Hot noisy nothing Saturday afternoon. A million pissed-off cars under their window, the relentless braying of horns. Unable to read, think, or watch TV, Jem sat in an encroaching dullness that, for her, always preceded a migraine. Meanwhile Alex was oblivious, or pretending to be, face pressed against his Baseball Encyclopedia. He didn't move when the phone rang. Binny Platt.
"Any chance we could lure you over for drinks? Sorry, I'd say dinner but we have this black tie thing, really a business function for Lamar, at the Four Seasons, but we were just sitting here talking about how much we'd rather be with you
anyway, no big deal if you aren't free."
Should she admit they were free? Alex, suddenly alert, motioned no because he wasn't even shaved; but then she said yes, because, well, it was The Platts. "Wonderful! So six. And casual," Binny said. Jem made Alex shave, shower, change his shirt three times, and put on a blazer and socks even though it was sweltering and Lamar never wore socks. "He'll be wearing them for the Four Seasons," she said. And then spent the next two hours dressing...although the more accurate word would be paralyzed. Staring at what Alex called her Raphaelite angel face, her erratic cascade of reddish-blonde ringlets, her full figure which may have been the image of beauty in 1894 but not 1994, and particularly at her belly, which stuck out more than Binny's though Binny was seven months pregnant. At quarter to six Alex said they'd be late; Jem screamed that she had no decent clothes; Alex reminded her that she hated shopping and didn't care about clothes; and Jem reminded him that she made herself not care because they had no money anyway. At six she was wearing a black top, black slacks, and black loafers, and resigned herself to it. Then added her one pair of diamond earrings (clip-on, always about to fall off, but the time she tried to get her ears pierced the lobes blew up). When Alex smiled at her outfit, she caught the faint reek of pot; resigned herself to that too.
And yes, there really were a million cars at 63rd and Second Avenue, backed up from the FDR and Queensborough Bridge: but, as usual, not a single empty cab. Not for them. By the time they got one on Madison Avenue they both were sweating, and Alex almost melted on the ride up.
The Platts' townhouse was in the 90's, in Carnegie Hill, on a street with nothing but townhouses, about halfway between Madison and Fifth. Jem stepped out of the cab and stopped. Stunned by the silence, as always. Alex, as oblivious to silence as noise, focused on the garage built right into the house: even imagined himself rolling up the door and tucking his imaginary car inside...
Binny answered the door in torn jeans, T-shirt with a wet spot under her left collarbone, and 500-dollar Italian backless high-heeled fuck-me shoes. Receding behind her was Lamar - grubby khakis, untucked flannel shirt, and barefoot - a sleepy Wilfred slung over his shoulder. "Wilfie had a little spill," Binny said, "sorry I'm such a mess but it's just water," and then to Jem, "You look gorgeous. You guys going out after?"
Alex knew his wife well enough to know she wanted him to lie: but just as he said yes, Jem had one of her honesty spasms and said no. Alex tried to recover, "Well, not really," and Jem - in head-tilting parody of wifely subservience - said "No, darling, you're right," and to Binny, whose big eyes flicked back and forth between them, "We're just stopping off at Luna on the way home. Christiano brought back special cheese for Alex from Ravello."
He had to admit: everything his wife said was fact, simply displaced by a day. "Well, I don't call that going out. I call that picking up some cheese."
"You're going to have to sit there and eat some of it," Jem said, "and they're going to give you wine to drink with it - I call that dinner out."
"You two are funny." Binny then made a sound wincingly similar to that of the cars under their window. Not the laugh you'd expect from someone who looked more calendar model than ex-bank teller. Tall, thin limbed, full-busted; her features and skin an exotic Nordic-African blend. Her belly showed more than Jem had expected, but even this was provocative, belly button pressing against the T-shirt like a third nipple. Yet that laugh more than anything marked Binny as good luck personified, since that was what caught the attention of Lamar Platt the day he happened to be at the Chase branch where Binny had worked, and Jem still did.
"I hear the delicate sound of your laughter, my dove." Lamar was still barefoot, but carrying Veuve Clicquot and Grigrich Hills Reserve. "What's so funny?"
"Jem and Alex are going to Luna to pick up cheese" - with another honk-honk that made her breasts tremble and her hand rub the underside of her belly. "You remember the place we went on Thursday? Where they acted like we didn't even have a reservation?"
"They damn sure didn't give me cheese," Lamar said.
"Special cheese from Ravelli!"
Leading them through the entrance hall, Binny went not up the steps but into the family room that adjoined their private backyard. What, Jem thought, now we're only good enough for drinks and the first floor? Alex, sidestepping a plastic replica BMW convertible (motorized and big enough to seat two Wilfies), was just relieved that Binny hadn't taken them back out to the heat. Then she seated them on a black leather tufted couch, sleek and cool looking, and he discovered instantly that the leather stuck to your skin. And one bowl of cheese crisps on the coffee table.
"Wow. Must be nice to be universally adored," Lamar said. "I had to pass the maitre'd a hundred dollar bill just to keep us away from the kitchen."
His West-Virginian lilt made this (and everything he said) casual. But that hundred-dollar bill was like a more powerful cheese, ripe and green, that he had dropped on the table. Alex thinking it was weird - why would anyone carry a hundred-dollar bill? - while to Jem, Lamar became charismatic, despite his feet, receding hairline, and premature gut, despite being inches shorter than Binny, despite an overly prominent chin and forehead which Alex claimed made him look like Rondo Hatton, the monster-movie acromegaly guy. So? Thanks to the pungent infinity of hundred-dollar bills, he could have looked like Frankenstein.
Of course Lamar was anything but casual: there was the prenup he made
Binny sign; his insistence that she convert to his church; his refusal to let her work (which didn't bother Binny any); and his announcement that Binny's objective was to produce four children and at least one boy ("First quarter report is good," he grinned after Wilfred's birth). Jem looked at Alex, who had already eaten half the bowl of cheese crisps but could never gain an ounce; too skinny, bad posture, a pothead and packrat, but she knew he would always be taller than Lamar, with eyes you could see, lush glossy black hair on his head yet no hair on his olive-skinned chest and legs; and she knew that every penny he earned (you could count it in pennies) went straight to their account, and she knew that nobody was more fun to talk to, and that she wanted nobody but him in her bed....But there was Lamar again, standing over them, dropping hundred dollar bills over her body -
"Hey Alex," Lamar said, "if I feed you my best champagne, will you take me and Binny with you next time you go to Luna?"
"How 'bout your best Columbian?" Alex said. Binny made her noise, and Lamar - who never laughed, only shook - shook so much the Veuve Clicquot foamed over when he popped the cork.
Jem Lappas was a loan officer at Chase. Alex Lappas wrote articles for a monthly baseball zine geared to stat freaks. Combined income, well under six figures. They lived in a one-bedroom unsellable co-op overhearing the noisiest corner in New York. They had no car, no country house, and no stocks. Most importantly, Jem would say, they had no luck. Her whole life she had had no luck, and he never had any, and together they still added up to none.
And to this Alex would say there was no luck. Now he was biased by his conviction that there was no God either, and no scheme or purpose to, well, anything. He loved statistics and he loved pot and he loved Jem because much of the time they helped him forget that all you had was an arbitrary universe.
This disagreement sometimes made them fight, sometimes made them laugh, and sometimes produced tears. Usually they ignored it but it was always there, under the lid of every day, seething.
And innocently making it boil was Binny, born in Kenya, briefly residing in Munich, but mostly growing up on 143rd Street with one parent and no money; before Chase, she had been a waitress and "dancer". And Lamar, whose parents were wealthy from mine holdings and died in a car accident. He parlayed his inheritance into investments that made him a billionaire by age 35, when, three years ago, he met Binny (who went from funny-slutty coworker to prominent billionaire's wife in a matter of months). Jem only knew this from Binny and Binny herself didn't know much, since everything was in Lamar's name and while he always seemed to talk freely, he rarely told you anything about himself or his business. In addition to the townhouse, he owned an estate in Connecticut and another in Santa Barbara, plus a private jet. The odd thing was not that two couples of such disparate fortunes would know each other (the Jem-Binny connection explained that) but that The Platts seemed to like Alex and Jem as much as any of their wealthy friends, of which they had plenty. The Platts called every week, found their opinions fascinating, laughed at all their jokes, and declared that Wilfie loved them like godparents; they hosted them in Connecticut, and once flew them out to Santa Barbara in the jet; and to Jem all this seemed to confirm that the gap between them must be luck.
Alex said, "C'mon, it's not that funny," but Binny stayed sprawled with her legs spread, hand caressing her belly. Smiling almost flirtatiously at him. Jem knew this to be a genetic agreeableness toward all men, but abruptly Binny sat up and swerved an even more agreeable smile toward her. "So what are the Lapses - the Lappee - I'm sorry, what are you guys up to these days?"
"We prefer the L&L Group," Jem said. They laughed as she intended, and she felt a wave of despair: even The Platts was evidence of their luck; it had the ring of a premium brand.
Binny said to her, "How's work?"
"I don't want to think about it."
"Why, what's going on?"
"Nothing bad, Bin." Nothing good, either, she wanted to say, but instead mumbled, "We're doing a major overhaul of the personal banking system."
"Really?" Lamar said. "Why is that?"
"Our people don't stay in the same job long enough - so you, the customer, keep getting a new personal banker. Since it's based on the concept of a relationship, the customers feel...betrayed almost. So we have to rethink it."
The Platts started asking more questions but Jem put up her hand rudely: "Guys, I can't." And then, "I mean...I'm sorry, it's Saturday, my head isn't into it. It's not really interesting, you know?...I'd rather talk about Di and Charles."
She should have done just that - she obsessively followed the royals and The Platts savored every scandal - but nothing else came out of her mouth.
Alex jumped in: "Well, this is my busy season," and proceeded to amuse
Lamar and Binny with his latest project, a PureStat review of likely Hall of
Fame candidates. Alex had helped his boss create this system, which rewrote a player's actual statistics based on variety of factors, including the team talent that surrounded him, dimensions and altitude of his home park, strike zone and height of the mound, seams and core of the baseball itself. (It proved so popular that subscriptions doubled and PureStat became the name of the magazine -- though Alex got no profits or royalties, which typically didn't seem to matter to him.) He explained how a popular ex-LA Dodger, with great stats, was third-string once the numbers were filtered. Binny, who had been following every nuance with preternatural attention, suddenly leaned forward and touched his knee: "What'd you say his name was again?"
Alex, who thought Binny too much a type to be sexy (and her perpetual smile reminded him of Juan Marichal), repeated it. Binny sat back and hugged herself: "Ohmygod. I slept with him."
"You never told me that," said Jem. "You slept with Rick Marley?"
"This was before the bank. My really wild days. You know I was a pitcher in school? I loved baseball, and it kind of spilled into romance. I did some Yankees, then you remember how they kept playing LA in the series, well...I sampled the other coast." Then to Lamar: "Do you believe this?"
Lamar was refilling Jem and Alex from the second bottle of Veuve Clicquot - "since we lost so much of the first one" - and he smiled broadly, not shaking at all.
"Was this when he was married to Mandee -- ?" Jem said.
"Yup. I met her too. They were so hyper-religious then, and he was talking about running for politics after baseball," said Binny proudly.
"Yeah, and in reality he was a total pig, and fathering children with anything that moved." Jem remembered seeing them on Good Morning America, Ken and Barbie, renewing their marriage vows with some TV minister...and years later, after their marriage broke up, being interviewed separately, he now vile in his pretend-remorse (really blaming her), and she the feminist victim: two disagreeable fools. And yet how many people would be impressed that Binny knew them? She was impressed.
"Well?" Alex said. "How was he?"
"Third string," said Binny. "My God, when I look backI can't believe I slept with him."
"You screwed him, my little critter." Lamar was grinning so hard he had no eyes, just dark slants under his brow. "And now I get to screw him too."
To Jem and Alex: "Don't you worry, I'm not swinging or nothing. But Mr. Marley works for the company I'm buying. Actually that's what tonight is about."
And he explained that he and his "associates" were acquiring the world's biggest bubble gum-baseball card company. "That's huge," Jem said. Even Alex, for whom Lamar's deals never seemed real let alone important, was shaken: "I grew up buying their cards. I traded them."
"And I threw your set out, which is probably worth thousands now," said
Jem. "So what exactly is tonight?"
"Well, we just made the announcement to the press on Wednesday -- "
"He never tells me anything," Binny said, "I just found this out today myself!"
"And tonight we're throwing a celebratory dinner for the executive staff and the key spokesmen. Tell them how great it's all going to be...don't get into the head-chopping part, that's months away. But I'll break my rule with Mr. Marley. Can't wait to see the look on his face, first when he sees Binny - "
"Assuming he remembers me - "
" - then when he hears personally from me that he's out." He shook so hard he turned his back on them, as if embarrassed; then turned back holding the Grigrich and a corkscrew. "Almost forgot about this..."
"You look hungry, poor Alex." Binny grabbed his hand, splayed his fingers, stained cheese-crisp orange. "I'm sorry. Can you stand melba toast?" "You know I live to eat," Alex said. Jem asked Lamar, "Who else'll be there?"
Lamar named a few other baseball stars, and though Jem didn't know pitchers from left fielders she did know who was married and who divorced; knew the names of the models that would be on their arms. She should have left it there, but then she said: "Really! Who else?" Lamar named a movie director, a real-estate mogul, and a trillionaire newspaper publisher. "But what do they have to do with baseball?"
"Nothing," Lamar said, "but they're buying it with me. A big investment opportunity, like you said."
"They...are...your...partners?" Jem said. "Lamar! Binny, why didn't you tell me - "
"I would if he told me." Alex winced at the clatter of Melba toast she dumped into the bowl. They would make the same noise against his teeth, but at once he grabbed a handful. And even though he was pretty drunk, washed them down with wine. And listened to Jem ask Lamar about the movie director. Had they ever been in his house? - she saw it on ET, it was decadent. And what about his temper? - she heard he was a real bastard. And then Jem moved on to the others, rising excitement with every question, squeals of delight at every answer, and yet all Alex heard was pain, as if she was performing a ritual self-mutilation. She couldn't help it. She knew what she was doing and knew it was pitiful and to her credit would never put him down in front of anyone, but she embarrassed him anyway, and later he would get an earful about the Platinum Platts and the base metal of themselves. Couldn't she hear the clock ticking, to 7:15, 7:30, 7:40? Couldn't she see The Platts laughing and opening more bottles and making no move to make themselves black-tie-ready? They'd rather be with us! He reached out to her face and brushed back ringlets to distract her; she shivered as if he had touched something else; but she kept asking questions.
Finally he cut her off, asking Lamar, how did he plan to make the cards compete with the growing availability of stats everywhere? And then Lamar began firing questions at him, ignoring the women, his grin-squint almost predatory
Until 8:14 when he refilled their glasses to the brim. He handed Jem's back successfully but Alex's slipped through his fingers, bounced off the coffee table with a loud crack, and splattered wine all over the rug. "Guess 's time we drug ourselves upstairs," Lamar said, "and got dressedmy little rainbow." "If you can find the closet," Binny honked. "I guess we should go pick up our cheese," Jem said to Alex, which sent The Platts into hysterics. They could have stayed longer, even watched them get dressed, but Jem had no desire to see Binny stuff herself into a $10,000 Vera Wang. When she stood Lamar wetly kissed her forehead, Binny kissed her right on the mouth, and she could feel hands brush the sides of her breasts as they both hugged her. She made a face at Alex, who peeled off the leather and was stuffing a last fistful of Melba toast into his mouth when Lamar stuck his hand out for a shake. "Good to see ya, pardner. Wish I had you as my partner tonight. You talk baseball and all that stat bullshit 'lot better 'n I do. Wish me luck!" Binny said, "No -- let's focus our luck on this week's jackpot!" She went over to her Prada purse on the fireplace mantel and produced a LOTTO ticket. "I'm ready, baby," waving it in Lamar's face, "100 million, biggest score ever!" And to Jem: "Where's yours?" And again Jem heard herself and Alex speaking simultaneously and again knew their answers would conflict and in a moment of pure will, as if her voice were a bullet that increased its speed after it was shot, her words managed to utter themselves first: "Oh I got mine, honey." "What are your numbers?" asked Binny. "Oh...can't even remember! It's official," Jem said, "I'm drunk." "Well," said Lamar, "here's to luck" - and realizing he had no glass, raised his empty hand. "And luck," said Jem, ignoring Alex's sad look.
"You and that fucking cheese, boy. Why do you always...?"
"Excuse me, who started it? I just saved you from looking ridiculous."
"I only lied 'cause you want me to. You've got me trained. Well now, that was...fun. Ol' Lamar was startin' to get a little weird there."
"We should all be so weird. ZAPPS Bubble Gum!"
"OK. Don't start."
"You know - maybe you should follow up with him - he seemed very impressed with your baseball ideas - "
"Please. He was just talking. Besides, he's a crook - "
"Don't pretend you disapprove. You just don't want to."
"You got me, boy you are right. I have absolutely no interest in the manufacture of gum."
"Do you have any interest in having a better apartment? Where I don't get migraines every night from the fucking horns....So now they're friends with The Stones? Typical. This nobody from West Virginia - "
"Come on Jem. Please don't start. It just makes you -- "
"And can you believe that Binny? Buying a LOTTO ticket? The gall and the greed, my God, I mean I love the girl she really has a good heart, but it's just so obscene that people with that kind of money want more. But they always do."
"She's not greedy. She just still can't believe she's Madame Platt."
"And she'll probably win, that's what kills me!"
"Well, you bought a ticket too, so your odds are just as good."
"I did no such thing."
"Oh." Silence. "But why lie about...that?"
Alex stopped right there on the street, their linked arms making Jem stop too. He was waiting.
"Because - "
Because I don't want that whore to think I've given up. Because she's richer than rich and still wants to get richer and here I am nowhere and nothing, and my dignity demands that I pretend my life isn't over.
He kept staring. She swiped at her cheek. "Because I felt like it. OK? I had a sociopath moment. What difference does it make?" There, he had her trained just like she had him trained; she only thought it, didn't fling it in his face. But he blinked as if he heard every word anyway. Jem slipped her arm free and walked ahead, forcing him to slink after her.
"So you said you bought one because she bought one. Do you want to buy one?"
"We could get one now. It's not nine yet. We still have time."
"What kind of an idiot are you? I would never, ever buy a LOTTO ticket. I mean look at us! We can't even afford to lease a car and we're going to win the lottery? You need to have God smiling on you for that. Or make a deal with the devil, I'm ready, but even Satan wouldn't return our call. Nothing happens to us, and nothing ever will. You have to be lucky, like Binny. And we, are not." She felt the goddamn mascara stinging her eyes.
"I'm not an idiot. And it's really sad to hear you talk about us this way, after all this time."
"You asked. I'm being honest. I don't want to talk about it, believe me." He reached out both hands, as if trying to tangle himself in her. She could feel his breath. "What do you want me to say? This is my life. I have no luck. You have no luck. We -- "
"I think I got it," Alex said bitterly. He pulled free and lurched backward, into a pile of bags under the awning of a closed laundry. He hopped sideways and Jem saw the pile of bags was a bag person. Sitting on a piece of cardboard, wrapped in enough layers to weather a blizzard. Jem couldn't quite see where the head was, but it moved, and its sudden, jagged shriek made her pretty certain it was female. She wanted to run but Alex just stood there, the bastard, to jam it in her face that this was someone with no luck - no, Alex would never say "luck", this was someone truly unfortunate. And she, Jem, should be grateful.
But she was not. Briefly ashamed, and not grateful at all. For this creature life was pure tragedy. For Jem it was pure tease, dirty trick, finger in the eye, April Fool's every goddamn day, because she had no luck. Let Alex point to her pretty face, her organizational skills, her good job, her surgeon father and Greenwich childhood, her rich suitors that she turned down to marry someone she actually loved. Right: pretty for the wrong century, skilled but not brilliant - certainly not enough to go beyond a good job -- a surgeon father who died in debt; and Alex, her love match and soulmate, he tortured her most of all because he was brilliant and wasting it on baseball, he didn't even hear the noise that gave her migraines, for all his devotion he gave her nothing, nothing! She stood there, her brain shrieking, or maybe, like that bag woman, she was shrieking out loud...She started walking again.
Let her go, Alex thought. And instantly followed her. He caught up, saying nothing but keeping pace. They went side by side down Madison like two lines that would never meet. What better proof of the arbitrary universe, than the fact that he walked alongside this woman? Once, Alex tried to calculate the odds in favor of Jem being the only one for him. He didn't get far because the odds against were infinity. Change anything - place of birth, where he got his first New York job, or his choice of movies that Wednesday night 13 years ago - and they would never have met. She wasn't even his type: he had always dated girls with brown, flat hair. Maybe this was proof of luck, in a way, bad luck, that he would adore and be stuck to this woman, who ruled over her own annihilation, who, like a god in reverse, had created a world that constantly confirmed her insignificance....He observed for maybe the millionth time her small hands, the egg-curve of her forehead, her chest with its almost military bearing, her shapely butt and that incredible mass of hair. He lost himself looking for something else, something never visible in pictures of her, which flashed as she turned toward him - You're still here? - and then fiercely away; and gradually he relaxed, keeping pace beside her, realizing this was his best response after all.
He said: "How about heroes and Tasti D-Lite?" She said: "How about Hello and the Enquirer?" "Sounds good to me." "I need Princess Di." "Let's go." Linking arms, they walked east to the corner of First Avenue and 70th Street, where there was a Tasti D-Lite branch, a deli, and a smoke-and-magazine shop that carried every British and American tabloid. Jem went to get the food while Alex crossed the street for the papers. He had to push through several people clustered near the shop entrance, but was so intent on finding the magazines that only when he joined the line did he realize they were waiting to buy LOTTO tickets. The owner, Kumar, was alone and working double-time to ensure that everyone got their ticket before 9:00 PM. Still he managed a big smile for Alex, calling out, "Don't worry! I've got the Examiner back here!" "Great," Alex said. Ahead of him was a girl holding a Yorkie, a dollar bill, and a marked-up orange card. She glanced back and instantly hoisted up a shoulder, as if he was trying to steal answers on a test. Alex's stare became fixed on the rack of lottery cards, and then the word: LOTTO. LOTTO LUCK, OUTTO LUCK...
What the hell was taking him so long? The Tastees were already melting, not that Jem cared since she liked it soft, but Alex wanted his cold which meant he would have to refreeze it....Here he came, swinging his plastic bag with a pleasure that told her he had found ample Di. "Did you read every one first?"
"LOTTO line. Can you believe these idiots are still buying them?" Then he reached into his shirt pocket and extended that hand to her. "Oh by the way."
"Your ticket. Here."
"I don't want it."
"Oh yes you do. So I bought it for you. Come on. Hey - you never know." He tried to stuff it into her shirt, remembered it had no pockets, and began to reach inside her black jacket -
"No. I don't want it." She dropped a bag, found her inside jacket pocket, felt the tiny paper square, moist like everything else in this heat. She pulled it out, but before handing it back to him couldn't help glancing at the numbers: 61, 54, 28, 22, 21, 11, 8. "I suppose these have some baseball significance."
" '61 Yankees. Top home run totals. Maris, Mantle, Skowron -- "
"Shut up. I don't care. I don't want it. Here, take it, do what you want with it, but take it."
"Jem, it's a hoot. Let's watch New York lose tonight. Nobody's going to win this, you know. And next week the jackpot gets even bigger."
"I will not have this rubbed in my face. I don't want it."
"Well, I'm not taking it back." And he kept sidestepping or pulling out of reach as she tried with swatting motions to stuff the ticket back into his pocket.
"Fine." She stuck her arm over the curb, into the street, and opened her hand. At that instant a light must have changed, because suddenly cars were shooting past them, and a related burst of air blew by, whipping Jem's hair from behind her back across her mouth, and taking the ticket out of her palm and a block uptown before she could even think. She could still see it; a tiny glint of orange floating up and then down in the middle of the street. Then a second wave of cars and wind sucked it back up again and it swirled around like a crazed firefly before disappearing altogether.
"Well," Alex said, taking one bag from her and picking up the other from the pavement, "now you better pray that you don't win," and he laughed. The laugh was rigid, and stopped abruptly. And then it was as if those gusts of wind had blown straight up from the South Pole, because the temperature of First Avenue, of her own blood, seemed to drop 50 degrees. She shivered so violently her hair whipped around again. Then she was fine, except that she knew she would win. Or rather Alex's numbers would win, and thanks to her personal incubus of unluck, which must have hijacked her hand a moment ago, she had thrown away the proof of her winning and therefore would win in a way that would make losing seem merciful.
She knew and she could see that Alex knew. All the way home they barely spoke. At the corner of 63rd and Second, the cars - maybe the same cars -- were still braying, but she didn't really hear them; anymore than she really heard Sinatra singing on the radio Alex turned on, or really tasted the food she forced herself to eat, or really saw the pictures and words of Princess Di on the pages she held stubbornly in front of her face. Once she looked past the edge of her magazine and saw Alex looking back at her, and for a second she was convinced he had leprosy, his face was full of sores. She shifted the magazine to block him out.
At 10:45 Alex got up, shut off the radio, and turned on the TV to Channel Five, which always televised the number-drawing ceremony somewhere between Weather and Sports. "I got my ticket," the female anchor was saying. "Well, good luck," said the stiff male anchor. "And luck to you -- here's Bob Brown."
They cut to the LOTTO drawing. Now Jem could feel the dullness pressing into her right temple - a migraine was surely coming, and she sincerely hoped this one would kill her -- but made herself watch. Bob Brown sported a too-full brown rug, and his voice was high and fatuous, as if he inhaled helium before speaking: "LET'S PLAY LOTTO!"
And there was the LOTTO machine, a plastic hive, filled with balls swirling like bees when Bob Brown turned on the air. A long tube at the bottom sucked balls from the swarm and sent them one by one to a second tube that was open at the top, allowing him to adjust each ball so that its number was in full view. She watched him pluck the five balls for the winning LOTTO numbers, and then one last ball for the supplemental number, and he announced each one in the same helium voice. When he was half-done Alex - who she still refused to look at - said something, and despite her heightened clarity she couldn't make it out. Then she did look at him. There were no sores on his face. With his expression, he didn't need any.
"OK!!" Now that the last ball had been plucked, Bob Brown sang out the numbers again: 28, 11, 61, 22, 8, 54, 21. She stared unbelieving at them, at each ball -- the 61 tilted slightly away, so that it looked like the beginning of 666 - she stared all too ready to believe, and thought: He bought it, and I'm the one who threw it away -
Alex laughed - a horrible sound. "Well, don't you ever tell me again that you're not lucky."
"How could you be so vicious," she wailed, and then she saw his face, smiling like a car wreck. At the same time he saw the look on her face. "Jem. No. It was the same numbers, but in the wrong order. Their supplemental wasn't our supplemental. We missed it by one."
"We missed it by one," she said.
"You threw away the ticket, and we didn't win."
"I don't believe it."
"Believe. You are lucky, Jem." Now Alex was standing over her, hand raised as if to strike her. "Repeat after me: I am Jem Jenkins Lappas and I am lucky."
"I am Jem Jenkins Lappas...and...I...am...lucky."
She said it again. She shouted it. She screamed. She jumped up and shimmied her hips and bounced up and down on the bed as if it were a trampoline. She jumped too far and fell off the bed, banging her hip on the footboard. She laughed, and Alex sank to his knees, laughing with her. Then he stood up rubbing his stomach.
"I don't know about you, but I'm still hungry. I don't feel like I ate a goddamned thing tonight. How 'bout Indian? In honor of Kumar!"
The next morning Jem's migraine struck. She spent the whole day vomiting and lying in the dark, and was in no condition to talk about the night before. And so they never got around to talking about it. But a month later their next-door neighbor abruptly offered to buy their apartment, and they made a modest profit, and moved into a bigger one-bedroom on a quiet block. Jem got promoted to head of the loan department, with a raise; Alex and a couple of his friends started an internet baseball stat-zine which thrived and increased subscriptions every year. All of which gave them more money to spend, and to save.
Jem was happier. She didn't feel lucky. She didn't feel unlucky. As if her fall against the footboard had snapped something, she no longer felt the issue at all.
And Alex? He could no longer let a week pass without buying a LOTTO ticket. Always the same numbers, and always he threw it away, and in throwing it felt like he had rubbed it over both of them, a balm of smiles, a shield against all pestilence. He could not rationalize it to himself, and he would never admit it to Jem, but for one moment every week he became the loving mother of their luck.
TIM MILLAS lives in New York City. This is hist first appearance in TAR.