I was working in my shed on a bone-dry, cloudless day, when my neighbor Josh paid a visit.
The instant he showed up, a bolt of lightning struck so close there was no pause between the flash and the boom.
Just one big bright boom!!
He didn’t flinch, instead he mumbled a weary, “Sorry.”
Josh is our local jinx. A cloud of bad luck follows him wherever he goes and it casts a dark shadow on anyone unfortunate enough to be near. To emphasize the point, my wife yelled from the kitchen window, “I think lightning hit the house,” she said, “all the lights went out.”
Again, a meek, “sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I called back, “it’s only Josh. Check the circuit breakers.”
Oh,” she said, her voice dropping with each word, “will he be staying long?”
I told her no and motioned for him to come back to where I was working. As he passed a fishing boat, the motor fell off, bouncing on the concrete and punching a hole in the aluminum hull. Next, the table saw switched itself on and shredded everything that had been carelessly tossed onto the cutting deck. And lastly, a collection of mason jars toppled from a shelf, shattering on the floor and scattering shards from one end of the shed to the other.
On each of these occurrences, Josh stammered yet another heartfelt, “sorry”. The man was a nice guy – but he had some serious mojo.
I had heard plenty of gossip about him but since this was the first time we met, I had to ask. “Have you always been a jinx?”
“No,” he said mournfully, “it started in the navy.”
Yeah?” I said.
In a place called The Bad Luck Bar.”
“The name should have told you something…”
From what I heard around the neighborhood, our short exchange was the longest conversation he had in years and a dam broke within him. His story spilled out.
The Bad Luck Bar was a back alley joint located in an infamous section of Subic Bay, the most notorious port in Asia. The clientele were mostly seventh fleet sailors who had blown their pay elsewhere. By the time they made it to The Bad Luck Bar, they were usually well past redemption.
When Josh stumbled in, he had less than five bucks in his pocket but the staff made him welcome and ushered him into a back room where a few despondent sailors were gambling away the very last of their pay.
He told me, he should have known something was amiss by way the dealers and croupiers had dressed. They were tall Chinese, who wore black tunics and pale makeup that made their skin glow eerily in the dim light of the bar.
But it wasn’t what they wore that worried Josh, it was the color. The black of their hair and tunics was not natural. It was the black you get when all color is erased. A black as dark and ancient as the depths of space.
He resolved to get out of there as soon as he could. So he bought a five dollar chip and placed it on a number at the roulette table.
He moved his winnings to another number and won again.
The sensation he described was like sticking your fingers into the socket of fortune and feeling luck surge like electricity through your veins. He suddenly knew that fate had brought him to this table, at a moment in time when all the luck of the universe was focused into a single point.
Even the table was mystical. The felt was darker than the croupier’s tunic and dusted with blue stars that winked and sparkled like real stars. Being a sailor, he knew those stars. They were the constellations you would see if you could stare straight through the earth and look out the other side.
Josh knew he couldn’t trust that kind of luck and he was determined to get the hell out of there – but he couldn’t walk away when he was winning and on every spin of the wheel, he won. His instincts were screaming danger – but his winnings kept growing and growing, along with the compulsion to see how much he could win before his luck ran out.
On the last spin, the damnedest thing happened. The ball came to rest on the ridge between two numbers – teetering back and forth between fortune and failure for what seemed like minutes. If it tilted one way, he would be a millionaire. If it tilted the other, the bubble of his luck would burst and set him free.
Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. Temptation took a hold of him and he violated a cosmic law of roulette. He jarred the table with his knee.
Remember those stars I was telling you about?” he said.
I nodded that I did.
“The table moved but the stars did not. It was then that I realized they actually were the stars on the other side of the earth and I was staring straight through the pit of hell.”
He fell silent.
“The ball dropped onto my bet and the croupier said, ‘Cheaters lose.’ The next thing I knew I woke in the alley.
Then things started to happen. That night, his ship rolled over at its berth and sank. He was assigned to another ship but that went down off Tuvalu. From then on, everything he touched crumbled, every step he took carried misfortune.
“That’s a hell of a tale,” I said.
“I’m surprised you hadn’t heard it.”
“Oh, I have,” I said, “but you know how people embellish things.”
It’s real,” he said sadly.
We talked a bit before Josh headed home. At the door, he turned back and apologized for all the stuff he wrecked in my shed by being there.
“Not a problem,” I told him, “none of it is mine. Most of it belongs to my buddy Stan. He just tosses it here and I told him I don’t want him to do that. So, if his stuff gets wrecked, maybe he will learn.”
Josh looked startled. He realized that for the first time since Subic Bay, he wasn’t bad luck at all.
He started to say something but as the words formed on his lips, a shaft of sunlight broke from the cloud that dogged him for years and, quicker than a heartbeat, landed on his cheek – like a golden kiss.
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