Do you believe in magic?

The New York Times this evening features a story on luck, and scientists wondering why people still envision themselves in an “unseen universe of small rituals,” which involve “large questions of morality, community and history.” There is a hardware store a few blocks from our house. I went there the other day in order to complete a small home repair project that was more a product of boredom than need. I picked out what I needed as an older woman, who I take to be one of the owners, waited nearby to ring me up. As I rattled and replaced various cardboard and plastic packages from their peg-board display, she and a man I take to be her husband and co-owner continued a conversation, mostly jest, they had begun before I walked in. He was at the front register, she at the back with me, and they raised their voices to deliver their lines. I wasn’t paying attention to their words, but took it to be a well-practiced routine.

When I was ready to purchase some things, I turned to the woman and became by my interruption a part of their conversation. “He always thinks he’s gonna win,” she said to me, in a slight Philly accent. She had large square-ish glasses, clouded gray eyes, a gray sweatshirt, and stringy hair, brown and gray, straight and thin, with bangs cut unevenly, just above her eyebrows. When I asked her for an item on the shelf behind her, I noticed her hand and head moved with a Parkinson’s-like tremor.

She and her husband were talking about the lottery. “He always says, ‘I ain’t commin’ into work next week, ’cause I gottem’ this time,'” she told me, tilting her head a little to indicate how tiresome it all was.
Have you ever won anything, I asked. “Nah,” as she concentrated on the cash registered for a moment, “Fifty dollars on the scratch-off once, that’s about it. What about you? What numbers do you like? I always ask people who come in to pick numbers for me,” she said.

“I’ve never played the lottery,” I said, involuntarily looking down at my feet. “But,” I said, looking up, a little brighter, “I knew someone who won $40,000 playing slots.”

She paused from pushing buttons on the register and said, not to be outdone, that she knew someone who had won a couple times. Her husband had finished with his customer at the front register and come to the back. His skinny arms hung from the sleeves of a white t-shirt, and his gaunt face had a frost of gray stubble. He leaned his elbows on the counter and said he knew someone who had won $200,000 in the lottery once. Well, I said, it’s gotta go to somebody, you know? “Yeah,” said the woman, “that’s what I figure.”
She told me the price of what I wanted to purchase, and I gave her my credit card. As she ran it, I told her my lucky number is eight, and the multiples thereof. She handed me the credit card slip, and showed me the total on her receipt book. Her shaking hand gave me a ball-point pen, and I signed the slip. “Do you have some numbers?” she asked, and her index finger quivered over the receipt book. I wrote down some numbers I consider lucky, adding more, trying to give some thought to it, when she said she needed five, plus one powerball number. Thanks, I said, and good luck. “Thanks,” she said, and then leaning toward me a little, “I’ll remember you if I win anything.” No problem, I said. I’ll be in again. “I’ll remember you,” she said, and reached out a little, as if to reassuringly touch my arm, though she never quite made it that far.

As I walk home I think about her winning, and the words I will use to gently refuse to accept any money in recompense. I wonder where I can buy a lottery ticket, and envision giving the couple at the hardware store a share, as they inspired me to buy the ticket in the first place. Even a few hundred dollars, I know, can mean a world of difference to people who don’t have much.
Dr. Wegner of Harvard University, I read in the New York Times, says that “‘This feeling that your thoughts can somehow control things can be a needed feeling’ — the polar opposite of the helplessness, he added, that so often accompanies depression.”