this story were merely presented in chronological order, it would lack impetus and cohesion. The ground situation of this story, the protagonist picking his own lotto numbers, does two things: it allows Kauffmann a set number of flashbacks without confusing the reader, and it allows her to contrast the man’s current setting (the gross, smelly gas station) with the “Responsible living, good decision-making, and hard work that had resulted in robust college funds and retirement accounts.” (Kauffmann)
More than Numbers
Layered on top of the simple act of buying the ticket and choosing the lottery numbers, Kauffmann introduces a third layer by offering us insight into the man’s head: he is making his choices based on the heartbreaking mathematical facts that have been ruining his life for the last six months. This, in and of itself, is interesting on another level: he’s using the tragedy of his recent experience to, he hopes, salvage his daughter’s college fund that he’s blown in a desperate attempt to save his wife’s life. Thus we can see the recursive element: the man, whose life is ruled by the science of numbers (i.e. of months to live, chemo treatments, years married, etc.,) cannot help but be subservient to those numbers when it comes to trying to forge his new life. His life has been ruined by the system of numbers and, at the same time, those very numbers are his last, best hope at future happiness.
About the Author
Paisley Kauffmann is a registered nurse and writer. Her work has appeared in The Talking Stick, The Birds We Piled Loosely, The Writing Disorder, and others. She is working on her fourth novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two pugs.