Winners

Isaac lurked near the kitchen door. His face expressed a hellish despair.

“Don’t look,” Louise said, “but I think there’s something wrong with our waiter.”

Disguising his interest by plucking a raisin-walnut roll out of the bread basket, Steve looked. “He set his house on fire for the insurance, and he just remembered the dog’s locked in.”

“Good guess!”

Louise and Steve were having a free dinner at a fancy midtown restaurant. The maître d’ had shown them to their table with that pleasant seriousness one expects in good restaurants, but Louise knew what he was thinking. It was fine to win prize dinners and stuff, but something happened between those first celebratory moments, when everyone thought you were cute as cream cheese, and when it came time to collect the loot. In the interval you became not a winner, but a freeloader. You were someone who expected something for nothing, even a loser, except for that luck.

There are people who begin early, winning gift baskets in the local school fair. They are the youngest players at church bingo, so cute, until everyone decides it was not the Lord’s intention, when He invented bingo, to have a child walk away with all the winnings all the time. Louise was that child. Being a winner meant that her family dragged her into candy stores for lottery tickets. It meant she had to suffer the envy of other people, who thought a thick skin was acquired as easily as a world cruise, a dining room set, or a new Mercedes. When, at a marriageable age, she saw Steve’s ad in the Personals—Publisher’s Clearing House Grand Winner looking for sympathetic soul—she knew she had found her match.

“Is everything okay?” Isaac was back, his plump face serene again.

“I wish he’d stop asking if everything’s all right,” Steve said as their waiter drifted toward the bar. “He just wants to annoy us.”

“I think he really cares.”

“He hates us. He’s a typical loser.”

She disagreed. “He wants to see what type of people we are. He’s trying to learn something.” Why else, while busy with other diners, did Isaac keep glancing their way? He seemed not resentful of them, but interested, even anxious. His concern might have been that of a good waiter, but he was not a good waiter. He had mumbled through the expensive specials of the day as if afraid they would take advantage. Louise and Steve never took advantage. Why should they? They could afford to pay their own way, if they had to. Not only had Steve won the Publisher’s Clearing House lottery, but they took cash for their prizes whenever possible. You could have only so many houses and cars and refrigerators. They did not intend to order the most expensive dishes. “These Martinis will do us,” she said when Isaac whisked away the unopened wine list. You had to let them know not to underestimate you. You had to act as entitled to your luck as anyone who worked for a living.

People were always glad to hear what Louise and Steve did not have: all their own teeth, phones in their bathrooms, a wall-sized tv. If they felt they had even one advantage over you, they were happier with their own miserable luck.

“I hope everything is all right.”

Louise was trying to eat the white asparagus arranged artfully around her lobster salad. The stalks shredded when she cut them and had to be doubled, then stabbed with her fork. She remembered reading somewhere that they could be eaten with the fingers. Or was that only green asparagus?

“Any questions?” Isaac said coolly.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “How many gourmet jelly beans in a quart?”

The waiter’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“I know the answer,” Steve said. Hadn’t he won a lifetime supply? “You have half an hour.”

Looking eager, and more animated than he had since they’d arrived, Isaac rushed away.

“Was that fair?” Louise said as a Latin American of indeterminate age cleared away their plates.

“I got rid of him, didn’t I?”

“And what will you give him if he guesses right?”

“He won’t,” Steve said. “If he does, I’ll leave him a tip.”

“You should leave him a tip anyway.”

“He’ll get what he deserves. That’s all any of us ever gets.”

What a convenient lapse of memory. When they’d first met, Steve was drowning under a sea of letters begging for a loan or a gift and was tempted to give it all away. Who was he to deserve ten million dollars? “Only ten million,” she had heard him say recently. Another Latin American was setting their plates in front of them. Louise had ordered pheasant, Steve steak. “Finally they’re letting some of the illegal aliens see daylight,” he said.

He cared about people, really, he did. “You are going to give the waiter something, aren’t you, whether he guesses or not?”

“No, and I’ll tell you why.” He had plenty of reasons. They should change the system, add service to the bill like the Europeans did. He had seen the world and learned some things, but not the right things, she thought, watching his knife slice the air. Catching himself, he lowered his hand. “What’s the difference? He’ll never guess. He’d know by now if he had a talent for these things.”

She almost reminded him that he was in his thirties before he had ever won anything, but he would just get defensive. I may have been a late bloomer, he would say, but I’ve won much bigger than you ever did. And the question of the Boeing would come up, such a boring argument. True, she had sold the plane for less than seven million, but it was worth more than that. The money in hand is what counts, he would say, making his own rules. She hated these discussions. They were not supposed to be competing with each other. They never even competed together. Something about luck, or their luck, anyway, did not mix well. But she didn’t want to think about that now. They had been together four years and she was happy. Steve and she were in orbit, it felt, around each other. They had the same talents, ambitions. Well, they had once had ambition.

“Let’s not fight,” he said, reaching across the table to squeeze her hand. He could always soothe her, just his hand on hers.

“How’s your steak?” she said.

“All right. Though you could probably do better, if you cooked. How’s your pheasant?”

“It’s too much for me. Help yourself.” He did, and she said, “Does it bother you that I don’t cook?”

“Nooo,” he cooed.

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“Noo.”

“I could cook for you, if you like. I could learn.”

“It’s too late for that,” he said. He was in a mood.

“Maybe I’ll win that shopping mall,” she said hopefully, referring to an upcoming giveaway. “You know I have a knack for essay contests.”

“I’m sure there’s stiff competition.”

“We’re a team, though, aren’t we? You and I?” She reached across the table to put her hand on his. “No one can beat us.”

He smiled but said nothing, leaving her to wonder. She rose to go to the ladies’ room. On the way she passed several photographs of the chef in one laudatory setting or another. Flower arrangements and bowls of exotic pot pourri sat atop fine furniture. A beautiful Persian carpet lay on the floor. It was something she wished she could have won.

The ladies’ room was stocked with soaps and lotions and plush hand towels. The mirror confirmed what she already knew: she looked great in that lingerie slip dress she had won at the gym.

When she returned to the table, Steve was talking to Isaac. “..a five bean spread,” she heard him say, and she was reminded of that five year supply of canned food in their pantry. They never ate canned food.

“I may not be able to cook,” she said when Isaac was gone, “but I did once win a baking contest.”

“I gave him a handicap. It was only fair.”

“What’s taking him so long?”

“Patience, patience,” Steve said. “He won’t get it even if he counts them. I’m telling you, the guy’s a loser.”

“Don’t say that. Everyone wins sometimes.”

Isaac was back with the dessert menu.

“Any specials?” Steve said.

“Not in desserts,” Isaac replied, bowing smugly at the waist.

“I’ll have the berries,” she said, handing him back her menu.

Hugging it to his chest, Isaac rocked on his heels and smiled, fatuous as an investment banker. “We only have strawberries tonight.”

He stood by while she deliberated, milking the suspense. “All right,” she said finally, “I’ll have the strawberries.”

Another South American brought their desserts. And no sooner had they finished than Isaac reappeared at their table.

“One thousand, four hundred and eighty-six,” he said confidently.

“Is that your final answer?” Steve said.

“I can prove it mathematically, if you want. I figured it out from just one jelly bean.”

Steve shook his head. “I’m sorry.” From beneath the tablecloth he pulled a piece of paper with the number 1,473 written on it. “Maybe you should have guessed. It’s all a matter of luck, really.”

Isaac’s eyes and mouth assumed the classic mask of tragedy. Or was it a mask? Life must be horrible for someone with no luck.

They left him a tip anyway. Steve had been kidding about stiffing him. He was generous, really, and charitable. He gave the coat check a quarter, and as they walked out, Louise kissed him. “Let’s walk.”

Steve wanted to take a taxi.

“But it’s such a nice night,” she said, searching for his hand in his pocket. “What’s this?” She pulled out pieces of cocktail napkin, all inscribed with different numbers in the 1,400 range. Isaac could never have guessed right. “You’re terrible!” she cried. “You’re cruel!”

He shrugged.

Who was this stranger before her, full-blown into his well-fed, well-dressed, callous skin, intentionally blind to other possibilities? His eyes beneath the street lamp had the dull luster of black jelly beans left too long in the jar.

When she resisted letting him take her hand he looked into her eyes. “Loulou?” he said, less sure of himself.

Well, really, it was just a silly contest.

 

Caila Rossi’s fiction has appeared in Witness, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Shenandoah, Cottonwood, TriQuarterly, and The Brooklyn Rail among many others. She lives in Brooklyn.

Contributor

Caila Rossi

This preceding is an excerpt from Caila Rossi’s novella, Seeing A Specialist, a portion of which appeared in The Gettysburg Review. She lives in Crown Heights.

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