Fiction · 02/05/2020

Lucky

I.

Eddie watched from his place in the shade, slumped against the mailbox, while his brother Luke twisted the rabbit’s foot with pliers.

“Yank on it,” said one of the other boys crouched at the curb.

Eddie pretended not to care, like he usually did when trailing Luke and his friends around the streets. But he couldn’t help himself now: the boys chanted, and he peered into their circle for a glimpse of Luke and the limp, furred body. A few seconds later came a cheer as his brother raised the pliers, and then bent down to more work. He tied a shoelace to the foot, put the loop around his neck, stood up straight and declared himself king.

He locked eyes with Eddie. “Servant,” he called.

Eddie turned away and knocked a lopsided rhythm on the mailbox. Fidgety, his mom said, but Eddie called it percussion. “A dead rabbit’s easy,” he said.

One of the boys popped a laugh and socked Luke on the shoulder.

“To jail with you. I order you into the box.”

It wasn’t a normal mailbox: it had no slot and was green. Normally it echoed, a sound that made Eddie think of outer space, but today it rang short, stuffed.

“No room. It’s full.”

“Full of dead bodies,” Luke said.

“Full of your lying.”

“Into the box, servant. One hour.”

Eddie knocked a few more times. “Give me the foot and maybe I will.”

His brother smiled. It was the same smile he’d worn when they found the rabbit flat on its side by the church woman’s fence. Eddie immediately regretted the offer.

“Two hours,” Luke said and took off the necklace. He tossed it to Eddie.

The foot looked lonely in the grass, as though wanting nothing more than to run again with its brothers. There was some dry red stuff around the severed edges and a few interested flies. Eddie slipped the shoelace over his head. It itched his neck, and a tuft of fur clung to his t-shirt. He didn’t feel like a king.

“Okay now,” Luke said. “You got the dumb thing. Do it.”

On the front of the box was a panel with a keyhole. Eddie had stuck a lot of keys in there before: lollipop stems, twigs, the ink sticks from pens. He blinked in the sun.

“I don’t have the tools.”

The pliers followed, hand to hand, until they reached his.

Luke and the boys stared at him. Eddie wedged the tip into the door crack and pulled the handles apart, but the panel held. He wiped his palms on his shorts and pulled harder, leaning back with the strength of his small self. The door popped open, too quickly. He rolled onto his back, and out of the box, a package of rough dark skin and shiny green clothes, tumbled the man’s body.

+

II.

Dorris put the finger on the mantle because her friends kept sending men to her apartment. Stephen, the venture capitalist, had come last weekend with a receding hairline and a tiny orchid. The week before that had been Kurt, the art teacher, who kept staring at her silently, squinting, to imagine how he would paint her. “Nude,” he said. “On a city bus.” Favors, her friends told her. A series of forty-plus single men to help her move on. And now Bradford walked in, a thin man in a wool vest and jacket. A librarian. After Dorris put a drink in his hand, before they went to dinner, he paused at the mantle and said, “Is that what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?” Dorris was on the couch, drinking a scotch. She’d had one already, but had popped a breath mint and pretended this was her first.

“Whose finger is it?” Bradford asked.

“Gin Wilson,” she said.

“Should I know who that is?”

“You should, but no one does. He’s a piano player. Jazz.”

“I don’t know jazz. Can I touch it?”

“Suit yourself,” she said.

Bradford picked it up and held it gingerly. Between his fingers, it looked like the dried stub of a cigar.

“When did he pass away?” he asked.

“He’s not dead.”

“Oh?”

“Well, he could be. God knows.”

He put the finger back on the mantle. To one side was a picture of Dorris and her mother on the porch of her childhood home in Charleston. To the other a cactus that had stuck with her since college. Bradford took a sip and looked around. It was her place to say something. She was almost finished with her drink and a headache was starting its march.

“So,” he said. “How did you get it?”

She thought about Gin at the Four Aces, his green jacket, his two a.m. shows. She told her friends about him afterward, and they were shocked by his age. “He must be ancient,” they texted. But Dorris had never asked him about that. It was the smoke on his breath, the strong and yet nimble way of his fingers. All but the left pinkie, which he had pulled from a playing card box one night and which she had stolen, sensing that he was about to leave.

“It was an old boyfriend’s,” she said. “He gave it to me.”

“Hmm now,” Bradford said. “I would think that’s not a good thing to keep out. Not a good memory.”

She didn’t answer.

He chuckled. “Should I be worried?”

Dorris felt no strength in her legs. She didn’t think she could get off the couch. So she sat and stared at this man and tried to keep herself steady.

“Yes,” she said. “I think you should.”

+

III.

Carter didn’t know when the stage had changed performers. A woman in a purple dress had been singing about heartbreak, he had put his whiskey to his lips and watched the room go watery through the bottom of the glass, and when he focused again a young guy in a green jacket was at the piano, rubbing his fingers together over the keys.

Carter blinked. “What’s this?” He turned to the table next to his. “Where’d the nightingale go?”

The old couple there, a woman with gray hair and a tall, thin man in a vest, simply watched him.

“Ach.” Carter stood, wobbled and grabbed the table. He searched the room for the singer. Red drapes over murals of naked women, columns, a peeling blue sea. She had feathers at her ear, he remembered. “Has anyone seen her?” he said. A shush came from behind him. He gave a long shush back, deciding he sounded like the ocean and that was why he felt dizzy. A hand touched his wrist. It was the old woman from the next table.

“Have a seat,” she said. “Sit right here.”

The woman eased him down. She kept her hand on top of his—a light, bony hand impossible for him to lift.

The piano player straightened. Around his neck bobbed a small white something on a string. Carter found a card under the votive candle and stared at the words until they arranged themselves: 2 a.m., “Gin ‘Eddie’ Wilson.” The man who had swallowed his sweet purple bird.

His fingers hovered above the keys, the pinkie bandaged and sticking up.

“He’s broken,” Carter whispered. “Someone tell him he’s — ”

The fingers came down. They hit a row of keys all at once, again, pounced on them. Carter went slack. Swift shocks up the keyboard, notes bunched into fists. A furious noise that he recognized from long evening hours in a sweat, the first drink and ugly afterward, the world passing him wretched on streets. Unforgiving, relentless noise. And when the tower of it felt ready to topple and take him on a long, endless crash, a crash he knew the first steps of, the music held, rose, borne on currents. The notes found harmony.

Carter would tell this story to his first AA group, and then months later to a second group. It would become the story he told at every anniversary of his sobriety. The nightingale, the simple wrist easing him, the young man and how swiftly his hands had come down. How the first perfect chord at the end of the chaos was revelation. It had been, Carter would say, well into his old age, the luckiest night of his life.

+++

Scott Onak’s stories have been published in Ninth Letter, Midwest Gothic, SmokeLong Quarterly, Willow Springs, and Mid-American Review, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He earned an MFA from the University of Idaho and has received writing residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and Vermont Studio Center.