We were killing off our shifts at the Calypso Gas and Chew. Matthew and Roy were in the kitchen, clanging silverware around and loudly arguing about movies–“The Shining is the perfect horror movie!– and Delaney was lying in a booth seat, her black hair spilled out on the red seat as she scrolled her phone with one finger, yawning into the blue light of her screen.
I was leaning against the breakfast counter, sleepily filling out a crossword. We had one customer; a mournful old man with very long earlobes who was slowly eating a plateful of hash browns soaked in ketchup. 10pm until about 12:30 was the witching hour; too late for any sort of dinner crowd, anyone who was drinking that night wouldn’t be in until closer to 2am. 11pm at the Calypso was for the derelicts, the randoms, the people waiting for rides home from work and we were the only place still open, the spot for the breakup victim to come in and just sit and stare at their phone wondering what the hell had happened. The gas station attached saw more action, a slow trickle of derelicts heading off to fight their own night shift battles.
Behind me, Roy and Matthew moved on to actresses, who was the best, the hottest, who deserved more roles.
“Know what I watched the other day? Batman Forever,” Roy said. “Nicole Kidman in 1995 man, like, it’s not even fair.”
“Oh I like her!” Matthew replied over the spray of the sink hose. “I had a crush on her when I was a kid.”
“Probably because of Batman Forever! Here, look at this picture!”
Delaney sat up slightly, and rolled her eyes at me. I smiled weakly, more in support than anything else. The only reason Delaney cared what they were talking about was because her and Matt had split up again. When they were together, everything he said was funny, interesting, sweet and adorable. When they were apart, he was an idiot.
I was pretty sure they were still in love with each other because I would catch Matt looking over at her through the serving counter window, and Delaney would ask me what I thought of her makeup before every shift. And then she made an extra effort to be annoyed whenever he spoke.
I’d asked them both separately, what had happened, and she said:
“He wouldn’t fight for me, he didn’t make me feel wanted.”
And he said:
“I didn’t know how to do what she wanted. And I got tired of trying.”
Whatever all that meant. I did know that it regulated me to Calypso peacekeeper, mediating between the two whenever things got heated. It also meant I had to be Delaney’s affirmation machine, supplying nods and yes’s to all of her Matt complaints.
The pendulum would swing back. The cold war between them would thaw and a new, familiar annoyance would return: Delaney and Matt together.
The thought bored me. I often felt like boredom was my true default emotion. My resting mood. Something would happen, a light bulb in the overhead fluorescents would explode and Roy would shriek like a girl. My mood would lift to “mild bemusement” before being wrapped up and suffocated by the disinterest.
Roy liked to flirt with me. He would wander over, wiping his hands on his apron, long, frizzy black hair tucked under a backwards, sweat stained baseball cap. “Suh-man-tha” he would say, “whatcha up to this weekend?”
That got me to “slight discomfort.” I got to dip, twirl and dance away from him. “No, no, I uh, have to take my dog to the (vet, groomer, dog furnace) something.”
The bell over the door jingled merrily and a wreck of a man stumbled in. His hair was patchy, with white scalp showing through tufts of brown that stuck out a crazy angles. He’d been good-looking, once. Now his suit hung loosely and shabbily on his body, his eyes were deeply pressed into his skull; he hadn’t slept in days. His beard, scraggly and uneven, was pockmarked with red welts. When he sat down at a booth, he checked nervously over his shoulder and surveyed the ceiling, like he was checking for something that might fall. One of his hands knocked into the sugar dispenser on the table. I watched–mildly bemused again– as the cap flew off and sugar spilled everywhere.
Delaney met my eyes and looked away. That meant it was my table, it wasn’t worth it to put down her phone. And she knew I was bored.
I grabbed some napkins and went over. I equipped my bright, cheery waitress voice. “Hello, I’m Sam. Let me get this sugar out of the way –,” I swept the sugar into my hand with the napkin and tossed it into the trash near the counter. “Okay,” I said, clicking my pen, “what can I get for ya?”
He glanced at the little plastic menu. “Um, 2 eggs. Toast. Coffee. Some bacon. Thank you.”
“Okay, we’ll get that right out to you.”
He shot me a look. His face said “yeah right”. Then he put his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes furiously. Irritation flared inside of me and I had a tiny, flickering impulse to slam the glass sugar shaker against the side of his head.
I took the order slip and handed it through the window to the guys. They snatched it with glee; they had some weird contest going to see who could get orders out fastest.
“Eggs!” Matthew screamed.
“Two eggs!” Roy screamed back. They proceed to make as much racket as possible, using the biggest pans they could. I saw an entire loaf of bread soar through the air across the kitchen.
I went to grab the coffee. It was old, and cold. Delaney had neglected to make a fresh pot.
“Coffee’s gonna be a minute!” I called to the man.
He didn’t respond. I started a new pot, and brought him a cup and some creamer.
A few minutes later, Roy was slamming the bell, ting-ting-ting!
“I’m right here!” I snapped.
“Order up, Suh-man-tha!”
“I’m gonna stuh-ab you in the fuh-ace,” I replied, taking the plates.
I set them down in front of the man, and frowned. “Sorry,” I said. “You had scrambled eggs, white toast and bacon, right?” On the plate were over-easy eggs, wheat toast and sausage. “They can’t read, I know I wrote your order right.”
“It’s fine!” he snapped. He began hungrily shoving the food in his mouth. I came back with the coffee pot, now full with boiling black liquid. I poured it into his cup but it overflowed, spilling onto the table and-,
He already had napkins ready. He soaked it up with one hand while stabbing eggs with his fork in the other. I expected more anger, but he ignored me.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, backing away. I identified as a stupid person, like a certified not intelligent individual, but my weirdo radar was pinging. Like when Lee from the gas station side of Calypso came in and stared at Delaney for too long. Just drinking ice water and staring at her, bald head glinting in the diner light.
I settled back behind the counter and picked up my crossword. I’d been diligently filling in every box, a little confused because every answer seemed to be words like “meat” or “hunger”.
“Do you guys believe in luck?” the man said.
I tensed. That felt like the sorta thing wackos yelled before they pulled out a gun and started painting a manifesto on the walls with civilian blood.
“Not really,” I replied, preparing to duck behind the counter.
“I do!” Delaney chimed in, sitting up straight, presenting her pretty little head like she was in a slaughterhouse about to have that rod-thing shot through her skull.
“Mm,” he said, mouth full. He gestured with his fork at me, then swallowed. “Your friend is getting a bad feeling about me. I’m not a crazy person. I’ve just had a crazy run of bad luck.” He patted his pockets, frowned, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I thought I had a quarter, but I don’t. Do you guys?”
“No,” I said, still waiting for him to pull out a shotgun.
“I do!” Delaney fished it out of her pockets and tossed it to him.
“Heads or tails,” the man said, looking at me.
Well, I wasn’t bored anymore. I closed my crossword book. “Tails.”
He flipped it, let it land loudly on the table. “It’s tails. Again.” He looked at Delaney.
“Okay, heads,” she said. “Is this a magic trick?”
He laughed, but it was dry and bitter. “Kind of.” He flipped the coin again. “Tails,” he announced. “I’m going to flip this ten, fifteen more times. I’m probably going to lose each time. Statistically, pretty rare, right?”
Sure enough, he flipped it a bunch more, each time looking at one of us to call it.
“Wow, you lost twenty times,” Delaney said. “I guess you do have bad luck.”
He nodded. “You guys wanna hear a story?”
Delaney and I glanced at each other. Old man ketchup left a twenty next to his plate and ambled out without a word. Outside, rain started to lightly peck at the window. I saw Lee, a dark shadow underneath the gas station lights.
“I’m going nowhere,” I said.
Bad luck guy wiped his mouth. “Okay, so–,”
I made a deal, right? I didn’t think it would affect my life that much. I didn’t even believe it at first. Why would I? Why would anyone?
You know those street performers? They swallow swords, do card tricks, mimes, that sort of thing? I was at a street fair, there was a few of those. Arts and crafts and hat stuff. I was with my girlfriend, definitely a girlfriend type of date. She drags me to this thing to look at macaroni art and beaded necklaces and all that shit. Waste of a Saturday. More coffee? Thanks so much.
Anyway, I’m with her, we go up to this one stand. Short guy is there, reading palms and fortunes and stuff. Looks like Gomez, from the Addams Family. The mustache was the same.
He tries to charge Maria, my girl, twenty bucks for a palm reading. I pull her away, tell her no, thats a ripoff, cmon lets go get a lemonade at one of the food trucks. He stands up, and says he’ll offer me something even better, along with my girls’ palm reading.
She’s getting pissy, we just had this fight about how I never want to do anything. Part of the reason I’m at this stupid fair is to her show her I can go do things without complaning. But really, a fortune teller?
We give him the twenty bucks, he reads my girlfriend’s palm, tells her great change is coming, she should embrace it, fortune will find her, the stars are smiling at her. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
My turn. I don’t let him touch my hand. He smiles. He’s got this smile, I don’t like it. There was a word in some book I read in highschool. *Lecherous”. The word stuck with me, and he smiled at me that way. Like he was hungry for me, or something. Weird.
He holds out this really creepy little animal bone. “I have a deal,” he says. “Luck, luck, the queen of fools and the enemy of serious men. What are you, what are you?”
I shrugged and said: “I tend to be serious.”
“Indeed indeed! Here’s the pitch, sir. There’s good luck and bad luck. But there’s also luck big and small. Tell me, what do you make of it all?”
I want to leave, but I’m trying to be game for Maria, so I tell him that I don’t really believe in luck. There’s normally an explanation for everything, and if you think you have bad luck, that’s you noticing bad things happening more than good.
He gets all dramatic. Lowers his voice, winks at my girl, which pisses me off. “Small luck is forgetting your keys. A flat tire. You get the wrong order at the restaurant. Small, inconsequential things. Big luck is the meaningful kind. How many times have you avoided a bad car accident on pure reflex and chance? Gotten a promotion when maybe you weren’t the best candidate? Big luck affects you every moment of every day. The sicknesses you don’t get. The things that don’t happen to you. Things outside of your control. You could have an aneurysm right now–bang–and die! But you haven’t. Knock on wood, that’s big luck.
It was a good speech but I was getting impatient. I asked him what the deal was.
Simple, he said. Break the bone once, and you’ll have better small luck. You’ll rarely if ever forget your keys. You’ll find money on the sidewalk more often. Your hair will look good even without combing it. But– then he smiled that lecherous smile, you’ll have worse big luck. An increased chance. That truck that might’ve hit you when you ran the red? Maybe it finally does. It’s not guaranteed, or course, but what is?
Break it twice. Your small luck will get worse. You’ll forget your keys more. There will be stuff stuck in your teeth. All the inconveniences of daily life will see an uptick. I’m no math man, ha! But I’d say it’s maybe a 40% increase in small, bad luck. What’s that, one more flat tire? One more running late every few months? You’re a responsible guy, look at you! You’d be fine. And your big luck would get even better. You’re getting older, young man. How nice would it be to go into the next phase with better big luck? A better chance at staving off arthritis, or diabetes. A better chance at getting a better job, a better chance at a bigger, better life. Thinking of kids? What if those kids had a better chance of coming out perfect?
He gave me his speech but I knew which I was going to pick. I can see your faces. You think I picked small luck. You think I look like this because I’ve lost my girlfriend, or my job. Something big. I just discovered I have some disorder and am distraught, that’s what you think?
No. No. I snapped that bone twice. I took the big luck. I figured I could handle a few more inconveniences.
By the time I’d left the fair, I’d lost my wallet. When we found it and got back to my car, I realized I’d locked my keys in the damn thing.
That was just a taste.
My order being wrong, just now? Losing all those coin flips? Spilled coffee, sour milk, flat tires, it’s all hitting all at once. It has been two weeks. Two! I-,
I think I rolled a terrible set of dice. Like that one statistical anomaly where that 40% increase has resulted in an unbroken stream of small, irritating, infuriating* bad luck.
I’m losing it. I–,
At work, the copier jammed every time I used it. I’ve hit every red light at every intersection. My debit card has gotten locked three times for “Security reasons”.
None of it serious! All of it so small, such small, stupid *shit that used to just roll off me. But its been constant. A high frequency eeeee–eee-eee sound in my ears, like an alarm. A high frequency tone of annoyance and rage.
I need one day.
Where nothing goes wrong.
I’ve changed a flat three times in two weeks. I’ve chipped my teeth biting into something four times. Paper cuts, no ink in pens, adhesive weak on tape I’m trying to use. Nothing. Works. Right.
Deodorant! Ha! I’ve used the same deodorant for ten years. Now it causes white stains on my shirt.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cry. It’s been really, really hard. There’s so many little things that are the scaffolding of your life. And when those start failing in tiny, rapid succession, it’s… debilitating. I have so much dread each morning. There was a spider on my pillow when I woke up. My sinuses are clogged. Tiny, tiny thing! I don’t mean to cry.
I tried to find the guy. The fortune teller. Gomez looking motherfucker. Gone! I had his card from his little stand, but of course I lost it. Girlfriend didn’t remember his name. Ha! Of course not.
I think there’s a limit. A limit of tiny bad things in a row that can happen before you start to splinter. It’s different for everyone, but mine is right around five. Drop your phone, shoes keep coming untied, a bit of dirt in your eye, someone cuts you off in traffic, Wi-Fi goes down. That pushes me right to the edge. On a normal day, it would taper off. Things would balance.
It’s been two weeks of those kinds of days. I’m numb to some of it;. Food being wrong? Whatever. Red light after red light? Whatever.
But… the body stuff. That’s getting me. Random itches. Food stuck in my teeth. I’ve bitten my tongue three times today. I’ve been sneezing blood all week. Every time I scratch my head, hair falls out. My legs and arms fall asleep constantly.
I think I stumbled on a miracle, you know? A genuine miracle. Ha! Take your Jesus, your Mary, your mother of god, I have the ultimate hot streak baby. The ultimate hot hand, I can’t lose! Small, tiny, infinitesimal bad luck, one right after another. boom-boom-boom Place your bets place your bets place your–,”
The man broke down into sobs. Matt and Roy were beside me, watching from behind the counter. Delaney was sitting upright in the other booth, watching the guy with wide, frightened eyes.
“What about your girlfriend?” she asked. “Does she know what’s happening?”
“Oh Maria? Yeah, well.” He stopped crying and looked at us with an a bemused, dreamy expression on her face. “I kept thinking it was her fault, you know? This phrase got stuck in my head, like a song you just can’t shake. ‘40 percent, her fault!’ Over and over. 40 percent. Her fault. Her fault, her fault her fault 40 percent.” He shrugged, and that was when I noticed a long gash on his neck, just above his collarbone. Like someone had scratched him.
He took a swig of coffee, grimaced as it burned his tongue. “Yeah. I didn’t mean to, at first. I threw the remote because it wasn’t working. Batteries dead, of course. I didn’t see her coming in from the kitchen. Bad luck. It hit her and gave her a nose bleed. So she’s holding it, yelling at me. And I just kept thinking, this is your fault. All of it. Forty percent.” He shrugged again. It was a twitchy, furtive movement that gave me the chills. “So I picked up this hammer. I don’t remember going to the garage but I picked up a hammer. I tripped on one of her shoes on the way to the bedroom where she was, I remember that. And then I just started swinging.”
He rapped his knuckles on the table. “That was a week ago.” He smiled brightly at Delaney. “I’ve been on the run for a while, but I haven’t heard any news reports. Her family hasn’t called me. No detectives have tried to reach me. I left her body right there! Head all smushed in, you know, like a pumpkin that some kid kicked in.” He stood up, jingling his keys. He dropped them, frowned, stooped to grab them, hit his head on the table as he stood up. He laughed again. “I got biiiiiiiig luck. The biggest.” He tossed some money next to his empty plate and sauntered out.
We gathered at the windows to watch as he got into his car. It sputtered once, twice, three times before it finally came alive. The tires chewed up the pavement and he roared away, a sallow, pale creature behind the wheel of a dark car.
All of us on the night shift at the Calypso Gas and Chew glanced at each other. Matt picked the phone off the wall and emphatically hit 9-1-1. He held it to his ear, and then set it back down, puzzled. “Phones are dead.”
I laughed. My co-workers shot scandalous, outraged looks at me.
“What?” I said. “He has biiiig luck.”