RUBEN’S LUCK

“So why don’t you invoke the Magic?”

“What magic?”

I was untangling sheets as I yanked them from a washing machine that had never forgotten its previous lifetime as a pirate. Often as not, it took my money and delivered nothing. When it did operate, the laundry that it didn’t steal was tied into knots and reluctantly returned at the end of the spin cycle. My cousin Ruben reached into the double loader and pulled gently. The sheets and towels unwound themselves and rolled easily into the wheeled wire basket waiting to receive them.

“I suppose you could call it Luck Magic. Three thousand years ago it was called NaHa’nat Anis’id.” Ruben gave the drum inside the washer a turn, recovering a pair of wash cloths kidnapped by an agitator vane. He dropped them in the basket and smiled at me. “It’s out there, waiting to be called on, and it seems to me that you could use a little help from that department.”

A little help, he called it. He’d just heard a review of the latest disasters in my life. Five year old Moriah had a cast up to her waist; her leg was broken when the wall to wall shag carpet she was dancing on grabbed her sneaker in mid twirl. Instead of the raise we expected, my husband was asked to choose between a pay cut or a layoff notice. While the remaining pay check was still slightly more than unemployment offered, the deal included a cut in medical benefits for dependents.

The warranty ran out on the truck two weeks before it threw a rod and died, axle deep in the mud and filled with fire wood. And then a raccoon got into my chicken coop and carried off the hatchlings, injuring the mother hen so badly we had to kill her. I felt I needed more than a little help, I needed a miracle.

Something cheerful, like of the end of the world.

“Luck magic?” My attention was on finding an empty dryer to load my sheets into. “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten into chanting that Munchkin Shoyu stuff. I didn’t think you were the type.” There, down at the back of the laundromat, near the end of the row; I aimed my laundry cart and hurried to claim it before anyone else noticed the open door. Ruben followed at a more leisurely pace and leaned against the folding table while I tossed cold wet flannel sheets into the hard warm darkness and slammed the door. Pushing a quarter into the slot, I turned the knob to start the machine and nothing happened. Ruben reached out, tapped the knob and the dryer started with a rumble. When I went to add more coins, Ruben stopped me.

“It will run until your sheets are dry.” He grinned at my disbelief, “When you invoke the Magic, things just naturally turn your way. If you’ve got some time, let’s get coffee across the street at Sylvia’s. I’ll tell you about it.”

I turned an anxious glance back at my laundry and the baskets I used for hauling it. Even a town small as Jacob has its share of dishonest people.

“Don’t worry, it’s safe. We’ll get the coffee to go and bring it back here if you’d rather, but it’s not necessary.” He headed for the door, still talking. “What do you know about the quantum theory?”

“The observing affects the observed, as I understand it.” I kept up with him from curiosity because Ruben always has a good story to tell. He did this time too, but he lost me when he tied quantum physics to voodoo and then quoted Mendelbrot on the theory of random events. The coffee was gone and my laundry half folded before he finished his lecture on the history and philosophy of this magic thing. Amazingly, the sheets were dry on the single quarter and Ruben was folding them, bless his heart.

“It’s fascinating,” I turned a faded pink size 6-x t-shirt right side out, “but I always thought that luck was a random thing, like rolling dice or winning the lottery.”

“Not random, but magnetic, like positive and negative charges. When you invoke the Magic, you create a polarity that draws available Luck your way.”

“What about jonahs; jinxes, people who always have bad luck? Are they charged to repel this luck magic and have everything go wrong?”

“Like Murphy’s Law? That’s not my department. I’m interested in making things go right.” He smoothed a last pillow case onto the pile. “Want to give it a try?”

“Depends on what I’ve got to do…”

The requirements were easy enough to meet. Belief in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo wasn’t necessary. Ruben produced a package of unfiltered Lucky Strikes and emptied the tobacco out of one. He clipped a short lock of my hair with the Swiss Army knife that came equipped with scissors and snipped it into a small amount of a green powder from a bottle he carried in his pocket.

“Blood works better than hair,” Ruben explained, “as a genetic address for the Magic to deliver Itself, but our culture has taboos on blood letting.” I waited for the bomb he inevitably dropped. He always had one ready to deliver, but he saved his best ones for major family gatherings like Thanksgiving; it upset the adults and made rigid traditional feasts more memorable for the rest of us. When we were kids, frogs, snakes or mice smuggled to the table in his pocket somehow escaped. As a teen, he grew his hair long and spouted politics or history long buried and best forgotten. Lately, he cultivated twisted trivia and bizarre anthropologies.

Like Luck Magic.

“Actually, menstrual blood and semen work best. I don’t suppose you have any of that available at the moment?” I sighed with relief; he wasn’t proposing I sacrifice and eat my firstborn or copulate with goats.

“Really, Ruben.” I realized, as I said it, that my tone matched his mother’s. He’s right about the taboos, but at least I was smiling.

I watched as the hair and green powder were mixed and scooped into the fragile hollow shell of the unfortunate cigarette. After Ruben twisted the ends, he fired it with a match and dropped it into an empty ash tray, mumbling something that sounded like a Hebrew blessing as the flame flared and died with a nose wrinkling smoky stench. Dipping his thumb into the warm ashes, he marked my brow with them.  I was feeling pretty weird about the whole thing by this time so it was a relief to jump in the Bronco and drive home with the laundry.

It seemed best not to mention the encounter to my husband, who is not fond of Ruben’s appearance or politics.  Bob occasionally gives me the impression that he believes the things they say in church, so I had a feeling this little bit of hocus-pocus wasn’t something that would meet with his approval. Three days later, when the lay off notice arrived with the reduced paycheck, I thought that I might have done better to leave my hair intact.

Over the next few weeks I struggled through my life, going out of my way to avoid Ruben when I was in town, afraid he would ask me how the magic was working. I was more than half convinced that it was a subtle practical joke at my expense. The only improvement I noticed was a change of attitude from the machines at the laundromat. Washers no longer balked at using hot water, and socks, long since vanished, reappeared mysteriously in unmatched pairs. Dryers started rumbling to life before I could get a quarter in the slot and actually got the jeans dry before they stopped.

I took it as a timely return on an investment I’d been making for years.

Ruben finally caught up with me at the Buy-Lo Market. He snatched the grocery bag from the checkout counter and headed for the door while I paid for the milk, eggs and bread he was carrying.

“So. Moriah got the measles yet?” He was waiting beside my car.

“No. She’s still in a cast up to her waist. School told us not to send her back until she can walk.” I reached for the bag, but it was not surrendered to me; Ruben wanted my attention.

“That’s the Magic working. I heard a dozen kids from her school were sent all the way to Children’s Hospital in the City with complications.”

“Yes, Ruben. Which means that she’s bored silly because there is no one to play with, even on weekends. They’re all sick or isolated against infection. Have you ever heard her whine?”

“Well, it’s a good thing Bob is able to be home to help with her while she’s healing.” His smile was irritating, he had no sense of perspective.

“We haven’t seen it that way. Bob is home because he has no job. The company he worked for is folding.”

“I’m not sure I’d like to see it your way. Sounds depressing.” He passed me the bag at last. I put it in the car.

“I’ve been doing some more research. Tell you what,” I waited for the next bomb. “I’ll buy your bad luck from you.”

“You can have it. Free of charge.” I slammed the door, angry that he didn’t have my troubles.

“That’s not the way it works. You have a jinx attached to you. It’s like a psychic leach that affects your attitude, so you don’t notice it and get rid of it. Since it’s yours, you can sell it; that’s about the only way to lose the thing. Once you take money for it, it has to leave. Let me buy it from you.”

Digging in his jeans pocket he came up with a handful of change. “Here’s a nickel. I’ll buy that bummer from you for five cents. That a deal?” He held the coin out to me. I started to take it and I had a thought.

“So you buy this jinx and it sticks to you?”

“No way, I’m Teflon Man. The Magic protects me, your problems won’t stick. Go on.”

“Where does it go? Will someone else get it?”

“My sources say that when dislodged, these things seek an open door. I think that means they gravitate to where they are welcome. I’ve got a nickel here, says this jinx isn’t welcome in your life.” He offered once more and I accepted. The coin was warm in my hand.

“Great. It’s mine now.” Ruben started to go and turned back.

“Have you folks heard from the government investigators yet?”

“Investigators?” my stomach twisted. “We heard the Feds had frozen the company assets and served warrants for the owners.”

“It’s the defense contract, isn’t it?” Ruben’s objections to it and the company that holds it are part of the reason Bob doesn’t like him. “Rumor has it that Bob was almost fired because he complained about the lack of quality control too many times.”

I’m sure my face confirmed Ruben’s gossip, I’d heard Bob’s side of the story at home enough times. “Since you’ve got the Magic, I don’t suppose you have anything to worry about. Don’t spend that nickel all at once.” Ruben laughed and sauntered away, whistling.

A beige car was pulling out onto Keystone Road from our driveway when I arrived home. The two men in it eyed me curiously as I collected the mail from our box before driving up to the house. Bob’s smile was a surprise when he met me at the door.

“Who was that?” I kissed him, heading for the kitchen with the milk. He followed, sorting out real mail from the junk.

“Federal Investigators. It’s almost funny. When they arrived, I thought they were here to intimidate me, but that got turned around and they offered me a job.”

“A job? Doing what?”

“I guess they were impressed with the complaints I made and they want me to inspect production quality at other plants with government contracts. If I take the job, we’d have to move. Would you mind leaving your folks?”

“Hi, Mommy. I’m making a tiger. Can we go live at a zoo? And a movies and a mall?” Moriah was propped at the table painting gloppy orange stripes on an uneven brown blob that extended beyond the paper and onto the table cloth. She wasn’t whining so I decided to ignore the table cloth. I kissed her, shelved the milk and eggs in the refrigerator, thinking about my empty chicken coop, weed infested garden and a yard that flooded with every storm.

“We’d have to sell the house.” It was easy to say and sounded like a good idea as I said it. “And we’ll need to look into schools before we buy… Maybe Ruben was right.”

“Your weird, hairy cousin – right about something? That’s news.”

I dug the nickel out of my pocket and put it on the table.

“He said we had a jinx and he bought it from me with this nickel.”

“It’s not plugged or anything.” Bob leaned over the table to inspect it.

“Can I have it Mommy?” Moriah was reaching across her wet painting, past the paint jars, groping for the coin, just out of her reach. Mercifully, nothing spilled. “I can put it in my bank.”

“No. Not this one, I’ll give you another for your bank, honey. This one’s mine.”

“A load of superstitious rubbish.” Bob gruffed his way out of the kitchen, but I felt too good to take his point of view personally.  The nickel was still warm when I put it back in my pocket.

In the month that followed, I could see Ruben had been right about the jinx affecting my attitude. Things were no longer defeating and gray and it was easy to recognize the incredible good fortune in my life. Events fell into place like the tumblers of a well oiled lock as I sorted, packed and gave away in preparation for the coming move. Even our unsold house was no problem; my parents offered to loan us the money for a down payment on another home.

Bob spent the weeks away being trained for his new job and looking at real estate. In his absence, Ruben would appear at our door on occasional late afternoons with a dismembered chicken for me to fry, or a round steak, and he’d stay to dinner. Some evenings, he brought his girlfriend Jennifer as well. Very pretty and maybe a bit young, she would help with the cooking and dishes and look at Ruben with adoring puppy eyes when she wasn’t playing Barbies with Moriah.

One weekend Bob came home bursting with news.

“I know you wanted to have some say about the house – I really didn’t think I’d get it when I put in the bid at the auction.” He was crowing apologetically, if that’s possible, more pleased with himself than embarrassed.

“Auction?” I was painting butterflies and unicorns on Moriah’s new walking cast before it got dirty.

“Government auction to sell items confiscated by the Forfeiture laws. For a quarter of its value, I got the house of your dreams; four bedrooms and a rose garden, hardwood floors, dishwasher, laundry room and triple garage, beautiful neighborhood, just five blocks from the best elementary school in the district. I can’t believe the luck of it!”

“What about the previous owner?” There had to be a catch to this bargain he found.

“A drug lord. They told me he’s in jail, twenty years to life, so I don’t think he’ll be a problem.”

I was about to ask about the family and former employees of the drug lord when the chirping phone interrupted me. Bob’s cheerful conversation drifted into the room while I painted spots on the unicorn and tried to explain drug lords to Moriah.

“That was Don Brandon.” Bob was grinning when he returned. I was outlining a purple heart below Moriah’s knee.

“Jennifer’s father?” I asked. Bob nodded, looking almost smug. “He’s looking for a house to buy her as a wedding gift. Knew we were moving and wondered if we’d consider selling ours.”

“Jennifer is Ruben’s girlfriend.  He never mentioned he was getting married.”
“He may not know she’s pregnant, yet.”  I had a pang of guilt over the jinx Ruben bought from me.

“She’s awfully young. When’s the wedding?”  The nickel was still in my jewelry box, like a receipt in case the jinx forgot I’d sold it.

“Don was hoping we’d be out by the middle of next month.  You’re nearly finished with the packing, aren’t you?”  He looked at the boxes piled in the corners. It was clear that the deal had been made and I couldn’t decide if I should be relieved at selling the house so easily or angry at not being consulted about the transaction. I outlined the purple heart with yellow sunflower petals and reviewed my mental lists.

“I guess we can be ready to leave by then if your dream house is ready to move into.” I focused on how fortunate we were, the Luck Magic was taking care of us.  It seemed better than having an argument no one wanted.

Ruben came to help with the last of the packing, giving and receiving moral support while he shifted book heavy boxes and cleaned behind the refrigerator. I asked him about the jinx.

“You have to be specific about Magic. When you’re not… That’s what they mean by leaving a door open.” Ruben perched on the kitchen counter, “I may have invited it when I said it was mine.  It would have been better to say it was no longer yours.”  He shook his bangs out of his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. “Jennifer wants to paint this kitchen daffodil yellow.”

“What are you going to do about the jinx?”

“It hasn’t done any real harm, I was thinking about asking Jennifer to marry me, anyway.  Eventually.  Besides, the Luck Magic brought me ten acres and a good house to put my family in.”  It would have been easier to believe he was lucky if I didn’t know the house so well.

“Ruben.” He deserved a warning. “The creek floods the yard in the winter, I think we may have termites and the roof…”

“Don’t worry about it.  I’m taken care of.”  He was smiling as he hopped down and walked into the dining room with box of kitchen whatnots in his arms.  I could hear him whistling between his teeth.

After the moving van pulled out the next afternoon, I left a note for Ruben on the kitchen counter. I thought about each word, careful not to open any doors.

“The jinx is not welcome in my life or in the lives of those near me. Take this coin as payment for the jinx and it will no longer be yours.”

In the envelope with the note was the nickel, still mysteriously warm to the touch.

Avery Milieu

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