“… I was thinking … how wonderfully it was all arranged that each of us had not too long to live and therefore could not taste everything there was, and so the world to us appeared infinite in its variety.”
—Mikhail Prishvin, Nature’s Diary
A man’s wife comes home to find he’s shaved his moustache off. “I loved that moustache,” she says. “How could you do it?”
“It’s to change my luck,” he says. “That moustache has brought me nothing but bad luck, and now I’m getting rid of it.”
A week later she goes out for groceries and when she gets back home the parakeet is gone. The cage is there but there’s no bird. “Where’s Pretty Boy?” she says.
“Listen,” he says, “that bird was bad luck. Ever since we got it my luck has turned bad.”
A week later the flowered sheets are missing from the bed, and a new set, this one with stripes, is there instead. “This luck is driving me crazy,” he says.
But his wife’s not stupid. She knows where this is leading, so that night while he’s asleep she cuts his throat with a knife she first saw advertised on television made for slicing frozen food.
But still his luck hasn’t finished being bad. It turns out that the detective investigating the murder is young and handsome, and he and the wife fall in love. Not only that, but now, for the first time having a good lover she finds out what a complete jerk her husband really was. And still his bad luck doesn’t end. Two months after he’s buried there’s a tremendous flood which makes all the coffins in the cemetery float out of the graveyard and down river, where his body is found by a group of teenagers on their way home from a mandatory drug education rally who deface it in countless, unspeakable ways.
“Yes, that’s bad all right,” said my friend, Leon, to whom I was telling this story, “But sometimes a man can have too much good luck, too.” Leon runs a little store on the corner of my block and sells Middle Eastern groceries. On every Thursday he sells stuffed grapeleaves made by his wife the night before.
“What?” I said. “How can luck be too good?”
“Listen to what happened to my cousin, Azulian,” he said, and crossed his arms as if he were going to deliver a lecture. But Leon wasn’t the lecturing type. His eyes were soft and wet, the eyes of a man who worried too much how the poor people who bought their food at his store were getting along.
“As you know,” Leon said, “I like to go to Las Vegas every once in a while, and last summer when I closed the store for a week I went there with Azulian, who is a big player of blackjack. It was there this luck business all started out harmlessly enough: Azulian would win a hand, then lose one, and was breaking about even when gradually we both noticed for the last half hour or so he’d been winning about two for every one he lost. Then it was three, then four, and then it seemed as if he was winning all the time … . Oh, he’d lose one every once in a while, maybe one in 20, but he was winning an incredible amount.
“Now Azulian, like all gamblers, was suspicious, and this meant two things. First, unlike you or me who might have started doubling or tripling our bets the minute we got lucky, Azulian didn’t feel he had the right to change even one single thing, so he kept betting the same amounts he always had, winning fifty or sixty, no more than a hundred dollars a hand. Of course he was winning them one after another, so he was still making a lot of money.
“The other thing probably would occur to you or me: namely, when you are winning like that you can’t just get up and leave the table without breaking your streak. So Azulian didn’t either. He kept drawing cards and winning, even when the house changed dealers. He didn’t even leave to go to the bathroom, which I think the house was hoping for because they kept offering him drinks which he refused; nonetheless, fluids kept building up in his system and Azulian started looking sicker and sicker. Hours went by—two, four, eight, fourteen, finally a whole day. At last, there he was, holding a hand with two twos, two threes, a four, and a seven. ‘Hit me,’ he said, and slumped beneath the table.
“He had to be carried out on a stretcher, but even there Azulian was lucky. Needless to say a sizable crowd had gathered, and one of them was a doctor who, after diagnosing his condition as a ruptured bladder, accompanied him to the emergency room saving his life, although it cost, practically to the penny, everything he had won at gambling.”
Now at this point I have an embarrassing confession to make. Namely, I had been stealing groceries from Leon’s small store for years, an act which had begun as a sort of joke, (One day I’d picked up a foil-wrapped chocolate mint from the counter and waited for him to notice it was missing—he didn’t, and suddenly it became too awkward to give it back.) and this habit had escalated until bit by bit the things I stole had gotten larger and more expensive, and I’d begun to rely on my visits to Leon’s as a genuine supplement to my income. Now, somewhere in the middle of his description of Azulian’s good luck, I saw that Leon had been eyeing me strangely.
“By the way,” Leon asked, “what’s that there inside your jacket?”
“What?” I answered smiling. “There’s nothing inside my jacket except me,” though I suspected Leon must have been referring to the five-pound tin of imported feta cheese I had placed there earlier, and which, in truth, had been becoming increasingly uncomfortable throughout the course of his narrative. “Well,” I said, “I’ve got to be going.”
I headed for the door, but no sooner was I through than I was tackled from behind, the can of cheese dislodging itself from beneath my arm and coming to rest against a rack selling a tabloid I’d glanced at from time to time, a paper with the ridiculous name of Girls, Girls, Girls, which, except for a few articles of a medical nature, appeared to be devoted to advertising the availability of various women who were anxious to serve as photographers’ models.
To make a long and fairly unpleasant story shorter, I was arrested, sent to trial, found guilty, and when the time for my sentence arrived, the judge, a kindly old man with a wen on his neck, set as my punishment one hundred hours of community service with a local arts organization that had secured its niche in the hierarchy of funding mechanisms by offering a much publicized program, the goal of which was to develop an appreciation of literature by reading poetry to those who were soon about to die.
The organization called itself Beyond Biology, and, as luck would have it, the first two “voyagers” (as they called them) each set sail before I could get to the end of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” When it came to the third, I had not even gotten to the first “rage” before I looked up to see his eyes rolled back and his mouth as empty as an ashtray on the dashboard of a classic automobile. Because, however, in the world of metaphysics, there is no definitive agreement on the existence of what we call a “soul,” let alone the time of its departure, and also because I needed to fulfill my community service obligation, I ploughed on reading, passing through Whitman’s, “Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice!/ Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple and the grape!” straight to Wordsworth’s, “I was thy neighbor once thou rugged Pile!” and even tossing in a few lines of my own. “You’ll like this one!” I yelled into a waxy ear, and read a heart-rending piece about Lassie’s old age.
My fourth voyager, Mr. McDonald, was a different story. He seemed alert and ready to talk, telling me how he had owned a small farm in Iowa where he had raised chickens, but it was only after raising them for many years that the incident occurred, as he explained it, “that broke my heart.”
“It all began,” he said, “one September morning when I spotted several of the chickens who were busy pecking another, a young and weaker one, to death. Ordinarily I would have walked on by, and maybe given the victim a kick with my boot to end its suffering, but for the first time something different happened. This chicken, the one who was flapping there on the ground trying to avoid the blows of the others, caught my eye for a second, and for a moment I could actually feel it pleading for help.” He sighed. Obviously the memory was still painful, even after all these years.
“And I did help it,” he said. “I chased the others away and took the wounded one back to the farmhouse, where it became a sort of pet to my wife and me. I know it’s odd to be surrounded by thousands of chickens for years, and then to pick out one to be a pet, but we did. We named it Rosie, though it was completely white, and oddest of all, that chicken seemed to understand that it was me who had saved her life. She’d follow me everywhere, right into that same crowd that had nearly pecked her to death, and even swagger a little as she walked by them.” He laughed involuntarily at the recollection and a bit of bloody phlegm came up.
“Anyway,” he said, “my wife and I got very fond of Rosie, so much so that my wife knitted her a blue and yellow cap which tied beneath her chin, and had a little visor to keep the sun out of her eyes. Chickens,” he confided, “have a terrible time with the sun getting in their eyes.” He paused and I nodded.
“So there we were,” he said, “Rosie and I, walking through the chicken yard that September, listening to the other chickens clucking, the cow mooing, and so on, when all of a sudden there was the shadow of a pair of wings on the ground in front of us and the chickens ran for cover. All but Rosie, that is. And whether it was because she thought that I’d protect her, or because the visor on her cap blocked her view, she stayed right where she was, at my side. The hawk struck and I lunged but was too late, and I can still see her, that little cap sort of hanging sideways off her neck and her eyes scared and pleading for me to help as the great bird took her higher and higher.” He looked at me, his own eyes watery with the memory. “And after that I lost my appetite for chicken.” He died with a smile on his lips.
Two or three hours later, when I’d quit reading, I began to think once again about that strange word, “luck.” What is luck, I wondered, besides any unusual circumstance, good or bad, we haven’t had a hand in planning? Had Mr. McDonald planned the hawk? No, but certainly his earlier treatment of Rosie conditioned her for the tragedy which followed. There are people who say we make our own luck, that everything that happens we are somehow responsible for, and yet there are others who say it’s all luck, and we aren’t in control of anything. And what about my own life, I wondered. I grew up on a farm which was later discovered to be on the site of a former toxic waste dump outside St. Louis, and remembered that at the end of every Christmas dinner my father would hold both his large hands behind his back and force me to guess which one held a small piece of foil-wrapped chocolate, in the shape of an egg. If I chose wrong, as was the case every single year, the hand would slowly open and then close again, until, in the form of a fist it would rise, then land exactly at the site of my fontenelle, which for some reason had taken an unusually long time to close, thus rendering me unconscious until after the presents had been opened. And where, I used to wonder, in of all of this, was my story? And did everyone have to have one? Or was my story just the story of someone looking for a story and finding none, a person becoming worried, losing sleep, developing several unpleasant nervous ticks, bad habits, anti-social behavior—the story of a person unhappy because he couldn’t find a story, but later this same person finding out that this unhappiness was the very story he had been looking for?
“Suddenly I feel lucky,” I had said to Leon on that exact same day I placed that first, small, single, foil-wrapped chocolate mint in my front pocket. And I did feel luck—I felt lucky not to be caught by my friend Leon taking it, luck to be alive, lucky to be ignorant of all the humiliation of my future, just as Leon, himself unaware of a future that would include an escalating pattern of losses due to shoplifting hummed under his garlicky breath the old blues standard which expressed the difficult concept: if it weren’t for the presence of bad luck in our lives then we would certainly have none at all, though who’s to say what’s good and what is bad.