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Feeling Lucky

ISSUE:  Winter 2003

Midnight, and Bruce Little was hunched against a pay phone under the awning of The Saint John Divine Hotel, shivering with cold and dialing collect to Mississippi. He called twice. No answer either time. This was February. This was Richmond. His daughter, Jane, was in the room asleep. His ex-wife, Barbara, was in Teaneck, New Jersey with her new husband, worrying, he supposed, about Jane and hoping for good news from the police. He’d put 11 hours of road between them. Before that, he’d waited behind the hedge until they came out to build a snowman, then plucked Jane over the back fence when Barbara went inside to use the can. Now, he was impatient with fatigue. He counted the money in his wallet—nine one dollar bills. He forced himself to smoke a cigarette to the filter before he dialed again. The operator cut in when the answering machine picked up.

The Saint John Divine was four stories, brownstone, maybe three dozen rooms. In another life, it had probably been a decent place, with a bellman in livery and an elevator boy, but now the old Otis was shot and the only other guests Bruce had seen were a pair of tipsy fags sneaking a white cat into their room. Bruce had a soft spot for places like this—local, half-dead, unashamed. He’d spent his share of nights in hotels since his divorce. This one, he’d found by accident. He was low on gas and he left the interstate at random, got snagged in a web of one way streets. He had wanted to cover more ground, but Jane was fading fast and there was the hotel. Across the street was a church with the same name. He would ask directions back to the interstate in the morning. First, he needed Melinda to answer the phone. Melinda could wire him a little money. Nine dollars wouldn’t get him home.

Bruce glared at the phone for a moment, like it was part of a conspiracy to prevent him from completing his call, then headed for the desk to make change. The night manager was perched on a stool behind the counter, watching a TV mounted eight feet above the floor. She was an older woman, pushing 70, he thought, dyed-black hair in a bouffant cloud around her head. A metal screen separated her station from the lobby proper—matching chair and love seat, both done in plastic, and a coffee table littered with movie magazines. Bruce fingered three singles from his wallet, passed them through the screen. The night manager cashed them in, but didn’t hand his quarters over right away.

“Is there something wrong with the phone in your room?” she said.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Bruce said.

“If there’s something wrong, you should let me know,” she said.

“There’s nothing wrong,” he said.

“Because,” she said, “how’m I gonna fix it if I don’t know it’s broke?”

“It’s not broken,” he said. “It’s just my little girl isn’t feeling very well. I didn’t want to wake her up.” This was true. Jane had started wilting halfway across Pennsylvania. By the time they hit Virginia, she was drifting in and out of sleep, her head wobbling on her neck, stirring just long enough to complain about how she felt—her stomach hurt, it was too cold in his car.

The night manager tipped her chin up, eyed him down the length of her nose, then rattled his change across the counter and returned her attention to the television. Bruce waded back into the cold. He slicked the quarters into the phone and dialed direct. When the machine answered, he said, “Hey, it’s me.” He let a few seconds of tape spool out. “I’ve got Jane with me and we’ve made it to Virginia.” He paused, his breath misting on the air. “I told her all about you,” he said. This was not true. He’d been afraid to mention Melinda to his daughter. “We’re low on funds. I need you to Western Union us some cash, not too much, maybe a hundred bucks or so or whatever you can spare.” He paused again, licked his lips. “Jane can’t wait to meet you,” he said. “The number at the hotel is—” His skin went prickly all over. “Well, shit,” he said. He left the receiver dangling and hustled back to the office.

“What’s the number here?” Bruce said.

He propped the door with his shoulder. A white cat darted outside between his legs. Without looking away from the TV, the night manager said, “You’re letting the heat out.”

Bruce stepped inside. The door inched shut on its hydraulic arm. The night manager laughed at something on TV.

“I need that number,” Bruce said.

She held up her hand for quiet, waited a second for the commercial. Then, in a singsong voice, she recited the number and Bruce dashed back to the phone. The line was dead when he arrived. He pounded the receiver hard against the keypad until he felt his frustration waning. He hung up, rubbed his face with both hands. His breath came in ragged gasps. He repeated his daughter’s name in his head—Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane—until he felt sufficiently composed. Then he walked back to the office, made certain the door was closed behind him, laid three bills on the desk and asked politely for more change.

The night manager sighed. “You have a perfectly good phone in your room,” she said. “You stood there and told me so yourself. If you want to call long distance, all we ask is that you leave a ten dollar deposit.”

Bruce smiled and pushed his hands into his pockets and tried to look like somebody’s father.

“Please,” he said. “My little girl.”

“What if those nice young men in 9 were to come around hunting money for the snack machine, and I’d given you all my change? How would that be? I’m not made of quarters.

“This is the last time,” Bruce said.

The old woman pursed her lips and shook her head. The screen made a net of shadows on her face. Bruce worried that she might refuse him, but, after a moment, she levered the register open, dredged up a handful of quarters and counted them one by one into his palm. When he reached the phone, Bruce pinned the receiver between his shoulder and his ear, pushed all 12 coins into the slot. To his surprise, Melinda answered on the second ring. “Thank God,” he said, his legs going flimsy with relief. “I’ve called a hundred times. Where you been?”

In a quiet voice, Melinda said, “Here.”

Bruce took a moment to digest her answer.

“There?” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Melinda said.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“This is a bad idea,” she said. “I mean—we hardly know each other, Bruce. I can’t mother somebody else’s little girl.”

“We talked about it,” he said. “You were excited.”

“Now I’ve had a chance to think,” Melinda said.

“Melinda,” Bruce said. “Don’t—”

“I’m sorry,” Melinda said again. “I’m hanging up.”

Then she did hang up and Bruce listened to the dial tone for a minute before placing the receiver in its cradle. Sixteen dimes dropped into the coin return. The cold seeped into his bones. Bruce slouched off to check on Jane. He refused to look at the night manager as he passed, but he did stop at the snack machine to blow seven of his dimes on a cheese Danish wrapped in plastic.

Jane was sprawled atop the blankets when Bruce returned, all awkward knees and elbows, as if she had fallen into bed from a tremendous height. She was four years old. She was wearing red corduroy overalls, a white turtleneck and a blue quilted jacket. She was wearing sneakers and frilly socks. Until that morning, Bruce had never seen these clothes before. He cupped his hands and breathed into them to take the chill off. He palmed her brow. She was warm, a little clammy. She did not register his touch. Bruce tiptoed past and arranged himself on the second bed. He kicked his boots off and massaged the cold out of his feet. He emptied his pockets. Wallet, car keys, dimes. He had five cigarettes left in his pack. He had a small duffel in the bathroom. In it was a change of underwear, a pair of socks, a toothbrush, an electric razor, a stick of deodorant and an unloaded .38 revolver. He thought he could convince Melinda to change her mind, but, if worst absolutely came to worst, he would find a pawn shop in the morning and sell the gun.

Bruce took off his jacket and propped his back against the headboard and watched ESPN with the sound off for a while. He ate the Danish. It tasted like newspaper. He eyed his daughter. She looked exactly like her mother. After a few minutes, he got up and went into the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. He didn’t like to smoke around Jane. There was a louvered window in the shower and he cranked it open and wedged a towel under the door to block the draft. The window overlooked the Dumpsters in the alley behind the motel. He saw the white cat nosing around back there. He clucked his tongue and the cat looked at him like it had seen everything in the world. A man smoking in the John was nothing special.

He closed his eyes and tried to remember how it had been with Jane before his marriage ended, before Barbara met another man, before the judge let Barbara and her new husband take Jane up to New Jersey. He hadn’t seen Jane in 16 months and he wondered what she remembered, too, wondered how Barbara had portrayed him. He doubted he came off too well. Then he tried to figure what had spooked Melinda. He blamed her change of heart on a lack of imagination. He’d been gone a week and she needed him around to paint the picture, to hold her in his arms and whisper the future in her ear. Bruce opened his eyes. The cat was gone. He dragged on his cigarette, exhaled out the window. He couldn’t tell where the smoke ended and his breath began.

When he was finished, Bruce flushed the cigarette and stood in the doorway watching his daughter sleep, her lips parted, her chest rising and falling in slow motion. He thought maybe he should get her out of those clothes and under the covers. There hadn’t been time to pack a bag and he wasn’t sure which was better—undressed, no nightgown or fully-clothed in bed. He tried to think what he might have done when he was still in practice. He decided to split the difference. He would take off her shoes and her jacket and her overalls but leave the turtleneck and socks. He crouched at the foot of her bed, unlaced her right shoe. As he was slipping it over her heel, Jane blinked and stretched her arms over her head.

“Daddy?” she said.

She gazed at Bruce, then at the shoe in his hand. He felt like he’d been caught in the act of stealing it from her.

“It’s me,” he said. “Remember, baby?”

He got her out of her shoes and took the jacket off and unfastened the overalls and pulled them over her legs. Jane let him do with her as he pleased. He scooped her up, his forearm beneath her thighs, and she hooked her feet behind his back. With his free hand, he turned the blankets down. Jane hid her face against his neck.

“I’m cold,” she said. “Let’s go to Mamma’s house.”

“I’ll tell you what. We’ll go to Mississippi instead. It never gets cold in Mississippi.”

As he was getting her situated in bed, fluffing her pillow, organizing the blanket beneath her chin, she reached up and touched his cheek, an affectionate gesture, like he had said or done something to deserve it. She ran her finger over his lips, his eyebrow, the bridge of his nose.

“Will Mamma be in Miss-ssippi?” she said.

“You never know about your mamma,” he said. “Your mamma’s hard to read. You never know where your mamma might turn up.”

But Jane had already drifted back to sleep. Bruce could hear a faint, congested burble in her lungs. He tucked the covers in around her, then walked over and checked the heating unit, passed his hand over the vent. He thought maybe Jane was right. The room was too cold for little girls. He could feel lukewarm air breathing out against his palm. He tried to turn it up, but the knob had been removed. He covered Jane’s brow with one hand, his brow with the other. He wondered what, if any, restorative measures he should take. The only thing that occurred to him was aspirin, but he didn’t have aspirin or know where to buy aspirin at one o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar city or have enough money to buy aspirin with if he had known where to find it. He wasn’t even sure if aspirin was safe for little girls.

“Jane,” he said. “Jane, baby.”

She lifted up on her elbows, her eyes groggy and uncertain, and, immediately, Bruce regretted waking her. Probably, all she needed was a little rest and here he was keeping her from it to ease his own concerns.

“Daddy?” she said.

“It’s me,” he said. “I’m sorry, sweetie. Go on back to sleep.”

He held her shoulders and she let him push her back against the pillow. He stroked her hair for a minute. Then he said, “I’m sorry, baby, but, listen, while you’re up, how ‘bout tell me how you feel?”

“I’m cold,” she said.

“Do you feel sick?” he said. “Do you feel like you have a fever?”

“It’s cold in here,” she said.

Jane curled herself into a fetal ball, her knees drawn up, her fists beneath her chin. Bruce pulled the covers to her neck. He didn’t know exactly how to read her answer. It might mean chills, but it might not mean a thing. She had, after all, complained about the temperature before. He didn’t want to give in to paranoia. He hadn’t been responsible for anybody in a long time and he recognized the possibility that he was overreacting. It was true that Jane was warm to touch, but there was nothing so warm as a sleeping child. He remembered that. He sat on the edge of the bed and searched her face. She had changed immeasurably since he had seen her last. She was taller and she had gained some weight, of course, and her hair was cut in a style suitable for little girls, but there was something else, something that he couldn’t put his finger on, as if all the things that she had seen in his absence and all the things she had come to know were apparent in her features.

When he was sure Jane was sleeping soundly, Bruce jotted The Saint John Divine’s phone number on the back of his hand, filled his pocket with the leftover dimes and walked outside to have another go at Melinda. The night manager didn’t look away from the TV. It had started snowing while he was in the room. The flakes darted in the wind like schools of fish. He called collect, but Melinda didn’t answer. Then he decided that collect was probably a bad idea— he needed to impress Melinda with his seriousness in this matter, with his paternal self-reliance—so he punched his last nine dimes into the slot. It rang twice before the operator interrupted to let him know he needed 35 cents to complete the call. Bruce hung up, listened to the rattle of his change. There were three quarters in the dispenser. He did the math, jiggled the tongue, no response. He stood there for a moment, the coins winking in his palm, his heart flopping in his chest, before starting for the office. He found the night manager exactly as he’d left her.

“I can’t spare anymore change,” she said at his approach.

“That’s what I want to talk about,” Bruce said. “Your pay phone took my money.”

She shook her head. “That’s not my problem. The phone is owned by an independent contractor.”

“It’s on the side of your hotel,” he said.

“You have to write a letter,” she said. “That’s how they do the refunds. The address is on the phone.”

“I don’t have time for that,” he said. “I need to make this call tonight.”

She arched her eyebrows and drummed her fingers on the counter.

“Is there a phone in your room?”

She looked at him a moment longer, then swung her eyes back to the TV. Bruce was determined not to be bullied. It was important, he thought, to raise a protest of some kind.

“The heater,” he said. “It’s freezing in our room and my little girl is sick. The knob is broken on the heating unit.”

The night manager said, “We keep the wall units at 68 degrees. The policy was spelled out on your registration form.”

Bruce opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking. His muscles shook beneath his skin. He smacked the wire screen with the heel of his hand and the night manager flinched, then composed herself and settled her eyes on him again. In a steady voice, she said, “You don’t want me to get the police.” She reached for her phone and held the receiver up. The dial tone bleated at him like a taunt.

“Do you have kids?” he said, but the night manager didn’t answer. She propped her feet on the counter and cradled the phone against her breast. A laughtrack spilled from the TV.

Bruce walked outside without another word. He needed a minute to collect himself. He didn’t want Jane to see him in this condition. Saint John’s was dark, regal in its silence. It wasn’t an unappealing scene if you took the time to look around. Everything was quiet and the snow sparkled like the world was made of broken glass.

Just then, a man wearing a kimono over his clothes turned the corner and headed up the sidewalk in Bruce’s direction. He made kissing noises as he walked. He smiled at Bruce and rubbed his arms and did a friendly shiver. Bruce nodded in reply.

“Have you by any chance seen a cat out here?” the man said. “A white cat. Fu Manchu whiskers.” He drew imaginary whiskers in the air around his mouth.

“I saw him in the alley,” Bruce said.

The man made a sad face. “I just came from there,” he said. He covered his brow with his right hand. “I told Jerry we should have left him in the car. He would’ve been fine in the car, don’t you think? Jerry said it was too cold, but look what’s happened now.”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said.

The man gave Bruce a meaningful shrug and shuffled down the sidewalk. Bruce thought of Jane sleeping in the room. He felt suddenly alive and sure of himself, as if, after years of rotten luck, he had only to wait a short while longer before fortune smiled on him again. He hurried back inside and down the hall and worked his key into the lock. He opened the door to find his daughter’s bed abandoned. He cast his gaze around the room in disbelief. His bed, her bed. The muted television. Her clothes still draped over a chair. The pillow held the imprint of her face. The toilet flushed and Jane emerged from the bathroom, looking pallid and exhausted.

“Dammit, Jane,” he blurted. “You scared me half to death.”

“I got sick,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Her face contorted and she dissolved into blubbering. Bruce was disgusted with himself. He rushed over and picked her up and clutched her against his chest. Her body bucked with sobs.

“It’s all right, Jane baby. Daddy didn’t mean to yell.”

He carried her into the bathroom, surveyed the toilet. There were traces of vomit on the rim. The air smelled like spoiled milk. He shut the door, walked her in a circle, bouncing her lightly in his arms.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You did good. You made it to the bathroom and everything. Half the time, when Daddy’s sick, he winds up hosing down the room.”

“Mamma takes me to the potty when I’m sick,” she said.

“Your mamma’s an old pro,” he said. “The potty is the place to be.”

Jane was calming some. Bruce could feel her breath against his throat, the heat of her skin against his chest.

“Do you feel better?” he said.

Jane wagged her head. He couldn’t tell if that meant yes or no. He carried her to the bed and laid her down.

“What else does Mamma do when you get sick?” he said.

Jane said, “I can’t remember what she does.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “We’ll get it sorted out.”

He ducked into the bathroom and returned with a wet rag. He wiped her face and neck and around her ears.

“How’s that?” he said. “Is that good? Is that something Mamma would do?”

Jane nodded and sniffled.

“It’ll be all right,” Bruce said.

He waited until she was asleep before he crept into the bathroom for a smoke. He opened the window and gazed out at the night. While he watched, the white cat appeared from nowhere, leapt onto a stack of flattened cardboard boxes and peered in his direction. It looked bored and wise and indifferent to the snow. He thought of the women in his life—Barbara in New Jersey and Melinda in Mississippi and his daughter in the next room. They had loved him for awhile. One day, he imagined, when the police had caught up to him and Jane had been returned safely to her mother, she might remember this night fondly, might at least look back with a measure of affection on the lengths to which her father had gone for their reunion. It wasn’t impossible. He had heard of stranger things. Bruce fished the gun out of his duffel. He wanted to go another round with that night manager, revisit the issue of the phone. He didn’t have any bullets, but he was feeling lucky just the same.


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