2009 SFWP Awards Program finalist Mary Larkin presents Where Luck Lies. This story has since been published in Shenandoah .
Had his life been a movie, Josh Jordan would not have gotten the role – he was all wrong for the part. Too tall, too handsome, with eyes that had too much light in them, he didn’t look like a man with no luck at all. But he was. Josh Jordan was unlucky in life and unlucky in love.
His father had been a doctor so he had gone into medicine, or at least had tried to, but had had no luck with the chemistry – the organic or the inorganic. Gray’s Anatomy had left him cold with its technicalities, but he found the illustrations beautiful when viewed without any intent of medicine, so kept the volume on the coffee table. There had been a brief stint trying to sell cars after college in the spring of 1952, the year following his first marriage, but he hadn’t actually sold one, so was let go. He almost achieved semi-success as a banker, but in the sixties, made too many loans to too many unscrupulous developers. It had taken him years to crawl out from beneath the shadow of bankruptcy, a shadow that no longer had him in a half-Nelson, but that trailed after him and would be discovered years later still clinging to his lungs. He had had other professions, but for the past nine years, he had endured a very unaccomplished career as a marine insurance assessor. His camera jammed frequently as he photographed hurricane-tossed yachts along the Gulf from Bayou La Batre west and going on out to Dauphin and Gasque Islands, and east along the shore to Perdido and all the way to Lillian, or wind-sheared Chris Crafts and their once-harboring boathouses on the lakes and waterways of Alabama – Lake Purdy, Inland Lake, the Coosa River, Logan Martin, Smith Lake, Lake Lanier. He was good at assessing damage, and luckily for Alabama Allright Insurance Companies, did not overvalue it.
As to love, his high school sweetheart, a dark beauty (my mother, Olivia, for whom I am named), had dumped him for his best friend (my father) whom she married after college; his first wife became alcoholic in the midst of giving him four children and sharing his luckless life but discovered herself as a lover of women after their divorce and was the happier for it; the second, more stylish wife – “Anyone would be, after the first one,” Mother had a habit of saying, not realizing that it was clever only once – relieved him of any and all assets he had either inherited or accumulated; and more recently, a third wife died of cancer, shriveling up like a fresh-cut poppy brought indoors (they won’t last a day once they’re cut – put them in sugar water, singe their stems – it doesn’t matter, they always wither). Josh Jordan had found no empirical truth in the old adage “Third time’s the charm.”
The hapless of the world are often the romantics, as is Josh. In a poetic and dreamy voice he will tell you, “If you look at a map of Alabama, its bodies of water, its rivers and lakes, alongside an illustration of the heart with its veins and arteries, you will be amazed that their major and minor arteries almost correlate, right down to their lesser meandering tributaries. Just look!” And he’ll pull out his Rand McNally Alabama State Map and hold up his old medical text, opened to a surface-view plate of the heart. It is amazing in itself that he can still be amazed at anything at all.
My mother is beautiful the way an icy dark planet is beautiful: both are dishearteningly desirable, but ultimately, unobtainable. I thought the fact that Josh and Mother were involved in an affair was truly unlucky and that perhaps this would turn out to be what he would later perceive as his worst bout of luck yet if he ever got far enough away to look at it from a distance. The trouble is, he has always been in her orbit: it was only a matter of time and gravity before he was pulled in to a tighter circle around her as he was. He’ll never even make it to the cooled-off inner core of her heart. Eventually, he is bound to plummet past her lovely atmosphere right into her five-mile crust.
Mother is not a sympathetic woman, and even though she is obviously sleeping with him and loves him in her own way, she refers unkindly to him, his three marriages, his children and his life in general as “Lightning-struck once and snake-bit twice.” She has no idea that she is not even a variation on a theme, but a continuation of his run of luck. He has nothing material for her to latch on to and abscond with anyway (besides, she has her own assets), but his heart is in danger of being stolen and mishandled, misappropriated. There are worst things to lose than money.
A year and a half after his third wife, the sweet and young one – too young, Mother says – – died, her cancer filling and emptying her at the same time, Josh himself was diagnosed with the stuff. But by then he and Mother were in love, seemingly very tight, and had been taking boats and planes and cars to places everybody else had already been – to Ochos Rios, or little excursions to Isle of Palms, or running off to Cozumel.
Visiting him at Mother’s was like watching Camille hit Mobile Bay. Downstairs I said to Mother, “I wonder if he even knows how bad his luck is. If he does, he doesn’t let on.”
“Believe me, he’s oblivious – totally clueless,” she said.
“It must be awful to lose your wife to cancer and then get it yourself.” This reference to the young wife he’d loved so dearly didn’t suit mother. She turned her back on me, but I had already seen her face. She started up the steps and I followed.
Mother had gotten Josh’s old text book for him from his home and had set it on the bedside table. Nothing is consistent with the woman, though, and she had blotted out her own kindness by leaving the book open to an illustration of a pair of healthy lungs.
She sits at the edge of his bed and announces, “You should have seen that lung – it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” No one but Mother would have wanted to see it.
“Show me where you and Mother went on your trip,” I say, trying to steer the conversation to things other than cancer. I hand his maps to him, and his eyes catch light.
“This is where we went last spring, and here is where we’re going in June.” Josh puts his finger on the places they’ve been, places that he’s highlighted in a hopeful neon green.
Mother, who has no patience with his maps, rolls her eyes and says, right in front of him, “Spare us the maps this time, Josh. We’ve seen them. You and I won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, and you know it.” And she goes downstairs.
There’s a low in the air, the barometric pressure has plummeted. She’s in and out of there like Camille, swiping one way, then coming around and hitting from the other direction. I look at Josh. The damage is done.
His hand pats at the empty place Mother made. I go over and sit, happy to be close to a good, albeit unlucky, man.
“You look like your mother, Olivia.”
“A little bit, I guess. Josh, I still want to see the maps. Show me the rivers.”
With his finger he traces the Tennessee River flowing into the Northwest corner of Alabama where it bulges out to become Wilson Lake and later Wheeler. “It goes all the way across the top of the state like a borrowed blue garter on a brides’ leg,” he says, and I know he is thinking of Mother’s leg. He goes on in a voice that widens, pools up and overflows. “The Coosa comes in from the East, winding south past Gadsden and Pell City, flanked by the Talladega National Forest a good way. Then it runs on to Wetumpka before it marries the Alabama River, which flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Tuscaloosa’s waters empty into rivers named Black Warrior, and Tombigbee, ending up at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Towns with names like Chickasaw, Mon Louis and Daphne rest on those rich shores, waiting for the waters from the rivers of Alabama to flow and rush and comingle with the warm Gulf.”
His words rise and fall like soft waters lapping against us, and for the moment, we are carried.
I lean over and flip the pages of his book until I come to the one I know he likes, the one of the heart. I’m not good at lying, but I try anyway. “She’s just worried about you.”
“She’s not a cartographer,” he sighs, and sets the map aside.
“No, never was.” I take the map from him and prop it beside the illustration of the heart.
Mother does her best by him, nursing him for two weeks before tiring of it. “If you don’t control it,” she tells him, “it will control you!” To hear her talk, you’d think she believed cancer was a choice.
“Mother, cut him some slack – he just had surgery. There’s no such thing as snapping back from cancer. It’s not like a bout of the flu.”
“He has to try,” she says.
A few months after his surgery and the radiation treatments, just when his luck was turning, Josh slipped on dew-slicked grass in Mother’s yard while walking back up to the house for iced tea. He had been planting a flowering vine at the foot of her mailbox to show his love, a clematis (that mother later dreamed had wrapped around the mailbox post and squeezed until the box popped off before overtaking the yard like ravenous kudzu and devouring the house, covering every entry and every exit, its tendrils lacing delicate but insidious lattice work across the windows so there was no looking in and no looking out, no light from sun or breeze from sky, but it was only a dream), which of course he shouldn’t have been doing she told him later, when he fell, fracturing his leg not neatly, as a luckier man would have, but so that the bones protruded from the skin.
Mother saw him from her dining room window, but was sure he was embarrassed about falling (“The radiation has sapped every bit of manhood out of him! He’s like a child,” she had complained. “It’s like caring for an infant.”), so she did not rush to help him. It was not that she knew about men and their pride, but that she felt he should have some, and get back on his feet. “I can’t keep playing nursemaid – he’s taking forever to get well. He’s got to pull himself up by his bootstraps!” she had told my sister who had called from Texas to ask how he was doing since the radiation. Later, when my sister phoned me, I gave her my own diagnosis of the situation. “Boo, he’s a slow healer everywhere but the heart.”
Fifteen minutes after Josh’s fall when Mother was bringing out the freshly iced tea with lemon and sugar and two cookies from the store for him, he was still on the ground, but had pulled himself closer to the house.
Luckily, Mother saw at once that something was clearly out of place and that he was in some sort of trouble again, that he needed her help one more time.
“Josh?” She could see the blood and the torn flesh and the very bones of his leg, a leg that had been entwined with hers.
“Call 911,” he said and fainted dead away.
I have to admit that Mother was kind enough to insist he return to her house when he left the hospital, just as she had when they had taken out his rib to get to his cancerous lung. “I have to bring him here – people will talk if I don’t. But I’m sick to death of it all. If I had wanted to be a nurse, I’d have gone to Nursing School.”
It was true that there was no one else to take care of him. His three remaining children (the fourth one, the one who was tall and handsome and looked the most like him, but who was alcoholic like the mother, had died the previous year in a single instant when his horse spooked and reared and he fell and his neck snapped) were in places far-flung from Birmingham, Alabama; places such as Washington, Montana, New Mexico. Mother would point this out to him as well as comment on it to anyone who would listen, and most people would. “His children don’t seem to care. They live far away on purpose. There’s bad blood between them . . . and drink, you know.” And everyone did know. She had kept none of his secrets to herself.
Before Mother brought Josh home to recuperate this second time, she explained to him that she felt they needed to re-examine their relationship, that they could still be friends (he would always have a place in her heart), but that she was worn out, and that Perry Livingston, someone they had both gone to grammar school with, had asked her out and that she was tired of taking care of and would like to be taken care of instead, and that she had been to the Seafood Buffet at The Club atop Red Mountain, next to Vulcan’s statue with him and had said yes when Perry invited her to join him for a week at the end of the month on Bogue Island. “So you can’t take too long getting better. Besides, you can’t get your strength back lying around in bed all day.”
On the phone I ask her, “How can you dump Josh? He loves you, Mother.”
“Well, Perry loves me, too. Besides, his children don’t cause problems, his wife is remarried, and he doesn’t have cancer. If it weren’t for bad luck, Josh wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
“People’s luck can change,” I tell her, meaning Perry’s, meaning Josh’s, maybe meaning hers.
When I visited him in the hospital to sign his cast, Josh said something strange to me that I still remember. He said, “My heart has been folded like a written-on piece of paper.” He was on Demerol and I didn’t know if he was talking nonsense, or if he was trying to tell me something important. I have considered what he said, and this is what I think he meant. He meant that the heart is like a piece of paper and that its secrets – its desires and loves, its injuries and vagaries – are written indelibly across it. Mother had held his heart in her hands, practiced her signature, then wadded the whole thing up.
“The mind might forget, but the heart keeps and ponders. Some things just can’t be erased,” Josh had said to me, and I had understood that well enough.
When I think about Josh and what he has been through, I imagine his heart literally covered with his joys and sorrows – and the name “Olivia” scribbled all over it. If Josh ever has a by-pass, the cardiologist will have a lot to read.
It took time, but what I said to Mother about luck changing came true. Lady Luck has at long last smiled her winsome smile on Josh: his broken leg has mended, his cancer is in remission, and he has escaped Mother’s orbit (now she only has eyes for Perry). Josh has introduced me to the travel editor for Southern Sojourns, his new ladylove. His heart has opened to a new page. I think this may be where Josh’s luck lies. She is gentle and kind, and frequently travels with him along Alabama’s waterways. She likes maps. “Did you know that the lakes and rivers flowing across our state and down to the Gulf are like the vessels of the heart, carrying blood back to its source?” he asks. Her eyes light and she smiles. Then he reaches for his maps and Gray’s.
Mary Larkin’s award-winning short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, The Chattahoochee Review, The Nebraska Review, Red Mountain Review, and other journals. She is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Pushcart Nominee.