How To Be Lucky
by Jean Burnet
Because they could afford it, they had a large wedding. Dick’s family was all there, shooting looks in her direction. Rita’s was too. In the few short hours before her union, her mother—who made a fuss of everything—tried to teach her something about love. Her friends came, too. Perhaps because they were so perplexed with her decision, they’d been reduced to polite exchanges about the weather, or Marcie’s new leather pumps, or the rising banana prices—the language of things, of what-nots, of knick-knacks.
In her dressing room, her mother leaned over her, still misty-eyed, muttering, “Rita, my beauty.”
Rita looked at herself in the mirror, and decided that her mother was just being sentimental. She was not a beautiful woman. She was not an ugly one, either. But yes, her belly had begun to sag. Her thighs had begun to dimple. But still, her mother wept and fiddled with Rita’s hair as if she was some kind of sixteen-year-old debutante.
“Thanks mom,” she murmured. “But I think it’ll hold.”
At some point her mother stopped blowing into a Kleenex long enough to ask her, “Will you be happy?”
She considered the question. “I’m happier than most. That’s lucky, isn’t it?”
Her mother did not respond, but kissed her on her forehead and said, “It is lucky, I suppose.”
At the altar, she and Dick somehow avoided kissing again. Instead, his lips brushed briefly against her cheek when they hugged for the first time as husband and wife.
At the hotel, he didn’t make a move to carry her through the doorway, and she didn’t make a fuss. Once the bellboy had lugged their things inside, rolling in that ridiculous cart stocked with champagne and chocolates, they were left to themselves. Quietly, he unbuttoned his jacket. He hadn’t made a move to touch her in all the months they’d been together, and she assumed that perhaps—given their unorthodox engagement—he was just traditional. But now they were married. She had accepted the night that was coming as natural. She convinced herself of the normality of it.
Without saying much of anything (she tried to think hard: did he grunt something? Was there a mumble she had missed?), he walked toward the narrow door that led to the second bedroom and left. For an hour she waited around in her dress, the mini-fridge in the corner thrumming as she wondered if he was going to come back, and after a while, she slipped off the dress and sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the sweets on the cart. He’d left his jacket in the room, hung over the desk chair. It encroached on the chair somehow: thick, oppressive. Finally, when she couldn’t take it anymore, she hung it up in the closet. And then, as if willed by the jacket’s swinging back and forth on its hanger, she ate a few of the chocolates, and a few more, and a few more, until she was bloated on cacao. Dick retrieved his jacket in the morning without mentioning a thing. It was now an understanding. She consumed; he let her.
She was not always married to Dick. Many months ago she sat in her cubicle and pined— a strong word for Rita—for the man two cubes over. He had ended it by saying something that in retrospect was a bit idiotic: I was clumsy, he said. I overestimated. And sometimes you just have to catch your mistake before the ink dries. She could have killed him then, if she had tried.
At the same time that she was pining—though that is a strong word—Dick was on the floor above her checking his lottery numbers in the newspaper. Dick’s body, bulbous and pressed tightly into his clothes, prepared to win the lottery like a woman’s prepares for labor. He tightened, as the force of each matching number built inside him, until he felt a sudden drop. The weight had finally removed itself from his rib cage, had come tumbling toward that place where it would erupt, free at last. He took his first easy breath.
In the span of a lunch hour, Dick became a multi-millionaire, which is to say, he became rich enough to ask out the woman who was pining for another man below him.
They’d had a short engagement, only some weeks. On their first date he took her to a restaurant so upscale it was obvious he’d looked it up specifically for the night. They shared a bottle of wine. They spoke very little, except to comment on the fineness of the china or the view of the marina outside. It was then that he first told her of his interest in American Civil War reenactments. It was such a passing comment she didn’t remember it until later, when he started taking her to them. He was not unpleasant. Though he made a peculiar sound when he inhaled his pasta, and could not drink from his glass without a slight dribble forming at the corner of his mouth, she found that even these flaws were not too terrible. Outside the restaurant window the boats bobbed up and down in the marina. Behind them, the sky exploded in colors too particular to name. It was then that she decided it would not be terrible to look out of windows like these.
After the engagement, she would lie in her bed and think about her upcoming wedding. But she was not a romantic woman. She had not grown up imagining what the day might be like, or anything at all about the man that would be standing at the end of the aisle. The practicalities of marrying Dick were so obvious to her that she felt as if she had been waiting her whole life for him. It was the most romantic thought she’d had in a while.
Then after the wedding he got into that whole reenactment thing, and on most weekends they drove (his insistence) somewhere new to see men playing pretend in Civil War get-ups. At one of those things, she’d asked a man wearing Union garb for directions to the nearest corndog stand. He’d responded, “Madam, I say, what in the devil is a corndog?” Those people were just the worst.
Gettysburg. Boonville. Rich Mountain. Shiloh. Marianna. She had seen them all, some twice, suffering through the trips while Dick commandeered the vehicle—map precariously stretched out in front of him, wrinkly at the wrong folds, coffee staining the roads, dog-eared. He refused to buy an electronic one. As he said, “Paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”
She didn’t fight him. The trips were recompense for her spending. And she had spent—spent until she had filled herself full on commerce; spent enough to feed other people on her spending, too.
Before this particular trip, he’d told her, “This is world-class, Rita. This one is it,” and she held hope that when he said, “This one is it,” what he meant was, “This is the last.”
Four hours into the drive she announced, “I have to use the restroom.” She could almost feel him bristle.
“Can you hold it?”
“Are you sure?”
“Jesus, just pull the car over, Dick.”
He took the exit to the nearest town. It was a well-worn place slowed down by the summer, seared and cooked like an old-fashioned stew. They parked in front of a small convenience store as she extricated herself from Dick’s piles of maps. Inside, Rita approached the grey-haired woman sitting at the counter. “Do you have a restroom?”
Fans set up around the store dispersed hot air, lifting the woman’s hair like a halo. She didn’t look up from her magazine as she handed Rita a large key and said, “Around back.”
When she walked back outside, Dick was struggling to retrieve a water bottle that had slipped underneath his seat. The hair that was left on his head was piled on top of his forehead. His scalp glistened in the sun. Behind him, the town spread out like an old Western: a single street, long and sagging in the middle.
When the restroom door finally clicked closed behind her, she exhaled, not realizing she had been holding her breath. This was how she liked Dick best: with the bathroom door separating them.
The first time she’d locked herself in the bathroom, it was a big hubbub. She’d picked his favorite bathroom, though she wasn’t sure what had made it so. She must’ve been in there for a while before she finally heard him shuffling on the other side of the door.
“What are you doing in there?” When she didn’t answer, he’d banged his fist on the door. She’d imagined the way his bottom lip was protruding as his voice began to grow hoarse calling her name.
Inside, she’d sat on the edge of the bathtub, saying nothing. She wondered how long she could be silent, could instill in him the fear that something terrible had happened. She grew concerned that the harder his fist pummeled the door, the more satisfaction she felt.
Finally, after a long while, she yelled back, “Taking a shit, for fuck’s sake!”
It’d been the wrong thing to say. The more often she locked herself up, the more he grew envious of her ability to “shit” whenever she pleased. As if in response, he grew fastidious. He demanded bigger meals, more lavish toys. He barked at her when she left spit in the sink. And of course he spent his hours sitting on the toilet, too. Like clockwork, all that hemming and hawing, all that effort for a pebble of shit, a bead, an iota. He was all dried up, constipated by his own luck.
Back at the store she collected things for the trip: a candy bar, a gallon of water, chewing gum, and aspirin. She piled them onto the counter, where the woman began scanning them, chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette.
“Your dad’s keen on those maps, ain’t he?” she said.
The woman nodded towards Dick, who was once again pouring over his maps, laying them out over the hood of the car. He squinted in the sunlight, his index finger following the curves in the road. Rita didn’t know what possessed her, but she didn’t correct the woman. Instead she smiled, her teeth doing their best to cover up the sudden hollow.
She had been in a way embarrassed when she caught him peeking at porno magazines while he thought she was out shopping. She watched through the crack between the door and frame, mesmerized by the intimate scene of Dick slipping his pants down to his knees. As he grew from limp to hard, she caught herself wondering which woman he’d picked in the magazine.
She had never seen him naked, and now that she had, him turning red in the face as he climaxed, leaning against the bed when his knees buckled, she felt something within her stir. She left without saying a word—unheard, unseen. She kept his secret.
It started a trend. From then on she would see him through cracks and around corners all the time. Him catching spiders in glass jars, letting them free on windowsills. Him setting the frames of paintings straight, shifting things at odd angles into their right place, like with the tablemats, and the napkins, and the salt and pepper shakers. She cataloged away, too, the night rituals that filled the house, though it was so large: him closing shutters and locking doors, him trimming nose hairs, humming, turning on the shower.
From around the corner, and only days before they left on their trip to Round Top, she had overheard him yelling at the kitchen staff, saying, “Imbeciles. All of you. She likes pasta al dente. Not this crap—not this dough.” It set him off on one of his tirades. She watched him from the shadow of the lamplight in the hallway as he threw bowls of pasta at the head of their third cook (who would quit that night, as the others had) yelling about her needs, her wants, her desires. Al dente, he demanded. A little hard. To the tooth. She was struck with this strange feeling, not quite affection, but solidarity—that someone in the world was shouting for her, using the smallness of their voice without denting much of anything, but using it all the same.
In the car together, there was no hiding in the light. They drove on, her sliding out a piece of gum from her pack and sticking it in her mouth. She started chewing. “Do you have to smack the gum like that?” he said.
She snapped. “Why are we doing this? You can afford flying.”
“My family used to do this all the time—”
“Mine too,” she responded. “The best part of growing up is not having to anymore.”
They were silent. He tried again. “This is a great view.”
“It’s dry out there.” She knew she was being awful, but she couldn’t stop herself. A few long minutes passed before she asked, “What’s your favorite part, Dick?”
“The money.” The money, which had been a hole in the wall since it all started, plastered up, stitched, growing.
“Oh, come on,” she pushed, “You’ve got to have a juicier reason.”
“What do you want me to say, the food?” He was irritated, and she could tell by the way his hands were changing shades of pink on the wheel. “The food, then. Big piles of it.”
She was quiet for a moment. The landscape passed by them, dry stretches of land, repetitive and rhythmic. “What’s your least favorite part?” she asked. She watched him think for a moment.
“Strangers asking me for money. People I know asking me for money.” He paused. “I scratched tickets and bought numbers every week for twenty years. Same numbers. Month, day, year, and age my favorite dog died. Then one day, I win.”
“I see,” she replied. She didn’t see at all. Quietly, she added, “Then … why do you let me?”
Instead of answering her, he signaled to pull over the car. The gravelly road rumbled beneath the tires as they pulled to a stop under a tree—the first they’d seen in miles. He shut the engine off, and a faint and silent breeze flittered in through the car’s open windows. She felt limp and exhausted.
“What are you doing Dick?” she asked. Without warning, he pressed his lips against hers and pushed her back into her seat. His face felt porous and dimpled, glazed in sweat. She was startled by the roughness of his moustache, which smelled of gas station coffee. For a moment, he enveloped her. Out of curiosity, she let him. In seven months, their first kiss. When he pulled away, they stared at each other dumbly.
Perhaps he expected her to say something. When she didn’t, he simply turned back to the wheel and started the engine up again, pulling back onto the highway.
They reached their destination by nightfall. He checked out two adjacent rooms. Settled into their separate beds, she noticed things in the room: the note-ridden Bible in the drawer, the hint of lavender scent on the sheets. In the distance, a clock tower dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom. Night seeped in, and she began to dream of war. Of those bent as if senseless to the earth, some gazing up at the stars and sending through them, in blinks and sighs, wireless messages to those far away. She did not dream of death specifically, but began to feel its arrival.
In the morning, she and Dick walked over to the grounds where the events surrounding the reenactment were in full force, the most loyal of actors already donning their costumes, all of Round Top littered with Northern and Southern soldiers. Annoyed with it all, she spoke very little. Instead, on their way to the main event, they did as they always did, which was buy various things together: picture frames and homemade jam and porcelain roosters for the kitchen. Everything they ever needed or would need was in those racks.
They were halfway there when he stopped abruptly, muttering for her to wait just a moment. He disappeared into the crowd as she waited, balancing her sunglasses on the tip of her nose. A little boy a few feet ahead of her dropped his ice-cream cone down his shirt, and his dog started to lap up what melted on the asphalt. Suddenly, Dick reappeared, standing in front of her with a bouquet of yellow roses. She didn’t know what to say, so she took them when he thrust them forward, holding them awkwardly in her arms, like being handed a baby without much warning. It happened gradually, but she began to hate the way that people walking by were looking at them, as if to say, They still got it, whatever that meant.
Finally, as the din of the crowd around her seemed to grow to deafening levels, she said, “Thirteen of them. Aren’t there usually twelve?”
He shrugged. “Thirteen’s my lucky number.”
They kept walking. Around her, the town was buzzing with electricity, fizzing from the top of the tallest phone tower down to the deepest pothole. She waded in it. Beside her, Dick’s whole body seemed to be balancing itself on the tip of his toes.
He turned to her. “I need to change now.”
“Change?” she asked.
“For the reenactment. I’m playing Andrew J. Folham.”
“You’re in it? Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean … isn’t it a bit … physical?”
She must have had some expression on her face that displeased him, because he turned red in the face. She couldn’t tell whether it was from anger or the temperature. She remembered then a phone call she received from their accountant some weeks ago: “Ma’am, he says he’s been crying a lot at home. Is everything all right? “Oh?” She was caught off guard, fighting then a guilty feeling. “He’s been crying?” “I’m not sure. He’s been calling them mild lacrimal events.”
But even now, when she looked very closely at his eyes, even though she tried very hard, she could not imagine him crying—mildly or otherwise. Finally he said, “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to.” And then he left, still red, pushing his way through the crowd.
Standing there alone, she felt unmoored. The boy who dropped his ice cream cone walked by again with his mother, a new cone in hand. The roses in her arms felt heavy, and she forced herself to wander for a little while longer, picking up items here and there from the booths.
The crowd dispersed as somewhere a gun fired, signaling the start of the reenactment. She did not want to watch. Instead she became very interested in an old postcard in a nearby booth—a copy of a real Civil War photo. A soldier’s portrait, foggy at the edges. His face expressionless.
She heard screaming. At first she thought she had imagined it, and then finally the sound erupted in her ear, and she felt the bile inside her rise. She rushed toward the sound instinctively, the spectating crowd ebbing into the reenactment now, too. The roses in her hands fell to her side as she spotted a small gathering of people clumped together around something in the grass.
In the center she could see a man in Union garb raising his hands up as if in surrender. At his feet was a musket with a bayonet, the tip of the blade slicked red. “You don’t understand!” he said, panicked as the crowd grew around him. “He was trying to actually kill me!”
Rita pushed her way to the front of the crowd, and there, limbs strewn amid the grass, was Dick. A bloom of red unfurled at his waist. She fell to her knees beside him as another man pressed a wad of rags against his wound. “It doesn’t look too deep,” he muttered to her. “I think he’ll be fine.”
“I thought these weapons were fake!” she said to no one in particular, though the man with his arms raised answered.
“It was my great-great-great grandfather’s—I didn’t mean to use it—I was just defending myself!”
From the ground, Dick gazed up at her. She thought she heard him mutter something about the children, and she reminded him they didn’t have any.
Another voice behind her said, “There’s an ambulance on the way, ma’am.”
Dick’s eyes fluttered open and closed as she muttered, “You stupid, stupid man.” Her face felt wet, and that’s how she knew she was crying.
She imagined this: a woman by another name in a different time is also hunched over her dying husband, except that he is really dying, and it is really the war, and this is really the last time she will savor what it is to have her name inside his mouth. If they have not discovered their love yet, they will discover it now. There was perhaps a one in a million chance that it would be her husband to get slaughtered, or perhaps the odds were higher, but on that particular day it is her husband and not someone else’s. It is her husband and not someone else’s that she grieves over, remembering what it was the first time that she imagined loving him, remembering how it feels for a man to really mean it when he says, She likes it al dente.
Rita could imagine now what Dick looked like on the other side of that bathroom door, hoarsely calling for her to come out, not pounding his fist against the wood barrier, but leaning his whole self into it.
Jean Burnet lives and works in Seattle. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Brevity and The Acentos Review, among others. She is currently a Made at Hugo House fellow and is at work on her first novel. You can follow her work at jeanburnet.com. This story was selected by Erin Sroka.
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