Three Times the Charm
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” –Emerson
It was Saturday night, late, when Fred got out of his lawn chair to go upstairs. Ike’s eyes were barely open, staring in a dream-trance at the fire flickering in the stove, lost in fatigue and elixir, a scrawled page of notes and a calculator under his feet. The sound of the television upstairs roused him.
Fred was standing close to the set, watching the Powerball announcement. He had a ticket in his hands.
“For God’s sake, Fred, you can’t be thinking you’re going to win again?!”
“It was an impulse; before going to my mother’s house. For luck.”
“There’s always a rabbit’s foot…” Ike muttered, but already, two numbers matched.
Fred blinked, his ears stuffed with static. Three. All he saw was the sequence of numbers, a fourth; he lost focus, felt a surge of heat, dizziness, airless…
He hit the floor in a faint.
Ike fell to his knees beside him. “Fred, you OK?”
“Is it over?” He lifted his head and attempted to fix his glasses back onto his nose.
“Just a guess,” Ike said faintly, glancing from the television to the slip of paper Fred clutched in his left hand. “But I think it’s just starting.”
“Oh, merde. This cannot be happening.”
“You know, Fred, you might want to admit you have a problem. But look on the bright side—maybe you didn’t win much.”
“You want it?” Fred focused on Ike’s face, shoving the ticket in his direction. Thought had resumed in his skull and registered in his face, though he was still dazed.
“No! Really, I don’t. You’ve got to stop buying tickets, man. One more and you’ll have a coronary.”
“I may be having one now.”
“Seriously?” Ike’s voice pinged with terror, as if the haphazard heart rhythm was his.
“My chair,” Fred said, and Ike got him up, gingerly, in case he really was in danger. Once seated comfortably with his feet up, Ike fetched a glass of water, and sat at his feet on the ottoman.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” He stuck his feet up beside Fred, whose color seemed normal, nor was he breaking a sweat the way people always did on TV when they had a coronary. If that was any way to judge something so serious.
“I don’t want anything to change.”
“Well, it will, won’t it? If you play it smart, which you will of course, you won’t have to work if you don’t want to.”
“I meant—you won’t change, will you? Or Constantia?”
Ike leaned forward so his chin was on his knees. “Well, if you’re asking if I might act the ass over this, I might. But will I always be your friend? That won’t shake. That’s bedrock.”
Fred visibly relaxed. Ike was the bedrock of his Communitas and there was no felix without him.
“As for Constantia, I don’t know her anywhere like you do. But I don’t think she’ll go nuts.” He paused. “Much.”
Fred closed his eyes. “What would Bes say?”
“What would Debord say?”
“Well,” Fred mused, now that he had his hand on an idea he knew how to use. “Capital has a tendency to be Spectacular, especially at this scale. I think he’d want to see how it might be used radically. He had a wealthy friend who bankrolled his films.”
Ike shrugged. “Then you’ll be fine.”
“Will you go with me tomorrow—to cash this?”
Without thinking, Ike nodded in the affirmative.
The evening ended with quiet plans made over a quickly bolted round of elixir. Ike looked at his cell phone once, but slid it back in his pocket, determined to watch over Fred until he was convinced he was alright.
“You going to call Con?”
Fred lifted himself from a deep well of thought. “Eventually.”
“Then, uh, why not get some sleep? We’ve got some driving to do tomorrow.”
Fred rose rather mechanically and trudged up the stairs. There was no party, no celebration, no joy. As Ike shut off the lights and made his way upstairs, he began to wonder why people fantasized so much about lottery winnings. Fred seemed bereft, more so even than when he didn’t have his mortgage to fuss over constantly, and the despair was catching. As a tonic before sleep, Ike lit his cell phone and returned the missed call.
“Hmmm?” Ike was staring out the window, letting the trees ripple by as a vague, veined brown shape against a low, milky sky.
“I want to give you some of the money.”
“What?” Ike sat up abruptly, staring at Fred. This particular notion had not occurred to him; his only thought last night had been that Fred needed him.
“What do I want with millions in Spectacular cash? You’re my best friend; I want to give you some of it.”
A sudden chill flashed over his skin; Ike felt he was going into shock. “I can’t take it, Fred. I don’t want it.”
Something about the quantity of cash involved felt repugnant.
“Why not? Invest it. Buy a truck. Start a business.”
Saying that felt automatic, and as the words came out, he knew it wasn’t exactly what he felt. In fact, what Fred had said kicked off a shiver of elation. Though it didn’t last, that momentary brilliant trembling meant something.
“I’m not your dad. There would be no clauses or strings attached. It would be a gift.”
Ike looked over at Fred, hands relaxed on the steering wheel, registering the wheel of crows arcing over the road as they wound down out of the Alleghenies toward Breezewood. He was firm, calm, and a little scary.
The fact was, they’d spent yesterday evening pouring over his numbers. Ike wanted to build that house so much he tasted it, like a hit of espresso, a physical sensation that made his hands shake, almost as much as thinking about Paulette. In spite of how bad it looked, cutting everything imaginable, and in spite of a schedule that made a baseball scholarship and architecture studio look like a snooze on the beach, he had already decided he was going to do it. He didn’t care if it killed him—after all, what was the point, the point in being alive, if he wasn’t going to be doing what he wanted to do?
“An old truck. Maybe.”
Fred nodded. “An old truck.”
Fred saw he was going to have to be careful about his choices. Watching Ike struggle was a glimpse of what was to come for the rest of them, but bubbling up inside him was a situationist vision, the tightrope daring of a spanking new game.
“Just me?” Ike asked, his first attempt to fathom the meaning of this news. “Anyone else?”
Fred glanced over at his brooding companion. “You, Constantia, Esmeralda, my mother. That’s what I’ve been thinking.”
“I think I will. I bought the ticket the day I went to see her.”
Ike had slumped back into his seat, staring at the tree-line ahead. It was a lot to take in. His voice was very quiet when he spoke again. “Do you know how much it is?”
Fred shook his head. “That would depend on how many other people played the same number. The jackpot was only $25 million, and though I haven’t made the calculation for the final payout, it will be divided by five. I think.”
Ike pointed ahead as a large blue sign flashed by. “That rest area, let’s pull in.”
Fred glanced at the gas gauge, which was still at half, flipped the signal, and began to shift toward the right exit lane.
As soon as Fred turned the engine off, Ike launched away immediately, running full out—across the lot, past the sidewalk, the pet run, vaulted a fence and was gone. Fred strolled toward the low, gray stone building, deciding some coffee and food might be good. Cars and trucks kept up their roaring passage, and then he was inside.
Ike came in about twenty minutes later, face even more flushed than usual. Fred stood to wave him over.
“A bit. Just some overload I needed to run out of my system.”
The waitress appeared and Ike ordered coffee and a Danish.
Ike laughed bitterly. “You can eat?”
He wasn’t going to mention the ten minutes of dry heaves, or the agony of not calling Paulette to talk about it. All he sent her was a short message: Thinking about you…
Fred’s appetite was indeed intact: he dug into a breakfast steak, bloody, home fries and toast with strawberry jam. Ike nibbled at the Danish and ordered more coffee.
They drove all day through the bleak brown and gray early winter landscape of flat, central Pennsylvania, dotted with white barns and silos, stopping beyond Harrisburg at the first Turnpike exit, where numerous older generation motels scattered themselves along the roadside, all with their Vacancy signs lit. Fred chose the one with the gaudiest sign, and pulled up in front of the office.
The room was quiet and passably clean. Ike turned on the TV, looking for sports but was too restless to settle on anything, and shut it off ten minutes later. Fred meantime had gotten interested in the Harrisburg Sunday paper that he’d picked up at the front desk. Ike was sleeping soundly long before Fred finished the financial section.
Late that night, per usual, Paulette called Ike. Still half-asleep, without thinking, he picked up the phone.
“Hey, lover. The signal’s bad, where are you?”
“Harrisburg, I think. Or Highspire, maybe. With Fred.”
“Is he right there, with you, now?”
“I don’t give a shit, Paulette.”
Fred’s head shifted slightly on the pillow.
There was silence on the phone. “All right. You’re really OK with that?”
“Yeah. It’s time. I’ve been an idiot.”
“Don’t say that. You just need privacy to cut loose, that’s all.”
Her words hit him with a jolt. It was true; he hadn’t known it himself. He suddenly wanted her to have everything—motorcycles, helium balloons, good dark rum, the Chrysler Building, oak trees, mountains, valleys with farms, shooting stars, maybe a little planet covered in volcanoes and ice.
“How about I bring you back something nice…”
She chuckled. “From Harrisburg?”
“Sure.” The playful easiness was back in his voice.
“Why are you there?”
“It’s a stop on the way.”
“Where are you headed? Kinda sudden trip.”
“I had one of those ‘what the hell’ moments.”
“You misquote: you had one of those ‘what the fuck’ moments.”
“Misquote? From what?”
He laughed. “Really? Hunh. What do you think of trains?”
So she told him. He tried to be real quiet, lying there on his back in a bed five feet from Fred’s, listening to that sharp voice that he now loved and depended upon, whispering what she wanted to be doing with him on that imaginary train…She liked the power play, making him lay back and listen to the imagined rhythm of the wheels knocking on the rails, the smooth movement with its jolt and slide, teasing him until the guttural sound that she knew as her lover was saying “stop… stop” but she kept on going, for the sheer pleasure of taking him some place he was afraid to go. And then to the sound of his ragged return to breathing, she said “good night, babe” and hung up.
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