Two people at the counter paying for their slushies, pink and blue respectively, from left to right, the slushies, as I walk in. I head over to the Powerball station for a number-selection sheet. The clerk sees me out of the corner of his eye.
“So many people coming in today,” he says to the slushy patrons, to me, and the otherwise empty store, “buying Powerball tickets.”
“What’s that?” says the man in the tank-top. I sit down in the empty pizza-parlor section just around the corner, pocket full of change, pull out my lucky Bic travel pen, its home ordinarily in my change compartment in my car, now all but empty itself.
“Oh the lottery,” says the woman, also in a tank-top. Texas is full of freckled shoulders.
“It’s up to like $500 million,” says the clerk in his glasses and gas-station polo. $600 million, I think smugly. “But the odds are just astronomical of ever winning it. I try to tell my customers that. You’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning – twice – than winning the lottery.”
I try to tune him out, but my mind starts to wander instead of focusing on the task at hand, enjoying the fact that he’s about to count out two hundred of my oldest pennies. I’m trying to tune into the logarithms, algorithms, jiggawatts and general chi of the universe. Ordinarily I like buying one ticket for a drawing still days away, the fun of the purchase being the potential. For up to three full days I can carry around in my pocket something that I want to describe as kinetic weight, which makes no literal sense, I know, but it’s not like the sheer potential energy stored in its chemical components, ink, paper, is enough to describe the sensation. It feels like something alive. The difference between a dead person and an alive person, so the now defunct rumor goes, is twenty-one grams. Except it isn’t, and that’s the wrong unit of measurement to begin with.
Ordinarily I try to feel out what numbers are calling to me. Usually my birthday or my lucky numbers make it into the fold somewhere, along with whatever numbers my pen seems to hover over momentarily, magnetically, ouija-style. This time, though, I’ve got this dude’s almost prophetic doubt hanging in my ears. I would like to win the lottery with my so-called lucky numbers, which are really just my favorite numbers based often on athletes’ numbers of whom I was the biggest fan growing up (forever yours, Jimmy Jackson!), but it occurs to me that winning on any other numbers would be just as good.
“They like to tell me, ‘Well it’s all for a good cause, anyway,’” says too-good-for-his-job polo clerk, “which means it goes back into the educational system.” It sounds like he’s about to spout off some conspiracy theory or conspiracy fact about how it actually doesn’t benefit the educational system, and I don’t want to know it, or even hear it, and I tune him out again.
I stare down at the blank sheet. What if, this time, I pick the numbers that don’t want to be picked? The numbers I hate the most for no logical reason? Right away I go with 47, which is a shit number and it knows it. I hate prime numbers, for some reason. They’re standoffish, uncooperative. Don’t play well with others. I could pick 13, but that’s generally considered an unlucky number and I think it gets a bad rap, so I let it be, uncolored. It occurs to me to pick ex-girlfriends’ birthdays, but I let the impulse slide, when off the top of my head I can’t think of even one (though they’re all coming back to me now).
“So really what you’re doing is you’re just making a donation to the education system,” says the professional slush-dispenser, finishing up his monologue. “Well, I’m a student, so… thanks!”
The tank-top twins disperse. I’m only about three numbers in, because the choice of the Powerball is daunting. It must be the most-loathed number, clearly. I can’t pick all prime numbers, either, so I try to figure out an even number that clearly sucks. A new customer comes in, and as if by instinct, like he can sense this clerk’s opinion about lottery players, he shamefully and quietly asks for a Powerball ticket. The clerk says nothing to him about statistics or lightning or education, only, “You want the PowerPlay with that?”
I’m actually getting three sets of numbers today, two of which will be auto-picked, because random is as random does, but I consider my stash of pennies to be in payment for these numbers carefully hand-selected, while the stash of dimes will pay for the second set, and the third set, a bonus, comes from the two dollar profit I’ll shortly be receiving for guessing the correct Mega-ball for a drawing a couple weeks ago, a ticket I’d forgotten until today and hadn’t redeemed. That correct Mega-ball: 31. I am fully aware of how sucky 31 is as a numeral – not only prime, but also the dyslexic man’s 13 – and that worked out for me once, but can I really pick the same number for the ultra-important PowerBall again?
Captain Polo says something to someone unseen, like “I’m gonna do this now so you watch the counter,” and I know he’s trying to bail on me, he’s not going to have to count my pennies after all, the pretentious ass, with his high-and-mighty Nostradamian shit talking. Can’t you understand that’s the point? The allure isn’t guessing tails correctly on a coin-flip. What cause has a body to feel special about that? If you win the lottery, you win against astronomical odds, yes, exactly, you win astronomically. You win spiritual relevance. You get to pretend until the end of your days that your life actually was special, important, meaningful. Sports figures and other superficially endowed millionaires aren’t by-and-large religious for nothing. They actually do believe God prefers them and their newest single and their five Bentleys and their Super Bowl trophy over the common folk who have none of these things. And it’s the money that does it. It’s the money that doesn’t make sense. If athletes didn’t get paid, their religious convictions would occur with a frequency that mirrors the general population.
Or maybe not. Maybe it would swing the other way. If the money was gone, but everyone still watched all the games and listened to all the music and heaped them with praise and adulation for their superior but often genetically predetermined skills (i.e. gifts, i.e. luck) anyway, maybe, just maybe, they’d be more appreciative to the nameless masses, of the individual human mouths speaking their greatness, instead of just God and their prestidigitatious agent, who made money magically appear in their bank accounts at the flick of a pen. Their fan base would be the only evidence of their fame. (This is why political fame is different, despite the money infesting that scene, despite the millions that go into swaying the polls – political support isn’t for something you’ve done, or are able to do, but only for promises made. The money, in that world, is all too explainable, so the mystical part of politics is that it’s hard to make a tangible connection between money spent and votes garnered. On the individual level, it’s still someone choosing you. In fact, a majority of the people went out there and voted for you, for who you are as a person, when they totally didn’t have to, the kind of unqualified support most people only enjoy from their parents, if they’re lucky enough to find it there. And this, kids, is why politicians are not religious but are as secular as can be, no matter what they say, ever, ever.
Anyway. The future politician at the counter has disappeared, and his replacement hasn’t peeked around the corner yet, so I feel alone with my choice of choices, my determination of the worst, the absolute worst number out there, in the field of 1 through 35, because only the main pool goes up to 59.
Then, I remember my age.
31 it is.
Here are all the pennies.