By the fifty-sixth year of her life, Lucky Bates had already lost most of her hearing. It wasn’t that she minded the extra physical illness—she had high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, and a bad case of psoriasis—but that extra little bit of ‘not understanding’ made her cranky.
The five different diagnoses from five different mental health professionals that rounded out her medical file—now that was a horse of a different color. Each of them represented a separate scarlet “A” she locked safely away from friends and family, their medical accusations buried deep inside. Nobody she knew would ever know how these accusations clung to her soul like barnacles on a pier.
As far as the medical community went she was branded; and there was nothing to be done about that. It was both fascinating and disturbing to see the change that came over a doctor’s face around line two of her medical report (“history of mental illness.”) Their eyes would get hooded and secretive; and after that it didn’t matter what she said. It was all in her head. How could she explain that it wasn’t always like this to these white-coated imbeciles with God complexes? She had raised a family—molded mewling, helpless blobs of human flesh into functioning members of society—until one day, the house was empty. Her job was done. Some people build high-rises on the beach, and some people build corporate careers. She built people. When the last of the children left home, (a daughter, who still lived in town,) another piece of her sloughed away, crumbling into the ocean like a shelf of wave-beaten rock. She lost her identity for a while, but she was really good at rebuilding.
Sometimes that got to her—the ‘not understanding’ part of life. The physical stuff was just irritating.
But this afternoon she was comfortable enough sunk down in her favorite spot on the plaid loveseat, nodding off a little in front of the blaring television set as her favorite doctor, the television kind, advised, “A little bit of plain old honey! Just use it as a facial mask. Smooth as a baby’s bottom in no time, guaranteed!
In the nearby kitchen, Lewis Bates was busy smearing globs of mayonnaise on progressively thinning slices of white bread. He was ten years older than his wife and healthier on the whole than she (if you didn’t count the triple bypass 12 years ago, and he didn’t). The unmistakable presence of his gigantic belly could be chalked up to simple age. He was a golden oldie, getting more seasoned and bigger every year—like a fine wine.
Lewis took care of Lucky the best he could now that they were both older, although there was a time when she did everything—cooking, cleaning—raising the kids. She was from South Korea, and she didn’t read or write in English. Her nervous disposition and Lewis’s jealousy prevented her from learning how to drive. He didn’t want another man in the car with Lucky. Lewis loved to tell anyone within earshot the story about how Lucky once drove a car into the side of an airplane hangar. He was trying to teach her to drive, and there was nothing around for miles but the road and the hangar, and she runs the damn thing smack dab into the wall, he’d say.
She still did all the cooking, and most of the cleaning; but Lewis could make a mean turkey sandwich. “I’m making sammiches,” he said. “Do you want one?”
“Hmmm?” Lucky asked, irritated. What did she care what he wanted from her? He always wanted something. She gauged the temperature of the room and found it pleasant. She could complain all she wanted. That’s what he expected of her. But, he’d awakened her right when she was falling toward languid oblivion. She had been dreaming of poppy fields—lush and vivid, alive with color. She loved flowers and was an expert gardener. It was the one other thing in life that she did better than other people could, and she knew just about everything there was to know about plants.
“A sammich,” he said again, this time more loudly. The television volume was obnoxious. Lewis would tell people in a minute how he heard everything anyone said as long as it was said on his right. He never mentioned that he couldn’t hear out of the left ear. He didn’t want people to think he was getting old. He felt sorry for Lucky. She really was falling apart. Still, she would only wear her hearing aid for special occasions (and occasionally to watch her stories); and she barely used the expensive headphones made to exercise her auditory senses. He had paid through the nose for those things. Just thinking about it made his blood pressure rise. He felt his anger swell. Why didn’t that damn woman use those things? He took a deep breath and tried again. “Do you want a turkey sammich…with mayo?”
“Turkey and mayonnaise.”
“Why you call me a turkey? You so aggravate me.”
“No, honey,” Lewis said, enunciating each word. “Do you want a turkey sandwich?”
Lucky struggled up from the depths of the loveseat. “Why you call me names?” she asked.
“I’m not playing games.” Lewis said, more than a little exasperated, but careful to keep the tone of his voice patient. “I’m askin’ if you wanna eat.” He waited with his knife poised once more over the mayonnaise, ready to slather another slice of white bread into limp submission.
“Eat. A sandwich! For you!” Lewis struggled to keep his voice below scream level. A vein pulsed in his forehead. His cholesterol was high at his last check up, and his doctor had had warned him against too much stress. One bypass was one too many.
“I want to feed you.”
“Beat me? Why would you want to beat me?”
“Because you’re my wife! You need to eat.”
“Why you so mean?” Lucky rose from the loveseat and shuffled towards the kitchen.
“I mean, as your loving husband,” Lewis said. “It’s lunch,” he added. A fine sheen of perspiration beaded his forehead. He screwed the top back on the mayonnaise with just a little too much force. The sound of grating glass echoed through the kitchen. “Keep it together Lewis,” he mumbled under his breath. “Time for a little drinkie poo in a minute.”
“I don’t have a husband. A husband hold your hand, walk with you inna store,” Lucky replied. Lewis had left her wandering the aisles in their local Food Qik this afternoon while he went to buy whiskey at the ABC store next door. He was always leaving her—McDonald’s every morning with friends, fishing with a buddy, watching NASCAR with his (not her) oldest son every Sunday from February to November. She should be used to it, and she was for the most part, but this afternoon Lucky had grabbed another man’s arm thinking it was Lewis and got quite a scare when the man turned around. Lucky could still see the blackened, liverish gums in his leering smile. An involuntary shudder tried to escape her, but she covered it by picking up a paper plate. “Always mean to me,” she said. She reached under him for a sandwich.
From this vantage point, Lewis could see the top of Lucky’s head, and damn his wife was getting bald. He’d read an article once about how certain high-blood pressure medications caused hair loss. It was a damn shame. Lewis often regaled his buddies with stories of a time when her hair had been luxuriously thick. Of course, that was back in South Korea with her richie-rich family and her personal maids taking care of everything. If she hadn’t been disowned for marrying a divorced white man with kids (him), he’d tell his buddies, they could be living the high life in a McMansion in the suburbs instead of scraping to get by in a ramshackle, two-bedroom on the outskirts of town. His friends would murmur in sympathy though they had all heard the stories more than once.
“What are you talking about?” There was now more mayonnaise on the counter (and on Lewis) than on the bread, turning the Formica into a creamy green faux-marble with scattered bird droppings.
“Looka tha’,” Lucky said, watching a flash of exasperation cross her husband’s face. “You makin’ such a mess. Who gonna clean the mess? Not you. You so selfish.”
Lewis forced himself to take a deep breath, sighed forcefully, and reached for the bread. “You want any more?” he snapped. He told his buddies he never argued with Lucky when she was in this kind of mood. He liked to tell people that, if after 36 years of marriage he didn’t know everything there was to know about his wife, then he was an idiot.
Lucky ate her silent lunch alone at the dining room table, surrounded by the smiling, perfect family she’d managed over the years to create and then trap behind thin glass. They were nothing but framed memories now, but she still liked to look at them, especially the old black and whites. Lewis was charming, and so gorgeous, with his thick, curly hair, and his eyes—electric blue, as clear as the Aegean Sea, eyes so deep she thought she’d drown in them. On the night they met (at the Army Post dance) she could barely breathe knowing that he was watching her. And she was quicksilver that night, mercurial, eyes flashing, feet moving across the dance floor as quick and bright as summer lightning. They danced all night. She kissed him first. The taste of that first kiss—his smooth skin, salt and sweat—lingered in her memory like smoke. But that was a lifetime ago, when she was fiercely independent, smart, cunning – before she met and married Lewis (it was all so fast) and left everything she knew at the train station. Her mom had waved from the platform and run with the train as far as possible with tears pouring down her face, even though her husband, Jae Ya’s father, had expressly forbidden her to go. Did I say goodbye? Did I tell her I loved her? Did I even wave back? Lucky, formerly Jae Ya, wondered.
Lucky shook her head hard. No time for this now. There were things yet left to do. Whiskey, for instance, she had to make Lewis’ second drink. She forgot his whisky only once, about 31 years ago. That was when she discovered his temper fully formed. You didn’t mess with Lewis Bates when it was time for his drink. That was the first indication to Lucky that Lewis wasn’t all perfection. She did everything a “good wife” should do, but she knew he made fun of her to his buddies – she could stand that. She didn’t have to be in the room when the stories went around. But when he hit her that time, it was like lightning from a clear blue sky. That was the first time she learned that Lewis had a quick flare temper. It came out of nowhere sometimes. That day she’d forgotten his drink he’d clapped both of his hands around her ears – hard. She soon found out this was one of his favorite things to do, slam his cupped hands around her ears. Nobody could see any damage then, but that’s when Lucky’s world began to shrink around her to a pinpoint stillness. Her hearing got worse and worse. It was like being in a padded room. But she still heard the bells, tinny and distant, auditory warning beacons, too late, in a fog-shrouded sea of sound.
In the living room, Lewis was singing a very loud, very off-tune rendition of a song about how he could only imagine whether or not he’d fall on his knees before Jesus, which Lucky thought appropriate. Lewis could be a genuinely nice, cheerful guy, but she had fallen on her knees the first time he hit her. She was so surprised at the time that she had grabbed him where it counted, then twisted. The result of that action kept her indoors with her ears ringing for a month.
“I love these things!” he said. He was wearing her special headphones, the ones he had bought for her so she could hear better while watching television and listening to radio.
Lucky set Lewis’ drink on the television table and returned to the dining room. She switched on the radio, which she could barely hear, and waited. Alone. She could hear Lewis in the other room getting progressively drunker, progressively more dangerous. This was not the happy-go-lucky Lewis that all his buddies saw when he was sober. “Lucky!” He yelled. “Get my other drink in here. Now!”
Lucky dutifully and quietly brought him his other drink.
“Thanks honey,” he said, and pinched her cheek just a little too hard. “You’re awful quiet (which came out “offal qwite”) tonight.”
“I gonna go sit in other room.” Lucky said. “Listen radio with my headphones.”
By this time, Lewis was so drunk he had that mean glint in his eye. “You take them offa me,” he dared her. She stared at him passively
“Oh, piss on it, woman, take the damn things,” and he ripped them off his head and threw them at her. She took them and quietly backed out of the room.
A Kelly Clarkson song was playing when Lewis staggered into the room an hour later. “Mr. Know-it-all, well you think you know it all…” Kelly sang.
“Lucky, help me,” Lewis begged
“…But you don’t know a thing at all, do ya…”Kelly crooned.
“Lucky, please! Call 911,” he said as he fell to the floor. “My heart. I can’t.” His thoughts ran into his words, tangling together, tripping over each other. For the first time in his life, Lewis Bates couldn’t speak.
“…But you don’t know a thing about me…” Kelly continued to sing.
To Lewis’ utter surprise, his wife did not make a move to help him. Instead, he watched as she took in great lungsful of air, hyperventilating. She didn’t move until tears streamed from her eyes. Then she went to the phone and dialed.
“911? Oh help! My husband sick, I…I think he die you don’t come quick,” Lucky said with real hysteria in her voice. “Hurry, hurry, come now, come quick,” she pleaded hanging up only after relaying the proper, panicked information. Then Lucky, the formerly fiercely independent, cunning, Jae Ya, turned and squatted calmly next to where Lewis lay gasping for his last few breaths.
“…No you don’t know a thing about me….” Kelly sang.
“Hey, Lewis. I learn howta drive,” she whispered in his right ear. “Life insurance on you years ago. Insurance good now. Time passed enough. Can you hear me, Lewis? Cuz, I have problem with my ears. What you need? I can’t hear you. What I do? Why I do? You givva me ear pain and no hear, you hurt me, I givva you flowers. Lots of flowers inna you drink. White oleander. Canna see in blood if give over time. I’ve had lots of time alone. Thanks God, flowers dinna take long build up in blood. I no be helpless wife no more.”
The last thoughts that Lewis would ever have were that his wife really was intelligent, and, oddly, that of turkey sandwiches.
When the paramedics finally arrived, they found Lucky Bates sobbing on the floor with her husband’s head cradled gently in her lap. Their report stated that she was “terrified, confused, and nearing a state of total mental breakdown.” The official cause of Lewis Bates’ death was ruled as a heart attack.