If Holly put a penny in a gum ball machine, gum and a gold plastic ring would come out. At the Holy Names carnival, she’d lay a poker chip on a number, watch the wheel spin, and collect a stuffed animal.“I swear, you are the luckiest kid,” her mom used to say, sounding a little annoyed.
When did Holly stop thinking of herself as lucky? You might have thought when the thing with Julie happened, right before 10th grade. They walked everywhere that summer, to the park, down Harder Road, aimless, bored, wishing something would happen. Then it did. They were coming out of Jack-in-the-Box when a beat-up Camaro pulled over. The engine was loud but the driver shouted. “Hey I remember you two.” He was a friend of Mike Delgado’s older brother. “Where you going? Need a ride?”
The car smelled like leather and cologne. “Do you guys have to go home right away? Can I show you something? Ever been to Seven Hills? It’s cool. Looks like you are on the moon.”
It did not look like the moon, it looked like sad bare land with bulldozers left in ditches, waiting for investors to come back and pay salaries. “Come on,” he said and they climbed out of the car. He pointed at something in the distance, still talking about the moon, pulling them toward him so they could better see what he was seeing. He drew them close, an arm around each of them. Talking. One of his hands slid down behind Julie, the other reached over Holly’s shoulder and down to her breast. “You know you girls can’t get me like this and not take care of it.” Holly tried to shrug off his arm but he buried his hand in her hair and pulled until her head flew backward, eyes to the sky.
They had to make good on an offer they didn’t know they’d made.
“Lucky he didn’t kill them,” Holly’s mom whispered to Aunt Jeanne. “Driving out to the middle of nowhere like that.”
It got around school in the fall. A couple months later when Jerry Huey pushed up on Holly on the side of his house, next to the garbage cans, she let him. No reason not to, everyone already thought the worst of her. A girl from the apartments, the thing with Julie last summer…what did you expect. She and Jerry started meeting after school as often as they could, finding parentheses, still places: the garage, under the bleachers, and that one blissful time in his mom’s bed when no one was home. Holly cradled his head after he came, feeling his hot fast breath on her shoulder, praying time would stop.
Her mom found the pink packaging in the bathroom waste basket and Holly had to show her the stick. “I didn’t raise you like this,” her mom screamed. “Why would you ruin your whole life for a few minutes with a guy?” All Holly could think of was a soft-skinned babydoll who called her mama.
When she found a red stain flowering on her underpants, Holly wept. Her mom told her to get a grip. “You got lucky, trust me. Look at your aunt, look how that went.” Aunt Jeanne got pregnant in high school, too, and that baby was grown now, doing time in Corcoran.
After graduation, Holly got a job waiting tables at Fiesta Lanes and registered for a typing class. She took gifts of apple-green crib sheets to baby showers and played party games that involved blindfolds and dirty words. She listened to girlfriends shout into phone receivers at boys who didn’t pay for diapers, and at young grandmothers who refused to babysit: “You shouldn’t have spread your legs if you wanted to go dancing every weekend.” There were fake IDs and blended eyeshadow and Bacardi-and-cokes. The friends got jobs bagging groceries, took up with guys who weren’t their babies’ fathers, cheated on the new boyfriends with the old ones.
The sameness began to sadden Holly. She was still waiting for her real life to make itself known. Another waitress at Fiesta Lanes said her uncle owned a restaurant in San Francisco. Holly could live with the girl’s grandma in Colma if she cleaned the house every week and paid her own long distance. No guys, of course.
Arturo’s Fine Dining on Mission St. had a dance floor that filled with spinning couples on Saturday nights. Uncle Artie was the owner but his wife ran everything. Amalia called Holly slowpoke and snapped at men who leered at her. When Holly turned 21, Amalia taught her to tend bar. One night a man came in, all sharp angles, cheekbones and creased pants. He sat at the bar and asked for seltzer so politely Holly felt sorry for him. Then Uncle Artie walked in and stopped short. “Coño!” He and the man slapped hands and hugged and laughed like seeing each other was a great joke. “Take care of my boy, OK?” Artie said to Holly. “Give him whatever he wants. This man right here is a legend.”
The man shook his head, embarrassed. He didn’t want anything besides seltzer, he said, and to know how long had Holly been working here. He was old, like Artie and Amelia, maybe 40, but when he spoke the years dropped off him. He came in the next week and asked Holly out to dinner. “Rey is a real gentleman,” Amalia said. “You’re lucky. Girls been throwing themselves at him as long as I known him. But he don’t take up with just anybody.”
Rey took her to dinner on a Tuesday, because he gigged the rest of the week. They planned dinner for the next Tuesday, too. She had to go out to the Marina to drop something off for Amalia, so she told him she’d meet him at the restaurant, he didn’t need to drive all the way to Colma to pick her up. Waiting for the bus in the Marina Holly suddenly found her feet shuffling under her, as if she were on a tilting ship. Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her into the middle of the street. “Oh my god, make it stop,” a woman wailed. Car alarms went off. A building shuddered and slumped with a loud crack. Dust billowed. Then a thud and the bus shelter collapsed.
There was no electricity, so there would be no bus. Holly tried to call Amalia from a payphone but circuits were busy. She started to walk. She couldn’t make it all the way to Colma but maybe to Arturo’s. An hour into her walk she heard, “Holly! Holly, over here.” It was Rey, on the other side of the street, getting out of his car, waving at her.
“I can’t believe I found you.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. “I heard the Marina caved in. Amalia said that’s where you were. Are you OK?” She told him how the lady pulled her into the street seconds before the bus shelter collapsed and Rey hugged her hard again and said, “Somebody up there must be looking out for you.” Holly didn’t think so, it was just how things always went for her.
She moved in with him in San Bruno. He only had to empty a couple drawers because she owned so little. The house was full of concert posters and congas, batás, bongoes. His life was so abundant it overflowed into hers, filling the emptiness. A gift.
They got married at City Hall, had a bembé that weekend in his backyard. Her mother winced at the drumming. Holly moved through the party in a happy trance, accepting cheek kisses and congratulations.
Amalia took credit for Holly’s good fortune. “I introduced them. She’s a lucky girl. How often you find a musician who’s not a dog?” Holly tried to remember Amalia’s assessment when women approached Rey after gigs. He smiled too much, listened too long, but got testy when Holly complained. “I’m an old man, baby. I got no interest in chasing skirt. I wanted to marry a nice girl so I could stop all that and focus on my work. And that’s what I did. You’re my nice girl. So act like it.”
She started to notice he didn’t remember things about her work schedule, her childhood, her opinions, her preferences. She tried to get him to go for walks in Golden Gate Park like they did when they were courting, but now he said wasting a Sunday was for rich people. On the nights she closed Arturo’s she did shots with her regulars; when Amalia was there she kept a glass hidden under the bar. It helped her feel less lonely. Feel less everything. Rey never stopped working. Transcribing music, writing, rehearsing, producing, playing. She complained. She pouted. She demanded. “You have to respect my work or we’re going to have a problem,” he said. Sex was desperate and perfect.
It wasn’t an accident whose bed she fell into the third year of their marriage, when Rey was on tour. It was a guy who’d always tried to talk to her at shows, who seemed to want to provoke her famously dignified husband. But Holly wasn’t thinking about hurting Rey when it happened, she was just drunk and sad. Word got back to Rey when he returned from tour and he was devastated. She’d finally gotten to him, but it gave her no power. Just the opposite. “I don’t want to even know you much less be married to you. Pack your shit. Go.”
She begged, she cried. She’d quit her job a few months before to spend more time with him, so now she was alone and broke. Amalia had just closed Arturo’s and wouldn’t have taken Holly back anyway, not after this. Holly moved to an apartment-share in Oakland to get away from reminders of Rey but the distance didn’t help. She couldn’t stop calling, showing up at gigs, rehearsals. Sometimes she’d catch him at a weak moment; he’d admit he missed her, they’d go home and have sex. Then he would order her away. “This doesn’t change anything.”
Holly was still trying to win Rey back when a guy came into her new job at a sports bar in Emeryville. He asked for a Miller Lite and squinted at her. “Calaroga Junior High?” She didn’t remember him, but they chatted about the old neighborhood and what they knew about classmates: babies, jail, a season with the Oakland A’s. The next time Brian came in he brought a yearbook from seventh grade, and they laughed over their fashions and teeth. “We should have dinner sometime,” he said.
On nice evenings they jogged up to Lawrence Hall of Science and stopped at the peak to watch the sun set. They ate nachos and watched basketball. They did laundry. It was so comfortable Holly didn’t think it could be love. But more and more she found herself thinking of ways to delight him. She left notes, made cookies. Every time, he was touched; every time, it made her happier than she would have guessed. Now when they ran to the top of the hill, while Brian gazed at the view, Holly closed her eyes and silently spoke to the sky. Thank you. It started feeling as though her marriage to Rey had been a wrong turn that landed her in someone else’s neighborhood, where she’d stayed too long.
Brian passed the CPA test and someone offered him a piece of a business in Santa Rosa. He would teach Holly bookkeeping so she could work with him. They got married at a winery that one of his clients owned. Brian’s parents and basketball friends came. Holly’s mother wore a corsage.
Brian didn’t want to have a baby until they could buy a house. Holly was already 28 and worried about being an old mom but she agreed. They lived in a little rental apartment and drove to work together and saved money. She was humbled by Brian’s faith in putting one foot in front of the other.
At last they put a deposit on a home in a new subdivision. Holly didn’t visit the construction site while the house was being built. It reminded her too much of the moon: sad bare land and bulldozers, a fist in her hair, eyes to the sky.
She painted the nursery yellow. The doctor said one glass of wine a week but her mom and Aunt Jeanne drank all through their pregnancies; malpractice had made doctors ridiculous. Their baby girl had long eyelashes and looked like Brian. They marveled at how much they loved her.
Brooke grew to be chatty and busy and also skittish, scared of loud noises and animals. She cried the first day of dance class but soon she was tapping, leaping, doing cart wheels. There were sequined body suits and hot rollers and sprained ankles and three-hour recitals. Holly collected angel figurines. Ceramic cherubs and framed photos of Brooke in glittering leotards gathered in every corner of the house. One of the angels had a rosebud mouth like Brooke’s. Sometimes when Holly was dusting she held that one to her cheek. Thank you. And also please.
On their way to dance class one drizzly afternoon Brooke said she was cold and wanted to curl up on the floor of the car, under the dash where the hot air was coming out. Holly didn’t feel the chill because of the Stoli in her thermos. “Ok, but just for a minute. You need to get back in your seat with your seatbelt on.” The doctor said that it was actually a good thing Brooke was down there—she hadn’t seen the accident coming, so she hadn’t tensed up. That’s why she wasn’t injured.
After Brooke went to bed that night Brian broke down. “You both could have been killed.” He sobbed. “It’s my fault. I didn’t think you’d be drinking so early in the day.”
Holly didn’t understand. Then she did and she was dizzy. She had fooled herself for so long she thought she’d fooled Brian, too. But now she saw what he saw: that she’d put her daughter’s life in danger, because she was drunk. That she was almost always drunk.
Holly never stopped feeling lucky that she got sober with only a near-miss. Other people in the rooms had lost everything. Brooke grew less nervous in the years after Holly quit drinking. They got a white cockapoo and named it Snack. Brooke met a boy in her sophomore year. He was prettier than Brooke but he’d been a fat child so he didn’t realize it. Scott and Brooke did homework together, spoke nicely to one another. It didn’t bother Holly when Brooke asked for birth control.
Holly felt luckier all the time.
It was lucky that she could be at her mother’s side when she passed, holding her hand, in the room that Kaiser reserved for dying people.
It was lucky Holly caught that terrible stomach bug or they wouldn’t have run the tests and found the leukemia so early.
Lucky Brian’s business was doing well since Holly couldn’t work anymore.
Lucky she was feeling strong enough to run when the flames tore into their front yard in the middle of the night, lucky Brian grabbed the dog, lucky they were able to drive out of the subdivision before the blaze swallowed not just their house but them too.
Lucky Brooke was away camping with Scott’s family that weekend.
Lucky Brian’s office untouched—
Lucky the insurance—
Lucky to find a place to live—
Now Holly sits on the balcony of their new apartment, furnished with lawn chairs and a borrowed bed, gazing out at the green pines that stand tall behind the car park. She thinks the air still smells charred but chemo has distorted her senses. The newspapers were full of stories about people who took cover in swimming pools, elderly couples found holding hands, incinerated, beloved dogs who turned up days later hungry but fine. At a fire-survivors’ party last weekend, the hostess—wearing baggy, donated clothes like Holly—hugged Brian and said, “I feel the worst for you guys. You’ve had more than your fair share of bad luck, that’s for sure.”
From her chair on the balcony, Holly hears a car; it’s probably Brian coming home from the office. He will park in the spot where their apartment number is painted on the pavement, just like at their first apartment years ago.
Years ago. When things were starting, not ending; when they were adding to their lives, not subtracting.
Was it true that they’d had more than their fair share of bad luck?
The blue Honda Civic, the steed that had carried them out of the flames, rolls into the drive. Brian gets out of the car, sees Holly on the balcony, and waves.
It occurs to Holly that she doesn’t think of herself as lucky anymore. Not really. But she doesn’t consider herself unlucky, either. No.
She’d just lived, that was all. She’d had a life.
Holly waves back at her husband, tilts her face up to the sun, and breathes in the smoky air. She smiles. She waits.
Image By: Keith Sutter