Archive for January, 2005

>Lucky Day (short story)

Posted: January 10, 2005 in Short Stories

>Louis turned his key in the ignition. The car didn’t turn over. Instead, it made an annoying electrical humming sound punctuated by impotent clicks. Disgusted, he crawled over the stick shift to the passenger door, unlocked it, and crawled out of the car. As he left the car, his foot caught the seat belt and he tumbled onto the street, right into a rain puddle that had formed in a low spot near the curb. Muddy water now soaked his shirt, and both his hand and his forehead were scraped raw by the concrete as he tried to break his fall. Blood dripped into his eye from the forehead cut and he mopped it away with his shirt sleeve. Pieces of dirt and gravel were imbedded in his hand, and the scrapes stung like hell. He made his way back to his feet and slammed the door shut. If my stupid driver’s side door had been operable, I never would have had to climb out through the other door in the first place. Nothing worked on the car and unfortunately Louis couldn’t afford to fix it on his salary. He moved at a brisk pace down the sidewalk, looked at his watch, and double timed it when he realized he had about two minutes to make it to the bus stop three blocks away. Bloody, muddy, and wet, he must have been quite a sad sight as he booked down the street that morning.

When he rounded the corner, Louis noticed a rusty station wagon that was in even worse shape than his old beater. There didn’t appear to be a working light anywhere on the vehicle. The windshield held a spider’s web of assorted connecting cracks from years of taking pebble hits on the freeway. Different colored body parts were apparently used to repair old accidents. This was evidenced by a blue front quarter panel, a red rear door, and a yellow hood. Between the transplanted parts and the horrible case of rust, it was difficult to tell that the car’s original color was metallic blue. The front bumper was dented and corroded. One side of it was held to the frame of the wagon with cheap plastic clothes line. The back window was gone. In its place was a sheet of plastic held to the frame with duct tape. The rear wheel of the wagon was up on a jack. A haggard looking woman dressed in clothes that the Salvation Army would have rejected worked the handle of the jack feverishly. Inside the car, three children dressed in similar rags had their noses pressed to the window, watching her progress. The oldest of the three couldn’t have been over four years old. What looked to be all of their worldly possessions filled the rear of the station wagon. A similar bundle of assorted furniture and trash bags full of household items was strapped to the roof with more of the cheap clothes line and about two dozen assorted bungee cords.

Louis’ heart sank at the sight. He was moved to talk to her. “You need any help?”

The woman looked up. She was young, maybe twenty. Her long hair had no style to it and she didn’t wear any makeup. Still, you could see that she would be quite attractive when she cleaned up. She looked up towards Louis but didn’t make eye contact. You could tell that her present situation embarrassed her. When the woman spoke, her tone of voice was shy and self conscious, “Uh, I think I’ve got it, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’ve changed the tires on this thing ten times before. As she talked, she reached down and grabbed another lug nut and spun it onto a peg. She spoke again without looking back at Louis. “You know, you’re about the fortieth person to pass me today, and nobody else asked if I needed any help. I appreciate it.”

Louis could see the bus stop another block from where he was standing. Business people stood around drinking their Starbucks or reading newspapers. He glanced at his watch and then started off again. I can still make it if I hustle. He made it one step away when the woman stopped him. “I hate to ask this…” She averted his gaze sheepishly. “But actually, there is something you could help me with. This is very embarrassing, but do you have any spare cash you could loan me for gas?” She gestured towards the kids. “We’re trying to get to their grandmother’s house in Greenville. There’s supposed to be some factory work opening up there and we’re trying for a new start. I’d be happy to send the money to you when I get back on my feet.” Louis looked back to the bus stop. The bus had pulled in and the business people were piling in. He looked back to the woman, then to the bus again. If he waited for the next bus, he’d be late for work and would have to endure the wrath of his rage-aholic boss, a man who enjoyed yelling at him at a personal space invading distance, his nose almost touching Louis’ as his hot stinky breath blew in his face. His boss, Mr. Wheeler, berated him almost daily in front of everyone else on his office floor.

He looked at the woman again more closely. This time she didn’t dodge his gaze. For a moment, he was lost in her eyes. They were a deep color of blue, or were they green? Where they changing as he looked at her? He shook off the momentary daze and reached down into his pocket. After rummaging around thoroughly through his wallet and both pockets, he realized that all he had was about seven dollars and some assorted change. This was all the money he had until payday on Thursday, three days away.

“Here you go.” Louis held the money out in his fist. She finished spinning the last lug nut tight and stood up to accept the money.

“Thank you so much. Let me get some paper so you can give me your address.”

“Really, that’s not necessary, I…” Before he could finish, she ducked into the car and pulled out a brown paper bag. She ripped it into two pieces. Louis scrawled his address on one half of the bag with her insistence. As he tried to pull away from her and make his way to the next bus, she grabbed his arm again.

“Wait.” The woman took the other half of the bag, wrote a few words on it, then held it to her heart and closed her eyes. Her dirty hands were clutched over the improvised document and her mouth moved silently, as if in prayer. Then, as suddenly as she had started her meditation, it ended. Her eyes opened and she thrust the paper at Louis. Feeling awkward, he shoved the paper into his pocket and briskly walked away.

“Good luck to you,” Louis managed to blurt as he left. When he made his way to the bus stop, he turned to look back at the woman, but the station wagon was gone. All that remained was a spot of grease in the road that invariably must have come from the old jalopy she drove.

The clock in Louis’ kitchen read 10:30 p.m. Keys jingled at the lock. The door opened and Louis came through the passageway looking haggard, tired, and still dirty from his ordeal that morning. He tossed his coat on the back of a chair and his keys into a dish next to his phone with Dilbert printed on it. Louis emptied the other items from his pocket into the dish as well. Among these was a toothpick, a few screws from the back of a computer, and a tiny screwdriver used for work on small electronics. He shoved his hand into the other pocket to empty it and pulled out the wadded up piece of brown paper bag. On the paper in neat cursive lettering was printed a certificate of sorts. This entitles the bearer to one day of good luck. It was like something a kid would make for a Father’s Day present. Louis chuckled to himself and took the certificate over to a small bulletin board above his phone table. He took a tack from the board and impaled the certificate to the board with a thwack. Louis made his way to the refrigerator, took out a beer, and finished half of it in one gulp. Drained physically, he made his way to the bedroom, flopped into bed, and fell into a near coma. That night he had strange dreams of rusty blue station wagons and the dirty haired blonde woman.

The next morning Louis wiped away the steamy coating on the mirror with his hand and stared at the image left there. The face staring back at him was worn but not old, average but not unattractive. His hairline had receded a bit, but his hip hairstyle drew attention away from the fact. Louis started to shave, and then paused. After giving his face the once over, he went back to work, scraping away all of his facial hair except for a neat goatee. It’s nice to have a change once in a while. Without change every day is the same. Monotonous. Boring.

Outside, a chilly wind blew. Red, brown, and yellow leaves swirled on the breeze and danced for a moment before crashing back down to earth. It was a perfect fall day, sunny but comfortable, with blue skies and puffy white clouds. Louis had awakened on time for a change. He smiled as he looked out the bathroom window and saw the sun shining. It had rained for the last week, and the forecast was for more rain today. Stupid weatherman is never right. Stepping on the scale, he was happy to find that he’d finally hit his target weight. All those extra workouts must have done the trick.

Louis fought his way to the back of the closet and found one of his old suits that hadn’t fit him for eight months. That’s when his wife left him. After that the pounds had slowly added on. Only recently had he started going back to the gym to shave off the extra weight. He hadn’t gone for his early morning workouts that often lately, so he was surprised that he was down to his goal weight. As Louis slipped on the old suit paints he found that they fit him again—even better than before. He modeled for himself in the mirror, slipping his hand in his pocket like they do in the J. Crew catalog. His hand brushed across paper. He pulled it out to reveal a neat fifty dollar bill. Louis thought this strange as he usually didn’t carry around this much cash. It seems like I would have remembered misplacing this much money. Must be my lucky day.

As Louis made his way down the stairs to the street, he thought, how many times have I said that and never given that worn phrase a second thought? He put the $50 in his wallet next to the stack of ATM receipts. Despite the good mood this morning’s events had put him in, Louis let out a brief sigh at the prospect of facing another day at his incredibly boring job. Although he was well educated and had fantastic experience in his field, his ex-wife had made him move to this tiny northern Michigan town to pursue her own career, forcing him to quit his lucrative job in Los Angeles as a talent agent and take whatever he could get here in small town hell. He was working as an I.T. help desk technician for the local salt mining company making a meager hourly wage. This left him high and dry when his wife informed him that she was filing for divorce so she could marry her boss. She had been the family breadwinner.

Since he was ready for work uncharacteristically early, Louis figured he’d try to start his rusty old orange clunker again. 1980 was the last year they made the Ford Pinto, and people were always telling him how amazing it was that his was still on the road, given its horrible reputation and advanced age. He received chuckles from cars in the other lane at stoplights from time to time when they saw the antique. The leers bothered him, but his meager salary wouldn’t allow him to buy even a good used car, let alone a new one. Regardless of the fact that the car had been rusting in a dormant state in the street for months, he would continue to try to start the car every day because he loathed taking the bus. There was never enough room for him to get a decent seat except next to the wild haired woman who constantly talked to herself in the third person; and the bus always smelled of urine—probably in part thanks to the wild haired woman. A feeling of dread ran through his mind as he unlocked the door and put the key in the ignition, ready for another day of vehicular Russian roulette. He spun the key. To his surprise, it started on the first try as if there had never even been a problem. Louis motored away happily, made it to work without hitting any traffic and arrived at the concrete architectural nightmare of an office building of the Morton Salt Company in plenty of time to observe the scene which was developing. There were fire trucks, police cars, and other official looking vehicles in the parking lot and the building was cordoned off with yellow caution tape barring the entrance.

In the parking lot he saw Dennis from Marketing coming back out of the building to his car. Louis waved and called over to him. “What the hell is going on here?”

Dennis stopped and stood by his car, his face breaking into a huge grin, “There was a gas leak. We all have the day off—with pay!” Dennis made the “raise the roof” gesture and hopped into his car. Here was another piece of evidence to support the idea that Louis was having an unusually good day. He paused for a moment to reflect on his situation and a large smile broke across his face. Maybe the fates are with me today. This really could be my lucky day! That certificate the woman gave me must somehow be real…but how can I know for sure? He thought the whole idea was silly, but he was still strangely intrigued by the idea. Maybe we never have any luck that we weren’t intended to have. What if luck isn’t a chance happening, but rather a force of nature that can instantly bind itself to you for a short period of time and change your fate for the better? Perhaps we don’t make our own luck as the old saying tells us; it comes to us through its own volition and even though it may seem random, it isn’t.

Before he did anything drastic, Louis stopped off at the 7-11 to do a little experiment. He wondered to himself, how big should I go? Will I anger the luck gods if I buy the power-ball super lotto ticket worth millions? What if I only have one shot of luck left and I use it up on a little scratch-off ticket? Not wanting to be greedy, he bought a Mad Hatter instant ticket and started to scratch off the little silver boxes. On the face of the ticket, there was the Hatter himself, sipping his tea with that wild look in his eyes. The Hatter’s gaze was creepy and off-putting, but Louis had decided to buy the top ticket in the clear plastic dispenser regardless of the name or type in order to keep the experiment more scientific. The first spot he scraped off was a top hat. The Hatter continued to leer at him as he dug into the second silver spot. The ticket now revealed two identical top hats. Louis frantically flipped the ticket over and checked the little paragraph on the back outlining the rules. After weeding through twelve sentences of legal mumbo jumbo that didn’t make any real sense, he read that revealing just one more top hat meant he had won the maximum prize of $3,000. Louis began to break into a cold sweat and felt woozy. Trying to remain inconspicuous, he stood in the corner of the store next to the day old hotdogs revolving in the machine. The sickly sweet smell of the old meat mixed with the aroma from the cheese and chili dispenser made him sick to his stomach. He looked around the store, taking inventory of its occupants. There was the pimply faced clerk, who seemed to be busy digging his finger into his ear and inspecting the contents he pulled out; and a rather rotund woman piling through the chocolate milk cooler inspecting the expiration dates of several brands and sizes. Neither one of them paid him any attention. Louis held his breath as he used his fingernail to scratch out the last little silver box. Top hat. Louis’s head began to spin. His experiment had yielded the proof he was looking for–it was time for the next step. In minutes he was on the interstate motoring to the Schwartz Creek Raceway.

Now Louis was faced with another dilemma. How do I pick a horse? If my luck is so good, does it mean that whichever horse I pick will win? Can I just throw a dart or do I need to search for a sign which would lead me to the pony which would yield success? He decided to put the $3,000 from the scratch off ticket on the long-shot, a mottled looking nag named Dream Weaver. The name held no special meaning to him; he figured the horse was purchased by one of the Indians from the local tribe out of his monthly per capita checks he got from his tribe’s casino profits. The Little Lake Casino was where his wife worked as the Marketing Director along with her new boyfriend. His research from the tip sheet he had told him that Dream Weaver hadn’t ever won a race or even placed. He was probably just a hobby horse or a tax write-off for his owner. Louis decided to bet on this miserable specimen for two reasons. One, he wanted to prove that the luck was with him no matter how he chose the winner, and two, he figured if he was right, I might as well go for the biggest payout. Go big or go home.

It took all of Louis’ composure to contain himself as he made his way to the betting window. His stomach acid churned and angry growls came from his belly. He placed the entire $3,000 that the pimply clerk paid him for the instant ticket win on Dream Weaver. He hadn’t had this much money in his hands since he lived in L.A., and he couldn’t believe he was pissing it away on a horse race. As soon as the betting agent gave him his ticket stub, he ran to the restroom and relieved himself of his breakfast in one of the nasty old wooden toilet stalls. As the retching subsided, he rested his head on the cold tile of the wall and thought; I hope to God I’m right about this.

Louis couldn’t even go down to the grandstands to watch the race. Instead, he stood at the concession booth, watching the closed circuit television coverage of the race with his hands clamped over his eyes. Through the small crack he created between his first and second finger, he saw the race unfold. Dream Weaver walked away from the rest of the field. He led from the gate to the finish line. He even set a track speed record. Louis stared at the greasy television screen, refusing to believe the name at the bottom in white lettering next to the first place win graphic: Dream Weaver. The $3,000 had turned into $300,000. The betting agent printed him a cashier’s check, tore it cleanly from the printer, and handed it over to Louis. “I ain’t never seen anything like it. That horse was lucky to even finish the race, let alone win it. This must be your lucky day, pal.” Flush with his good fortune and new found riches, but still in shock, Louis needed a drink to calm his nerves.

He stumbled his way over to The Jockey Club and ordered a double scotch. He struck up a flirtatious conversation with the blonde bombshell that brought him his drink. She wore a black apron over a tight t-shirt and hip huggers that showed off her thong underwear when she bent over the tables to wipe them down after the customers had left. When her shirt lifted, it revealed a small shamrock birthmark on the small of her back. The attractive waitress’ hair was pulled back in a pony tail to reveal a face which was both attractive and friendly. She wasn’t a cover model; she was more of the “hot girl next door” type. Louis watched her as she worked, observing the way she interacted with the other gamblers in the dark and dirty little track bar. As he finished his double scotch, the booze had tranquilized him enough so he could stop shaking and breathe a little more easily.

Feeling confident, he began a conversation with the waitress. Surprisingly, she responded positively and after talking for a while, Louis found that they had a lot in common. She had moved here from L.A. where she worked at a talent management company as an assistant. It turns out that they knew a lot of the same people and traveled in some of the same circles. She moved back home to take care of her ailing father and the only job she could get here was as a waitress. She had always hoped to get back into show biz someday, though. Louis had never even had a conversation with a woman this stunning. She was what he had considered “out of his league.” Today anything is possible. He lost track of time as they talked away the evening. The waitress, whose name was Tammy, had been neglecting her other customers to spend most of her time with Louis. One drink turned into 7or 8 as they talked and flirted, and he lost track of what happened next. He did remember asking Tammy what she was doing after work, and that she had offered to drive him home because of his condition. He also knew that he hadn’t told her about the cashier’s check in his coat pocket.

When he awoke the next day, everything felt different. He could tell that the good mojo was gone. Outside, a cold October rain fell. Rain pelted the window and the red and brown leaves now stuck to the wet window as they were knocked out of the trees by raindrops. Tammy was no longer in his apartment. A hastily jotted note informed Louis that she had a great time but was required to be at work for the morning Bloody Mary rush at the track bar. He wondered if the magic would still work on her today, after the good luck certificate had expired.

As usual, his alarm didn’t go off and he was destined to be late for work again. The car was still at the track, but Louis was sure that even if it were here, he wouldn’t be able to start it today. When he arrived at his workplace, the gas leak had been fixed, and his tech desk job was just as boring as ever. Mr. Wheeler still gave him his daily berating session in front of the rest of the staff. All in all it was business as usual in the life of Louis Morris, except for the message on his voicemail from the day before that had been left by his headhunter. Louis had been trying to get back into show business since his wife had left him, but Rodney, his headhunter, had stopped returning his calls months ago. He told him that nobody wanted a talent agent who had spent the last six years working an IT help desk—he had been out of the business for too long. This was apparently no longer true because the message Rodney left on his machine said that there was some interest in Louis from one of the studios in Los Angeles. The position sported a nifty title and a substantial raise over his old talent agent’s pay.

Louis hasn’t had another “lucky day” like that one since. All of the subsequent days have been better since then, though. He still has the $300,000. He married Tammy, got the job, and bought a new car. Both of them moved back to Los Angeles and with his new salary they managed to buy a little bungalow in the Hollywood Hills. Still, he wonders how he would have done things differently if he knew then what he knows now. When he’s in a pensive mood, Louis often thinks of how he could have maximized his 24 hours of luck by planning better. If I had only realized sooner what was happening. What if I hadn’t stayed in The Jockey Club but instead had gone back down to the track to continue betting and grew my money to an even larger sum? What if I had bought a $23 million lotto ticket instead of a $3,000 scratch-off? The questions plague him constantly and he finds it difficult to drift off to sleep on nights when they spin through his mind.

Louis never told Tammy about the special day, afraid that divulging the secret to anyone would void the possibility of it ever happening again. If it does happen, though, he’s ready this time. There’s a little schedule of how he would play out the entire day again if he ever gets the chance. Whenever he’s down or bored, he pulls it out of the top desk drawer and tweaks it a little. Louis never saw the poor woman in the station wagon again, but he did get his seven dollars back in the mail a few months later in a plain brown envelope with no return address or note. The postmark was from some town in Montana.

Louis keeps the money in a special pocket in his wallet and doesn’t spend it, hoping that he can pass it on to another unfortunate person who needs it more than him. Perhaps we make our own luck through our good deeds. As the years passed, Louis figured he’d never get another lucky day. We only get one day like that; one day when we just can’t lose, and no more. Some people may let it pass without even realizing it. The trick is to recognize it and take advantage of it. Will you be ready if it happens to you?