It’s nearly impossible for me to remember jokes. I guess I’m not the only one with that syndrome. But there’s one joke that sticks with me. It goes something like this: Dude is broke, his wife is sick, kids hungry, etc. Every night he kneels at the foot of the bed and prays, “God, won’t you let me win the lottery tomorrow so I can save my family?” Day by day his plight grows worse, mom’s near death, car broke down, dog has worms, this guy’s as bad off as Job with the stuff that’s going wrong. In his final despair he kneels down and cries out, “God, please, show your mercy, show your love, let me win the lottery and be saved.” And in his best James Earl Jones imitation God booms down at Job dude, “Can’t you at least buy yourself a ticket?”
My mom called me one day. “Have you been following the lottery, the giant megapowerbucksball? Jillions of dollars, etc.” “Yeah, Mom, I heard something about it on the radio. Biggest ever.” I was about to explain how the odds of winning actually decrease the more the prize goes up, but she’d put up with that kind of talk from Dad their whole marriage. She cut me off before I could get started. “Well, I went out yesterday and bought everybody in the family two tickets.” “Wow, Mom that’s super cool of you.” Then I added, “But hey, didn’t that lottery already happen?” “Yes, yes, it was last night.” She paused, and I blurted out, “So, did any of our tickets win?” “Oh, no,” she said, “all the tickets lost.” She had a way of laughing, more like giggling when she said things like that. I’d later come to associate that giggle with her approaching Altzheimer’s, how she’d use it to cover her confusion, but back then it was just cute. “Oh,” I replied, “that’s too bad, but you know the thrill’s in playing the game, not the result.” “Yes, so it goes.” she said, “Anyway, the tickets were five bucks each so you owe me ten dollars.” I laughed out loud, and kept on laughing as it became clear she was serious. I didn’t even really try to argue. Sometimes it’s worth the price of admission, even if you don’t get to play the game. I sent her a check.
But I don’t like the lottery. I think it’s a scam to siphon money from desperate people who could make better use of their bucks. A sucker’s game. My father taught me enough about gambling to see that. When Oregon voted for the lottery, I opposed it, although not too vehemently. I’m not a moralist about it. People can do what they want, I figure, though gambling in all forms can be as addictive as heroin, and people should know that before trying it. But I just don’t really like mob energy, and in Jersey gambling in all its forms was mobbed out. I figured the lottery might open the door to the mob around here, though I haven’t heard that it has. But lotteries, as I said, are a sucker’s game, and it doesn’t seem right for the state to run that game as the house. Better the state than the mob, I guess, though some of my friends might say it’s six of one. At least the lottery’s partly used for education. But, at it’s very best, it’s still a regressive system of taxation. I sure wasn’t going to play.
But then, somewhere along the way, I did anyway. I justified it by deciding I’d use the lottery as a way to test and train my intuition. I’d wait till I felt just the right energy, and then I’d buy a ticket. I could do this. Couldn’t fail, right? So I waited. I waited more than a year, the thought of buying a ticket rising in my mind every time I saw the lottery sign as I passed the DariMart. Each time followed by the thought- in my dad’s voice- “sucker’s game.” And I’d wait some more. Then one day while I was getting gas, I felt it, I just knew. It was the day. Lottery day. After my gas tank was full, I pulled across to the DariMart. Marched right up to the counter with my dollar already out. “One scratch-it,” I said. I stuck the little ticket with its serrated edge into my shirt pocket and headed home. Just like the hundred dollar bill I found that time in San Francisco, I pretended that not looking would somehow increase the chances it was a winner. I got home, settled in a bit, got the fire started. Sat down at the kitchen table. Took a coin and slowly scratched off the little scratch-off things. And sure enough, my intuition rules. I had a winner. My one dollar lottery ticket was redeemable for two dollars at the store.
I knew I was in the money now. All I had to do was hold on to the two dollars until my intuition told me it was the right time, and I could double my money again. And again. Soon enough, I’d be rich.
As a kid I loved the story they told me to explain the concept of exponential growth. It was easy to remember— unlike jokes— and it had a chess board in it. The king makes a deal with the advisor, the advisor saves the king’s throne with some magic or knowledge or something, and the king only has to pay the advisor one penny the first day, two the next, and four pennies the third day, doubling the number of pennies each day for sixty four days, one for each square of the chess board. You do the calculation if you don’t know the story. Just say the king has to give the advisor the whole kingdom long before the chess board is full.
And that was now my lottery strategy. Exponential growth. I stuck the two bucks away in a pocket of my wallet, and I waited again, until the intuition came to me and I knew it was the day.
Only a couple of weeks passed before intuition struck me again. I pondered, was it really intuition or just impatience? It felt the same as the last time. This was definitely the day. I went into the store, tugged out the two dollars, and bought two tickets. Drove home with the tickets unscratched, feeling the same easy confidence as the last time. At the table I scratched the silvery stuff away… and saw that they were both losers. “Sorry. Play again.” the tickets offered. They might as well have added, “sucker!”
I never bought a lottery ticket again, except that time with my mom. It’s still a sucker’s game. But like God says in the only joke I can remember, you can’t expect to win if you don’t play the game.
And, in another way, I have played the lottery more than once in my life. I bought a ticket that day I walked into the U of O English department office, fighting through all my shyness and inhibitions, and stumbled into a lifetime’s career. I bought a ticket the day I walked out to the Camus Swale land and stayed in that little paradise for thirty-five years. I bought a lottery ticket the day I kissed the woman I loved and asked, do you want to try to have a baby? and she said yes, yes, yes. Each of those times, I had been waiting, without thinking about it, until the moment felt right. And I won, and I won, and I won.
Intuition, luck, prayer. There’s no way to know, and no way to know if it’s God or the Fates that answer. I try never to complain about my luck, about whether life is fair. I’ve won my share, whenever I’ve been willing to buy a ticket.