This is the first post of our March Theme Week, with a theme of Luck (who gets it? who doesn’t? why?).
This story is written by Guest Contributor, Lawrence Frank, who fills a psychotherapist’s chair by day, wading through the mire and inhaling some of life’s darkest moments. In the silence of night, he locks the door, switches seats, and exhales reality-informed fiction to the page. Most days and nights, it’s hard to tell the difference. His recent writings have appeared in Clever and Fifty-Word Stories and earlier non-fiction work in the Psychotherapy Networker, the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (JMFT) and Journal of Systemic Therapies (JST).
“Good luck, sir, and have an amazing day!”
The enthusiastic young cashier’s routine exuberance never failed to add to Benny’s own childlike glee. Holding the lottery ticket at almost full arm’s length, the frail skeleton of a man squinted through the bottom of his glasses and carefully scanned the numbers to make sure they were correct. Their numbers. 02 08 10 24 29 31.
“Yes, I most certainly will, young lady” sang out his own enthusiastic and familiar tune.
He bounced toward the door, renewed in energy and purpose, pouring into the crisp brightly sunlit autumn air with a deep inhale. As he tucked the ticket carefully into his shirt pocket, he had the look of someone who had already won. A robin after a light rain. A schoolboy on the last day of classes. A mother holding her first newborn.
It would have pained him to admit it, but this ritual, each Thursday morning at just past 10:00 a.m., was likely the high point of his week. He’d like to be able to say the pinnacle was on Friday night, when he sat in front of his TV at 6:58 p.m., watching for the winning Great Biggie Lotto numbers. It had certainly been that way before Ellyn had started going downhill. Friday Night. Their night. Their highlight of the week. Their “one Biggie chance to dream”, as Ellyn had liked to say. But even after the numbers had been chosen, and once again, not theirs but … “no Biggie deal” as Ellyn had also liked to say, their smiles never abandoned them. Kindled by hopes and dreams that luck would find them someday, limited only by their ready imaginations, they would turn off the television, cuddle together on the old weathered couch and speak in soft intimate tones. Of places they would see. Ridiculous luxuries they would splurge on. Charities they would reward anonymously. And always, no matter what, the evening’s wild dreams included the celebratory meal they would insist upon. For Ellyn, it was always a moist medium rare filet, its juices spilling into a double order of fluffy garlic mashed potatoes, with tender young asparagus spears scattered about, drizzled lightly with Hollandaise sauce. For Benny it could vary; sometimes veal scaloppini at an open air trattoria in Florence, Chateaubriand at a tiny café in Paris, a 24 oz. Porterhouse in some intimate Manhattan steakhouse; always the kinds of things he had never tried, at places he had never been. But no matter where the imaginary meal; Europe, New York City or down the street at Chester’s Supper Club, they would envision themselves reaching across some small candlelit white linened table, coiling their arms across each other’s and toasting their good fortunes with large goblets of “something red and spectacularly pricey”, Benny had especially liked to say. But their Fridays were long gone. And all Benny had now were his Thursday mornings. “No biggie,” he wanted to say, but never could quite bring himself to voice or believe.
Throwing his house keys across the kitchen counter, Benny eased himself down into his favorite corner of the couch. Despite his best attempts at housework, he never got very far, and dust catapulted up around him as he hit the cushion. His infectious smile had for so long been part of a well-practiced routine, his discolored teeth were tiny lanterns stretched ear to ear for a soon-to-be celebration. “This is the lucky one” he had definitely decided, then paused, all too ready to do battle. “Don’t say it!” he yelled across the empty room, the smile deserting him like a skittering gull awkwardly taking flight. That voice, he thought, his teeth now savagely clenched. Always having to disagree. And today would be no different. He knew it. And about this he was always correct. “This is the one”, he had boasted with confidence, but just as quickly, like the first thoroughbred out of the starting gate, came what he had anticipated. Mean. Spiteful. A knife plunged mercilessly deep and twisted. In a wound that never seemed to heal.
“No it isn’t, dumbass! Don’t be a fool,” the voice spat sardonically . “Look around you. There’s no such thing as luck!”
The unassuming grin and momentary thrill he got each time he purchased what he knew to be the winning Biggie Lotto ticket immediately burst like an overinflated balloon. For almost more years than he could remember, his short weekly jaunts to the Qwik-E-Stop had brought him unequivocal bliss. Certainly, when he could share it all with Ellyn. But even now, in a life so otherwise devoid of true joy, he had come to relish those Thursday mornings. Until recently. Until that voice had started having its say. Spoiling everything.
But he wasn’t going to let it get the best of him today, he thought. And why shouldn’t he be happy? Who else was holding the winning Biggie Lotto ticket right now? Who deserved luck more than he? He tapped the worn flannel shirt pocket with an air of confidence, hearing the crisp rustle of the ticket. Tomorrow night’s winning numbers. Their numbers. 02 08 10 24 29 31. He had lost so much in life, but hope was the one thing he refused to release. The voice said nothing, and the man was surprised. But he knew it would speak up when it was time. And all he could do is wait.
Benny approached the building with his all too familiar trepidation. He nervously glanced at his watch again, just to be sure. Same time as always. What had once been daily visits, even twice daily at times, had devolved to this. Saturday morning. 9:00 a.m. It didn’t matter that the staff, even her doctor had recommended it. Insisted really. He didn’t have to like it.
“Benny, I’m so sorry, she just gets so agitated after you leave,” Jessie had quietly told him last month. The gentlest way he had heard the story from so many. He still remembered her soft gentle touch on his arm, and the way she held his eyes in hers after she had pulled him aside. Away from Ellyn. And Dr. Carter. Away from all the others. Perhaps it was a plan. Maybe they all knew Jessie could reach him. And she did. He finally heard what they had all been saying. And he remembered that conversation each Saturday morning now. Today was no different, as he pushed the button for the fourth floor, riding the typically vacant old elevator. Now each time he saw Jessie, he thought of the kind way she had spoken the truth. The truth he had for so long refused to accept. He found himself wishing she could repeat those words; the way she had made the truth feel right. Maybe her words could help to magically heal his pain. The loneliness. The shame. The embarrassment. Living less than a mile from his dear Ellyn and only visiting once a week. Sure it was best for her, everyone agreed. But what about him? And was it really best? Questions without answers. Besides, this wasn’t supposed to be about him.
The elevator abruptly clanked and jerked to a stop, and Benny slowly emerged. He approached the nursing desk, as always, aflutter with activity. All those workers, smiling and laughing, while so many of the residents of 4-B sat alone; in their rooms staring, in the dayroom area, television blaring, all of them also staring. Alone. Like he was. But a different kind of alone. He knew it was wrong to blame the staff. They actually cared. He didn’t know about other places, but here they did. Most of them anyway. He was more angry at the families of these poor discarded souls. The people who weren’t there. Who had forgotten. Gotten on with their lives. What was wrong with them? He could never move on. Never would. He would live there on 4B if he could. But they wouldn’t allow it. It wouldn’t be for the best, is what they said.
Jessie greeted him with a smile. She was too young to see all this pain, Benny always thought. But one of the really good ones there. A natural at this work. She cared deeply.
“Mornin’! Is it really 9 a.m. already?” She checked her watch and continued. “Your sweet princess is having a very good morning. Had a full breakfast and wanted to stay with the others and watch some TV.”
“Thanks Jess. You being here means so much to me. I don’t know if I ever told you that,” his words sounding a little more rote than intended. He forced a smile in return, but now, as always, he found that harder to fake than the words. He so hated this place. The rigidity. The prison-like staleness. The smells; a mix of urine, bleach and overcooked peas and carrots. But these walls held his Ellyn. Not the woman she had been, the girl who had swept him off his feet, the one person who could heal his pain with the softness of her eyes. That Ellyn was gone. Or nearly so. Some days more than others. For a while he never knew till he got there. But lately…….. he just knew.
He saw her before she saw him. Which on most days, didn’t matter anyway, as he had mostly become just another stranger to her. Some days even Jessie and the others she saw every day were just strangers too. He tried to tell himself that he shouldn’t take it personally. It wasn’t him. Just like it wasn’t her. It was her brain. More synaptic connections hopelessly snapping every day. He got it now. But it still hurt.
She looked exceptionally good. Someone had done her hair. They had placed her in a spot where the sunlight from the south window reflected off her silvery curls, bringing an almost angelic glow around her head. He might have stood a long time, soaking in the scene, the little bit of good that was still left while he could. But she turned suddenly, as if sensing someone was watching. Her eyebrows raised in the sarcastically comical way which she had. She used to have, he thought. But today, there it was, followed by a schoolgirl-like squeal. And then, what he was expecting least….
She had been growing less and less communicative over the past few weeks. In addition, she had appeared more often than not during their visits, to not even recognize her husband. But today, the convergence of her clear recognition of the man, the emotion with which she had expressed it, and hearing his name from her lips, something he had often thought he had lost forever, had him gasping for air, while a tear traversed his cheek.
He glided across the room, suddenly with the lightness of a dancer, now he the one at a loss for words. Finally reaching Ellyn, never taking his eyes off hers, he dragged a chair behind him and as he sat he reached for her hand. One of the things he had missed was holding her hand, something she was none too keen about when she saw him as just one more stranger. Still, he could do nothing more than stare and smile at her sun-drenched face. She seemed to notice this before him, and uncharacteristically took the lead.
“Wellllll? Are you going to tell me?”
Stammering to get some words out, overwhelmed by the unexpected conversational starter and her hands in his, he sputtered out the first thing that came to his addled mind.
“Tell you….. what?” His smile still hung on, a playful tease, now with confusion added to the mix.
“Did you win, silly? Are you a millionaire?”
Despite still adjusting to the fact that they seemed to be having a lucid conversation, Benny was strangely drawn to the way she had worded her inquiry.
“Me? Don’t you mean we?” he said, not really expecting a response. “No,” sadness creeping onto this response, “we didn’t get lucky this time. But…”
“No biggie deal!” they shouted out and found themselves laughing in unison, like some well-rehearsed performance. And he supposed it was. Others around them had stopped their disinterested staring and now turned their attention intently to the couple. Neither Ellyn nor Benny noticed.
Jessie was nearby as it happened and turned her head with a start and a wink, quickly adding “You two always seem to know what the other one is thinkin’. It’s so cute!” an observation which found Benny’s hands tightening upon Ellyn’s. But Jessie’s innocent intrusion seemed to spark a change, as Ellyn’s smile began slipping, her facial muscles clenching and her hand relaxing its grip on his. Benny recognized that their moment was passing. There would be no talk of frivolous spending, exotic trips or even fabulous meals today. Maybe never again.
But then, there was another intrusion. A voice. The voice. But sounding like Benny had never heard it before. Soft. The abrasiveness gone. And compassion had taken its place.
“I guess I was wrong, Benny,” said the voice. And then silence.
The residents of 4B lowered their eyes and resumed their joyless stares into space. Jessie felt a lump form in her throat as she franticly looked for something across the room to attend to, dragging her open hand across Benny’s slumped shoulders as she moved past. And Benny looked once more to Ellyn’s eyes, and found the disinterested glaze of a complete stranger had taken their place. But this time, and maybe for the first time, his gaze upon her was not accompanied by sadness.
“Thank you,” he whispered, considering the luck of the moment he had just experienced, hoping whoever needed to hear it, did. “Thank you.”