Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
2nd Place

The Lucky Man

by Deanna McCusker

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 writing contest.

Learning 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 her story)."

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 community neighborhoods

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 more."

Having finally had a story published, will she continue to write? "Yes, but I'm not ready to quit my day job," she said.

--Marv Snow

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.

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 such luxuries.

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 understand it.

The next time I saw Richard, there was a moving van in front of his house.

"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 me.

"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 wallet.

"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.

"No problemo."

Luck was hurtling toward me like a black cat falling from a ladder. Carlos, Juan, and I were all arrested with our delivery of methamphetamines.

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 your kindness?"

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.
--Ellen Sussman

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.
--Tom Parker