“The Winners” by Richard Newman

Image by Nicole Fry / nicolefry.com

I can’t even land an interview, let alone a job. Since the “Realignment of Resources” at the Science Center, where I was Assistant Director of Educational Exhibits and Programs, I have sent resumes to 216 organizations and received no response except occasionally the automated “We have received your application” e-mail. Every week I launch a dozen more into the ether.

Bianca, however, is the golden girl of Chesterfield, Missouri. Since we moved in together two years ago, she has landed a job and then another before she’d quit the first. She has won a George Foreman Grill, two DVD players, a lifetime subscription to Glamour, a case of Peter Piper’s pickles and sweet relish, and a hermit crab we have yet to see and which she named Sparky. Bianca claims she once saw part of a claw.

The first day we moved into our vinyl two-bedroom, we went to the liquor store nearby, and she didn’t even know what she was signing up for, but she was signing up for everything in the new neighborhood. A week later she staggered up the walkway with a two-foot-tall bottle of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. Bianca stands barely five feet tall and looks like Audrey Hepburn only with thick straw-colored hair blow-dried straight out. When I first ran my fingers through it, I imagined this was how it would feel to pet a stuffed badger. Leaving the car door open, the little bell chiming, Bianca teetered on the steps with a wine bottle half her size, smiling a huge gummy smile, and squealing, “Look what I won!” We killed the bottle in a week, or mostly I did. She didn’t care much about the wine—she just thought it was fun to win.

She works at Simple Life, a store that sells plastic containers of infinite shapes and sizes. They charge extra for lids. Every day Bianca and her new best friend, Valoree, sell thousands of containers—and hundreds of accessories that simplify people’s lives. Since they were hired, within days of each other, their store has broken regional sales records every month. They’re now both shift leaders, which means they don’t get to work together much, but they text each other constantly and sign up for sweepstakes when they go shopping together a couple times a week.

The best exhibit at the Science Center was an exhibit called The Tunnel of Life—a dark tunnel with maybe 50 backlit 7×6 screens depicting a baby’s tiny hand grasping into adulthood or a dandelion blooming its yellow flower which then turns to white fluff, its seeds parachuting on a breeze across a field to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Before I left, I should have added some video panels to The Tunnel of Life—someone dying of a heart attack, pink slip in hand, or the CEO leaving early for his golf game in Forest Park and finding a fresh pile of human shit on the hood of his Lexus.  

Bianca’s Tunnel of Life would be a montage of her winnings dissolving into one another to a soundtrack of “Eye of the Tiger.” We never even use most of the stuff she wins. Two extra DVD players lie stacked in the closet. The cloud in the jar of pickles grows darker and darker since we stuck it in the fridge a year ago, while the rest of the case grows fur in the garage. I don’t understand the purpose of the George Foreman grill other than to clutter kitchen cabinets—it’s the male equivalent of an Easy Bake Oven. The only thing we’ve made use of is Sparky, who may not even exist though we bought him an aquarium, bright blue sand, and some green plastic vegetation. I could only hope to have such a charming little non-existence.  

This past week Bianca was getting ready for work while I sat in our office and thought about reworking my resume. It was already a hot morning in early August, and the neighborhood air conditioners mooed and mewled outside like a herd of triceratops. Bianca bounced in singing, “Ned! I won a trip to Branson! Plus two nights at Lost Valley Resort, a DVR player, and a key.”

At first I didn’t know what she was talking about. I don’t even know what exactly DVR player is or does.

“A key?” I asked.  “A key to the city of Branson?”

“If it’s the right key and it unlocks the car, I win the car and $5000 in gas!”

I didn’t know what to say. “Huh” probably.

“Isn’t that funny? Wanna go to Branson this weekend?”

“I guess so,” I lied. I hate tourist traps and fake country music.

“It’s OK if you don’t wanna go. I can ask Valoree.”

“I don’t know, B. I was supposed to have beers with Ryan.”

Ryan comes the closest to what I could call a friend. He ran the educational outreach programs at the Science Center and also got “realigned.” We’d been there five and six years, but the CEO and ten Vice Presidents blew up the budget with huge salaries and we got cut. Bill found a job teaching high school science in DC, where the inner city can’t keep science teachers, and we thought we’d get drunk and stupid one last time before he left.  

“That’s fine. Of course you should send him off.”

“What kind of car is it?”  

“I don’t know! It’s all so ridiculous!”

“I guess so,” I said.

“I’ve got to get to work. Are you still going grocery shopping?”

“I planned on it.”

At any given time, somewhere in the world, Bud Light is on sale, and usually that place is minutes away from wherever you are.

“Can you please go easy on the specialty items? We can’t afford for you to come home with nineteen different cheeses right now.”

Cheese is one of the few things that makes me happy lately, but I told Bianca I’d try to buy only what we need. And I mostly did. I caved and bought the pickled asparagus and the smoked gouda, the goat brie, the Asiago, and the hand-crafted four-year-aged cheddar, telling myself that these versatile cheeses can also be used for cooking. I passed on the Boursin, Chihuahua, Kapnisto Metzovone, Manchego, and, my new favorite, Morbier, with its ashy middle. The beige wedges of happiness I bought were almost on sale. I was going to say cheese and beer are the two things that make me happy, but beer usually ends up making me miserable. Not that it stops me from drinking it. If I were a cheese I would have an ashy middle and a name that sounds morbid.

I don’t know if what Bianca and Valoree have going on is a gay thing or a girl thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with girls, especially in their early twenties. The other week they went to the swimming pool together, and on the water slide Valoree’s bikini bottom became untied. It floated to the bottom of the pool and she was laughing so hard she couldn’t get it back on and Bianca had to help her tie it.

“Oh my god it was so funny!” said Bianca, still laughing.

“Did everyone see everything?” I asked.

“Well it was underwater, so it was hard to see. I saw, though. She trims her pubes and shaves them into a little rectangle. Kind of like a little welcome mat.”

I wondered if she thought it was a welcome mat for her, but I couldn’t ask. Mostly I wouldn’t want to know, possibly because I wouldn’t know if I was supposed to be turned on or jealous. Valoree doesn’t drink and has attended AA meetings several times a week since she dropped out of college. The two of them don’t go out for drinks, but they compensate just fine.  

Saturday night I was again sitting in our office drinking Bud Light, which was on sale. At any given time, somewhere in the world, Bud Light is on sale, and usually that place is minutes away from wherever you are. Bianca had left without much fanfare, just a kiss on the cheek, when Valoree came by to pick her up. Ryan had bailed when his wife came down with gastroenteritis.

“Sorry, buddy. She’s writhing on the bathroom floor and spewing out both ends.”

“Good luck. Give her my best,” I said, suddenly reminded of the water toy we put in the back yard as kids.

I thought I might use the unexpected and unwanted block time to write cover letters but hadn’t accomplished anything other than putting a Royal Cotton White envelope under my sweating beer. Our desk is a long maple table I brought home from the Science Center. The wooden swivel chair is from there, too. The Science Center bought all new furniture and gave first dibs on the old stuff to staff. The irony that I was getting laid off yet the place had enough money to buy expensive new furniture and bestow a $66,000 bonus to the outgoing CEO did not escape me, nor did the fact that I spent much of each day sitting in the old Science Center chair at the old Science Center table while launching my resume into the ether.   

Then Bianca texted me:

I won! Car and gas! It’s a toyota camry! Yippeee!

Congratulations! I texted back. You are the luckiest person I know.  

I know! Isn’t it funny? U w ryan?

His wife is sick so I’m job hunting.

Too bad. Boo on him. 🙂 Can I ask u something?

Of course.

U care if v and I drive to vegas for a couple days? Its ok if u say no.

Of course not. Take your luck with you.

That’s what I ws thinking! I’m def on a roll and we have this new car and free gas, so why not see how far it goes!

Good plan. And good luck!

I wished her good luck, and for the first time since I can remember I meant it.  She was the lucky one, and even if she did have a girlfriend or something, I had no intention of letting her go. As I hit send, I remembered the Gaussian Probability exhibit from the Science Center. All these pink and green ping pong balls bumble down through a series of pegs and form a bell curve. On the spectrum of luck, I was at the low end of the bell and Bianca was at the other, separated by a mound of mediocrity, but maybe some of her luck would eventually rub off on me. Or maybe I would spend the rest of my life living on her lucky side if I could only tunnel through the pink and green balls.

Right then I made up my mind to marry her as soon as she returned from Vegas. I imagined my luck changing as soon as I kissed my lucky young wife like the badger-haired Blarney Stone she is. I could almost feel the luck coursing through my bloodstream. In my excitement, I made a turkey and gouda melt with Piper’s pickle relish in the George Foreman grill. It was the funnest sandwich I ever ate.

I went to bed happy and woke up happy, for the first time in months. The neighbor’s electric lawn mower purred softly outside my window. When it stopped, even the silence sounded full of promise. At noon Bianca texted me that she’d already won $380 at the blackjack table.

At first it seemed like proof that I’d made the right decision. Then I did the math: it takes 22 hours and 13 minutes to drive from Branson to Vegas. She and Valoree had already been well on their way to Vegas when she texted me the first time.

It wasn’t so much that Bianca had lied. That bothered me, and I won’t pretend it didn’t, but even more, as soon that text popped up on my phone, I knew I was fooling myself. Bianca wouldn’t marry me. She might not even come back. I was deadweight to her. Even if we stayed together, I would eventually suck her luck dry, and my own luck would never change as long as I tried to cling to hers. I was a parasite killing us both. She was freeing herself of me incrementally, and the only way my luck and my miserable Tunnel of Life could change was to leave Bianca and make my own luck or die trying.

I’ve just finished packing my few things in the Honda Civic and will drive to DC in the morning. I’ll get a job teaching science in the inner cities. I’ve fed Sparky and left a note by his aquarium saying, “Good luck. Not that you need it.” The trunk is jammed full, and the back seat is packed to the roof. There’s gas in the tank and air in the tires and just enough room for the George Foreman grill in the passenger seat.



Richard Newman is the author of the new novel Graveyard of the Gods (Blank Slate Press, 2016) and the poetry collections All the Wasted Beauty of the World, Domestic Fugues, and Borrowed Towns. For 22 years he edited River Styx magazine and directed the River Styx reading series. Now he teaches at the College of Marshall Islands, swims in the lagoon, and drinks lots of coconuts.