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Illustration: Joel Bentley

Patrick O. Strickland: Lucky Day
Illustration: Joel Bentley

 
 

July’s hot wind swept through the growing gap as Jane opened the door. “Well, golly,” James remarked, causing Jane a moment’s pause and wince before making her way down the steps of the trailer home to the car, her new weight jiggling slightly over her waist band. Over the past few months her jaw and neck had gotten cozy and become less and less discernible from one another. Her hair had been coloured jet black. Her cottage cheese complexion was ghostly, though her heavily made-up face was always shades darker than her the rest of her body. She liked to dress nicely: cashmere sweaters and heels, twinkling accessories, earrings blinking in the sun’s light, a high-dollar purse always dangling from her shoulder.

James did not dress nice. Even before his condition set in, when they enjoyed a level of financial comfort that most people dreamed of, he always preferred a black t-shirt, white sneakers, and black sweat pants or shorts, according to the weather. He wore t-shirts of various prints: Harley-Davidson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, sports teams he never followed.

He had also gained weight since they’d left Florida for Mississippi; his sides now drooped over the elastic waistband of his sweatpants. Jane opened the passenger side door of the car and reached across the center console to start the engine. The radio came on and she immediately switched it off; the emerging music was mere tuneless racket to her.  She shut the passenger side door for James, and crossed to the driver’s side.

At the dump, James opened his door with slow care, wary and haggardly. He stepped out, shaky on the stubby legs that looked unfit to support his formless torso. Since the condition had set in, his hair had gone from peppered gray to platinum white.

Jane was wearing an expensive bracelet made of soft gold, thin and elegant, but big enough for five multi-coloured gems. The kind that you pay special attention not to scratch. The kind that you would simply die before you lost. The kind that, in the right light, flickers enough to set off an epileptic. The kind that make up the bulk of little girls’ dreams, make them forget about their drunk Mississippi daddies wearing rust-stained denim pants, with curly haired beer guts peeking from under their no-longer-white wife beater shirts, hollering obscenities at proper Southern mothers who knew their places and understood their roles.

“Shuddup, ya whore.  I’ll come home frum dranken’ when I’m gud and reddy. Git outta mah way and tend ta the children. Them liddle shits is always cryin’.”

Jane shuddered. Returning to reality, she looked to her own husband. He was walking slowly around the junk yard; his steps were shaky and careful. In 35 years, three months, and five days, they had only spent 72 hours apart. His digression into mental childishness left her the loneliest she had felt since they married. She knew nothing worse than feeling alone when she wasn’t actually alone, when she was still in the company of what was once her husband. It all felt like a perpetual hangover.

For Jane and James, romance was never the adhesive of their relationship—their love was one of convenience and commerce. They exchanged securities for one another’s concerns, a contract that didn’t need to be spoken—it just worked. Until now.  

She walked to James to help him. Last week, she tried to contact their children for the first time in years, appealing for help. She wrote both of their sons and their daughter. Her requests went unanswered. Who could blame them? she thought. They have their reasons. Before the state facilities released James into Jane’s care, their youngest son visited him in the hospital. When he left he told Jane that he wasn’t sure how to feel: did his father deserve this, was it brought on, or was he being let off too easy? She wasn’t sure either. “Most people have to remember their mistakes as old men, Jane.” Later that night, she wept for hours, her son’s use of her first name echoing inside her. Her son, already a three-hour flight and several hundred miles away, spent that evening weeping, staring at wastebasket full of crumpled papers, aborted attempts to drag confessions out of an old man no longer capable of confessing.

“C’mon, dear. We have to unload the trunk. Janice and Andy wanted us to drop off these bags of trash, remember?” They didn’t pay rent—it was the least they could do. James didn’t hear her.

She unloaded the trash, two near-bursting bagfuls, by herself. Her bracelet snagged on the plastic. It didn’t rip it wide enough to spill trash, but a curious liquid dripped from one of the bags, leaving a trail. She dropped the load at the outskirts of the great big pile of trash which James had been walking around. It was taller than she was, full of old broken toys, rotten foods, beer bottles, cans, plastics.

“Why don’t ya think people recycle anymore, Jimmy?” She looked around for him.

He was about 15 feet off, crouched down, his buttocks resting on his heels. He was leaning forward, eclipsing something she couldn’t see until she was close enough to peer over his shoulder.

“Is that a cat?”

He didn’t respond.

“Jimmy… James, I asked you what you were doing with a cat.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I just asked you.”

“You asked if it was a cat. Of course it’s a cat.”

“Well, what are you doing with it?  It could have mange. This is a junk yard.”

“…”

“What would you even name him?”

“Lucky Day.” He was calm yet certain, the most lucid he had appeared in months.

She thought that it’s strange how clear and certain people of his mental state can be sometimes, how she still feared any minute the return to a mental state more like age six or seven.

That long marriage had been one of great emotional stresses, of gains and losses. A more than casual observer probably couldn’t have told from their current state, but they lived a comparably lavish lifestyle before James’s mental deterioration set in. They had a great white home, six bedrooms, one of which—the master bedroom—was larger than most peoples’ entire house. Beautiful delicate rugs decorated with Magnolia embroideries, tall chandeliers in the center of each room and enormous arching windows almost twice as tall as either of them. Each room had a different thematic décor, but they all gave the impression of fragility—as if the room itself could be completely broken in a single instance of clumsiness. Jane had never been short of new clothing. She still wore much of her old attire, but had been forced to sell a great deal of it after he’d been denied Social Security.

The IRS had noted eight years of tax irregularities to be fixed before James could receive financial assistance for his medical bills, and food and water and petroleum didn’t pay for themselves. After he shot himself but before they knew he was heading down a one-way street to a permanent cognitive vacation, he was prescribed to an expansive list of pharmaceuticals made for suicidal people. They were as good as useless. But they did cost a lot of money, deepening their debt and simply adding to the list of things that James didn’t but Jane did have to worry about. Her days were now divided between a bedroom floor full of paperwork and back taxes to be sifted through, organized and corrected, and an increasingly infantile husband that needed someone to change the channel for him. Often she switched back and forth between the same two game shows, him failing to show any signs of familiarity.

When they first started seeing each other, she noticed a peculiar insecurity that overcame him at times. His personality would be completely enveloped by paranoia. At the time it was exhausting.

James would ask, “Are you mad at me?”

“No, Jimmy. Of course not, dear. Why would I be?”

“Do I ask that question too much?”

“Well, yes—you ask if I’m mad at you every day, sometimes several times a day.”

“Yeah, I do ask that too much, don’t I?”

“You do.”

“And does that make you mad?”

Now it seemed as if that had been another James, one who now existed only in memory.

As he petted the cat, he cracked a subtle smile, in which Jane found a pleasant relief from the normal vacancy of his face. They took Lucky Day back to the trailer home with them. James was excited that evening, making random comments about the cat in conversation or during no conversation at all. “Well, I’ll be darned. A kitten at the junk yard.”  His words dangled loosely in the air of the living room. “Luck-keeeey,” he playfully stretched the word to its tolerable limits, “Day.”

Actually the cat’s old, Jane thought, as it huddled over a plastic bowl of milk. But it felt good seeing bits of James seep through senility’s cracks. 

The cat died a week later—it had already been in such poor shape there was no way it could survive. Jane tried to explain it to James, but he got upset.  She wasn’t sure if he was upset that he couldn’t remember the cat or upset over the talk of death, but she told him they could give the feline a proper funeral, hoping to calm his spirits. 

They drove back out to the junk yard. “Here lies Lucky Day,” read the makeshift crucifix over the ground that enveloped the shoebox casket. On the ride home James leaned towards her while she was driving. He asked, “So what type of music do you listen to these days?” She flipped the left blinker and turned onto the unpaved road leading to their trailer home.

 

 
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