I am standing in the middle of Boone Lake. It’s a sunny, late-winter afternoon, and a layer of cold sweat lies on the thawing ice. The air has a bite. I am splashing in puddles on the ice, trying to make it crack. A few yards away patches of open black water taunt me.
My friends on shore have gone silent, like, What the hell is he up to? The lake is deep, and the ice is thin, and what I’m doing is really stupid. So why am I doing it?
The answer is complicated.
People have always told me I’m lucky. This started when I was young. Something providential would happen to me, and my parents would say, “Well, Tommy, you’re the lucky one.”
This narrative made me feel special. Like I was favored by the gods or something. For a long time I felt I deserved to be lucky because I was a good boy.
For no rhyme or reason, lucky things did, in fact, happen to me. For example, I was always finding money on the ground, once even a hundred-dollar bill. This led to my habit of looking down when I walk.
I also had uncanny fortune when it came to my teachers. Each year I was assigned to the best teacher in my grade. Our school had some really terrible teachers, but mine were always the ones who had us skipping ahead in math, building rocket ships, memorizing Shakespeare sonnets, and running laps around the other kids.
Did you notice my parents’ choice of words, describing me as “the lucky one?” That’s because of my sister Lucy, the Unlucky One.
Lucy, my tormentor and my hero, was three years older than me and many years wiser and more cynical.
“You’re an asshole, Tom-Thumb.”
Tom-Thumb was her pet name for me. She knew I hated it.
“Why am I an asshole?” I looked up from my Cape Canaveral set, hoping to humor her and get her out my room.
“Because you are destroying our family, that’s why.” When she wanted to make a point, she would scrape her metal-braced foot on the floor. The screeching sound went right through you.
“How am I destroying our family?”
“Think about it, Tom-Thumb. Every time you have good luck, someone in our family has bad luck.”
“Like when you won the museum thing. By the way, you looked like an idiot.”
Lucy was referring to a thing that happened when I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. I was skipping up the steps through the massive entranceway, merrily pounding the arm of my buddy Rob, when a uniformed guard pulled me out of line to inform me that I was the fifty-millionth visitor to the museum. Would I go with him to the Information Desk so I could collect my prizes?
Well, these are the things that happen to lucky people, are they not? I was given some cool prizes, including a large plastic replica of the Nazi submarine. I had my picture on the front of the Tribune with this goofy look on my face, my mouth shaped like an O, which was embarrassing, but I also became an instant celebrity at my school.
“Do you remember what happened to Dad the very next week?” asked Lucy.
“He broke his ankle stepping off the plane.”
This was true. Dad worked for a lumber company, and once a year he flew to Honduras to buy logs, which is where this accident happened.
“So what?” I said.
“So?” Lucy dragged her foot on the floor, making a spiteful, braying noise. “And do you remember what happened to Mom?”
“Of course not. Because you never think of others, Tom-Thumb.”
“Stop calling me that.”
“Right after you got your first TV commercial? Remember? Mom had her car busted into and the church money stolen?”
Technically, this was also true. After the museum thing, a guy called from a talent agency in Chicago. Would I like to come in for an audition? I had the perfect look for his new ad campaign.
That phone call led to me being in the yo-yo commercials. For weeks I was on TV as the Duncan Butterfly Yo-Yo boy. I was good at it! Later I starred Mattel’s Radio Rifle commercials, and soon I had enough money to pay for college. For these TV gigs Mom had to cart me all over the place, including some sketchy places in the city, and that’s when the car thing happened.
“And that was my fault, how?” I asked my sister.
“You really don’t know?” She looked at me like I was one of those mental kids from Dixon. “You’re sucking up all our good luck.”
She swiveled on her metallic heel and clomped out of my room, putting another gouge in the doorframe as she went. “Think about it, Tom-Thumb.”
When she was four, Lucy contracted polio. She caught it before the vaccine. It knocked her on her ass, literally. She spent a year in bed.
I was too young to remember this. What I remember is what came later, Lucy screaming and crying in the hot baths as Mom exercised her legs. God, those screams. I can still hear them.
Lucy battled her polio to a draw. She emerged from the fight with one leg in a brace, a will made of steel, and a mean streak.
Everything came hard to her. So she learned to pound things into submission. She turned herself into the undisputed Queen of Jump Rope on our block, but only after practicing so long that the bleeding sores on her legs never healed.
A terribly slow reader, Lucy willed herself to advance from the Mud Hens reading group to the Eagles. She plowed her way indiscriminately through the entire school library, reading while eating, reading while falling asleep. Her Social Studies instructor finally claimed he could no longer teach her anything.
With her perpetual scowl, she dominated our block. After she beat up the neighborhood bully, she became the alpha. She supervised the building of elaborate tree houses. She organized epic games of hide and seek that lasted for days. Kids flocked to her. She was exhausting.
In contrast to my sister, everything came easy to me. I read storybooks by age three and Faulkner by eight. I could run like the wind. I’m pretty sure I still hold the Milford Middle School record for the President’s Physical Fitness Test.
Maybe my talents did lead to complacency. But did that warrant my parents’ constant comparisons?
Tommy, if you’d only work as hard as your sister! Tommy, why don’t you show initiative like your sister? Tommy, you could learn from your sister, how good and kind she is.
How good she was? I found this comment highly ironic because when adults were absent, Lucy was awful. I saw her take down older boys with one swipe of her leg. In our neighborhood games, she decreed punishments for the losers, not just pushups, but hours of servitude. And her infamous stunts! The strange disappearance of her rivals’ Girl Scout Cookies. The hole kicked in the athletic storage closet so she and her girlfriends could see the boys swimming naked in the pool.
“Boys’ dicks are hilarious,” she told me. “They’re all different, and they’re all absurd.”
As much as I tried, it was impossible to ignore her. That would be like ignoring Godzilla inside your house. I feared her. And I idolized her.
She was the one who taught me how to kick field goals. She’d taught herself, and she got quite good at a young age. I suppose the metal helped her. The ball left her foot like a rocket. Every football we had would get all scarred, until one day it would blow up.
Lucy would bring me to the varsity field to practice my kicks. She’d break down every aspect of the kick, and she’d badger me to correct my form. She was dogged. The sun would set, and she wouldn’t let me leave.
“My leg is sore. I’m tired,” I’d say. “I want to go home.”
“Oh, your leg is tired! Don’t be a pussy. Just kick twenty more.”
I did as I was told.
One winter day Lucy and I were lying side by side in our back yard in the snow wearing only our bathing suits. This was a game she called Can You Take It? The object was to see who could stay in the snow the longest. From her searing hot baths when she was young, Lucy developed an amazing tolerance for temperature extremes, so she always won this game.
“Tom-Thumb, why do you suck up all of our luck?”
That winter our family was in a funk. Lucy was in and out of the hospital with leg problems, Dad was working later and later, Mom was taking stuff for an ulcer.
“I don’t do it on purpose.”
“Maybe, if you had some bad luck, then Mom and Dad might have a little good luck. Did you ever think of that?” She pushed snow on top of her legs, then mine. I was shaking.
“You know what your problem is, Tom-Thumb?” Lucy packed snow on her chest. “You’re too cautious. You never put yourself in position to have bad luck.”
I could not deny what she said—there was truth to it.
Maybe there was some sort of equation. Maybe a family had only so much luck to go around. And what if one member got most of it?
What if I took some risks? What if I tried to draw some bad luck? Would my family get their fair share?
At the time this crazy thinking seemed perfectly reasonable. Such was the control my sister had over me. Within a day I had a plan. Thus began my Experiment to Tempt Fate.
I began by defying the common superstitions. I opened an umbrella inside the house. In the bathroom cabinet I found a small mirror, took it to the alley and shattered it. I paced back and forth underneath a ladder while whistling. For good measure, I went over to the Milford Cemetery. I walked through the graveyard real slow, but rather than hold my breath like you’re supposed to, I took big deep breaths.
This concluded Phase One of my Experiment. I waited to see what would happen.
A couple days later my teacher passed back the scores from our unit test in science, my best subject. I was shocked to see my score, a dreadful 13%. I ran to my teacher and went over the answer sheet with her.
“Oh, Tom, I see what you did. You skipped a question early in the test.” She showed me on the sheet. “Every answer after that, you marked in the wrong spot. That’s so unlike you, Tom.”
That night at the dinner table, Mom was beaming.
“I have good news!” she announced.
Dad, Lucy, and I looked up from our meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
“You are looking at a finalist in this year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off.” Mom’s voice choked up.
Every year Mom sent a recipe in an attempt to win the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the Holy Grail of all cooking contests. Many thousands of women (and several men) entered recipes. The top one hundred, the finalists, would travel to Washington DC to put their recipe to the test, and their creations would be judged. This year Art Linkletter would be announcing the winner. The grand prize was $25,000!
Mom sent her recipe for buttercream pound cake, a simple slice of heaven that was so rich and creamy that your heart would stop for a second.
“Way to go, Mom!” we cheered.
“Imagine, all those thousands of entries,” Dad said. “What luck!”
Encouraged by the results of my Experiment, I redoubled my efforts.
A few blocks from my house, railroad tracks crossed a bridge over Salt Creek, and the trains would slow down there. I’d seen high school boys hop a train car near the bridge and take a joy ride.
Hopping a train fit the definition of risk-taking. Any number of horrible things could happen to you. You might encounter a hobo or a cop. You might get locked in a car and end up in New Orleans. You might slip onto the track and lose an arm.
An Illinois Central freight came through every afternoon right after school. The train rumbled toward me, taking its own sweet time. I jogged alongside, trying to keep pace with an open boxcar. It seemed doable. I pushed through the slushy gravel, I had my arm outstretched. I began to sprint. I was breathing pretty hard. I reached for a handle, grabbed it, and swung myself onto the car.
What a feeling! Standing in that open doorway, I felt like a king. I watched the landscape roll by, the green backyards with kids waving, the dingy backsides of stores, lonesome alleys with oil drums, train yards full of metal on metal, stretches of open prairie broken only by cottonwoods, and looming skyscrapers in the distance.
But I was rapidly getting farther from home. I had to get off. But that seemed more problematic. The ground was flying by.
I waited pretty long trying to work up some courage. Finally I jumped, flew in the air, hit the ground hard, and tumbled. I sat there and felt myself all over. I seemed to be in one piece.
I found a road, stuck out my thumb, and hitched a ride with a guy in a truck.
“You’re awfully young to be hitchhiking, kid,” the driver said, eyeing me all over.
“I look younger than I am.” I stared out the window.
“You know, your knee is bleeding,” he said, pointing. “Don’t get my seat messed up, OK?”
He grabbed a paper towel from the glove compartment, and I slapped it on my ripped jeans.
Later that night at the clinic, while having my knee stitched, I lied to my dad.
“I slid in real hard at second base. Our infield is super crappy.”
“Well, be more careful.” Dad shook his head. “This costs money, you know.”
The following day on the Milford Golf Course, my dad’s boss dropped dead of a heart attack. Within a week Dad was promoted to Sales Manager.
His promotion came with a nice raise. Mom cooked a celebratory meal for the family, chicken pot pie, Dad’s favorite. For practice, she baked a buttercream pound cake.
“Our hero,” said Mom, as we clinked water glasses.
“Well, I feel sorry for Larry, that’s for sure.” Dad was attacking his pot pie. “You never want to benefit from something like that. Still, it’s good to be recognized.”
Lucy piped up, leaned forward, crashing the table with her leg brace. “Does this mean we can go to Disneyland?”
“We’ll see,” said Dad.
We finished our pot pie, falling into a reverie, imagining a magical kingdom of jungle adventures, fairy tale princesses, and Tomorrowland rockets.
It was International Food Day at school. I was in our gym going around to tables, trying different foods. I stopped at the table of Betty Ling, a girl I had a crush on. I sampled one of her egg rolls.
“Try dipping it in this sauce,” she said.
I tried it. “That’s amazing,” I said, smiling at her.
“Be sure to take a fortune cookie.”
I grabbed one, broke it open, and read my fortune. “Good luck is right around the corner,” it read.
I wanted badly to help Lucy. She had such terrible luck that I’d have to do something big.
That’s when I went to Boone Lake.
It was just an ugly pit in the middle of a giant prairie. My buddies and I would go down there to look for stuff or fish or just do nothing. Lucy came with us that day. I don’t remember why.
We’d had a cold winter, and now in March the lake was still half-frozen. Melted water lay in puddles on the glaze. I walked out on the ice, kicking it with my heel to test it.
“I’m going out,” I tell them.
My buddies hung back on shore. “It’s your funeral,” they yell.
I glance at Lucy, who says nothing. I smile, imagining how proud she is of my boldness.
I edge farther out, hearing pings and snaps. A fissure darts across the ice.
I’m calm and fully committed. I turn to wave at my friends, and the ice slants. A wobble. Then I fall through a trap door, and I’m underwater.
Thoughts sprint in and out. Gosh, this water’s really cold. The hole of light up there, it’s going backwards. Where’s the bottom of this lake?
Shrieking cold embraces me, I sink, and I twist in the black.
I kick and claw for the surface. I feel the ice sheet, I tap it. Uh, a little help here? Hey! Please?
No answer. Dark encroaches on my vision. Oh, well. What a stupid way to die.
Over the ice, a shadow appears. A familiar shape. Now a metal leg explodes through the ice. Then a crash, and she’s in the water with me.
She’s hitting me in the back, pounding me. Dammit, that hurts.
She grabs my hair, grabs my sweatshirt, tries to wrench me up. No luck. She dives, gets underneath me, grabs my legs, and with a furious push, she shoves me onto the ice.
I lie there panting, a half-dead fish.
Next thing, I’m in the back of an ambulance. I’m shivering under a mountain of blankets.
“Lucy,” I manage to say.
The paramedic pretends to ignore me.
“Lucy,” I say again.
“Sorry, kid,” he says. “We couldn’t find her.”
Normally a drowning victim comes to the surface in one to two weeks. The bacteria in the stomach creates gas that causes the body to float up. In cold water this process takes longer.
But Lucy never floated up. Finally, after three weeks, divers found her at the bottom of the lake, her leg brace entwined in weeds. Like the lake didn’t want to give her up.
I wasn’t there when she was brought up. Dad was, but he never talked about it. I have this daydream about how she looked. She is wrapped in vines, and she has a scowl on her face. Like, Thanks for the good luck, Tom-Thumb.
Mom didn’t win the Pillsbury Bake-Off. On the contest day she competed against the other finalists in a beautiful hotel ballroom staged with a hundred stoves. Mom was off her game. She seemed confused by her ingredients and the unfamiliar oven. But she did get a consolation prize, a nice collection of Pillsbury products.
Our family went to Disneyland. We attempted to have fun. But it didn’t feel right.
Dad kept his job as Sales Manager for six months. Then he was let go. I don’t know if it was his drinking after Lucy’s death, or the Peter Principle, or just bad luck. Don’t ask me.
I gave up my Experiment to Tempt Fate. I gave up trying to figure out luck. It was too tricky.
I threw all my energy into being the Best Son Ever. I studied twice as hard, made the Milford Honor Roll every semester. I ran for Student Council President and held the post for three years. Oh, and on the football team I kicked the winning field goal in the State Championship game. Forty-five yards.
These things brought a degree of happiness, I guess. I like to believe I owned those things, not the gods.
Mom and Dad stopped calling me lucky. They could see I didn’t like it. My friends sometimes tell me I’m lucky, and I understand this. After all, I did get a high number in the Vietnam draft. I held onto the Apple stock. Things like that.
But I don’t know. I’ve come to hate the word.
Rich Elliott has been a gravedigger, English teacher, dishwasher, textbook writer and editor, construction gofer, video producer, and track coach. His published work has mostly been in the field of sports nonfiction. He is the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the award-winning anthology Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running. He also writes short fiction, and his stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Confrontation, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, and Aethlon. He and his wife live in Valparaiso, Indiana.