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An Act of God

 

            Nothing ever came to any good in Lovelock. Even the Humboldt River that ran all the way across the state gave out in the sand near town.  Benita often thought of the pioneers creaking hopefully along in their covered wagons, following that liquid miracle across the desert only to find it peter out in a bed of white alkali. It was called the Humboldt Sink, the place where a river disappeared and hope with it. Benita could almost feel it out there sucking at her like quicksand.  No one was more stuck than she was; she and stuckness were on such intimate terms she sometimes wondered whether she might be exuding some invisible sticky substance that kept her fixed in place, a combination of sweat and contact cement.

            Out of spite, she stopped to lean against the “No Hitchhiking or Loitering” sign downtown. It had always irritated her because it seemed to Benita that hitchhiking might be a way to avoid loitering, not that anyone in his right mind would want to loiter on Cornell Street anyway.

            Home was a frowzy little cube painted a bright green that had faded to what Benita thought of as puddle scum khaki. She was careful not to bang the screen door going in. She turned into the kitchen, slipped an ice cube from the freezer tray and ran it over her forehead.

            In the front room her mother’s husky voice was edging up toward a whine. “I need the cooler fixed, Lucky,” Evie complained. “You got the barbershop to go to, but all I’ve got’s this house.”

            Benita leaned against the doorjamb and watched her mother hovering over Lucky’s recliner.  The room was bathed in colored strobes from the TV set, and Benita imagined they were microwaves jiggling their intestines, simmering their juices.  Eventually they’d end up fully cooked, immobile as standing sides of beef.  Water from the ice cube trickled into her eyebrows, but didn’t cool her.

            “Shut up about it,” Lucky said, jabbing toward Evie with the channel changer as if he could switch her off.  “I’m not even going in to the shop this week.”

            “Why not?” Evie’s gray hair stirred in the wind from the oscillating fan trained on Lucky’s chair.

              “I cut that bastard Driggs,” Lucky said.

              Evie glanced over at  Benita and she nodded. The gossip had already made it to the gas station where Benita worked, circulating on the invisible air waves that energized Lovelock, lending it a kind of internal strength from its own heated feedback.  Everett Driggs ran sheep out near the Sink, and he’d sucked rattler venom out of one too many of his snake-bitten blanket makers.  Lucky usually got away with ear snipping, but not this time.  Everett had threatened to return the favor, in the same place he cut his male lambs.

            “Anyway, you’re damn lucky to have this house,” Lucky added.  By which he meant paid-for, a roof over their heads: one of his refrains.   Benita wondered if her mother ever felt lucky.  Luck, it seemed to her, had always side-stepped their run-down speck of a house, taking its gold-toothed, spur-jingling self to the big resorts and casinos in Vegas to rub shoulders with the rich and beautiful people.

            Benita squeezed the ice cube and counted the drops landing on her sandaled foot--up to twenty-three--one for each year of her life.  She counted everything she could these days--moths, minutes, red trucks on the freeway.  She kept a tally of things with forward motion, their own momentum.  Eventually, the numbers might reach some critical mass, and she’d move, too, pulled by magic forces right out of herself.

            Evie came into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and stuck her head into the freezer compartment.  The compressor kicked on with a whoosh of cool fog.  She pulled out a frosty box of chocolate-covered grahams.  “Lucky, you want any graham crackers?”

            “Hell, no, you know I hate that damn kid food.   And get back out here.  Big Spin’s comin’ on.”

            Evie stuffed a cracker in her mouth.  “Coming,” she said.

            Benita followed her mother into the front room and sat beside her on the nubby couch that had once served as her bed.  Lucky had a cousin in California send him a lottery ticket every week. As if the odds were any better in that siren of a state.  Benita sighed and looked down at her hands, which were large like Evie’s.  The rest of her was large, too.  The two of them, she decided, could pass for a couple of big stuffed bears sitting there in the flickering light.  The couch bit into the backs of her legs, like sitting on grit.

            Lucky leaned forward as the numbers spun into view. “It only takes one hit,” he said, socking his palm.  “One hit and your life changes forever.”

 Benita stared at her father’s profile.  With his head thrust forward and his neck sagging toward the mound of his belly, he looked like an overturned tortoise.  She wiped her knees with sweaty hands and tried to summon up a single wisp of daughterly affection.  Lucky had taught her to play poker when she had the chicken pox.  She  ticked this memory off on her finger: one.  He’d bought her a bike: two.

Lucky crumpled his losing ticket and threw it across the room.  Benita gave up at two.

            “How was your day, hon?” her mother asked.

            “This woman came in today,” Benita began, but Lucky clicked up the volume, drowning out her voice.  This woman came in today wearing a mini-dress and no panties, she was about to say.  Evie loved to hear what they said and did, those people from the endless caravan passing through the gas station.  And Benita enjoyed the telling; she imagined switching places with one of the rumpled women who got out of their air-conditioned cars, dashed in to take a pee and grab a cold Slush, then got back on the road to Salt Lake City or Lake Tahoe.  Benita dreamed about that lake, cold and cobalt-colored, so deep drowned people were never found.

            Evie leaned forward when Lucky switched to the shopping channel.  “I sure would like one of those food processors, Lucky.”

            Lucky clicked to another channel.  “Have Benita Louise get you one out of her big paycheck.”

            Evie looked over at Benita.  “She pays for her share of things.”

            Benita got up and went outside, letting the door bang.  Half of every paycheck went to Lucky, disappearing as completely as if she’d set a match to it.  Behind the garage was her cactus garden--a dozen potted cacti that she checked daily, turning them in the sun.  The bloom she was waiting for had arrived; a delicate cream-colored horn projected from a prickly barrel.  She liked to think that cactus blossoms represented the thoughts of the plants, that a cactus struggled for a long time to produce one beautiful idea.  The flower trembled as she picked up the pot and carried it back to show Evie.

            Lucky spotted her at the door.  “Don’t you bring that damn devil plant in here,” he yelled.  “It could be full of bugs.”

            Her mother looked at her from the lighted kitchen, and Benita held out the pot for her to see.

            “Didn’t I tell you about that cactus that exploded and all them spiders crawling out?”  Lucky half rose from his chair.  “You planning to be stupid all your life, Benita Louise?  ‘Cause if you are, you might as well move out now.”

            She should--go and stand under the no hitchhiking sign and stick out her thumb and see what came along. She backed into the darkness and looked down at the blossom.  How could spiders live inside a cactus?  Lucky relied too much on the tabloids for his news.

            “I’m gonna torch them things one of these days,” Lucky called after her. “Douse ‘em with kerosene and watch ‘em burn.”

            Benita turned away.  Lucky wouldn’t expend the effort it took to move the plants a safe distance from the garage.  He’d grown so fat he had to sit on a stool to do a haircut.  She set the pot down and leaned against the garage wall.

Evie came around the corner and held out the graham cracker box.  Benita bit into the cold chocolate and sighed.  Eating in secret was something she and her mother shared, eating in peace, away from Lucky’s volcanic rumble, eating whatever they wanted, usually something cool and sweet.   She could hear the roar of semi-trucks barreling across the desert on I-80, and wondered where that one red truck was.

 “Mom? How come you married Lucky?”

            Evie licked her fingers.  “I guess ‘cause he wanted me.  The only one that ever did.”

            Benita knew how hard it was to turn down desire when it came knocking.  For her it had been an older trucker with big, hard hands and all the miles he’d ever driven reflected in his eyes.  She spent the night in his sleeper cab, and stood watching in the ruined, blue dawn as his truck disappeared down the highway.

            “Lucky had his dreams,” Evie said.  “Hunted for silver in all the mountains around.  He thought--because of his name, you know--he’d strike it rich.”

            That particular dream was endemic to Nevadans, a virus that lived off the sweet sound of coins spitting into a tray.  Benita squatted to pick up a stick and dig at the soil around a cactus.  “Only lucky strike he’ll ever have is that barber shop down there.”

            Evie flattened the empty cracker box.  “He used to collect silver dollars once.  All gone now I guess--spent.”  She folded up the box and dropped it in the trash on her way inside.

            Lucky was already snoring in his recliner when Benita entered the house.  He’d deserted Evie’s bed, claiming he couldn’t breathe lying down.  A couple of moths hurled themselves against the kitchen light, and Benita trapped them in a newspaper cone and carried them outside.  They were numbers forty-two and forty-three.  Rescuing moths was a favor done in advance, a good deed she hoped would swing back her way.  She wondered how many moths it would take, offered like pale votives to the night, to buy her own rescue.

            Benita pulled on her nightgown and climbed into bed with her mother. Lucky’s side swayed down like a hammock.  “You think Lucky was disappointed ‘cause I wasn’t a boy?”

            Evie laughed.  “Nah, he didn’t care one way or the other.  The baby was for me, not him.  You were my big gift from Lucky.”

            Benita sighed. “I don’t feel like he had anything to do with it at all.”

            “Well, he did,” Evie said, her voice full of secret knowledge.

            Benita thought of the stranger in the photograph on her mother’s dresser: a young man with his head cocked, the white wedge of a grin on his sunburned face.  Evie knew Lucky when he looked like that; she had that image stored away in her head, and she could hold it up to the man in the front room and see the resemblance, maybe even feel the same affection. Benita shifted in the hollow of the bed, drawing her knees up, and drifted off.

            She dreamed that an eighteen-wheeler roared through the sage brush toward the house.  It hit the wall in an explosion of wood and metal.  Benita leapt from sleep, shaking.  “Mom?” She groped in the dark and collided with her mother.  A burning smell hung in the air. 

            Benita pushed by Evie and threw open the bedroom door.  Moonlight shone through a hole in the ceiling. “Lucky?”

            His chair listed like a sinking ship.  Evie snapped on a table lamp.  Lucky was embracing something that looked like a hard, green melon.  His eyes were open, surprised, and his mouth full of blood.  Evie whimpered and grabbed Benita’s arm. 

            “Don’t look, Mom.  Go call 911, get an ambulance.”

            Green debris was scattered around the room.  She stooped, put a finger out.  “Ice?”

            “Don’t touch that stuff,” Evie screamed from the kitchen.  “It could be radioactive.”

            Benita wondered if the green ball was from outer space, a frozen meteorite.  She edged toward the kitchen, afraid to turn her back on the thing sitting on Lucky’s chest.  “We better wait outside.”

            They stood in the yard, holding on to each other.  Evie’s breath came in  pants, fast and light.  Benita stroked her mother’s back, tried counting breaths, forgot to breathe herself, choked and lost count.  She shivered as the headlights of a sheriff’s car blinded them, shown through their thin nightgowns, throwing huge silhouettes on the wall.  Clayton Ault opened the car door, and Benita was jolted by the same feeling of naked clumsiness she’d had when they were in high school together.  She pointed inside.

            They could hear Clayton’s boots clumping around in the house.  “God Almighty,” he said and  ran past them to use the patrol car’s radio.

            Benita looked up at the sky.  The stars resembled the metallic chips in the polished black floor of a casino she’d seen in Reno.  She wondered how anything could break through that crust of sky and make it all the way down to Lucky.  What were the odds of something like that happening?

            She and Evie climbed into Lucky’s old Buick when Clayton’s reinforcements arrived.  Police cars and vans circled the house like a wagon train.  Men in yellow rubber suits traipsed in and out, their passage punctuated by squawks from the radio.

            Clayton took his hat off as he approached the Buick’s window.  “I’m awful sorry about Lucky, Ms. Winn.” 

Evie nodded.

            Benita leaned past her mother  to look up at Clayton.  “Was it some kind of meteor?”

            “The haz mat guys, they think maybe...” Clayton cleared his throat.  “The hazardous materials crew, they think it might be frozen waste.”

            Evie stared at him.  “Lucky was killed by toxic waste?”

            Clayton squatted next to the car.   “From an airplane probably.  That kind of waste.  It, uh, kind of smells that way.”

            Benita let out a snort and put her hand over her mouth.

            “It was real fast, Ms, Winn,” Clayton said, looking up at the sky.  “Lucky didn’t know what hit--I mean, he didn’t’ suffer any.”  He looked over at Benita.  “You and Benita can go back inside pretty soon and change, uh, change out of your...”  He stood and replaced his hat. “ Don’t you worry.  We’ll get it all cleaned up for you.”

            Evie put her face in her hands.  “Lucky would just die.”

            Benita stifled another snort.  It occurred to her that in some universal plan, Lucky and that ball of green ice were traveling along the same line--that it was only a question of when they would meet.  “Kind of odds Lucky was always looking for,” she said.

            Her mother let out a sob as two men carried Lucky’s chair out and set it next to the garage.

            The house smelled like disinfectant.  Through the ragged hole in the ceiling, the morning sky shone red-streaked blue.  Benita put on the coffee pot and went to change clothes.  When she came back to the kitchen, she found Evie at the table, staring at the stream of coffee seeping through the filter.  Her mother’s bushy eyebrows looked splintery in the gray light.  “I don’t see how we’re gonna pay for a funeral,” Evie said.

            “Maybe there’s something in the shop we can sell,” Benita said.  “I’m going down to see.” She laid her hand on Evie’s shoulder.  “Okay, Mom?” 

            Evie nodded.  “Jean Ellen’s coming over soon as she gets dressed.”

            Jean Ellen was her mother’s pinochle partner.   Benita wouldn’t have been surprised if Jean Ellen had dispensed with getting dressed altogether in her haste to tap into the juiciest story of the decade.

            The air in the Lucky Winn Barber Shop was hot and stale.  Benita knew  the dilapidated equipment was worthless, but she wanted to look for clues, something that would explain her father’s life to her.

            Small hummocks of hair dotted the floor around the barber chair.  She took a broom from the storeroom and swept them up.  The little pile of human hair seemed as personal as underwear.  She imagined the snick--snick of Lucky’s scissor blades, his fingers touching men’s heads, that few minutes of shared intimacy and trust.  She bit her lip and tipped the dustpan into the trash.

            The storeroom was jammed with newspapers and empty bottles, boxes and stained drapes.  She poked through the useless heaps and found a battered blue make-up case nestled in cardboard box.  It was heavy.  What  had Lucky  squirreled away inside, she wondered as she carried it over to his stool to work on the lock.

            Inside, two liberty heads peaked out from a jumble of envelopes.  She picked through the envelopes, one by one: Lucky’s hoard of silver dollars.  They looked shiny and new in their stiff little cardboard holders--eagles and women’s heads from the 1800’s.  She could picture Lucky putting the “Closed” sign out  and jingling through this stash.

            Benita carried the case out to the car and sat for a few minutes.  Then she started the engine and drove south toward Fallon.  Heat warped the pavement; wavering sheets of water flowed across the road and vanished.  She glanced at the blue case on the seat beside her.  Lucky wasn’t the gambler he made out; coin collecting was a no-risk fallback.  He wanted Lady Luck in a box so he could keep an eye on her.  She realized that this part of  Lucky lived on in her.  She, too, kept her dreams locked up in a box. 

            Fallon was busy siphoning up the springs that fed it, efflorescing with new subdivisions called Sespe Meadows and Valle Verde Estates.  Benita knew she was supposed to want one of those new houses, with its tile everything and built-in sprinklers, but she didn’t.  The weight of that kind of ownership would flatten a person like an insect.  Downtown, she pondered a storefront labeled “Women’s Lifestyle Center.”  Next to it a casino advertised “hot slots,” and she wondered what those smart women, the ones in possession of an actual lifestyle, thought about that slogan.

            She parked in front of the coin dealer’s shop. Next door, sunlight cascaded off the plate glass window of a travel agency.  Behind the glare was a poster of snow-capped mountains with the invitation, “Vacation in Switzerland.”  “Vacation,” Benita realized, was as empty of meaning for her as “lifestyle.”  The picture and its words made her feel frustrated  and hungry.

            The coin dealer leaned forward and sniffed when Benita opened the case.  He sorted through the envelopes as she unloaded them, sliding the holders out for a quick look, pausing with a magnifying glass over others.  “This is Lucky Winn’s collection,” he said, rotating a dollar inches from his eye.

            “Was,” Benita said.  “Lucky passed away.  I’m his daughter.”

            “You want to sell it?” 

            “Maybe.  We have to pay for the funeral.”

             “You know anything about coins?”

            Benita shook her head.

He tapped the plastic covering a silver lady.  “1892 Liberty head.  Uncirculated.  She’s worth just over $2000.”

            Benita gripped the counter edge.  “How much for everything?”

            His fingers played over the holders lovingly, arranging them in rows.  He puffed out his cheeks, glanced up at her and back down at the coins.  “I’ll give you a good price--out of respect for Lucky.”

            He wants to haggle, she thought, talk, handle the ladies some more.  “How much?” she asked.

            He licked his lips.   “I could go as high as $70,000 if you can wait a few days.”

            “I’ll think about it.” She gathered the coins together, slipped them back inside the envelopes. 

             “You won’t do any better in Reno.”

            Benita closed the case.  “How did Lucky do it?”

            He shrugged, a forward thrust of his shoulders.  “One at a time.  Like most collectors.   I have a safe here, if you want to leave them.  Till you decide.”

            “No thanks.”  She carried the case to the door and stepped outside.

            The heat made her stagger.  Next door the snowy mountains shimmered like a mirage.  She pushed open the travel agency door and entered a cool box canyon full of fake trees and pictures of Brazilian waterfalls. In front of a display stand of brochures, she stopped, transfixed.

            A woman looked up from clicking her long red nails on the buttons of a keyboard.  “Help yourself, honey.”

            “Holiday,” Benita read aloud, selecting a folder with a picture of a dark, unruffled lake.  Holiday was a more hopeful sounding word than vacation, which made her think of the motels clumped like sandbags along the nodes of the interstate.

            She stepped over to the desk. “Could I make a call?”

            The woman pushed the phone toward Benita so she could dial. 

“I need some help here, Benita,” Evie said as soon as she was on the line. “People been coming in and out all morning just to see this hole.”

  “I found them, Mom. I found Lucky’s silver dollars.”

            Evie wasn’t listening.  “An act of God. That’s what the agent said. Came out special from Reno.”

            “We’ll be okay, Mom.”

            Benita drove back to Lovelock with the brochure wrapped around the steering wheel, its blue water lapping at her fingers.  She imagined coolness seeping through her skin, flowing along the pathways to her brain.  The alkali flats glistened by the roadside like a field of dirty snow.  Something she’d been nurturing in darkness for a long time was finally making its appearance, unfolding like a cactus blossom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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