No Use in Takin’ Chances
"Boy take your hands from locked from behind your head."
I was only vaguely aware of the stout voice issuing a command. I ignored it, secure in the knowledge that, for once, it couldn't be aimed at me. My homework and house chores were done. Howdy Doody was on television and I was comfortable. As the oldest, my name was constantly being called to pick up around the house, run errands, or supervise my brother and sisters. But this afternoon I had no anxiety. My siblings were out with my mother, and only my father and I remained in the very clean household.
"Boy, I said take your feet offa that chair, and take your hands from locked from behind your head like that."
I nonchalantly placed my feet on the floor and turned my attention back to my television program, but the picture was suddenly blocked by the expansive figure of my father looming angrily in front of me.
He advised that it might be injurious to my butt, if I didn't dislodge my hands from their "deathgrip" on the back of my head. "And I mean right now," he demanded. "Quick, fast and in a hurry. And I better not catch them back there again."
But now, I was upset. He had blown my viewing pleasure, my comfort and my mood. "But Daddy," I blurted. "Why can't I sit like that? It's comfortable. I ain't hurting nobody! Man! Shoot!" I raged. "You can't do nothing in this house!"
Daddy sighed, and kneeling down beside me, he explained that in locking my hands behind my head, I was locking in bad luck on myself. And I immediately understood. In my family, any mention of bad luck immediately cleared up any whys or why nots. Though my parents were deeply religious, they never felt a conflict or disconnect between their belief in God and Christ and their superstitions. They never consulted psychics, palm readers, or soothsayers, but there were regular, everyday actions that they did believe could bring about bad luck or alter fate. We were and still are a superstitious family. It, in fact, seemed that the entire Hill District of Pittsburgh was as well.
If while walking with a companion and passing a telephone pole you each walked on opposite sides of it, some adult would surely admonish, "Don't split that pole. It's bad luck!" Black Pittsburgh was not merely concerned about broken mirrors, walking under ladders, and black cats crossing paths. Bad luck omens, presages of misfortune, as well as those practices which brought good luck were ubiquitous within the culture. If, while sweeping, someone accidently brushed your feet with the broom, you had to immediately spit on the broom or bad luck was sure to come to you.
If a child were audacious enough to question why various practices were verboten, adults were always hard pressed to provide explanation. "It's been there ever since I can remember," would be a typical response. "My granddaddy didn't allow it, and I sure ain't gonna let you bring us no more bad luck," was another. Mama and Daddy, however, insistantly explained that the devil was always using things of the world to make people stumble. They wanted us to understand that we could be assured that "the Good Lord will protect us and supply all our needs," but that "there is no use in taking chances" by ignoring proven signs and consequently playing into Satan's hands.
I fervently embraced my parents' and the community's fears. A warning that a certain behavior or act could result in bad luck would lead to almost instant change. There was the time a bird landed on the window sill, and I obligingly opened the window, allowing it to fly into the house. Emotional havoc entered our lives concomitant with my announcement to Mama of the incident.
"Hey Ma...a bird flew in the window," I casually informed her.
"A what flew in the window," she immediately asked while firmly gripping my forearm. "A what?"
"A little bird, Ma," I said as nonchalantly as I could muster. "It accidentally came up to the window and flew in...but I'm gonna..."
"A bird? When? How long ago? What window? How'd the window get opened?" Her hand squeezed my arm more tightly, and I observed an atypical fearsomeness beginning to cloud her normally bright eyes. "Oh, Lord Jesus! Boy, I'm telling you...you stay in some mess all the time. Get your father on the phone. Tell him he's got to come home right now."
She was now starting to panic me, but I couldn't fathom why one little robin could cause so much distress. By this time, however, the feathered intruder had already made known its presence to my little sisters. They had been pushed to a state of near frenzy by my mischievous brother, who had told them that the bird was really a vampire bat that was going to bite them on the neck and drink all their blood. They ran screaming to my mother.
"Now you see? You see what you've done?" she hollered, with my sisters tearfully clutching at her thighs. The gray fear in her eyes had now been taken over by flowing tears. She let the drops flow, several of them falling into my sister's hair.
I still tried to remain calm. It wasn't that big of a problem. Our house contained all kinds of unwelcome life forms. Other than my younger brother, there were mice, roaches, waterbugs, spiders, and a pet hamster occasionally missing from its cage. "Look Ma, don't worry," I said reassuringly. "I'll get the broom and shoo it back out." But Mama, surprisingly, ordered just the opposite.
"No..." she pleaded. "Make sure all the doors and windows is locked tight. You can't let it get back out." Now I was more confused than ever. She didn't want the bird in the house in the first place, but now that it was in, she didn't want it back out. Exasperated, I asked her why she was making such a big thing out of the bird in the house, other than for the fact that it made my sisters frightened.
"Come on Mama, Daddy doesn't have to come home," I said in my most manly second tenor. "What's the big deal anyhow? It's only one little bird."
Over the din of my sister's clamoring, she screamed at me, "Because when a bird flies in a house from outside, it's a sign that someone is going to die in the family." I was struck dumb by her explanation. I didn't have time to ponder the legitimacy, logic, or timetable of such a curse. I immediately became a blur of terrorized mass, totally consumed in closing windows and doors, and attempting to coherently explain the situation to my father on the phone. My 10-year-old mind reasoned that if the bird really did mean someone was going to die, the culprit who let it in would be its most likely victim.
Daddy finally got home to find my sisters hiding in closets, my mother hoarse from berating me, and me sitting sullenly across from my brother at the kitchen table, where he taunted me with cries of, "Ooh you gonna get a good whooping." Daddy was also in a very agitated state. He quickly cornered and dispatched the errant trespasser. My punishment was not as severe, but my brother had accurately foretold of my fate. It was a full year later before we got the report of our grandmother down in Alabama dying, but in not knowing the statute of limitations on bird invasion death sentences, I blamed myself for her passing. I remember the call my mother took from Alabama that morning as we were preparing for school. "Mama! Mama's dead," we heard her say. She put the black receiver down slowly and softly and turned to her very quiet children to tearfully announce, "Children, yo grandmother's dead." It appeared to me that her tears fell unhindered from her cheeks this time, exactly as they had when I had let the bird into the house.
Many of the neighborhood superstitions also frightened us. I had aspirations of making it to the National Basketball Association, but those dreams seemed destroyed the day my brother "stumped my growth". I had fallen asleep on the living room floor. My brother not wanting to walk around me simply stepped over me. My sister woke me up and told me of the stepping-over transgression, and I burst into tears. An elderly neighbor, Mrs. Haney, had told us that when you step over a person lying prone, you "stump them". It was years later that I realized Mrs. Haney was saying "stunt their growth", but all I knew then was that my brother Richie had ruined my chances to play in the NBA and buy Mama and Daddy a big new house. Mama calmed me down by later telling me in whispers that Mrs. Haney didn't know what she was talking about. Her reassurances soothed me at the time, but I never grew past 5'9". I also never forgave Richie for impairing my growth.
The most strident adherence to superstition was reserved for the first day of the year. I remember Richie asking, rather demandingly for an eight year old, "Daddy, why we always got to have black eye peas and chitlins on New Years. I don't like the way they smell." Richie could always get away with such petulance. The same question and comment from me would have provoked my father's anger, but my parents admired my brother's brusque candor.
Daddy patiently explained to us that everything a family does on New Years Day was undertaken to ensure good luck throughout the next 365 days. "Black eyed peas is hard, but ya cook em until they gets soft. Well," he continued, "that's what yawl gone do to them hard 'rithmatic problems ya been having trouble with. Ya gone cook em in your mind till they gets soft and easy for you to understand."
He continued, "We eats part of the hog, cause when a hog is rootin', it brings everything to it." We must have looked bewildered at his use of the word "rooting" and he went on to explain what it was. "Yawl ain't never been nowhere to see a hog rootin', but when that thing gets to plowing up a field with its nose—lookin' for seeds and such—it does a lot of damage and it won't miss a seed or a root. In other words, it brings everything good to it."
He said that we, conversely, never ate chicken on New Years. "When a chicken scratches in the dirt for food, it sometimes scratches the food behind it, then it has to turn itself all round in circles trying to find it. But by the time it's done all that," he continued, "any chicken scratching near it probably done got that old seed and went on its way." Daddy instructed that we should not want our year to be like that of the chicken. "Scratchin' everything away from it and losing everything good."
The first 12 days of January, Daddy said represented the twelve months of the new year. He cautioned that, during those twelve days, we didn't want anything to happen which could jeopardize our luck during the incoming year.
"Ya got to eat a little bit of cabbage on New Years," he pleaded each January 1st, while trying to get his children to eat heaping platefuls of sauerkraut. "Ya wants ta have money this year, don't ya? And ain't cabbage leafs green like money?"
I thought he was going to have a heart attack one New Years morning when he went into the bathroom and discovered that one of my sisters had washed out some stockings and had hung them, dripping, over the sink. "Lawd have mercy," he bellowed, "somebody's going to be crying all year over something!"
Though Mama vehemently protested the discriminatory practice, on New Years day, Daddy never allowed the first person entering the house to be anyone but a "good hardworking man"; another symbol of a prosperous, unfolding year. He was in tears the morning he came home, after working through the night, to find Mr. Jewell, the neighborhood derelict, sitting at the kitchen table—as the family's first New Year's visitor. "Gonna be hard times in this house this year," he moaned.
Daddy and Mama were not strident about their superstitious prohibitions. Most were pointed out as mere cautions, rather than crucial life functions. When Mama would share with us that her palm was itching and that this meant some unexpected money would be coming our way, she didn't sit around the rest of the week waiting for the mailman to come or phone to ring with a financial windfall. The belief somehow allowed her to feel a bit more at peace with the mountain of bills she and Daddy had accumulated, while raising six children. If the bottom of her foot itched, she told us it meant she was going to step on new ground soon. The first time I heard her say this, I opined that it was a decided good thing. It seemed Mama never went anywhere outside of the Hill District. Her and our world revolved around the community. "It's not a good thing, if that new ground is a courthouse, hospital ward, or cemetery!" she ominously replied to me. She would, however, forget about the itchy feet within hours, and later in the week, it would take one of the children asking if the prophecy had, indeed, come true to prompt her to review her steps. She hadn't been waiting for a trip to parts theretofore unknown. Mama was only stating that she had experienced such a sign. She believed that the itching did signal a new venue experience, but she was indifferent to the foreknowledge.
Like spitting on the broom that brushed one's feet or putting a lost bird in an executioner's hands, many superstitions required that one take some action to ensure that nothing bad occurred or that positive outcomes could be expected. For instance, if you stubbed your left big toe, we were told that you should twice turn around in a clockwise direction to ward off the bad luck destined to strike the following day. If you pointed your finger at a graveyard, adults would force you, immediately, to hold your hand over your heart; a measure preventing the occurrence of a death in your own family.
The family was seated at the dinner table one evening when one of my sisters emitted a piercing scream followed by a cry of "Watch out, Daddy!" Crawling across the table, headed directly toward him, was what appeared to be the biggest, fiercest spider I'd ever seen. We all backed away from the table, but my father sat calmly and very still in his chair. Even when the spider veered from its beeline toward him in favor of a stray crumb, Daddy moved his chair so that the the spider was again crawling straight toward him. We looked on in wonderment and confusion. Each of us was fascinated with the spider's boldness, but confused as to why Daddy wasn't trying to get out of its path or trying to kill it.
His eyes stayed fixed on the creeping dinner guest. Speaking very softly and deliberately, Daddy told my brother to quickly get him a clean sheet of tablet paper. Taking the piece of paper from him, he slowly placed it in the spider's path. As soon as it had crawled nearly halfway across the paper, in two quick motions, he folded the paper into a small square—capturing the insect but not killing it. We watched the capture take place but we couldn't believe our eyes. Our mouths were agape in somewhat disgusted amazement, but no one uttered a word. Mama finally broke the silence. "Did you have to?" she asked, her aversion obvious in her tone. "Sherrill, I mean right at the dinner table. Did you have to?"
Daddy looked up from fingering the little paper insect jail into Mama's eyes. A very surprised expression came upon his face. "Would you rather me smash it into the cornbread?" he asked gently but determinedly. "Sue Dell, ya know a spider crawling toward you is good luck." He took out his wallet, deposited the imprisoned spider next to a lone dollar bill and went back to his meal.
Mama and Daddy's superstitions were very compatible, but there were some exceptions. Mama would draw the line at practices she felt contradicted the Bible, while Daddy tended to push the envelope. In addition to trapped spiders, Daddy also carried in his trouser pockets a rabbit's foot from an unfortunate hare he'd actually captured and cooked for our dinner. A four-leaf clover encased in plastic was also kept in his wallet were bills were normally placed. Mama didn't mind any of these symbols, but when it came down to practices which she felt conflicted with her religious convictions, she would not compromise. Once they had a shouting argument in which she called him a "blasphemer" for ordering "blessed prayer dust" and "lucky cloths" from the radio preachers.
"If their anointing is so powerful, Sherrill," she argued, "why do you have to have that cloth in your hands before you lay your palms on top of the radio? Cause Brother Dan and Sister Anne need that $1.25 you spent for that cloth to put them in the blessing mood. That's why," she scolded. "I'm telling you that preachers like them's a lie and the truth ain't in em. You just wasted our little bit-a-money on that rag. All them preachers talking about getting rich quick is only talkin bout themselves getting rich offa po, ignant, cullud folk like you," she berated. Daddy rarely defended his purchases during these infrequent disagreements but he remained undeterred. He believed in luck, and anything that enhanced one's potential fortune was fitting grist for his mill of chance.
The smell of incense was almost stifling one particular late winter evening. The arcing, eerie glow that its burning tip created was counterpoint to the multiple lit candles placed throughout the house. It made our home, this one time, a frightening visual melange of light and space. We were using candlelight because our electricity had been turned off, and Daddy's payday was far off. He was burning the "good luck incense" he had been saving for an emergency. He had already spread the small cloth bag full of "lucky dust" on the front porch steps. "So all we have to do is wait," he said. "The money for the light bill will come." Mama took issue with him and asked that we all, instead, pray. Daddy readily agreed to do so, but refused to blow out the incense or sweep up the dust. The next day Daddy hit the numbers and the household had light once again.
Of course, the numbers and the symbolism attached to their operation and application prompted the largest grouping of Daddy's superstitions. Playing illegal lotteries based on the stock market and horse races was known as "writing policies". Everyone played. Daddy and Mama constantly bet on numbers which represented various acts, things, or people about whom they'd dreamed the night before. Oftentimes they'd put money down in a bet after the discovery of some serendipitous set of numbers like: the last three digits on the license plate of a relative's new car, the address of a friend's new apartment, or the cost of a bag of groceries.
The most attractive thing about the lottery was that it paid $7.00 to every penny that was successfully bet. Seven hundred dollars, tax-free, on a $1.00 wager was paid in cash the very next day to those whose number matched the final three digits of the New York Stock Exchange's day-long trading. This was calling "playing the stocks", but when I, as a child, tried to equate what Daddy and Mama did, with what the "Six O'Clock" news described every evening as occurring on Wall Street, Daddy quickly corrected. "It ain't the same, child," he explained. "I ain't got no stock portfolio, and I don't know nothing about blue chips or pork bellies, cept them that you use in playing poker or making souse meat." His references made no sense to me, as my vacant look should have indicated to him. Nonetheless, I had tapped into one of Daddy's favorite subjects: the differences and inequities which exist between poor people and the rich.
He never characterized the insidious discrimination of our lives in racial terms, though it was the undergirding of much of what made our daily existence so hand-to-mouth. Daddy, instead, saw society very simply divided between "them that's got," and "them that don't." He felt that the entire system of American economics was designed to ensure that those that didn't have financial wherewithal would never attain it.
"A box of grits cost me two cents more at Raye's Superette than it costs them who's living in Squirrel Hill and shop at the Giant Eagle there," Daddy railed. "Now what kind of sense do that make? The po folks market charges more than the rich folks does!" Daddy said the law dictated that all taxes raised for public education be divided equally among each school but that the politicians didn't allow it to occur. "Well if they is dividing it up the way they's supposed to, why is yo books held together with masking tape?" he challenged. "Why don't yo school's water fountains work half the time? And why did your art teacher have each of you bring in a little flour from home so that you could make paste for your Thanksgiving projects?" Daddy was an outspoken, public critic of the Board of Education. His scathing comments in a Pittsburgh Courier man-on-the-street interview on the subject of public education dollars spent on inner city schools so scandalized the Superintendent of Schools that he issued a detailed breakdown of the dollars spent on every public school in the Pittsburgh system. Surprisingly, the statistics showed more dollars actually being spent on the public schools in poorer neighborhoods like the Hill District. Daddy was, of course, undeterred. "Figures don't lie, but liars figure," was one of his favorite quotes.
738 Cherokee Street actually became a small numbers betting parlor as Daddy, in addition to writing his own numbers bets, daily wrote them for all our neighbors. As I grew older, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the ubiquity of the numbers in our lives, and the attention this illegal activity seemed to draw to our home. Daddy considered it our right. He reasoned that we were simply trying to survive, and that City Hall's attempts to police the writing and playing of policies were just more ways by the hierarchy of ensuring that the poor stayed that way. "We playing the poor man's stocks," he continued. "We playing honestly for pennies, and the people on Wall Street is playing crooked for millions, but somehow we the ones they got to watch and that they say is doing something illegal." Daddy never seemed threatened or concerned about the betting activity at our house drawing official attention.
There was always the potential of a police raid at the Jitney station or barber shop, the official numbers betting parlors. Around mayoral elections it was preordained that such raids would occur, but most times the parlors had notice far in advance of such incursions. The raids always caused the city more chagrin than kudos, because sometimes respectable Black professionals were caught up in the raids. That one was a teacher, social worker, or business owner was not a factor in determining whether or not you bet the numbers. Once a few officers of the local NAACP and Urban League were caught in a raid. Stung by media reports of their arrests at "alleged betting houses", they vengefully remembered their public embarassment. When November election time came around they campaigned successfully against the incumbent mayor. Their political power in the Black community was enormous, and Black support could be the determining factor in a candidate's election. Yet, Pittsburgh's Black population was only 12 percent and the white middle class population was frantic over a media investigative reporting campaign which concluded that the Mafia was one of the city's largest employers.
According to the reports, the numbers business was the foundation for the Mafia's Pittsburgh operations. Citizens angrily demanded that city officials do something to loosen the mob's toehold in the city, and the numbers seemed like a logical place to begin. The politicians did not want to anger their underclass constituency, for whom the numbers were an indelible part of life, yet they wanted to show the majority voters that they were not soft on crime or afraid of the Mafia. Their solution was not above board, but, nonetheless, very effective. According to Daddy, the politicians quietly promised to the community that only during election times and periods of increased public outcry would any assaults on Hill District numbers establishments be conducted. Furthermore, they ensured that before any such police raids, ward chairmen would receive "hand money" and tips from anonymous informants at City Hall as to the days and times of such raids. The ward chairmen would let all the numbers parlors know of the impending raids and pay the numbers barons money for the inconvenience and lost income stemming from having to shut down their operations. Only young street runners, the lowest level of the numbers racket, were vulnerable to potential arrest from the authorities.
Jack, the primary neighborhood numbers runner, would come to our house at noon every day but Sunday. Every pocket of his soiled woolen trousers would always bulge with dollar bills and coins. He would sometimes carry as much as five dollars in coins, mostly pennies, causing his pockets to sag down to his knees. As the king of the runners, Jack was far from vulnerable. Nevertheless, to protect himself on the streets, he always kept the betting slips inside the lining of his pants. The many papers would fall down to the cuffs of his straight-legged slacks, causing the area around his ankles to balloon as if he were wearing sailor's bellbottoms. He kept his numbers tip sheets inside his stingy brim, but the papers always peeked out from under his hat. The jingling from the hundreds of coins he carried in his pockets, the protrusions that the money and betting slips caused in his clothing, and his disheveled, almost comical appearance, made Jack a favorite with the small children of the neighborhood. He often gave them penny-candy money to look out for any alien cars or white people roaming the neighborhood. To the children he looked and sounded like a clown, but to the numbers-playing adults he held a status normally reserved for only the best neighborhood preachers.
Our house was his only stop within a six-block radius. 738 was a clearinghouse for several streets full of neighborhood numbers players. Jack depended on my family's collection work which saved him hours of time. Daddy had to be at work at 4:00 a.m, but as soon as he got home in the early afternoon he would begin collecting the wagers from extended family members and neighbors. So adept and thorough at amassing and organizing the bets was Daddy that Jack arranged that he could, on occasion, place his own bets without having to put down any money. However, Daddy hit maybe once a month, but played the numbers six days a week. This meant that most months Daddy wrote neighborhood policies, primarily, to work off indebtedness to Jack and his numbers baron bosses.
My uncles DeDe and Maje dropped off their numbers slips and money early in the morning on their way to the steel mills. Other family members, friends and neighbors visited all through the day, staying long enough to exchange with Mama the latest neighborhood gossip and to drink a cup of coffee. Aunt Hattie, whose extraordinary luck in hitting the numbers was legendary throughout the Hill District, also came to our house early in the mornings, but she always waited until 1:45 p.m. to call in her bets. Two p.m. was the deadline for playing the daily number, for having all money and betting slips turned in, or called in by Jack to the Jitney station, barbershop, or betting parlor. Many thought Aunt Hattie was motivated by pure selfishness in playing her numbers so close to deadline time. Many neighbors would visit the house under the ruse of wanting coffee and some juicy neighborhood news, when what they really wanted was to find out what number Aunt Hattie was going to play.
Though it happened rarely, if too many people hit the number on a given day, the numbers barons would not pay off. In response to the justifiable anger from community members, they would give indecipherable reasons for welshing that suggested Wall Street double-dealing and federal government culpability. Aunt Hattie's motivation wasn't selfishness, but preservation. She didn't mind others winning as long as there weren't so many that they threatened her own potential payoff. She would share her dreams with anyone who inquired, but she would divulge to none but close family members the number she was going to play. Since most dream books gave several different numbers corresponding to the elements of specific dreams, she didn't worry that too many would play the same number as she, even if she told them her dream.
A small cottage industry was built around the sale of dream books, tip sheets, lucky candles, and other products designed to enhance one's chances of hitting the numbers. Jack also sold dream books and other good luck accoutrements. As a perquisite for their work in helping him, Jack gave them free to Mama and Daddy. They owned every dream book on the market and they knew what three-digit number each ascribed to most of their dreams. In the Three Wise Men dream book my name was 218, but 217 in the Lucky Star interpretation. If you dreamed about rats, 238 was a suggested dream book lucky number. Dogs were 511 and if you dreamed about a fight you definitely wanted to play 959 according to the popular Red Devil tract. Mama shied away from that one, however, disliking the satanic allusion. In addition to providing numbers, the dreambooks also interpreted dreams. While many translations seemed far-fetched, there were a few dream subjects about the interpretation of which most of the half-dozen or so books were in agreement.
Dreams about snakes denoted a death in the family in all but the Kansas City Kitty dream book. However to dream of a burial indicated a person was going to succeed in his present undertaking. To see others riding in a car was a sure sign of a successful business deal, and to dream of one's self being driven signaled happiness. To dream of a live chicken foretold that an individual was going to embark on a trip of short duration. Dreaming of fish always indicated that someone was or would shortly become pregnant.
Mama was the one person in the family who remembered her dreams in minute detail. There was not a family pregnancy which, before it was announced, was not preceded by Mama dreaming about a great number of swimming fish. "Somebody in this family is gonna have a baby," she would pronounce, "whether they know it not." As we grew older, my brother and four sisters learned to accept her dreams as absolute prophecy since they accurately foretold of the birth of every one of her grandchildren. We also didn't realize until we had grown older that Mama never shared the times that she had dreamed about snakes until after a family member had passed. "I didn't say nothing, but yawl know I dreamed that Mage was wrestling with a long, black snake a couple of weeks ago," she sadly intoned at our beloved uncle's wake. "There ain't a creature I hate worse than a snake. Ain't nothing good ever come from em."
Placing a bet required only minimal mathematics skills. It might, however, take someone new to betting some time to decipher the jargon of the numbers racket. Boxing a number was an absolute necessity provided you had the money to do so. If a person, for example, dreamed about seeing or being involved in a fistfight, the representative number, according to the Three Wise Men dream book, was 559. If that person had as much as a dollar he would box this "three way number" with an 80 and two $10 bets. What this meant is that he would bet 80 cents of his dollar that 559 would come out straight and 10 cents each on 595 or 955 to hit. Boxing got even more complicated and expensive on a "six way number" like 976, which corresponded to having a dream about someone dying. Mama would usually play a 5 and 1 on these numbers, meaning 50 cents would be bet on 976 and 10 cents each on its other five permutations, eg.; 769, 697, etc. Mama's most piercing shouts of disappointment usually occurred when her number hit, but in a different order than it was played. If she hadn't had the money or foresight to box it, she would be glum for the rest of the day. "I'd rather a missed it by a mile than like this," she'd cry to my father.
But then there were those times when the number did hit straight or the dime box was played and was the number of the day. It seemed always that Mama and Daddy hit when our need was the most dire. Daddy invariably hit big just before Christmas and Easter. Mama always received "a dream from the Lord", as she characterized it, when my brother or I were down to our last pairs of wearable school slacks, or when one of us was ill past the point of being cured by tea made with herbs from our yard. Daddy called it luck, but always took out 10% of his winnings for the Sunday church collection. Mama called it the Lord's will, but continued ensuring that she did nothing to negatively affect the good luck.
When the times got hard, as they did too often, Daddy had Mama, the Lord and his belief in luck on which to hold. The hope that black eyed peas and hog jowls might, in some unexplained way, get him out of his dilemma kept him going until the situation was somehow remedied. To Daddy, that God could do the impossible—that He could make a way out of no way—made palpable those hopes in which he so believed and regularly intoned. He could hold a four-leaf clover and rabbit's foot. That he hadn't split any poles or ushered in any back luck on himself by interlocking his fingers on top of his head gave him assurance, though unreasoned, that this day of life was going to be a good one—that the circumstances of his life and that of his family were going to be improved. The numbers made hope tangible. "I've got one dollar to my name, but if my number comes in, I'll have $700 tomorrow," Daddy answered, when I questioned the wisdom of him betting the last of his money before payday. "The dream was a good one last night. We ain't had no bad luck signs in a while," he continued. "There's no use in not taking a chance on a little good fortune."