contraptions that could have aided him in predicting the outcome. No VCR. It was just plugged into the wall. She swallowed hard and looked back at him.
“How the hell did you do that?” The words came out in a hushed, fearful tone.
“You have no possible need to know that information. Just answer my question, please.” His voice rose slightly.
She took a deep breath, tried to calm her twitching nerves. “You’re asking me if I want to do something wrong. Then I’m telling you flat-out that I won’t. I ain’t got much, but I’m no criminal.”
“Who says it’s anything wrong?”
“Excuse me, but are you saying that guaranteeing to win the lottery ain’t wrong? Sure as hell sounds like a fix to me. You think just because I work crap jobs I’m stupid?”
“I actually have a high opinion of your intelligence. That’s why you’re here. However, someone has to win that money, LuAnn. Why not you?”
“Because it’s wrong, that’s why.”
“And who exactly are you hurting? Besides, it’s not wrong, technically, if no one ever finds out.”
Jackson sighed. “That’s very noble. However, do you really want to spend the rest of your life with Duane?”
“He has his good points.”
“Really? Would you care to enumerate them?”
“Why don’t you go straight on to hell! I think my next stop’s gonna be at the police station. I got a friend who’s a cop. I betcha he’ll be real interested to hear about all this.” LuAnn turned and gripped the doorknob.
This was the moment Jackson had been waiting for. His voice continued to rise. “So Lisa grows up in a filthy trailer in the woods. Your little girl will be extraordinarily beautiful if she takes after her mother. She reaches a certain age, the young men start to get interested, she drops out of school, a baby perhaps comes along, the cycle starts anew. Like your mother?” He paused. “Like you?” Jackson added very quietly.
LuAnn turned slowly around, her eyes wide and glimmering.
Jackson eyed her sympathetically. “It’s inevitable, LuAnn. I’m speaking the truth, you know I am. What future do you and Lisa have with him? And if not him, another Duane and then another and another. You’ll live in poverty and you’ll die in poverty and your little girl will do the same. There’s no changing that. It’s not fair of course, but that doesn’t make it any less certain. Oh, people who have never been in your situation would say that you should just pack up and go. Take your daughter and just leave. Only they never tell you how you’re supposed to do that. Where will the money for bus fare and motel rooms and food come from? Who’ll watch your child, first while you look for work, and then when you find it, if you ever do.” Jackson shook his head in sympathy and slid the back of one hand under his chin as he eyed her. “Of course, you can go to the police if you want. But by the time you get back, there will be no one here. And do you think they’ll really believe you?” An expression of condescension played across his features. “And then what will you have accomplished? You’ll have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Your only shot at getting out. Gone.” He shook his head sadly at her, as if to say, “Please don’t be that stupid.”
LuAnn tightened her grip on the baby carrier. An agitated Lisa was starting to struggle to get out and her mother automatically started rocking the little girl back and forth. “You talking about dreams, Mr. Jackson, I got me my own dreams. Big ones. Damn big ones.” Her voice was trembling though. LuAnn Tyler had a very tough exterior built up over long, hard years of scrapping for an existence and never getting anywhere; however, Jackson’s words had hurt LuAnn, or rather the truth in those words.
She suddenly looked wary. “How do I know you’re not the police trying to set me up? I ain’t going to no prison over money.”
“Because it would be a clear case of entrapment, that’s why. It would never hold up in court. And why in the world would the police target you for such an elaborate scheme?”
LuAnn leaned up against the door. Under her dress she felt her heart beating erratically between her breasts.
Jackson stood up. “I know you don’t know me, but I take my business very, very seriously. I never do anything without a very good reason. I would not be here wasting your time with some joke, and I most certainly never waste my time.” Jackson’s voice carried an unmistakable ring of authority and his eyes bored into LuAnn with an intensity that was impossible to ignore.
“Why me? Out of all the people in the whole friggin’ world, why’d you come knocking on my door?” She was almost pleading.
“Fair question; however, it’s not one I’m prepared to answer, nor is it particularly pertinent.”
“How can you know I’m going to win?”
He looked at the TV. “Unless you think I was incredibly lucky with that drawing, then you shouldn’t doubt the outcome.”
“Huh! Right now, I doubt everything I’m hearing. So what if I play along and I still don’t win?”
“Then what have you lost?”
“The two bucks it costs to play, that’s what! It might not sound like much money to you, but that’s bus fare for almost a whole week!”
Jackson pulled four singles from his pocket and handed them to her. “Then consider that risk eliminated and a hundred percent return on top of it.”
She rubbed the money between her fingers. “I wanta know what’s in it for you. I’m a little too old to believe in good fairies and wishes on a star.” LuAnn’s eyes were clear and focused now.
“Again, a good question, but one that only becomes applicable if and when you agree to participate. You’re right, however: I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart.” A tiny smile escaped his lips. “It’s a business transaction. And in all good business transactions, both sides benefit. However, I think you’ll be pleased at how generous the terms will be.”
LuAnn slid the money into her bag. “If you need my answer right this very minute, it’s going to be a big, fat no.”
“I realize that my proposition has certain complexities. Therefore, I will give you some time to think about it.” He wrote a toll-free phone number down on a piece of paper and held it out to her. “But not too much time. The monthly lottery drawing takes place in four days. I have to have your answer by ten A.M. the day after tomorrow. This number will reach me anywhere.”
She looked at the paper in his hand. “And if I still say no in two days, which I probably will?”
“What makes me think your name ain’t Jackson?” she said, giving him a piercing stare.
“I sincerely hope to hear from you soon, LuAnn. I like to see good things happen to deserving people. Don’t you?” He shut the door softly behind her.
On the bus ride home, LuAnn clutched both Lisa and the piece of paper
bearing the phone number with equal tenacity. She had the very uncomfortable feeling that everyone on the bus was acutely aware of what had just happened to her and was judging her harshly as a result. An old woman wearing a battered coat and droopy, torn knee-high stockings gripped her plastic shopping bags and glared at LuAnn. Whether she was really privy to LuAnn’s interview or simply resented her youth, looks, and beautiful baby girl, LuAnn couldn’t be sure.
She sat back in her seat and let her mind race ahead to examine her life if she said yes or no to the proposal. While declining the offer seemed to carry with it certain consequences, all of them emblazoned with Duane-like features, acceptance seemed to bear its own problems. If she actually won the lottery and came into incalculable wealth, the man had said she could have anything she wanted. Anything! Go anywhere. Do anything. God! The thought of such unbridled freedom only a phone call and four days away made her want to run screaming with joy through the bus’s narrow aisle. She had put aside the notion that it was all a hoax or some bizarre scheme. Jackson had asked for no money, not that she had any to give. He had also given no indication that he desired any sexual favors from her, although the full terms had not, as yet, been disclosed. However, Jackson did not strike her as being interested in her sexually. He had not tried to touch her, had not commented on her features, at least not directly, and seemed, in every way, professional and sincere. He could be a nut, but if he was he certainly had done an admirable job of feigning sanity in front of her. Plus, it had cost money to rent the space, hire the receptionist, and so forth. If Jackson was certifiable, he definitely had his normal moments. She shook her head. And he had called every number correctly on the daily drawing, before the damn machines had even kicked them out. She couldn’t deny that. So if he was telling the truth, then the only catch was that his business proposal resonated with illegality, with fraud, with more bad things than she cared to think about. That was a big catch. And what if she went along and then was caught somehow, the whole truth coming out? She could go to prison, maybe for the rest of her life. What would happen to Lisa? She suddenly felt miserable. Like most people, she had dreamt often of the pot of gold. It was a vision that had carried her through many a hopeless time when self-pity threatened to overtake her. In her dreams, though, the pot of gold had not been attached to a ball and chain. “Damn,” she said under her breath. A clear choice between heaven and hell? And what were Jackson’s conditions? She was sure the man would exact a very high price in exchange for transforming her from penniless to a princess.
So if she accepted and actually won, what would she do? The potential of such freedom was easy to see, taste, hear, feel. The actual implementation of it was something altogether different. Travel the world? She had never been outside Rikersville, which was best known for its annual fair and reeking slaughterhouses. She could count the times on one hand that she had ridden in an elevator. She had never owned a house or a car; in fact, she had never really owned anything. No bank account had ever borne her name. She could read, write, and speak the king’s English passably, but she clearly wasn’t Social Register material. Jackson said she could have anything. But could she really? Could you really pluck a toad from the mud in some backwater and deposit it in a castle in France and really believe it could actually work? But she didn’t need to do it all, change her life so dramatically, become something and someone that she decidedly wasn’t. She shuddered.
That was the thing, though. She flipped her long hair out of her face, leaned against Lisa, and played her fingers over her daughter’s forehead where the golden hairs drifted across. LuAnn took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the sweet spring air from the open bus window. The thing was, she wanted desperately to be someone else, anyone other than who she was. Most of her life she had felt, believed, and hoped that one day she would do something about it. With each passing year, however, that hope grew more and more hollow, more and more like a dream that one day would break completely free from her and drift away until finally, when she was the shrunken, wrinkled owner of a quickly fading, unremarkable life, she would no longer remember she had ever possessed such dreams. Every day her bleak future became more and more graphic, like a TV with an antenna finally attached.
Now things had abruptly changed. She stared down at the phone number as the bus rolled down the bumpy street, carrying her and Lisa back to the dirt road that would lead to the dirtier trailer, where Duane Harvey lurked, awaiting their return in what she was certain would be a foul temper. He would want beer money. But she brightened as she recalled she had two extra singles riding in her pocket. Mr. Jackson had already provided her with some benefit. Having Duane out of the way so she could think things through would be a start. Tonight was dollar pitcher night at the Squat and Gobble, his favorite hangout. With two bucks, Duane would happily drink himself into oblivion. She looked out the window at the world awakening from winter. Spring was here. A new beginning. Perhaps for her as well? To occur at or before ten A.M., two days from now. She and Lisa locked eyes for a long moment and then mother and daughter exchanged tender smiles. She laid her head gently down on Lisa’s chest not knowing whether to laugh or cry and yet wanting very much to do both.
The busted screen door creaked open and LuAnn passed through carrying Lisa. The trailer was dark, cool, and quiet. Duane might still be asleep. However, as she navigated through the narrow passageway, she kept her eyes and ears on high alert for movement or sound. She wasn’t anything close to being afraid of Duane unless he got the drop on her. In a fair fight, she could more than hold her own. She had kicked the crap out of him on more than one occasion when he had been particularly drunk. He normally didn’t try anything too outrageous when he was sober, which he would be now, or as close to it as he usually got. It was a strange relationship to have with someone who could be categorized as her significant other. However, she could name ten other women she knew who had similar arrangements, based more on pure economics, limited options, and in essence, inertia, than on anything approaching tender emotions. She had had other offers; but rarely was the grass greener elsewhere, she knew that firsthand. She picked up her pace as she heard the snores coming from the bedroom and leaned her head in the small room. She sucked in her breath as she eyed the twin figures lying under the sheets. Duane’s head was visible on the right. The other person was completely covered by the sheet; however, the twin humps in the chest region suggested it was not one of Duane’s male drinking buddies sleeping it off.
LuAnn quietly stepped down the hallway and placed an anxious-looking Lisa and her carrier down in the bathroom, then closed the door. LuAnn didn’t want her little girl to be disturbed by what was about to happen. When she again opened the bedroom door, Duane was still snoring loudly; however, the body beside him had moved, and the dark red hair was clearly visible now. It only took a second for LuAnn to clamp a hand around the thick mane, and then she pulled with all her immense strength and the unfortunate owner of those long locks was hauled out of the bed to crash buck-naked against the far wall.
“Shit!” the woman bellowed as she landed on her butt and was immediately pulled across the rough, ragged carpet by a grim-looking LuAnn. “Dammit, LuAnn, let go.”
LuAnn looked back at her for a split second. “Shirley, you slut around here again, and I swear to God I’ll break your neck.”
“Duane! Help me for chrissakes! She’s crazy!” Shirley wailed, pulling and clawing at her hair in a futile effort to make LuAnn let go. Shirley was short and about twenty pounds overweight. Her chubby legs and full, wobbly breasts slapped back and forth against each other as the two women made their way to the bedroom door.
Duane stirred as LuAnn passed by. “What’s going on here?” he said sleepily.
“Shut up,” LuAnn snapped back.
As his eyes focused on the situation, Duane reached across to the nightstand and pulled out a pack of Marlboros from the drawer. He grinned at Shirley as he lit up.
oing home so soon, Shirl?” He wiped his droopy hair out of his face as he sucked contentedly on his cigarette.
Facing to the rear as she was, Shirley glared at him, her fat cheeks a deep burgundy. “You’re a piece of crap.”
Duane blew her an imaginary kiss. “I love you too, Shirl. Thanks for the visit. Made my morning.” He belly-laughed and slapped his thigh as he propped himself up on the pillow. Then LuAnn and Shirley disappeared through the doorway.
After depositing Shirley next to a rusted-out Ford engine block in the front yard, LuAnn turned back to the trailer.
Shirley stood up and shrieked, “You pulled half my hair out, you bitch.” LuAnn kept walking, not looking back. “I want my clothes. Give me my damned clothes, LuAnn.”
LuAnn turned around. “You didn’t need ’em while you were here, so I can’t see no reason why you’d need ’em now.”
“I can’t go home like this.”
“Then don’t go home.” LuAnn went up the cinder block steps to the trailer and slammed the door behind her.
Duane met her in the hallway, dressed in his boxers, an unlit Marlboro dangling from his mouth. “Does a man good to have two alleycats fighting over him. Got my blood going, LuAnn. How ’bout you stepping up to the plate? Come on, baby, give me a kiss.” He grinned at her and tried to slide an arm around her long neck. His next breath was a tortured one as her right fist smashed into his mouth, loosening a couple of his teeth. As painful as that blow was, it did not come close on the hurt scale to the knee that planted itself violently between his legs. Duane dropped heavily to the floor.
LuAnn hovered over him. “If you pull that crap again, Duane Harvey, so help me God, I’ll rip it right off and flush it down the toilet.”
“Crazy-ass woman,” he half-sputtered, half-whimpered, clutching at his groin; blood seeped through his lips.
She reached down and clamped an iron grip across his cheeks. “No, you’re crazy if you think for one second I’m gonna put up with that shit.”
“We ain’t married.”
“That’s right, but we live together. We got a kid together. And this place is as much mine as it is yours.”
“Shirl don’t mean nothing to me. What do you care?” He stared up at her, small tears gathering in the corners of his eyes as he continued to clutch his privates.
“Because that little fat piece of bacon is gonna waddle on down to the IGA and the beauty parlor and the damned Squat and Gobble and tell everybody that will listen all about it and I’m gonna look like the biggest piece of trash in the world.”