Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
The Lucky Man
by Deanna McCusker
Sometimes you just know. The way you know that the sky would feel
soft as rabbit fur against your cheek. Or that the river's icy tongue
would swallow you and your worries whole. It was how I knew, when
I left Nicaragua in the stillness of the predawn, with my wife and
children and all our possessions on our shoulders, that if ever
a little luck came my way, I would know what to do with it.
| About Deanna McCusker
"One of the things that draws me to short stories is that
it is like poetry, every part of the story has to be meaningful
and it has to be concise," said Deanna McCusker, third place
winner in the adult division of the Palo Alto Weekly 2000
that she had placed third, she said "I was pretty excited."
She added that she wasn't sure that she would ever be published.
"I love creative writing. I did some poetry in high school
and college. I enjoy poetry but I find it hard to understand.
It's more like art to me, it's very symbolic and requires
a fair amount of interpretation. With short stories you have
a little more room to explain things."
She has been following the competition since moving here
six years ago, and finally decided to give the competition
a shot. "There was a story in 1998 that really struck me,
called 'Little Hearts.' It really moved me to do it (write
McCusker, 38, has a 12-year-old stepdaughter, a husband who
started a computer business here and is a software user interface
designer consultant in Palo Alto. They moved from Pittsburg
to Palo Alto because of the quality of the schools and its
She has been taking writing classes and workshops for over
a year, but has never sold a story.
Her third place story, "The Lucky Man," was based on fact
and fiction. She said her gardener was arrested and found
innocent, as was the main character in her story, but the
beginning and end of the story was fictional.
"It was more of an idea that I was trying to across," she
said. "The characters are a composite of people I know.
"I had fun with it," McCusker said. "I probably started the
story about a month before the contest. It was a little bit
hurried, but I enjoyed working on it. I find I write better
if I have a deadline, things actually get finished."
She currently has two other short story writing projects
underway but is finding it hard to come up with plausible
conclusions to the stories. "I feel I can polish those stories
Having finally had a story published, will she continue to
write? "Yes, but I'm not ready to quit my day job," she said.
It was how I knew when I met Richard Shelby that he was a lucky
man. Richard was tall and lanky; an impatient soul with eyes like
the blue sky and the icy river at once. He worked in an office in
his Silicon Valley house and was often out of town. I mowed his
lawn and trimmed the trees once a week. If he was home, I would
see him through the window typing away on his computer, sometimes
arguing loudly with a headset phone that was looped over his balding
head. His wife, Annie, would leave a twenty for me under the doormat
before she drove off to work. Occasionally, Richard would deliver
it to me in person.
One day, he came walking across the lawn in fresh blue jeans and
one of those white polo shirts with an embroidered company logo
on it. He crossed his arms and waited for me to turn off the leafblower.
I felt shabby in my sweaty flannel shirt and dirty trousers as I
fumbled with the switch. I thought maybe he had some other yard
work for me or that he wanted to practice his Spanish.
Just as he handed me the twenty, his cell phone rang. He answered
it and became somebody else as a machine-gun stream of Japanese
burst from his lips. I must have looked surprised because when he
hung up, he said, "Francisco, in my business, it is a big advantage
to be able to speak to a client in their native language."
"Usted habla japones y espanol?"
"French and German, too. People tend to trust me more if I make
an effort to learn their language." He smiled. Then he gave me directions
for more yard work before going back to the house. I knew what he
was thinking. As if I had time to learn English. It was all I could
do to keep my family fed. He was lucky to have time to spend on
Maria and Rafael almost knocked me to the ground when I opened
the front door.
"Papa! Papa!" they shouted. "Why are you late? Mama is angry."
Esperanza was stirring a pot of beans, a halo of steam hovering
over her head. A screaming twin was balanced precariously on one
large hip and the other attached like a leech to her ankle. I reached
out to give her a hug.
"I'm sorry I'm late. The Millers asked me to pull out a tree for
them. They paid me an extra twenty.<\p>.<\p>."
She dislodged the twin from her hip as if she were pulling a weed
out of the garden and plopped it into my outstretched arms. Her
swollen belly was flattened against the stove. "The babies are hungry.
Call Carlos and Juan to eat." I smoothed her shiny, black hair.
She let me kiss her on the cheek before she scooped up the other
twin and waddled over to the table.
Carlos and Juan were day workers who helped pay the rent. They
shared one bedroom and the children shared the other. When all the
children had been taken care of and the house was finally quiet,
I opened the couch in the living room where we slept. Richard's
remarks started to nag at me. I watched Esperanza, her olive skin
glowing with life, her full belly almost blocking her view of the
television. She was beautiful even when she was overworked and exhausted.
"Mi corazon? Maybe it is time for me to start taking English classes.
What do you think?"
She sighed. "Francisco, el tiempo es malo. We need the extra money
with the baby coming, and I'm going to need you at home." She plucked
the remote from the table and aimed it accusingly at the television.
"You want to learn English? You watch American TV." She flipped
the channel to a program called "Beverly Hills, 90210," but I didn't
The next time I saw Richard, there was a moving van in front of
"Annie's kicking me out," he said matter-of-factly.
"Lo siento! Where are you going to go? Please, stay with us." I
immediately regretted the offer, thinking of Esperanza's reaction.
Are you loco? Where is one more person going to sleep?
He looked touched, but then laughed. "That's very generous of you,
but I mean, she's kicking me out of my office. I'm starting
a company and she's insisting that I rent office space."
"Wow!" I was relieved. "Why are you starting a company?"
He was busy taping up a box in the driveway and he didn't look
up. "Because it's the only way to get ahead. I'm tired of working
for a wage." He handed the box to a mover and then turned and considered
"You and me, Francisco, we're a lot alike. I may get paid more
for computer consulting than you do for yard work, but there are
only so many hours in a day. Only so much money we can make. You
need to start a business and get other people to work for you. It's
called 'leveraging.'" He went back to his boxes.
A bolt of anger shot through me. It sounded appallingly like
the system I'd left behind in Nicaragua.
"No," I said, "that's called 'exploitation.'" Richard looked
up with a mischievous smile on his face, but said nothing.
I started up the lawnmower and started to get really pissed
off. Who the hell does this guy think he is? He lives in a Silicon
Valley illusion. What does he know about how the rest of us live?
Just start a business. Doing what, a computer company? Yeah, right.
The van pulled away as I was trimming the hedge by the driveway.
The garage door opened wide and spat out a dark green Jaguar convertible.
Richard pulled up next to me and fished thirty dollars from his
"Francisco, you are honest and diligent and it would be hard
for me to find someone who works as hard as you. Since I'm not into
exploitation, I'm giving you a fifty percent raise. Oh, and by the
way, I'm no longer speaking to you in Spanish. I don't need the
practice." He drove off.
My face felt hot with a fresh wave of anger. The arrogant son-of-a-bitch
But, I realized sheepishly that I couldn't have asked for that raise
even if I had thought of it.
That night at dinner, Carlos was anxious.
"Francisco, I need a favor. There's a delivery Juan and I have
to pick up tomorrow at a ranch in Manteca. The job pays a hundred.
Can you drive us in your truck?"
A hundred bucks was more than I had earned in the last two days
including Richard's raise and it would only take a couple of hours.
Esperanza stopped with the spoon halfway to the twin's mouth and
looked up with hope in her eyes. I could tell she was thinking about
a crib for the new baby.
Luck was hurtling toward me like a black cat falling from a
ladder. Carlos, Juan, and I were all arrested with our delivery
Poor Esperanza had to start housecleaning again as soon as the
baby was born. Twelve-year-old Maria helped deliver the child in
our living room and then stayed home from school to care for all
the children. The icy blue river whispered to me.
But I couldn't leave my family stranded. The only thing I had
left was time. And then I remembered what I had planned to do with
it. I asked Rafael to bring me his English schoolbooks.
Ninety-one days into my prison stay, the corrections officer
came by with a visitor. It was Richard coming to bail me out. We
walked to the parking lot in silence where he unlocked a Ford Escort.
"Where is your Jaguar?" I got in the passenger side, but Richard
did not answer.
"Your lawyer asked me to testify that you were working for me
the day before you were arrested. He thinks you were set up by the
perpetrators of this crime." He did not simplify his language for
me and I understood most of what he said.
"I am trusting that you were, in fact, not involved. I sold
the Jaguar to pay salaries to my three employees until we get some
funding. I bailed you out with money I will need to pay them next
month. You will appear in court on May seventh or I will hunt you
down and kill you." Then, he smiled and handed me thirty dollars.
"In the meantime, my lawn needs to be cut in a bad way." Richard
was a key witness in the trial exonerating me. During the testimony,
I learned that the white ranch owner had told the police that it
was us who had been making cocaine in his barn without his knowledge
and that we had been there all night. They believed him. It is easier
to trust someone who speaks your language.
When it was over, Esperanza and the children crowded around
me. Richard shook my hand.
"You are a lucky man," he said as he handed me a $100 bill.
"This is to help get you back on your feet." Then he handed me a
legal document. "We finally got funded and this is 500 shares of
stock in my new company. It's not a lot. But, if we are successful,
and that's a big IF, it will be. Use it to start your own company."
I looked at my feet. "Gracias. How can I ever repay you for
He studied me in that way he had when he wanted me to pay special
attention. "Francisco, my immigrant father put me through college
and said, 'Don't repay me. Pass it on.'"
As he got into his Escort he called back, "Now that I have a
salary again, I'm going to be needing a lot of gardening."
That was five years ago. When I wasn't busy cutting grass, I
started reading. In English. I read stories to my children. I read
business magazines to learn more about Richard's company. He and
Annie eventually moved to San Francisco and I lost touch with him.
When Carlos and Juan were acquitted, I hired them to help me
with the gardening jobs. I applied for a business license and placed
an ad in the newspaper. "Esperanza Gardening. Hope springs eternal."
The ad brought in a lot of business and I hired Ricardo and
Miguel, both immigrants from Nicaragua. Richard's business went
public and I sold my stock for twenty dollars a share. I used some
of the money to send my employees to English classes. They were
puzzled. "We're just cutting grass, not teaching school."
"Trust me," I said.
As they walked away, Ricardo said to Miguel, "I heard the boss
got all his money from computer stock somebody gave him."
"Yeah, he was lucky."
I closed my eyes and smiled. It was as if, just for a moment,
the sky brushed my cheek.
From the judges
This story invites the reader to participate through its use
of a credible and complex narrator.
--Kim Silveira Wolterbeek
"The Lucky Man" is an ambitious, well-written story. The writer
does a fine job creating character and testing that character with
an interesting plot line.
A rewarding story that assures readers that the American Dream
is alive and well in the Silicon Valley (in case anyone in Palo
Alto was wondering. I appreciate the unadorned, yet powerful prose
and the message that hard work coupled with luck can still yield
the stuff of dreams.