The first thing I’ll do is leave that son of a bitch. Then I’ll go to the beach.
Jamie rushed to the mailbox as soon as the mailman had gone and hurriedly searched through the bills and the junk mail looking for the letter from the Sweepstakes. So far, ten letters were hidden away in a drawer in the kitchen. You had to read them real good to send the form back without buying a magazine. No magazines, and she was still in the Sweepstakes and close to winning the million dollars.
There was no letter today. Jamie slowly carried the ads and bills up the walkway. Her house slippers crunched the curls of cracked gray paint on the porch as she reached for the handle of the screen door. Outside the porch, the sun beat down on the dry air that lay trapped in the central valley of California below Merced. Inside the house, darkness lay about the room, as lazy as Albert on his day off. Today was Thursday, laundry day. She gathered his work clothes and the used towels from the bathroom, her underwear and plain dresses from the bedroom, and the dishtowels from the kitchen.
From the pantry, she took the pull cart and the laundry bag. From the bowl on the counter she took two dollars. Enough for two wash loads – one for his clothes – and one for hers, the dishtowels and the bath towels – and two dry loads. Jamie went back to the pantry and picked up the little box of laundry soap and then reached behind the bag of flour on the bottom shelf. She put the two hidden quarters into the pocket of her dress.
While the dryer tossed the clothes, Jamie stared out the window at the lonely street. In the ten years she and Albert had lived together, this street hadn’t changed. Sometimes a car passed by with a couple in the front seat and she wondered where they were going and what they were saying to each other. The dryer signaled that it had done all that it was going to do for two quarters. Jamie waited. Let them clothes cook a while. The longer they cook, the better they’ll dry on the rack. When fifteen minutes had passed, she began unloading the dryer. She folded the clothes carefully trying to keep the heat inside. The lingering bittersweet smell of soap itched her nose as she worked. An hour on the clothes rack, and you’ll all be dry.
While she pulled the cart up the hill toward the little cottage, Jamie patted her pocket. She could feel the lottery ticket inside. While the clothes were washing, she had walked down Stephenson Street to the Chinese grocery. The store was six blocks away, not as close as the one next to the Laundromat. She only went there to buy lottery tickets. When the weather was hot, she could save two of the drying quarters – half a lottery ticket. When the news came on tonight, she might be able to steal a look at the lottery numbers. If Albert didn’t watch the news, she would have to wait until she went to the store tomorrow.
Friday was payday and Albert always stopped with his buddies for a beer or two, or more. The “or more” worried Jamie. She looked at the clock – seven o’clock. Seven o’clock wasn’t too bad. If Albert came home soon, he wouldn’t be too drunk. Albert got off work at four. If he was home by seven, then dinner would be warm, and he might fall asleep at the TV after dinner. Eight o’clock was iffy; later than nine was definitely bad. The casserole was keeping warm in the oven and cold beers were waiting in the refrigerator. Jamie sat in her rocking chair looking at the pictures in a magazine and listened. She wanted to hear his steps on the path. Jamie ignored the noise from her empty stomach. The words blurred on the page.
She jolted awake. Albert’s shoes scuffed against the porch steps. She glanced at the clock – 9:30. Jamie bolted out of her chair and headed to the kitchen. She pulled the casserole from the oven and put it in the center of the table. The table was set for two. Albert didn’t like to eat alone. Just as the door opened, she put a cold beer next to his plate. His uncertain walk from the front door to the bathroom told her what she already knew.
After a few minutes, the bathroom door opened, and she heard his steps – on the wood in the hallway, muffled on the carpet – around the edge of the couch, loud on the dark wood between the carpet and the kitchen door. She avoided his eyes, those dark brown pits in his sun-leathered face. Albert’s mid-section showed the effect of too many beers. His red-and-blue checkered, flannel shirt had given up trying to stay in his pants and stretched helplessly over a truckload of Budweiser. Faded Levis dipped under the Budweiser. His brown cowboy boots were scuffed and so dusty that the golden yellow stitching was almost hidden.
“Another damned tuna casserole! Don’t you know how to cook nuthin’ else?”
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you,” he shouted as he popped the cap off the beer bottle. He tilted the bottle and drank.
“I’ll fix somethin’ else next week.”
“Not likely,” he mumbled around a mouthful of food.
She ate silently. Inside she said little prayers. Not tonight. Watch TV. Leave me alone.
When he finished eating and stood up, she held her breath. He walked to the couch, picked up the remote, and clicked the TV on. On tiptoes, she gathered up the dishes, washed and rinsed them, and put them in the drainer to dry. She wiped the table, rinsed the washcloth, and hung it on the oven handle. Noise from Wrestling Smackdown filled the living room. She waited for a commercial to finish and then stole quietly to the bedroom. Jamie undressed and slipped between the sheets. Maybe tonight he’ll just go to sleep.
The side of her face was on fire. Groggy with early sleep, she covered her face with her hands. A blow landed on her wrist.
“Damn you. You’re always sneakin’ off. Everything is always a secret with you.”
He pulled back the covers. She was naked. He made her go to bed naked. The bright, bare bulb overhead burned through the space between her arms. He was unbuttoning his shirt. The bare air was cool on her skin; she turned on her side, away from him. Slap! His belt broke against her leg.
“Don’t turn away from me!”
The belt spoke again, this time on top of her hip. She pulled her knees up keeping her arm over her head.
He was fumbling with his clothes. She heard his boots hit the floor.
Then he was on top of her. He pulled at her and rolled her onto her back. He grabbed her arms, pulling them away from her face. Black hair covered his chest. His face was red and sweaty; black, oily hair hung down in his eyes. He forced his knee between her legs. She spread her legs for him. He would have her, she didn’t need to resist and earn more of a beating. She felt him push into her. He lay down on her with his face next to hers. She smelled his sweat and the beer on his breath. He began to thrust. She closed her eyes and went into the dark place where no feeling lived. She barely noticed as his hands gripped her breasts.
He stopped. He wasn’t done. If he went soft, he would get angrier. She put her hands on his back and pulled him toward her. She spread her legs wider and pushed her hips to him. He began again. She pushed with him trying to bring his orgasm. Soon he stiffened and then relaxed. The bastard will leave me alone now.
As soon as the sun came in through the dusty nylon curtains, Jamie rolled out of bed. After the toilet, she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. A red welt lay next to her left eye and the lid was swollen. It would turn black and blue tomorrow. Her oily blond hair was stringy and stuck out at the sides. She patted it down. Wash it tomorrow. In the kitchen, she placed two ice cubes in a towel and held them on her eye. After a few minutes, she put the towel aside and began to make pancakes.
Every Saturday morning he had to have pancakes. His grandmother had made pancakes on Saturday mornings. Pancakes, butter, maple syrup, every Saturday. My Saturdays were never about pancakes and maple syrup. I had to get out of the house before Uncle Ernie got up, otherwise he’d get his hands on me. Uncle Ernie shoulda got together with Albert’s mother.
Jamie met Albert in high school. She had been desperate to get out of the house. Jamie’s mother didn’t believe that her brother was making Jamie miserable. He’s just teasing you. He don’t mean nothin’. Jamie spent most evenings with her friend Samantha. Samantha helped her with her studies, and Samantha’s house was quiet and didn’t have any extra hands. Jamie struggled with school; without Samantha she would have flunked out. Samantha was pretty and popular, but Jamie was not envious; she knew that Samantha was a gift.
Jamie carried more soft tissue than the ads called for, but found that boys would date her if she gave them what they wanted. Albert was big and handsome and a senior. Jamie was a sophomore when he first asked her out; she tried hard to make him feel like a man. Jamie and Albert dated most of Albert’s senior year, and then, at the prom, he asked her to marry him, but Samantha talked Jamie into waiting. She waited a year.
Albert’s home was as bad as hers. His mother went with mean men and was often passed out drunk. A few times when her man passed out too soon, she visited Albert. Jamie saw Albert’s mother only a couple of times before they got married and never afterward. The thing Jamie remembered was the empty look in her eyes. When you look in most people’s eyes, you get a feeling there is someone there. Looking in Lucy’s eyes was like looking into the eyes of a reptile. You can’t tell what a snake is thinking.
The things Jamie and Albert had in common – Merced, abuse, need – pulled them together. His irregular construction job made just enough for them to get by. For Jamie, the four years that they had lived together, blurred into a heat haze. This morning, the sun that slivered past the kitchen shade promised to bake more color out of the dry grass outside.
When Albert walked into the kitchen, Jamie started frying the pancakes. She put a cup of coffee in front of him at the table and then a plate of pancakes when they were done. He looked up at her as she set the plate down. She knew that look; he’d say he was sorry later.
“I’m going over to Rob’s to help with his car. After we get it running, we’re going to go fishing in the Delta.”
“What do you want for dinner tonight?’
“I’ll barbecue some catfish.”
Take more than a bag of catfish to fix my face.
On Monday, the eye was black alright. She wore her sunglasses. In the grocery store, she stood behind Mrs. Washington, a big woman with a whole bunch of kids. Jamie had never been able to figure out how many there were. There always seemed to be a different group with her. Jamie looked at the magazines on the rack next to the checkout counter while she waited. The covers showed thin, beautiful women with perfectly mussed hair who were so happy it made Jamie sad.
Mr. Block owned the little grocery store next to the Laundromat and ran the checkout in the mornings. Jamie liked Mr. Block. He saved magazines for her. One day, she had let it slip that she really wanted a magazine, but that she couldn’t afford one. Mr. Block saved the magazines his wife read and gave them to Jamie every Monday.
“Well, I didn’t win the lottery again,” Mrs. Washington said to Mr. Block.
“You didn’t think you would, did you?” Mr. Block responded.
“I can always hope.”
“The lottery, the Sweepstakes, the poker tables. It’s all the same. The rich guys taking it from you and me.”
“Nobody ever wins the Sweepstakes, but they show the lottery winners on TV all the time.”
“Never anybody I know,” Mr. Block answered.
“You’ll know me when I win,” Mrs. Washington laughed as she walked away from the checkout stand.
“Hello, Jamie,” Mr. Block smiled. He looked at Jamie and then quickly down at the groceries.
“Hello, Mr. Block,” Jamie replied.
“I’ve got some magazines for you.” Mr. Block reached behind the counter and pulled out three magazines. Jamie took them and held them to her chest. After the morning soaps on TV, her afternoons with Mrs. Block’s magazines were her favorite times.
“Thank you, Mr. Block.” Jamie paid for the groceries and put the receipt in her coin purse. Albert wanted to see the receipts.
Jamie thought about the conversation in the market as she pulled the cart up the hill. Nobody ever wins the Sweepstakes. Nobody around here ever won the lottery. Nobody ever gets out of here.
Today’s magazines included The Star. Mrs. Block didn’t usually read The Star, so Jamie didn’t either. It wasn’t one of Jamie’s favorites. There were crime stories, and gossip, and weird happenings, but not many beautiful people and no color pictures of the beach. But Jamie would read The Star from cover to cover.
The Star of June 1997 carried the story of Angelica, a Texas woman who had killed her husband. He beat her regularly, and then one night she went crazy and stabbed him. Angelica got fifteen years in prison. The writer of the story thought that she shouldn’t have gotten such a long prison sentence; that women didn’t get credit for self-defense.
Jamie thought about Angelica all week. What’s Angelica got to worry about? Nobody’s going to beat her up Friday nights. Nobody’s going to have their way with her. Does Angelica get to watch soaps? Does Angelica get magazines?
Albert came home at seven-thirty on Friday, but he was already angry when he opened the door. Someone at work had dropped a load of gravel and Albert had had to clean it up. Jamie didn’t say anything. She hoped he would rant about work and leave her alone.
After dinner, he called out from the couch, “I need a cold one.”
Jamie was still in the kitchen, cleaning up. She brought one of the cold, brown bottles to him. He took it with one hand and grabbed her with the other, bringing her down beside him. He put the bottle down and began to unbutton her dress. Jamie didn’t move while he slipped the dress over her shoulders and pulled it down and while his rough whiskers scratched her neck and his sour breath turned her stomach. He took a drink of his beer and then cupped her breast with his hand. He fondled her, watched tag-team wrestling, and drank his beer.
“Why don’t you ever want me anymore?” he said, pulling her closer to him.
He’s right. I don’t want him anymore.
When the beer was gone, he held up the bottle. “How about another?”
Jamie took the empty and went into the kitchen, holding her dress to keep it from dragging. At the refrigerator, she noticed the brown paint showing through the dull white enamel where it was worn near the handle. It matched the brown fibers around the worn edges of the linoleum counter top, and the rough brown wood floor, and the beer bottle she took from the refrigerator. As she turned back, the only shiny surface in the room caught her eye. She paused at the knife rack. There, on magnetic holders, hung a twelve-inch long carving knife. It was long and thin with a pointed tip and a blade as bright as a mirror. Jamie reached up and took the knife from its place between the smaller knives. The metal of the blade ran between two black plastic grips that made the handle. Three rivets held the plastic to the blade. A beautiful inward curve shaped the cutting edge near the handle. Then the edge went straight to where it reversed the curve to the pointed tip. She ran her hand up the handle and along the top of the blade. Her small hands and short fingers, with fingernails bitten to the quick, caressed the knife like a new lover. The knife was very sharp. Jamie had sharpened it yesterday. Right up between his ribs. Then the blood will flow, and he will flop around like one of his catfish.
There had been a new letter from the Sweepstakes today. A banner at the top of the letter read, “YOU ARE A FINALIST. Just tell us some information so we can determine who the final winner is.” Jamie had read the letter carefully to make sure she got it right and then filled out the form and mailed it.
Jamie put the knife back in the rack. Be stupid to win the Sweepstakes in jail.