Wish Me Luck
Donley Watt lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His five books of fiction include Can You Get There from Here? which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Stephen F. Turner Award. His other publications include more than forty book reviews, short stories, and essays.
“It’s only a house,” Laura says. She strides over to the window and waves her hand at the dark street. “Go out there, drive up and down, drive for an hour any which way. A house on every lot, everywhere you look. Hundreds of houses. Thousands. That’s all you’ll see.”
I don’t look up, just sit there on the edge of the red sofa, but I’m leaning forward, as if I’m ready to make some sudden, dramatic move. “That’s not what I meant,” I say, but I’ve already forgotten the point I wanted to make.
Laura turns back to face me. She gives me her “You’re a pathetic moron” look.
Now she’s pacing again, moving back and forth across the room, her long denim skirt cutting and whipping the silence of the house.
“My point,” I say, trying to think clearly, “is that I thought you would stay here, in our house. This house. I mean divorce is hard on us all, and I thought if you and Chris could stay here it might be easier.” Although it wouldn’t be easier, I know. Not for me. I need the money out of the house the same as Laura.
She ignores me, faces the front window again with her back to me. Laura moves her head side to side and her blonde ponytail swishes across her shoulders. “There are more houses on the other side of town,” she says, “and in the town after that. Houses everywhere. Houses choking up the whole goddamned earth.”
She stops for a minute and I hope she’ll see she’s being unfair, that she’ll soften. But only her voice does. “Jackie,” she says, “I’ve told you a thousand times. I need my space and it’s not here, not in this house, not anywhere around here.” She flings her arm around in disgust.
“Can’t you think of Chris?” I say. “Can’t you think of anyone besides yourself?” I push up off the sofa and move to the half-empty bookcase. I straighten up a row of books that has dominoed over. I scan the shelves, try to remember what’s been there, what’s now missing, to know what’s in the tape-sealed book boxes at my feet with LAURA lettered on three sides.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “The bookcase stays.”
“Oh, take it. Who gives a damn?”
“Not you,” she says. “That’s for sure. You haven’t given a damn for fourteen years.” She shakes her head. “Fourteen years,” she says again, her voice rising to somewhere between sadness and anger.
I put a finger to my lips and frown. It’s late and Chris should be asleep. But who knows? Nothing else is how it should be.
Laura starts again, her voice now a forced whisper. “Fourteen years is enough. What have I done for myself? You have your job and all. Now it’s time for me. Anyway, you’re the one who’s ‘had it up to here.’” She snaps her hand to her forehead in a mock salute and holds it there, just above her eyes.
“Okay,” I say, turning to face her, trying not to show my anger, my fatigue with it all. “But Chris doesn’t need to be jerked around. I mean it’s Santa Fe today and who knows where tomorrow?”
Laura’s quiet a minute and I think this is it, now she’ll explode and I can leave. She nods her head as if she’s just seen everything in a different way. “Then he can stay here,” she says. She crosses her arms then and gives me a what-do-you-say-to-that kind of stare.
“You don’t mean that,” I say, but she doesn’t answer, just moves back to the front window and looks up as if she’s searching for the moon or a bright star to wish upon.
Maybe something will happen out there, I think, in the street. Maybe a car wreck at the intersection or a fire across the way. Yeah, a house fire would do, with fire trucks and cops and screaming sirens, something, anything to push us back from this.
Laura turns to me again, her arms still folded across her blouse, scrunching it across her breasts, a smirk on her lips. She must have copped that look when she was a kid and accepted her first dare. “Yes,” she says, her voice quiet and low and steady. “That’s the answer. Chris can stay here.”
“Here?” I say, and I can’t hide the panic in my voice. “Hell, I can’t afford ‘here.’ Not in this house.”
“Oh, not here,” she says, her disgust filling the room. She rolls her eyes to the ceiling, eyes that sparkle with anger, or maybe even hate. “You have a place, don’t you? Is there something wrong with your apartment?”
“Hell, no. Nothing’s wrong with my frigging apartment.” I picture Sandra there now, waiting for me to show up, more than likely pissed that I’m taking all this time with Laura. “And at least Chris will know what to expect,” I say. “I’ll be there. He can count on that, not always bouncing around the country with you, searching for God only knows what.”
“Who’s calling who flakey?” she spouts.
“I didn’t say that. Not that you’re flakey.”
“You thought I’d be ordinary, didn’t you? A typical suburban divorcee, and take care of everything just like before. And you could have Chris an occasional weekend—when you were in the mood, of course—and when you could take time away from screwing your other women.” Laura paces the room, her words bouncing off the stacks of taped boxes, everything sounding hollow.
Laura stops. From across the room she slings her arm my way, a backhand slap that can’t cross the space between us. “Probably a woman waiting for you right now. Isn’t there? A woman ready to say, ‘Oh, you poor, misunderstood baby.’”
“Go to hell,” I say. “Just go to hell.” But the truth shows and I know it.
“Not to hell,” Laura says. “Santa Fe. The van will be here in the morning. The furniture—my furniture—is marked.”
“I noticed.” Everywhere boxes with her name on them. Laura, Laura, Laura. Everywhere. Even taped onto the arm of our one good sofa, on the oak dining table and the seats of four cane-back chairs we picked up at a flea market in Wimberley. She’s claimed damn near everything.
“You can have the rest,” she says.
“Thanks a lot.” I start towards the door.
“You’ll pick up Chris at school,” she says, bossy to the end. “3:20. His stuff will be here.”
“Listen,” I say. “If you’re really going to do this. I mean if Chris is staying here, staying with me, then let’s tell him together.”
“Now? Tonight? God, Jackie don’t you have any sense? It’s 10:30. He’s asleep.” She moves close, gently shaking her head. She touches my arm, holds her touch as if she is transmitting some secret message through my skin. “You’re sure this is okay, that you can handle it? Maybe just for this first year?”
I jerk my arm away. “Don’t leave a bunch of crap around,” I say, hearing myself being practical, knowing she’ll nail me for it. “The goddamn house has to sell or we’ll both be in trouble.”
Laura backs off, moves to the front door. She grips the door handle and bows like she’s some fucking valet. “I’ve cleaned this house for the last time,” she says. “When I walk out tomorrow, it’s yours.” Then she smiles. “You’ll clean it. There’s too much Boy Scout in you not to.”
“One of us has to be responsible.”
“Not responsible. Uptight. So uptight. If you could have just loosened up.” She stops, shakes her head, then pulls the door open and waits.
I want to kill her. I want to bloody the goddamn carpet.
At the door I stop for a moment and glance back.
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” she asks, and I believe she means it. Demanding one last performance.
“Luck won’t be nearly enough,” I say, and leave, jerking the door closed behind me.
# # #
“Mom called today,” Chris says, but doesn’t look up. He’s painting space monsters or something on his ketchup-smeared plate while he talks. His paint brush is one last medium burned French fry.
“What’d she have to say?” I feel my throat tighten. A small spasm.
“Oh, nothing much.” Chris says, wagging his head back and forth. “You know. Just stuff.”
I don’t answer for a minute, wad up the wrappers that clutter our table and punch them down in a Whataburger sack. “Just stuff,” I say, watching Chris, but he doesn’t look up. Now he’s trying to drink the rest of his giant Pepsi from the cup without using his hands. It will spill, I know, but I keep from saying anything, trying to stay positive. Under the glare of apartment lights his arms are pale, skinny. He needs to get out more, I think, get some sun.
“Mom’s doing okay,” Chris says. “I guess.”
“You guess? She’s still in Santa Fe.” Not a question, more of a prayer. Seven hundred aren’t enough miles away. Not yet. It’s been only six months.
“Taos,” Chris says. “Mom says she really likes it. She says it’s neater than Santa Fe. Really cool.”
Yeah, I think. I bet she did say that. Neat, really cool. Shit. “You have homework?” I ask, wanting to move on, or maybe move back into the comfort of our routine. A routine that Chris and I have worked out pretty well.
“Did it already. Before you got home. There’s nothing else to do here, you know.”
I glance around the apartment. A sliding glass door leads out onto a concrete slab of fenced patio. The room has an ancient stereo, a bunch of books, mostly still in their boxes, waiting for a bookshelf I was supposed to have, that now I can’t afford. I start to tell him he could have watched TV in my bedroom, but I’ve limited his TV watching days and this is Thursday, a day the tube is off-limits.
“It’s not bad here,” I say. “Things could be a heckuva lot worse, you know.”
Chris doesn’t answer, just stares out the patio doors where a single pot holds a desiccated tomato plant. I figure he’s thinking something he doesn’t want me to hear. He needs a haircut, his sandy hair is parted in the middle and flops carelessly down either side of his face. He has a vaguely orphaned look. I need to pay more attention.
“There is something else,” Chris says. “Mom said she’s coming for a visit.”
Oh, shit, I think. “Huh,” I say. “I thought it was cool out there.”
“Sure it’s cool. But after all, she is my mom.”
“I thought we went through all of this in September. How you could visit her at Christmas and in the summer, but the rest of the time, well, I thought she’d be there and we’d be here. I mean you know how it is with school and all.”
“Yeah.” Chris pokes the straw deep into the Pepsi cup, and for a minute all I can hear is the crunch of ice. He slips out of his chair and starts towards his room, head down, his Nikes scuff across the vinyl squares of the floor, catching the cuffs of his baggy pants.
“Hey,” I say, and point to his cup, his ketchup-smeared napkin.
He turns without a word, comes back and clears his side of the table.
“We made a deal, you know.” I try to remember how the therapist differentiated between authoritative and authoritarian. It seemed so clear, so easy at the time, in a bright cheerful room that didn’t smell of burgers and fries.
“Yeah,” Chris says. “I know.” He carries his mess to the kitchen.
“What happened in school, today?” I ask. “You started playing football?”
“Not really. We have to pass a test first.”
“A test? To play football?”
“Yeah. The rules and all that. If we pass then we get to play. But it’ll only be flag. I want to play tackle.”
“I’ll tell you what,” I say, and push back from the table. I take a step towards the front door. “Let’s get out of here. I need some ice cream, Mexican vanilla or a hot fudge sundae or something.” The last thing I want. A double bourbon and water more like it. A quiet evening screwing Sandra. “After I clean this up we’ll bicycle over to Amy’s. What do you say?”
“Okay, I guess.” Chris shrugs.
That’s enough, I think. I’ll go only so far and no more. Guilt or no guilt. Enough’s enough.
“Come here, Chris,” I say, and he slouches towards me. “Sit down.” He does. “Okay, now tell me. Have I done something to annoy you? I wasn’t that late coming home, and I brought the burgers and fries. I do need a life of my own. As much as I love you. I still have to have some time that is mine. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not that.”
“What is it then? The call from your mom upset you? I’ll tell her not to call except on special days.”
“Mom said I could have a dog.”
“She what?” Shit fire, I think. “We don’t have any place for a dog. Not here. You know that.” I look around the apartment and try to imagine sharing the space with a dog. A disaster.
“And a motorcycle, too. She said I could have a dog, a husky, and a motorcycle. I could have both if I moved out there with her.”
The bitch, I think. The goddamn manipulating bitch.
“Hey, we made a deal. Remember what we said? How it’s important to stay in the same school. Out there, in Taos, or wherever, it’ll be different. Sure it would be easy, but then what? You know we talked all of this up and down.”
I pull one of the kitchen chairs out and swing it around, straddle it backwards. I watch Chris, wait for him to say something, maybe give me a little slack, tell me I’ve been a good dad. But he slowly turns a coaster on the slick table top and doesn’t look up.
“I’ll call your mom and straighten it all out.”
Chris glances up. “She said to tell you not to call. That she’ll be here Sunday. She said she changed her mind and doesn’t want to talk about it.”
I take a deep breath. Everything feels jagged inside. “Well, what do you think about this,” I ask. I can see the answer in his eyes.
“It might be easier for you, Dad, you know, with work and all.”
“You can’t have a motorcycle. You’re too young. When you’re eighteen you can do whatever you want, but until then, uh, uh. No motorcycle. No way.”
“Mom says I can.”
“I don’t give a damn what she says.”
We’re quiet a few moments. The room is still, not a sound except for the hum of the refrigerator. Then a truck rattles down the street outside. The wind picks up and a limb scrapes the roof. In the distance I hear a siren.
Chris starts back to his room again.
“Don’t go,” I say.
“You mean now?” he stops and stares down at the floor.
“Now, yeah, and Sunday, too. We’ll have lots to do here. We’ll go to football games and maybe I’ll get a canoe. Or maybe even a kayak for two. There’s the lake here, running right through town. There’s lots of stuff for us to do.”
“Didn’t you ever want a motorcycle, Dad? And a dog? When you were a boy.”
When I was a boy? I try to remember being a boy, and I think of my mother and dad, one now dead, the other dead to the world. What steady, dull predictable lives we three led. What steady, dull, predictable comfort.
“Chris,” I say, and reach my arm out towards him. “Listen to me son.” But already he’s turned, moving away from me, head down, towards his room.
I move to the refrigerator and find a Shiner Bock, and settle down in the only easy chair I have, a place from where I can stare at the patio out the sliding glass doors. I check the winter sky, what I can see above the cedar fence, and watch a couple of wispy clouds hardly moving.
When I finish the beer my eyes settle on the withered tomato plant in the plastic pot. And suddenly I spot a couple of green buds that seem to be emerging from the plant’s stem. Okay, I think, and pull myself up; it’s not that cold. I can still save this one tomato plant. All it needs is water.
I hurry to the kitchen, fill a glass of water at the sink and grab another cold beer from the fridge. But when I push the sliding glass door open with my elbow and step out onto the patio, I can see that the plant has not one green bud. None. I sink to my knees and, without hope, gently pour the water into the pot.