Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Richard Short

Double Eagle Luck

                            Shillin’ a day
                                   Bloomin’ good pay—
                                   Lucky to touch it, a shillin’ a day!
                                                                   –Rudyard Kipling–

Lucky was born on March 17th in the poorest state in the Union. The people who lived there were last in education and had about the lowest standard of living of all the states.  You can look it up in the World Almanac and Book of Facts.  Lucky grew up in the county that had the worst reputation of all the counties.  He lived in a town where every other family was on welfare or some kind of government relief program.  Usually some members of that family were either in jail or had been in trouble with the law. It was a part of the country where it was not unusual to see some forlorn woman look out at her brood of ragtag illegitimate children and wail, “Are you my daughter? Or are you my sister?  Oh No! You’re my daughter AND my sister!”

The block that he lived on was the filthiest block in town.  Broken down cars littered the street and driveways, some with axels propped up on blocks and wheels missing.  Big brown splotches could be seen on the unkempt lawns where residents had dug holes in the earth to pour dirty, tar-like used motor oil and dump kitchen scraps.

“Ma, why can’t I have a bicycle?”  Lucky asked one day when he was seven years old.  “Jimmy has a new Silver Flyer with coaster brakes.”

“You know Pa can’t work,” his mother said.  “Ever since he hurt his back we’ve had no money and nothing but bad luck.”

“But Pa got drunk and fell over a pile of beer cans,” said Lucky.  “What’s that got to do with luck?”

Don’t you sass your Pa,” his mother said and slapped him across the mouth.  “We do the best we can on his disability check.”           

I don’t believe in luck,” Lucky shouted, and ran from the house.  “And I hate my name!”

The house where Lucky’s family lived had two disabled cars in the driveway and one on the lawn with a missing hood, along with a broken down washing machine, a pile of lumber scraps, tin cans and heaps of rotting garbage swarming with flies, worms and insects.  Even the neighbors were heard to complain about the condition of the place.  The inside of the house wasn’t anything to brag about either.  Dirty clothes littered the floor and the dust bunnies under the beds were the size of small tumbleweeds.  Wallpaper with a once bright rose-colored design hung in peeling strips, the roses faded to a stained and sickly orange.  A dozen or so unkempt, ratty looking semi-feral cats wandered freely back and forth through a missing windowpane.  The only time it got cleaned up a little was when Lucky took out the trash.

“Ma, why did the lady have to wipe her feet before she left our house?” Lucky asked after the woman from Social Services had just completed her semi-annual inspection.

“Those people always think they’re better’n us common folks,” his mother replied.  “I guess maybe she just stepped on a bug or something.” 

When Lucky was a senior in high school he tried out for the football team.  He made the team as a third string reserve.  His most important function was to be used as a tackling dummy in practice sessions.  Needless to say, over the years the football team had accumulated the worst win-loss record in the history of the state.  But this year was better.  They had won several games and were on the cusp of having a winning season and it came down to the last game.  It was late in the final quarter. The score was tied 0 to 0.  Several players had been injured and were forced to leave the game.  Finally, only Lucky remained on the bench.  The coach sent him in to substitute for the last injured player.  As the quarterback rolled out and was about to be tackled, he saw Lucky standing there and threw a last, desperate pass.  Lucky leaped high into the air and came down with the ball in his arms.  Two of the opposing players immediately slammed into him from opposite sides, spinning him around but keeping him from falling.  He began to run as fast as he could and did not stop until he had crossed the goal line.  Unfortunately, it was the wrong goal and the game ended in a 2 to 0 loss. 

As time passed, Lucky became even more skeptical about believing in luck.  He knew that his parents had named him that because he’d been born on St. Patrick’s Day.  This was supposed to have something to do with luck, but when Lucky looked it up in the Richards Topical Encyclopedia he found that as a child St. Patrick had been kidnapped by pirates and sold to some brutish, dreadful people.  His slave masters forced him to tend their pigs and sleep out in the hills with those same porkers where he lived a lonely, cold and hungry life.  Some kind of luck that was! Lucky thought.

When he reached the age of twenty he decided to leave home to find a better life.  He had a few dollars saved up from his job at Wimpy’s Bellybuster Café, so he caught the Greyhound bus to one of the biggest, richest cities that he could find on the map.  Two blocks from the bus station, as he looked up at the towering skyscrapers with his mouth wide open, he got mugged.  The muggers took his wallet with all his identification and money, his fifteen-dollar wristwatch and even his old snaggletooth comb and safety razor, along with a change of socks and some holey underwear.

Broke and not knowing anyone in the big city, Lucky soon became hungry and started looking for a way to find something to eat.  He saw the panhandlers begging on the street and swore to himself that he would never resort to that.  He also refused to stand in the soup line at the food pantry.  Unlike some of the beggars with signs, he sincerely wanted to work for food.  Knowing something about the restaurant business he began going to the back doors of hotels and kitchens and talking with the workers he met there.  He offered to clean up the tables and wash dishes for no money.

“Just some scraps that the customers leave on their plates,” he would say.             

At first the people he talked to just looked at him blankly and shook their heads, finished their cigarettes and went back inside.  

“No speak English,” some would say.  Others would laugh at him and call to their friends to come see.  “Meet Mr. Lucky,” someone said.  And they had a good laugh at his name as they looked at his unkempt clothes and wretched appearance.

You’re not very lucky,” one ratty looking character scoffed.  “Why don’t you just change your name?”

“I won’t do that,” Lucky shook his head.  He had thought about this before.  “Because that means they win.”

Nevertheless, he was able to get several meals by using his method and on the seventh day he met Carlos and Ramon.  Carlos was in charge of the kitchen staff of a large hotel and Ramon was the chief cook.  One of the dishwashers had not shown up so Carlos immediately put Lucky to work.  He worked four hours straight at the dishwasher without a dropped dish, not even a spoon.  Carlos was so impressed that he not only gave him a thick slice of leftover prime rib and all the mashed potatoes he could eat, but also slipped him a twenty dollar bill and told him to come back tomorrow.  Lucky was able to go to the Goodwill Store and buy some clean socks and second hand underwear.  He also found a place to sack out in the hotel kitchen broom closet behind a pile of folding chairs.     

This went on for some time.  Carlos paid Lucky way less than he actually earned and promised to try to get him hired on as a regular kitchen employee.  “I like your work, Lucky,” he said.  “I think your luck is about to change.”  But, he always found some reason not to submit the employment application.  “There’s been some problem checking your references.”  Or, “The Social Security Department got your number all screwed up.  Tough luck!”     

“I don’t believe in luck,” said Lucky. 

One day as Lucky, Carlos and Ramon were standing in the alley taking a break they watched a limousine pull up to the front of the hotel and a distinguished looking man get out.  Carlos became very excited.  “That’s Mr. Birney,” he said.  “Talk about luck, that old guy’s the smartest and richest guy on Wall Street, and the biggest tipper!”  He then hurried back into the kitchen. 

Lucky learned that Mr. Birney was indeed a very good tipper.  He always left several hundred dollars for the kitchen staff alone, out of which Carlos kept half of it for himself.  “It's only fair,” Carlos said.  “Since I’m the guy in charge around here.”  Mr. Birney would sit at a table with his associates and business clients and talk for hours about high finance and stock trading.  It seemed that Mr. Birney’s investment company always paid the biggest dividends and had spectacular returns. 

“You have to have a million dollars just to get in,” Carlos said when Lucky asked if he had any money invested there.  “I should be so lucky.”

One thing about Mr. Birney that everyone talked about was the procedure he followed before making any business decision.  It was a ceremonial ritual.  He would remove a silk handkerchief with a lacy embroidered trim from his breast pocket, slowly unfold it and there, gleaming as if it produced its own brilliance, was the shiniest golden coin anyone had ever seen.  He would close his eyes and then rub it and polish it reverently between his fingers for several seconds.  Then he would smile, replace the coin and close the deal.  Or not!  

“It’s a 1930 Golden Double Eagle,” said Carlos.  “It was minted the same year Mr. Birney was born.  They say it’s the luckiest coin in the world.”

“I don’t believe in luck,” said Lucky.

There was a coffee shop about a block away where Lucky would sometimes stop by just to steal glances at one of the waitresses who worked behind the counter.  Her name was Maria and she was small and dark and serious.  Lucky never spoke to her except to order a deluxe ultra eggnog cappuccino.  Even though he did not even like the taste of coffee, and the drink cost one forth of his daily twenty-dollar pay, it was worth it. When he did speak, the words sometimes got stuck in his throat.  He would look down and feel a tingling sensation spread up from his neck across his face and over his scalp.  Once when she handed him his cup their fingers happened to brush together.  “Th-th-thank you,” he mumbled and glanced up. “I thank you, sir,” she said with a faint smile on her beautiful, unpainted lips.  Lucky spent many hours reliving and dreaming of that thrilling moment and wondered if he would ever have the courage to ask a girl like that for a date.    

One day Lucky, Carlos, and Ramón stood outside the kitchen door and watched Mr. Birney’s limousine pull up to the hotel.  Mr. Birney got out and as the chauffer held the door for him, another car came screeching around the corner and slammed into the rear bumper.  The door swung and brushed Mr. Birney, knocking him to the curb.  The police were called and they took statements from the witnesses.  Mr. Birney did not seem to be seriously injured but he was shaken up and taken away by an ambulance to be checked out.       

After all the excitement was over, and the others left the scene, Lucky walked over to the place where Mr. Birney had fallen.  In the street next to the curb was an iron grate where water would run into a storm drain.  It was like some invisible force drew Lucky to the grate.  He bent over and looked and about three feet down he saw something.  Getting on his knees and cupping his eyes he could make out what looked like a round object half hidden under some loose, dead leaves.  The grate was too small for him to reach in with his arm so he went inside to the broom closet where he had seen some rattraps stored on a shelf.  Pulling the paper off the face of one of the traps exposed a sticky surface.  He tied this trap to a mop handle and was able to fish the object up through the grate.

It was a large, round and very heavy coin.  He looked at the date, 1930.  Yes, it had to be Mr. Birney’s Golden Eagle. 

He knew that if he showed the coin to Carlos that Carlos would demand that he turn it over to him.  So Lucky decided to keep it a secret until Mr. Birney showed up the next time.  Then he would present the coin to him in person.  He wrapped the coin carefully in a clean handkerchief and put it in his pocket and went about his work in the kitchen.

Two days later Lucky was awakened from his pad in the broom closet by a commotion.  Carlos and Ramón were looking at the front page of a newspaper spread out on the table and pointing and talking rapidly in Spanish.  He looked over their shoulder and read the bold headlines, WALL STREET MONEY WIZARD ARRESTED IN FIFTY BILLION DOLLAR PONZI SCHEME.  There, below the headline was a picture of Mr. Birney.  The story went on to tell how Mr. Birney had committed a fraud on his investors by using the money he received from a stream of new clients to pay off the old investors if they ever asked for it.

“I knew it was too good to be true,” said Carlos.  “At least I was smart enough not to put my money there!” 

“But you would if you could have,” Ramón responded.  “It looks like Mr. Birney’s luck finally ran out.”

“I don’t believe in luck,” said Lucky.

 There were many more subsequent accounts on the front pages and TV news stories about how Mr. Birney had cheated numerous charity organizations and other victims out of huge sums of money with his long running scam.  There were pictures of him coming out of the Court House after he made bail.  People were following him shaking their fists and screaming curses.  One old woman tried to hit him with her umbrella as tears streamed down her face and she called him a dishonest bastard for taking her entire retirement savings of one hundred, seventy eight thousand dollars.    

Lucky found himself reaching inside his pocket and feeling the double eagle. That same day Carlos turned up missing.  Nobody seemed to know what had happened to him until the next day Ramón took Lucky aside and said, “Carlos has been fired.  They found that he has been stealing money by padding the expenses.” Then he added with a big smile on his face, “But they put me in charge of the kitchen and guess what?”  Lucky shook his head.  “I was going through Carlos’ papers and things and I came across your application.  I turned it in to management and because we are so shorthanded they said to hire you right away.”  Ramón smiled even broader.  “Now how about that for luck?”

Lucky could only blink his eyes and shake his head.  He remembered the words of a famous person who once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get!”  His voice quavered as he whispered, “Thank you,” to Ramón.  He left the building and walked the streets for many blocks.  From time to time he would put his hand in his pocket and feel the golden eagle and think about what had happened.

He ended up at the coffee shop and waited for the moment Maria was finished with her customer.  Holding his head erect he looked directly at her and ordered a double deluxe ultra eggnog cappuccino.   When she handed him his drink he said, “Maria, would you like to go to a movie with me sometime?”

“I’d be delighted,” she said.


BIO:  Richard Short was born in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota in 1930. To supplement the family's meager income, some of the jobs he worked at were: lumberjack, farmer, beaver-dam buster, weasel trapper, skunkskinner, deer poacher, log roller, and bounty hunter. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and served in a tank battalion in Japan. After his discharge he came west to seek his fortune. One of the positions he held was Talent Coordinator at Mustang Molly's Bunny Ranch on the outskirts of a small town in Nevada. He finally settled in California, and for a brief time he was Entertainment Director at Forest Lawn. He was married 45 years and has three children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grand children.