Note: the following is a fictional story. It was thoroughly examined for winking internet news cycle commentary and found clean.
He believed that all creatures were born with a preordained quantity of luck, which was inflexible and dispersed at random. This explained most of the world’s problems, and so allowed him to never think about them. He himself, Donald Rich, was counting on his luck to hover around the low end of stability with occasional spikes of promise at opportune moments. He believed in, if nothing else, the possibility of a day where he was late to an appointment and all of the lights were green and the policemen were on the other side of town.
Donald Rich despised his last name and wondered how complicated it would be to change it. Was it like going to the DMV? Was he going to be accused of criminal behavior by a bureaucratic type with nothing better to do? Hearing his last name was like having a pocket knife raked across his nose – nonfatal, non-scarring, but unbearably torturous somehow. Rich. People called him Rich and he bought his silverware at a dollar store. Perfect strangers would nudge him in line at the 7/11, elbow him – “hey, Mr. Rich, ‘sup with you, man, how’s life, man, howsabout a loan, man?” – and generally treat him like an Eisenhower-era joke book. People called him Rich and the most amount of money he ever saw in one place was $1,300.
He was 48 years old and lived alone, which permitted the creation of a moral universe in which he wore cargo shorts every day. He had lots of T-shirts from a cancer benefit he didn’t particularly remember going to – a marathon maybe. Didn’t matter. It was a long time ago. He shaved his own hair and it made his bloated face look formless, like a bowling bag left for decades in a smoker’s coat closet.
He had a great deal of free time but not enough capital or ambition to make it exciting. Besides, he was too old and had too many bad habits to become a professional bachelor who takes women to restaurants with stairs near rivers. So he mostly sat at his kitchen table practicing card tricks with the television just loud enough to capture the rhythm and never the content of human conversation. And it was on a Wednesday afternoon in July, when he was shuffling his cards and sweating on his table with an episode of Airwolf lending indifferent ambience, that Donald Rich used up all of his preordained luck.
He shuffled the deck as he always did, but his hands were sweaty and hot and the cards were more malleable than usual. The shuffle felt organic, and almost too easy. It was so perfectly executed he got light-headed with satisfaction. The sound of the cards slapping against each other was melodic and percussive like in very old movies; soothing like hearing playback of a card shuffling sound effect in a recording studio.
He turned over the deck and started flipping through the cards to see the numerical value of this perfect shuffle before he went ice cold in the summer. All of his luck had just been given to him. The cards had been shuffled into perfect form. Disorder had birthed order. He was devastated, paralyzed, sick, as if he had seen a child age into a deaf old man at his doorstep. He had just accomplished the most miraculous thing in the world. The odds of a deck falling into perfect order are functionally identical to the odds of Saturn being swallowed up by Jupiter. Here was magic. The only magic he had ever seen. And it was useless.
There was no reward. No money. This kind of fortune should have made him a celebrity of the sort who goes on morning shows in Syracuse and says “Jenny, the pancakes at Stella’s Diner, with the blueberry syrup – my God, Jenny.”
But it didn’t.
It was nothing.
It was the perfect amount of fortune but it landed in the wrong place.
Donald was still unemployed, living off an insurance settlement from seven years ago. He still lived in his dead father’s house. All the luck in the world was what Donald had just been given – he was statistically more lucky than any lottery winner. He had to be. He had to do something to prove it, to preserve it on the record, to trap the moment before it flew away and became a memory that gradually accumulated elements of basic cable movies and accidental lies. The moment was going to die if he didn’t do something. So for the first time in many years, Donald darted. Darted to his Rolodex. He was going to call somebody. He flipped through name after name. Contractors. Pizza places. Local attorneys. Pizza places that went out of business. Out of town attorneys. Where were his friends?
Right. He didn’t have friends. He had let his friendships atrophy in his seven year lost weekend. So he took a deep breath, put his diaphragm into it, and called his last boss. Remember me? Of course I do. How are the kids? They all have cars now. Uh, you’re not gonna believe this. You’re right.
“I shuffled a deck into perfect order. Descending, starting with the aces, and all the right suits too. Do you know what the odds of that are? Let me tell you. I know permutations and combinations. It’s an intergalactic number. It’s 10 to the 70th power. It’s like winning the lottery a million times.”
“Hello? Line go dead? Houston, Houston, do you read?”
“You’re drunk again. You sit there drunk and you tell me lies. Don’t you call me anymore.”
This made sense to Donald. This hostility. He wasn’t drunk, but the trust of your fellow man is environmental to a point, and therefore driven to a point by luck. And he had used all of his. This wouldn’t get him down though. It was his new lot in life, to persuade people of the magic he had conjured out of his sweaty palms. He thought of other names. Forget the boss. Okay. Sure. Marlene. The widow. He had borrowed her Oreck XL and cleaned the garage with it a few months ago. He could return it and, oh, she’ll need proof, won’t she?
So Donald snapped two Polaroids: one of the deck arranged in order, and a close-up of the aces, to show that they were frayed from use. That this was an honest shuffle, and not a botched shuffle of a virgin deck. He shook the Polaroids, waited a couple minutes, and started walking.
What if she didn’t believe him? Would it hurt his feelings? What if he never convinced a soul of this miracle, if nobody ever understood that Saturn had been swallowed up by Jupiter on his kitchen table?
She came to the door, her eyes muted. Fatalistic.
“I returned your vacuum. I should have returned it sooner.”
“Donald. I don’t care. I’m on oxygen. You made me get up.”
“With reason! With reason! Look.” He explained and reenacted, with more showmanship and gesturing than he was comfortable with, as those skills had long ago fallen into disrepair. He poked himself in the eye while making the “hallelujah” gesture and couldn’t quite rebound. Marlene was interested though. For some reason. Her eyes became weapons and she made immaculate eye contact as he wavered in his.
“You, Donald Rich, you could have simply arranged them like this. That is to say deliberately. What a pathetic exercise that would be, filing your little cards in order one by one and taking these pictures, seeking attention you don’t need.” He offered to show the deck to her and have some tea; maybe he could upsell her on the miracle. She declined. Even if it was true, she told him, and it was not true, her eyes told him, it was meaningless. Nobody else could appreciate this. Only Donald could appreciate this. Hobbies are escapism, the last hiding place for those too cowardly to drink. It felt burning hot again and Donald went back to his house to regroup his enthusiasm.
So he sat in front of his little house in a little plastic lawn chair with one leg snapped in two and taped together, and waited for the mailman. He usually feigned a distraction when he did this, but he didn’t bother today. He just sat there with his hands together like a little boy waiting for ice cream to soften. He couldn’t wait to tell mailman Henry all about his luck.
An airplane went by. A train whistled and clacked along so rhythmically and so predictably he almost fell asleep. He wondered if Marlene had always been hostile or if she was only hostile to him because his ruined back was an invisible affliction and the oxygen tank was an advertisement of hers.
Three hours passed in the little plastic chair, where he tried to remember the words to “The Gambler” and then the words to “Luck Be A Lady” and then nothing. It was a hundred and five degrees outside, a dry heat and no shade, and it didn’t make him feel hot so much as hypnotized and five thousand years old. There was something soothing about the time dilating effect of a burning hot day – in moderation.
Henry finally showed, at 4 in the afternoon. Donald waved. Henry shouted back. “Don’t think there’s anything for you today! Nothing today!”
Donald pretended he couldn’t hear so he could have an excuse to walk up to Henry.
“How’s the old route treating you today, Henry?” he asked with a pained smile.
“Some girl passed right in front of me and I didn’t see her. People don’t look where they’re going anymore.”
Donald looked at the ground and rummaged through his cargo shorts for the Polaroids. “Henry,” he said, finding them, “let me show you my miracle.”
And a funny thing happened. Henry believed him.
“Wow. Man. I’d take that as a sign, wouldn’t you? I don’t even believe in signs, but if that happened to me, I’d change my outlook. How did you react? Tell me what happened. When you saw the cards come out all like that.”
Donald smiled for a second. It wasn’t a dream. He didn’t have an episode and arrange the cards deliberately and black out. He was still the witness to the world’s loneliest miracle. “I took some pictures, you know, and I sort of – aarrrghhhh – I thought Ed McMahon! You know? Balloons? And a big check? I wanted something to happen next and it didn’t!”
“I know exactly what. I’m out of luck. That was the last stop, the end of the line. My good fortune caught the westbound. All that’s left to do is try and avoid lightning strikes, which means I might go fishing less. But isn’t it amazing? To know that mathematical impossibility just landed at my door and we’re here talking about it?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s amazing, Donald. First of all, look, this hang-up you have about thinking luck is pre-determined, it’s superstition, man. If a coin comes up heads 99 times, that doesn’t mean you should bet on tails. We let ourselves think luck has a sense of humor. It doesn’t.”
Donald started staring into the middle distance as this disagreeable suggestion mutated into white noise.
“I think, uh, I think, uh, I think, uh, um, boy. I mean. This won’t happen again. It matters because it’s not something you can do twice. I could do this 24 hours a day until the sun burns out and it’d never happen again. At least one of the suits would be wrong, or there’d be a 2 in with the 4s. That’s it. That’s it for me. The luck is over. My luck is gone.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Donald felt Henry’s words slow to a crawl.
“Every arrangement of cards in that deck is unique. Every time you shuffle it, that’s another thing that won’t happen again. You went and decided order has to mean something, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. It’s amazing. I get it. I wish you were doing interviews on the news. Fate didn’t stick the landing. It’s fine. And it doesn’t matter.”
Donald tried to mumble a goodbye but just said “uh, 7/11” and started walking there as Henry climbed back into his truck and continued on his route.
He still knew he was out of luck. He felt it. His whole system was off-balance. He stumbled against the sidewalk twice on his way to 7/11, and nicked his toe against a tree root so bad that blood started to visibly collect in his sandal. He got out some money for a Slurpee, a five dollar bill, and it sailed away with a gust of wind that was too convenient to exist but must exist because of the grocery store bags that blew away with it. But he still had some money. This was just his new, luckless reality. The five dollar bill was allowed to go, and he didn’t even need to chase after it.
But when he got inside, and the store’s Slurpee machine only had piña colada, Donald Rich decided to say goodbye to all the money in his wallet by getting some lottery tickets. He aimed low. Scratchers, Hit $500!, ten of them. He went to the alley behind the store and sat down, a cigarette butt getting stuck to his cargo shorts. First one, loser. Second one, dud. Third one, of course, worthless. Six more times. Nine luckless scratchers, and conclusive evidence he was right about the cards and how luck worked. He walked home with the tenth in his pocket. He turned his TV off when he got inside, drew the blinds in mourning, sat down, and scratched the ticket. There it was, five hundred dollars, and he sat there as Saturn was swallowed up by Jupiter. A few hours later he remembered to put his cards away.
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