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Luck

Luck

(Epoch)

                Herb Zackowsky was not a betting man.  His father, small, with a swirl of black and white hair and paunchy, bulldog cheeks, had spent his days at the horse track.  Many days, not all of them.  Growing up, Herb knew about this indirectly, from the smell on him, booze and track dust and hard luck sweat, and from the cryptic numbered track receipts that lined his jacket pockets and drifted to the back of the front hall closet and sometimes showed up in the laundry, rolled and hard as pills.  His father had a weak, creaking voice and watery eyes but his grip was cutting, and he seemed frequently at the end of his patience.  When he was angry a shiny patch of sweat or misted spittle would show on his chin and lower lip, gleaming and slightly reddened as if the skin there had been scraped or polished, and his eyes turned opaquely lusterless.   Times he came home from the track with a wad of cash were not necessarily guaranteed much better than times he came home without:  he'd be more spritely, winnings in hand, talkative, and quick on his feet - more likely to slap and poke you lightly, meaning no harm, but still not smiling much and no less likely to break, suddenly and without warning, stare blankly and come after you with his belt in a fist.  Nervous little fucking Polack Napoleon, he and his brother would call him.  And later, Capricious dickhead.  Later still, Who was he - did you ever feel like you knew the guy?  Did anyone?

            Herb's brother, Ned, had had his troubles, too, though to Herb's knowledge all that was water under the bridge.  They hadn't been close at the time, Herb and Ned - hadn't been close ever, really, not for years, since Ned moved away - but he understood, from the letters and phone calls, the occasional heart-to-heart at family gatherings, that for a time it'd been rough.  Really rough.  Ned had lost a house and a boat and several rental properties.  A backhoe.  His marriage had been ruined.  Now happily remarried, he and his new wife belonged to one of those extreme Life-Culture Christian churches and this obsession seemed to have as neatly and fully supplanted the whole gambling trouble as imaginable - had set him right on the straight and narrow.  And though Herb was glad to think of his brother as finally having escaped that particular money-devouring, money-stricken hell, he was not convinced the problem was really fixed.  In his mind, the two things were connected, the church and the gambling:  Ned was still playing the odds, just a little differently.  The stakes had changed, the terms of the game, but he was still placing his faith in a magic conversion - betting one thing against the other, and hoping to be so much better off in another life. 

            Never Herb, though.  He'd tried a few times, but the gene for it must have skipped him, the luck, or the head.  No pleasure in risk, his life-motto might have been.  He just didn't see the point.  Didn't get the thrill, winnowing the odds, forecasting and multiplying your winnings, spitting three times for good luck, touching your forehead, crossing yourself, squeezing your lucky rabbit's foot, whatever charm you thought would give you the magic edge against the bookie or the dealer:  sweet easy success and the wad of free green in hand.  He loved money, but preferred it straight up, earned and not won.

            Margo, Herb's wife, had not bet either - that he knew of.  Thirty-three years married and there she was now, in the ship's casino, and sitting her fourth straight day at the same bank of one- and five-dollar slot machines, a plastic dish of fake coins like a doggie bowl in her lap and that stupid, rapt look on her face - the one that made him reflect, involuntarily, on his father and mostly estranged brother.  He'd been by twice that morning, so far - first, on his way to the Neptune Lounge for a lecture on totemic art, and later, bored with the lecture, heading back to the main service desk to speak with the woman there about signing on for one of the guided port-of-call excursions, for tomorrow.  No walking this time, he insisted.  Their first excursion, which had involved viewing of glaciers and wildlife, on-foot, had taught him better:  the spinning sea-sickness of his first two days on board had returned in reverse, setting him at odds with every steady surface, so he felt intolerably drowsy, head-achey and squeezed inside as if his guts were on a slow spin cycle.  He had no desire to repeat the experience. 

"There's the fishing excursion, which is actually quite nice, or the glacier trip again, eagle watching, helicopter tour, or..." here the woman drew a breath, "Actually, that's what we've got in Juneau, Mr.  Zackinski.  And of course there's always..."

            "Zackowski."

            "There's always shopping downtown."  She smiled and squinted a moment as if some distant, pleasing thought had captured her attention. 

            "I don't want to go shopping."

            "Well you can stay on the ship, too, if you like.  Hardly sucks, if you ask me.  It's entirely up to you.  The El Dorado lounge is open 24-7."

            Where did they get off talking like that?  Hardly sucks.  As if he were her foul-mouthed cussing old uncle or something.  Hardly sucks what? he pictured himself saying.  Grunted, and poked at the glossy three-fold flier on the table between them.  Depicted on its front fold was a bunch of joy-stricken tourists on a small boat, strangled in orange life-preservers and leaning over a railing to mug for the camera.

            "Don't wait too long though.  I've only got a few seats left on the Lucky Lady."

            "So it's a book now or never type situation, you're saying?"

            Again the girl squinted.  He'd been wrong about her.  Thought she'd be perky and accommodating.  Friendly.  Willing to explain things for him in a way that wasn't so condescending, maybe even cut him a special deal.  It was because of the copper eyes and the smile, he realized - the mild, benificient smile that pulled her swollen upper lip back from her front teeth and put him in mind of his older daughter, the dead one, Desiree.  But this was just a put-on.  To her he was more fodder:  another befuddled tourist.  Sure enough, with his floppy sun hat, digital camera around the neck, and the draw-string pants with the mesh bits and extra zippered pockets, all supposedly contrived to make you appear relaxed and ostentatiously holiday-spirited (though in truth they just made you seem a grown fool in diapers), he looked the part.  Just another cranky old rich guy waiting to have his multiple pockets picked clean. 

            "Well, I'll run it by..." here he paused, considering his options - the bag, the old lady, the boss, my better half - "run it by my pretty young wife."  She was younger, after all, by a few years, if not especially pretty anymore.

            "You do that Mr.  Zank...  Mr.  Zankowski and get right back to me."

            Later, with Janelle, on their way for more ice cream from the endless ice cream sundae bar, he passed the casino a third time.  Again, the smell of cigarettes coming from its arched doorways; again, the flashing lights and beeping, electronic-chiming machine noises and the piddly clink of fake coins cascading through a chute, someone crying out with pleasure.  There she was still, up on her stool, right where he'd last seen her. 

            "You worry too much, Dad," Janelle said.  "Come on.  It's harmless fun." 

            He squeezed her arm in his more tightly.  What were the odds, he wondered (speaking of odds) - him with his snaggle teeth and bow-legs, Margo with her slumpy shoulders and sucker-punched look of eternal astonishment - what were the odds of their having created such a winsome, model-pretty beauty?  What were the odds, for that matter, of their first daughter being run off the road by a drunken driver?

"Once she loses ten grand - then you'll let me worry?"

            "Give her a break."

"Give her a break!  She dumped seventeen hundred bucks into that thing already - and that was as of last night!  Seventeen hundred bucks, gone," he snapped his fingers, "nothing to show for it."  Here he tripped against a fold in the carpet and, stumbling, felt the almost pleasurable (because newly familiar) dilation of his senses to accommodate the ship's movement - his inner ear's workings attuned to this new more fluid, apprehension of balance, space and line.

            "Dad.  She's not Uncle Neddy."

            "I know who she is, kiddo!" 

But he didn't - not since getting on this ship, anyway - and that was the problem.  She'd drifted straight into the pack of gaming, bingo-playing old ladies.  Had become almost instantly indistinguishable to him from the rest of them with their dyed hair and warty necks and necklaces as outlandishly oversized as the opinions they flaunted at the slightest provocation.  Just the previous night he'd caught her going on, in a phoney accent, to one of their table mates about overcooked Ceviche.  "Ceviche," he'd broken in (he knew about this - had had it a few times, in southern Spain no less), "is a raw cuttlefish.  Isn't even cooked, they just set it overnight in some citrus juice till it goes tender.  From the acid.  You've never had it, that I know of."  Here she'd angled at him the kind of imperious rich-lady glare he was almost coming to expect of her.  Quit putting on airs, he'd wanted to say.  You're a farmer's kid from Yakima, and you always will be!   "That's not what we're talking about," she'd said.  "If we want your advice about washing machines, we'll ask, Herb.  Otherwise..."  And then the hour upon hour squatting at those damn machines, pumping his money into oblivion.  What was that about, anyway?  If the ship had stolen his center of gravity and confidence, causing him to think of himself as more or less anonymous, it'd had the reverse effect on his wife - and perhaps in an exact apportionment, who could say? - empowering her and giving her this astonishing belief in herself, her judgment and entitlement.   

            Worse, in spite of it (because of it?), he couldn't stop himself bragging and putting on airs at every opportunity.  Later in the same dinner conversation that had touched briefly on overcooked Ceviche, he'd heard himself rambling on.  "Started with the TV ad we had back in the early nineties - you're from Seattle, you've probably seen it.  The little guy in the tights and joker hat, running around the showroom floor sticking SOLD signs on washers and driers and what have you?  No one beats crazy Zack's crazy prices!  Wasn't me, as you probably deduced.  Some of the sales staff though, they started calling me Zack, on account of it, which apparently seemed to stick - so the new stores, too, some of them, we dropped the owski part.  They're just Zack's.  Zack's home of appliances.  Spokane, I think, and Walla Walla and the ones in La Grande and Portland.  Those ones are all Zack's."  This was a point that had burned him, initially:  the way the advertising firm had so delicately insisted on the employment of that foolish little actor look-alike to star in the ad which should rightly have featured him - should rightly have constituted his fifteen minutes of fame, and more.  Think of him like a stunt double, they'd said; and, You wouldn't want to do this, would you?  Well, yes, actually, he would.  And then the irony of it.  Some other guy's antics causing him to be re-named, rich overnight, and so many of his franchises called by another name.  He was a little proud of himself, now, mentioning it so offhand, as if it were nothing.  Then, catching himself in the pride, embarrassed by it, and embarrassed for the whole stupid business, the charade and the vanity.  "That guy, though, the actor - Marvin something, wasn't it honey? - he was definitely my likeness.  Chose him for it.  And I didn't see the point in that really - coulda done it myself, without the hat and the tights and whatnot of course, but let me tell you, it was one successful campaign.  Went all over the northwest with it.  Crazy Zack!"  He popped his hands together, leaned over the table, put on his best imitation of the actor's voice.  "'See Crazy Zack for lucky deals at Zackowski's home of appliances!'  My secret, see - always make sure your fixed overhead and inventory costs pace your net gains and revenues at a 3-1 ratio.  Eh?  See where I'm going with that?  Always a step ahead of the game."  Must have been the wine and the bloody Mary's making him say so much.

            Now Janelle was tugging him up the swaying carpeted stairwell to the promenade deck, having said something about saving the ice-cream for later.  It was too nice out, she said, and soon they'd be sailing into Glacier Bay.  "Let's go out and watch for whales.  Let's see glaciers birthing icebergs."

            "They have the observation deck up front in operation again?"

            She didn't answer.  Maybe he hadn't said it in a way that was sufficiently question-inflected.  He did that sometimes now, he knew, like his father - confused people, asking his questions in a way that sounded more like aggravated commentary.

            "Your mother and I were out there all the first day until sunset.  She really enjoyed that, I think, the drinks with the parasols and whatnot.  Then they closed it for the weather.  Mainly the wind, I think - afraid one of us would blow overboard.  Cattle overboard!  Has it been re-opened, do ya know?  Maybe we should see if she wants to join us...."

            Janelle continued tugging him along the hallway, bracing a hip against his now as she seized the door to the outside deck and threw all her weight into it.  It was a stiffly hinged door with shiny windows and brass casements, hundreds of pounds too heavy.  Herb should have rushed ahead of her to take care of that, but the moment was gone now. 

            "Leave it alone, Dad," she said.        

            "What's that now?"

            "You know.  Look, if she burns up a few grand in there, what's the big deal?  It's not like you can't afford it.  You think she doesn't deserve a little fun in life?"

            That was it, in a nutshell - the whole problem with her and her generation:  because he'd worked this hard to give her the life he hadn't had - one without financial hardship, and without a booze-smelling, malign old man in cowboy boots, practically a stranger, chasing you around the living room with his belt in a fist because he'd lost his paycheck on a horse named Pagan, or because he hadn't lost at all and he was just plain mean.  She believed the packaging:  if it said "Fun" on the label, then fun it was.  Truth in advertising.  Organic and pure meant just that, not here's a new way to rip off the consumer.  Not a critical bone in her body.  But he'd done that to her, because of the way he'd protected her, kept her safe and out of harm's way, except...but never mind that.  You could do everything, but you couldn't keep death out.    

Or maybe he had her all wrong.  Maybe it was really the grief and sadness, the loss, always making her strive to prop them up and see the best in a situation, buoying them along.  Maybe that was it and he was a jerk to think of her so critically.  The cruise, after all, had been his idea, not hers, and a hard sell at that.  So who was he to criticize?  A floating fun factory:  if ever there was a prescriptive forum for fun to be had this was it, and he was the one who'd bought that particular BS hook line and sinker.

            "Not fun, honey," he said.  "It's a sickness.  A disease.  You wouldn't know.  There's no fun in it."

            But she wasn't listening and he found he'd lost the taste for saying it anyway.  The words blew away in the humid Arctic air, stupid and meaningless though he'd meant them very much.  There was just the dull hum of the ship going through the channel now, low like an enormous refrigerator; the rocky cliffs towering up out of the water over them, covered in mist-shrouded, wizened spruce, and granite outcroppings; the sound of waves creaming the ship's sides way down there, six, seven stories down, and gulls crying.  It had impressed him their first day on board, how quiet the ship was, and continued impressing him, now:  drawn on by this humming, inexorable force the thing just slid along.  Huge and greasy and smooth.  Below them, bobbing in the black green water displaced by their movement were the giant hunks of disfigured ice from the surrounding glaciers, which his daughter had mentioned:  one like a giant skull, one like an embryo, clotted and stuck full of debris, sticks and branches, another, bigger, phosphorescent blue, with chunks of prehistoric rock scabbing its surface. 

            "Oh!  Those are the old ones," she said, pointing.  "The blue ones - they're super compressed, like, compacted over millions of years.  Amazing, isn't it?  Now they're melting.  All of them, like the earth is shaking off its blankets." 

            He moved closer as if he were unable to hear or to follow what she was saying.  Made some of his befuddled old man noises and wrapped an arm around her.  He wondered if what had been making him feel so ragged and aggravated lately was not the ship or his wife after all; maybe something else - who could say what, something in his keister or his heart (same as the old man again) or liver, it didn't much matter - something was not right with him.  Maybe he was dying.  Like the old people who'd lived up here since forever and who would notoriously walk out onto the ice to die when they knew their game was up (he'd read about it; had heard the lectures from the naturalists in the Neptune Lounge, too) - the Natives - he was getting ready to go.  That was why he'd brought them here.  He held his breath now not to have to say anything about it.  Withdrew his arm and felt her hair blow over his face, her fingers following quickly with a tinkling laugh like music, to tug the hair back and over one shoulder.

            He wanted to give this moment more of his attention - to really fuse what his daughter was saying with the magnificent, bleak landscape, take it in and apply it to this sudden realization that he might be dying soon - but immediately, he was being distracted.  There was an older man, almost his likeness, in a blue windbreaker at the railing beside him, taping the scene onto video, and chattering away authoritatively to his wife about whales and eagles while she stored frames on a digital camera which Herb recognized as being almost the same as his but higher priced and made by a different company (the zoom feature wouldn't work as well, he comforted himself by remembering, even if it had better storage and some fancy image manipulation functions his lacked).  He'd thought hard about buying that very camera but had opted, in the end, for the half-priced one next to it - felt it'd been a real steal.  Now he wondered.  Wanted to strike up a conversation with them to check it out, compare notes, natter on a while about different options and specifics and share with them some of his new insights into the pleasures of electronic photography - how it could turn a hack like him into an artist, or something like it.  How easy it was zapping a poor shot out of existence, re-framing a half-decent one, and how his computers at home were now bloated with shots he would never previously have considered himself capable of taking.  I used to think it was all luck, he might have said.  Point the camera, see what you get.  But no.  It's trickery combined with skill - probably more trickery than skill, actuallyGranted, some things are just never destined to be in a frame....

            "Let's move on," he said.  "The cattle are lowing.  Must be close to another feeding time."

            "Dad."  She ducked her head in a way he found endearing if a bit infuriating.  She was tough as nails, that girl.  No one would ever get to boss her around - not easily anyway.  "Sure.  Up or down?"

            "Back.  Let's sit on those little chairs on the poop deck and get us some blankets and martinis.  How's that sound?"

            She grinned and nudged him into motion.

            But on the poop deck he was seized with the same melancholy.  The vista opened out behind them, flat, waveless, desolate, the surface of the water where the ship had passed stretching miles behind them in the channel, as far as he could see, like a scar.  Like the water had been polished.  So, their passage was not trackless.  Of course - anything but.  All of it was an illusion, the closeness with nature as well as the luxury, and yet sure enough, here they were.  The cliffs ran straight into the water, rock strewn and icy, and behind that it was all purple and mauve.

            "Chowder," he said.  "Forget the martini, I want some of that fish chowder and a hot chocolate.  You?"

#

            Back in their stateroom, dressing for dinner (formal that night, Margo had reminded him scoldingly...

 

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