As a child, people called me Lucky. I had an uncanny knack for finding money everywhere I went–quarters, dollar bills, fives, and, on three separate occasions, twenties–which drove my older brother Mike absolutely crazy.
One time, at the county fair, I had found two twenty-dollar bills, one under a flattened popcorn box in front of the ring toss and one on the floor of a port-a-potty. 40 bucks! Mike never had in his life found anything higher than the fifty-cent piece he had found waiting in line to ride the elephants at the circus two years before.
“One of those twenties is mine!” Mike had shouted at me on the way home, sobbing, superman t-shirt stained with vomit. “I was going to use that port-a-potty, and you went first!”
I, who had puked on Mike while riding the Ferris wheel, shrugged my shoulders and handed over one of the twenties. That settled him down. Our disputes never lasted long.
But that’s not how I came to be known as “Lucky” Roberts. It was because of something that happened when I was 5-years-old.
I spent the better part of my early childhood living in a small farming town in rural Oklahoma. Most of the boys in town had a fascination with tractors, and I was no exception.
“Uncle” Ray owned and operated a small farm. He was a quiet, bachelor farmer who had a gentle way with children. He always had an unopened pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint in the bib pocket of his immaculate overalls for every child who might come his way.
“A whole pack for each of us!” Mike had exclaimed after meeting Uncle Ray at the county fair for the first time. Every kid in town knew and adored Uncle Ray.
It was a sunny late September day, and Ray, who was also well-known to my father, was harvesting the ripe soybean crop. Mike and I were enjoying a rare ride with Uncle Ray on the old, open-top John Deere, chewing our gum with great vigor.
Although Ray was known for the level grade of his fields, no field could be without a dip here and there. Ray had been watching carefully for just such a dip when the left side of the tractor dropped with just enough force to throw me off the tractor.
The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground, two-and-a-half feet from the back end of the combine, untouched, chewing my gum. Many theories sprang up around town to explain what had happened on that day. Some speculated that I had fallen into the pothole, and the tractor had shifted enough for the combine to roll squarely over me untouched. Still, none of the other farmers would believe that one of Ray McCoy’s fields could have a pothole deep enough for it to be possible. Others suggested I had somehow been thrown clear over the combine or that I was cast aside and only rolled behind the combine after it had passed. But, by far, the most popular theory was that it had been a miracle, more specifically, that an angel had protected me. I had lost the memory of what truly happened in the depths of dreams. But whatever it was, I was known as Lucky for as long as I lived in town. I didn’t feel so lucky anymore.
When I awoke, Amy was already gone. I hoped that she was at Farid’s, but I wasn’t certain. My back ached regularly from sleeping in a chair, but I didn’t know how to sleep in a bed without Laura. I didn’t know which side to sleep on, didn’t know how to sleep in one alone. She had been the first woman I’d ever slept in a bed with.
The air was crisp, and the sun shining through the buildings of the city as I walked down the hills to Farid’s. My broken arm still ached and throbbed as I walked, so I popped a couple of pills. By the time I got to Farid’s, I was feeling ready to face the day.
I entered his shop and took my regular seat. Amy was taking an order from a young couple who chatted with her amiably. When she turned around, she saw me, and she smiled curtly. She wore black pants, a white collared shirt, and a green apron with a name tag that said “Amy” on the top left.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment,” she said, walking briskly by.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
In just a few seconds, she was at my table. “The usual?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “How is it working out?”
“Are you checking up on me?”
“Hey. This is my place.”
She rolled her eyes faintly.
“Farid treating you alright?” I said.
“Yeah. He’s cool. Kind of smelly.” she said, crinkling her nose.
“I hadn’t noticed through the cologne.”
“Ah,” said Farid, approaching. “It’s the great James Roberts come to harass my newest employee.”
I smiled, “Hey, thanks for hiring her. I owe you one.”
“No problem, my friend. Amy, check on that couple in the corner. Maybe need a warm-up on their coffee.”
“Yes sir,” she said, smirking at me.
I finished my breakfast and said goodbye to Farid, not able to catch Amy’s eye as I left.
At work, I went to pour my third cup of coffee in the morning from the pot in the breakroom, which could not have been more brightly lit with fluorescents – not a welcome environment for me after my tussle with drugs and booze and pain.
Then Heath entered. He sauntered with the smug ease of a person who was striving for personal peace and wanted everyone to know that he was achieving it. He wore his blond hair in a ponytail, and despite having to dress professionally for work, wore a friendship bracelet on his wrist, which made me wonder how much time he was spending in Buena Vista park smoking pot in a drum circle.
I see you got into a fight,” he said with a knowing look.
Holding out my sling a little, I said: “I certainly feel like I did.”
“My guru said this would happen. He said my friend James would experience a karmic consequence.”
Heath frequently spoke of this man. He had devoted himself to a guru who had miraculously healed him of chronic pain. He told me of the man’s many very minor miracles, like when he caused someone’s phone to shut off when it rang during one of his lectures. Or the many karmic healings. And for some reason, the guru had taken an interest in me. I was losing my patience with it.
“Heath, please keep me out of your voodoo guru shit.”
“Suuuure, sure. But I can’t control what he sees.”
“Whatever, look, have you started on the middle tier, yet?” I asked.
“He wants to help you, James. You should feel honored.”
“I would be honored if you would do your job. I need to provide those web services to the front-in team by the end of the week. To do that, I need your code.”
“I checked it in this morning. See for yourself.”
He led me to his cube and showed me the code repository on his computer screen. It was all there.
“Would you like to do a code review?” he asked, with a gleaming smile.
“What does your guru say about this project?”
“It’s going to be fine, James. Relax, man. Guruji is watching over us. It will be a huge success.”
I worked in a room of six rows of cubicles. I generally kept to myself. I no longer experienced the joy of programming. All I really did now was clock hours, getting my work done, but only just–no more dazzling clients, hustle, or avoidable overtime.
My cube had no decorations. No pictures of family. No award plaques. No collections of ceramic frogs like the lady working next to me.
“James, do you have those services ready for review?” said the frog lady, my project manager, at my cube entry.
I studied her a bit, noticing that she bore some resemblance to her many frogs. “By the end of the day. It’s almost done,” I lied.
“Good deal. Shoot me an email when they’re checked in.”
I nodded and took a sip of my coffee, which was a little too bitter. We had changed our coffee service that week, and I wasn’t a fan of the new roast.
I wondered about what Heath had said. Karmic consequences. Maybe I did deserve to suffer. I certainly had been responsible for suffering, but I couldn’t bear to think about that. My suffering was more significant than a busted arm. It was deeper than a physical pain. In my quiet moments of despair, the only thing keeping me from downing the rest of my pills now was Amy. She needed me, and perhaps I needed someone to need me.
I walked home a little more briskly than usual, skipping McMillen’s again. I wanted to know how Amy’s day had been; see her safe in my apartment. When I arrived, I was relieved to find her sitting in my club chair, swirling brandy in one of my crystal snifters. On the living room table were a few dollars and some change.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the money.
“Rent,” she said, smiling.
I scraped the few bills from the table and counted it.
“Twelve dollars and seventy-five cents? This is rent?”
“That’s all I have. They don’t tip well at Farid’s.”
I tried to give the money back. “Amy, you don’t have to pay rent, I –”
“I’ll pay what I can. Also, I’m going to need a key. I’m tired of breaking into your house. By the way, you need a new lock.”
“Great. Thanks,” I said, “If you’re going to have a key, I feel like I need to know more about you. I don’t even know your last name.”
“Pensiero,” she said.
“Does anybody else know where you are? Don’t you have friends?”
“No. Not anymore.”
“I just don’t want them to know where I am. My dad knows all their parents. Look, can’t we just—”
“Ok, ok. I’m nosy. I’m just concerned about you. Pensiero. Is that Italian?”
She rolled her eyes and walked back into the kitchen, her bare feet padding lightly on the linoleum floor, to pour out the expensive brandy.
“Why did you pour that out? That was 70-dollar brandy?”
“I just wanted to see what it was like to swish it around. Saw it in a movie once.”
“Let me buy you dinner,” I said.” No more questions, I promise.”
“Are we going to your sad little pub with the greasy fish?”
There was something about the way she looked at me in that moment that brought back memories of my former life. It was in the chill of early November, and I’d forgotten our anniversary. I was trying to make up for it by surprising Laura with a fish dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, she turned to me and said, “Really? This is where you take me?” I brought her daisies every day for a week after that. She didn’t like greasy fish, either.
“How about Chinese?” said Amy. “You live a few blocks away from the best Chinese food on the west coast.”
It was getting chilly outside, so I grabbed my brown corduroy driver hat and my wool pea coat. I tossed Amy my scarf as she pulled on her Army jacket, and we stepped out into the night air to head for Hon’s.
“They have the best Dan Dan Mien. It’s kind of on the other end of Chinatown, but it’s worth the walk,” I said as we crossed Hyde Street.
As we walked in silence for a time, I couldn’t get Laura out of my mind. I never deserved her. I was a crappy husband at best, but she stood by me. She was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to me.
I stopped to dig out a pack of cigarettes from my coat with my good arm and lit up. I sucked in a tiny bit of smoky comfort and let it roll out of my mouth into the damp air. Before I could offer her one of mine, she had already lit hers.
“You shouldn’t smoke, you know,” I said.
“Go fuck yourself,” she said, smiling.
We both laughed and walked on. As we walked, we saw an old, long-bearded Chinese man smoking a pipe riding a bicycle. We spied on a young couple who’d ducked into an alleyway to make-out against the cold brick wall. I dropped a few dollars into a guitar case while a street-worn black man picked out an old blues tune. The smell of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce permeated the air.
Finally, we arrived at Hon’s Wun Tun House. People stood outside the entrance laughing and talking loudly. I opened the door for Amy, and she looked me in the eye as she passed the threshold. It was difficult to read what was behind her dark eyes. They were impenetrable.
The young hostess led us to a table in the back next to a fountain with a statue of fish spouting water.
“So, James. You’re not from around here are you,” she said, removing the scarf and laying it carefully over the back of her chair.
“Why do you think that?”
“Duh, your accent.”
“Oh.” I’d never had a strong Oklahoma accent, at least by Oklahoma standards. But what little accent I had, I’d tried to remove from my speech. I didn’t like people asking me where I was from because that question inevitably led to more questions.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I kind of like it. So, where are you from?”
She fixed me in a stare. I couldn’t escape her. It was as if she’d cast a spell on me. And for that moment, I was helpless.
“Oklahoma,” I said, the word catching in my throat.
“Oklahoma. Like the song. OOOOOOOOOOOOOh-klahoma where the–”
“Yes, like the song. Look, how about you don’t ask me questions, and I won’t ask you either.”
“Fine.” She began to study the menu, her dark hair falling across her face. There was something about the way she did this that made me think of the first time I had met Laura.
I was walking to class at Norman High School with Bijan, my best friend, who was trying to convince me to join the choir. He said, “What are you worried about? That everyone’s going to think you’re a faggot if you join? Because everybody already thinks you are.” He laughed.
“I don’t really care if people think that about me. What if I suck?”
“Dude, they don’t care if you suck. They just need guys. Think of it like this. There are like twice as many girls as there are guys. We’ll be taking trips, going to contest. You’re like a six in the general population, but you might be an eight in Choir. Who cares if you suck? This is an opportunity for you. Except for church camp, what kind of action have you seen?”
“Exactly. Just do this with me. Consider it a favor. It will be fun. I promise.”
So, I signed up for Choir with Bijan.
He saw Laura first and asked her to the fall dance, which surprised me because although he was interested in my dating needs, he was generally shy around girls himself. On the day of the dance, she, Bijan, and a couple of her friends went out to Sooner Dairy drive-in for burgers at lunch. Laura was leaning up against Bijan’s silver Ford Tempo, which his parents had bought for him on his 16th birthday that summer. She chatted easily with us, laughing and making eye contact in a way that made me take notice of her.
Most of the girls had poofy bangs and teased out hair, but Laura was different. Her golden-brown hair flowed naturally. As she asked me about what I thought about Choir and the choir director, she brushed her hair away from her face so naturally that she was probably not aware she was doing it.
“So,” she said to me, looking directly at me with topaz eyes and brushing her hair aside again. “Are you taking anyone to the dance tonight?”
“Nah, I’m just going to hang out at home.”
“Come on, James,” she said, touching my arm, “You’re seriously cute. You could get a date easy.”
Bijan began to fidget as he did when he was uncomfortable with something and walked away from the conversation.
In passing period, Bijan found me and said, “Hey, listen, I’m going to tell Laura I’m getting sick. Do you want to hang out?”
“Why?” I said.
“I dunno, she’s just really forward and flirty. It’s a turnoff for me.”
I nodded and said. “Sure, yeah, let’s hang out.”
All the while, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she had touched my arm and the way she had looked at me. In choir the next day, I decided to approach her. Wearing tight jeans that hugged her hips and a pink silk blouse, she was talking to one of the other sopranos.
“Hey,” I said to them.
She broke off her conversation and said, “Hey, James! We really missed you guys last night. I was sorry to hear about Bijan. Is he feeling better today?”
“Yeah. He’s taking the day off, but I think he’ll be ok. I guess it is just one of those twenty-four-hour deals.”
Her friend said, “Hey, I gotta get to class. Talk to you later!” and left us.
Laura brushed her hair off her face, and it was just me and her eyes.
“Um,” I said. “So, I was wondering. If Bijan’s gonna get sick and all, maybe you’d like to get some pizza with me Friday night.”
She laughed and said, “Oh, is that the way it is?”
“I just think he’s feeling a little too shy with you.”
“And you?” she said, eyebrows raised.
“I think you’re perfect.”
She stepped close enough to me so that I could smell her perfume, and she put her hand on my chest. “You’re damn right I am. Pick me up at seven.”
I watched Amy eating with chopsticks like an expert, but she didn’t scarf it down as she had at McMillen’s. She slurped her noodles a bit at a time, occasionally tossing her hair back.
Next to us was a young couple in their twenties. The man was speaking passionately about the plight of the refugees coming into the country from Syria while she ate, perhaps tuning him out a little. He stopped only occasionally to take a bite of his Kung Pao chicken.
The waitress, a sparkly-eyed, young Chinese woman, stopped to ask if they needed refills. He never stopped talking. His date, however, asked for another tea.
“How was work?” Amy asked.
“Just another day in paradise. This new-age dude told me that my accident was some sort of karma. I told him to go fuck himself,” I lied.
“Oh yeah? You said that? So, what do you think?”
I took a bite and said, with food in my mouth. “I think he’s full of shit,” I lied again.
“James, I don’t fucking believe you. You believe you deserve your crappy life. I don’t know why, yet, but you’re going to spill the beans eventually.”
“There’s nothing to spill. I just want him to keep his guru away from my karma.”
Laughing with a mouthful of noodles, she said,“Yeah. What a fucking asshole.”