Secrets of the Lottery Winner
CHAPTER 13: THE OUT CLAUSE
He’d had enough of that purple word—it always appeared deep purple to him, passionate purple—when he realized this was exactly what had brought him to this pass. He was a man with a wife and two boys at home in Chicago—and now was a man with a mistress who was … was … fuck. “Fuck” the word resurged, but it was getting him nowhere. What would Emily say about this? Not about Loretta and him, but about a couple of television characters, or neighbors, in his situation. No, not her comment, for no doubt it would be deprecatory. But her advice on extricating oneself from such a situation. She was a storehouse of advice and never tired of dispensing it. Where the fuck was she when he actually, really, and without a shadow of a doubt needed her? Women!
He glanced out the window. The sky was phosphorescent, hued red by sunset, reminiscent of the fires of summer. The night was cool, and her small electric baseboard heaters hummed irritatingly in the background. The secondhand of his wristwatch hadn’t moved but a second or two past where it had been when she’d announced her pregnancy. Not she. When she said we were pregnant. Pregnant was sufficiently miserable. But we thrust the situation into a horrific dimension. Without explanation, he knew precisely what she meant by we, and its ramifications.
“You know what the best part is, Gari?”
She radiated good cheer and an inner pleasure that should have tipped him off as soon as he’d crossed the threshold. And the apartment itself, Christ, what a dumbbell he’d been. Why would a woman who was periodically, from time to time, sporadically was the right word—why would this type of woman tryst in the place where she lived? Wasn’t this against the rules of … well there was part of the problem: He couldn’t bear to call her—not even in his mind—what she was.
He dragged himself back to the question. No, dearie, how could it possibly get better?
She said over his silence, “You’re the first man I’ve wanted to have a child with.”
He nearly groaned audibly. It had just gotten infinitely worse. He attempted to purge his panic with a deep breath, but his lungs were as flexible as concrete jugs.
“Are you all right?”
Her concern ran deep, he noted: She’s wondering how she and the kid will survive if he keels over before the main act in their relationship got underway.
“This smog can be a killer,” she said.
He wanted to laugh, as the air was pristine in L.A. with the wind driving off the ocean and shoving the crap over the mountains.
Finally, he gained control of himself and asked, “How long?”
“Two months, but I only found out about it two weeks ago. I was feeling, well, odd.”
He listened and nodded. When did they begin puking? When had Emily started? She’d given birth to Sammy too many years ago for him to remember the minor details, like the day she had her first bout with the porcelain, how often after that, and for how long. Well, he did not intend to hang around and relive the miracle of birth with Loretta. This would not happen. No.
“What else did the doctor say?” he asked. He’d tightened his vocal cords until he nearly screeched.
“I haven’t seen a doctor yet. I wanted us to go as a couple. I set up an appointment for tomorrow, three-thirty at the UCLA Medical Center.”
He’d done an excellent job of holding himself together, but now he was on the verge of blowing into a thousand pieces. “Could I have a real drink, Loretta?”
“Sure, Gari,” she said releasing him and rising. She patted her stomach. “But you’ll be drinking alone.”
He smiled thinly. “Scotch, neat.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and he kicked his noggin into overdrive. He told her he was a widow. Here was the consequence: He was a candidate for marriage. No, she hadn’t said it outright, but she radiated her intention. They had a relationship. They had a child on the way. They were about to be a family. They should formalize it by marrying. After all, would he want his child growing up a bastard? This was too much, really, really too much. He heard her opening the cabinet, closing it, followed by the gurgling of the scotch into the glass and the sounds scared away his panicked ramblings. He breathed deeply and sucked in her scent. What was that perfume she wore? Not like Catherine. This was sweet, an old woman’s fragrance, cloying, its purpose partly to cover up decay. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Was she wearing something different in the bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel that night? When the hell was that night anyway? He drew breath and coughed.
“Hope you’re not catching something. You know, I probably can’t take anything now.”
Women are the most beautiful when they are pregnant. He’d heard that aphorism so often when Emily lumbered about with Teddy, he had to hold his stomach, push very hard, to prevent himself from regurgitating everything he’d consumed from the last time he’d heard it. Truth of the matter, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing beautiful about a pregnant woman. Perhaps they did radiate an aura of sorts, though sweating and grunting and shifting and constantly moaning about their aches and pains never struck him as saintly or attractive in any way at any hour of the day or night. Pregnancy was yet another biological function woman romanticized while navigating through it peevishly. In short, they and their engorged wombs were a great big pain.
She reentered the room with his scotch. It looked skimpy to him and he was tempted to send her back for a topper; but he needed a hit desperately and who knew how long it would take for her to return. The first drink had been in the making for a day it seemed.
He thanked her and downed it as if it were a Big-Gulp. His scorching throat diverted him from his predicament long enough for him to give its solution a few seconds of thought.
“Good lord, if you’re thirsty, drink water.”
He shook the glass. “How about another?”
She was sharp with him. “How about you tell me what this is about.” She made “this” clear by jabbing a well-tended, red-tipped finger at the glass.
He rubbed his forehead until his skin was nearly permanent white. “It hurts, Loretta. Really, another drink would help immensely.”
She snatched the glass wordlessly and went to refill it. In her absence, he shifted his thinking into overdrive and by the time she’d returned he concocted a plan—wobbly, but a plan nonetheless.
He sipped the fresh drink, which was as short as the first one, but which had the virtue of dropping unto a base. He was benefiting from a small buzz.
“Did I mention I was in the war?”
“No, the last war, the Gulf War.”
She shook her head.
“I suppose I was waiting until we had a little more time together. You know, until we were sure about us.”
She nodded. “Us” being “We” in another form, she understood. “What does the war have to do with us?”
“I’m afraid a whole lot.”
“How so?” she asked, sitting next to him.
“I was wounded in the war. Got a Purple Heart.”
“Gee, Gari, I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. It was my choice to go. It was just one of those things.”
“You were shot?” she asked tentatively, having read somewhere sometime that warriors spoke of their war experiences reluctantly, many never.
“I wish. I really wish I had been shot. You know, shot doing something noble and brave.”
The hum of the radiator serenaded them for a minute. For Gari, the pause was for drama. For Loretta, it was an indication of her compassion for his pain and a willingness to allow him as much time as he required to tell his story.
“What happened?” she coaxed, gently.
“I broke my ankle practicing,” he said, extending his right leg and wagging his foot.
“What were you practicing?” Her expression was pure innocence.
But the question was challenging. What the hell was he doing to break his ankle and miss his big chance for heroics? Running, running in formation like they do in the Army for whatever reason. He never understood why they ran in packs and never having been in the military nobody had ever explained it to him. Running was out, though. How wimpy could he be breaking an ankle while taking what amounted to a jog? Jumping. Easy to break a bone jumping if you landed the wrong way or you jumped from a considerable height. He could have been one of those parachutists.
“Jumping,” he said, pointing at the ceiling. “You know, from airplanes.”
“You were Airborne in the Gulf War?”
Tentatively, and hoping the tone went undetectable but to him, he said, “Sure.”
She said in staccato, “Third Army, Eighteenth Airborne Corps.”
“Sure,” he said, adding woefulness to his response, “what else? The best.”
“Did you know Rusty Capeton?”
“Big Corps,” he said, reflexively and a smidge more confidently.
“Sure, sorry. I hate it when people do it to me, assume I know everybody in Illinois just because I lived in Danville. Lucky for you you didn’t. He was a mean SOB.”
“He was in the right place then. The meaner the more we liked them.”
“Well, you’re not mean.”
Oh, oh, wait, he thought. “No,” he said, “but guys like your Rusty helped fill our mean quota.” Whatever that meant, he didn’t know.
“Okay, you were wounded. You broke your ankle.” She opened her hands to him.
“Drifting, huh? Sorry I’m being longwinded here, but really I don’t like to talk about this.”
“About what, Gari, what are you talking about?”
“My infirmity,” he uttered softly, to good effect. “My male shortcoming.” He pointed to his crotch.
“What shortcoming? I’ve never known you to have a shortcoming in that department.”
“No, no, not like that. Performance is not a problem. No, it’s the Gulf War Syndrome.”
“You have it?”
“No, thank God, no I don’t.”
“Okay, I’m officially lost.”
“Birth defects,” he said.
“Birth defects.” Her hand shot to her mouth and trepidation took over her face.
He grabbed her hand concerned he’d gone too far. “Don’t worry, this baby wouldn’t have any defects, at least not from the Gulf War.”
First this relieved her and her features relaxed into their normal pleasantness. But then perplexity appeared, as Gari went on to say: “I had a vasectomy a couple of years after the war.”
She pushed away, her face and voice exploding with surprise. “You what?”
“A vasectomy,” he said with a measure of hesitancy and doubt. Perhaps this wasn’t the news to break to a woman who was certain she was having your baby, and probably was, though he never considered himself a particularly potent stud—nor placed much personal self-esteem in being such. Fact was, conceiving Teddy was a trial, and as time had worn on Emily had hinted artificial intervention might be in order. Of course, he’d produced, twice no less. (And what of Catherine Lourdes? Would she be calling him about a child too?)
Gari realized he didn’t know Loretta well, though she claimed their relationship was three-months old. For all he knew, she might hop up, dash into the kitchen, return with a knife, and geld the gelded on the spot. She might wait until he was sleeping and eviscerate him in bed. Why not? We’re animals, all of us, he thought, territorial creatures; and he had invaded hers and left a deposit from which he was now running. Maybe she had one of those feminine handguns around the apartment, a pipsqueak .25-caliber job, just large enough to do the job.
“You are kidding me, Gari? You are.”
He wouldn’t exactly describe it as kidding. He was serious. He did not want and did not need another child, or another wife. Christ almighty, he wasn’t a bigamist.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “It was the war.”
“The war? The war’s been over for …”—her mathematical powers eluded her—”for forever.”
“It’s the Gulf War Syndrome. I mean, it was the Gulf War Syndrome.”
She stared at him, a scary mix of impatience, disbelief, and anger. He wondered again about the .25. Did she once mention guns in the family? Wasn’t her father a prison guard? Didn’t law enforcers have weapons around their houses, on the ready to give bad boys a nasty life-shortening surprise?
“You remember when it was in the news. Soldiers were getting sick for no reason. Well, then, nobody knew whether you could pass the disease on, you know, to loved ones. I didn’t want to pass my disease on to a child, not if I could help it. I had a vasectomy. Believe me when I say I didn’t want to do it. But I had to, to be responsible.”
“But you’re normal,” she shouted, waving her hands in the direction of his crotch. “You’re the most normal man I’ve met in a long time.”
“Vasectomy doesn’t make me abnormal, Loretta. Not sexually. It just means I can’t conceive children.”
He watched as her tumult of emotion coalesced into concentration. “Look,” she said after thought that flushed her face, “when a woman has a breast implant, she has a scar here.” She illustrated by reaching her hands under both her breasts. “It must be the same with your vasectomy.”
Who knew about operations, but he did know there was just one answer to her question. “It’s different. There’s no scarring.”
“I want to see for myself,” she demanded.
“There’s nothing to see. It doesn’t scar,” clutching his belt, as if he feared she was on the verge of attacking him.
“Well, I’m pregnant, Gari, and you’re the only man I’ve been with for months.”
“You’re sure?” he said.
He spoke his mind and as the short sentence exited he knew it was trouble. Speaking your mind to women was always trouble, as he learned from Emily. He discovered life was more bearable if he told her what she wanted to hear. He might do the opposite, but after a few years of unhappiness he knew never to contradict or disagree with her, and certainly not when money was involved. Loretta was a different kind of woman; at least he believed this to be true when he began this affair, which was exactly the word for what they had between them though he understood “affair” would be a taboo word with her. But her expression now of shock and abhorrence showed him in this regard she was Emily’s twin. It was best to tell her what she wanted to hear, or something close to it.
Gari embraced her as he said, “I’m sorry. It came out wrong. I meant to ask, are you sure you’re pregnant?”
She was weeping softly. Her tears were real; he felt them seeping through his shirt. He wondered if they were sincere. This was Hollywood, after all, and she did aspire to stardom, or at least featured character roles. He’d never seen her act. Or maybe he had without realizing it. Her professed love for him, her bedroom hijinxs, these could be manifestations of her ability as an actress. She might be acting now.
“I used e.p.t. The box said it was nearly one-hundred percent right.”
“When did you test yourself?”
She shrugged in his arms. “Two weeks ago. I wasn’t feeling well. Sick in the morning, you know.”
“Gee,” he said, innocently with a dash of perturbation, “I wish you’d waited.”
“Well, if, you know, we’re going to have a kid, well, you know, I’d like to be here when you test yourself.”
“Didn’t you just say it couldn’t be yours because you had a vasectomy?”
“You know how I feel about you, Loretta. If you think you’re pregnant, I want to be here with you. To support you, you know.” He was stumbling but that was how it was when you were running broken field. That’s how he pictured himself: zigging and zagging, weaving here and there, dodging burley women who intended striking him a crippling blow.
She burrowed into his embrace. “I saved it.”
“You saved the test results?”
“Yes, for the baby’s scrapbook.”
“Sure,” she said, lifting her head, glowing at him. “When our child is older, we’ll share it with him, or her.”
Emily, to his knowledge, had no scrapbook of Teddy or Sammy. In fact, she kept few photos of the boys around the house. Emily’s view on this was she saw Teddy and Sammy every day. She would remember the boys as they were when they grew older, and the boys would care less as teens, or twenties.
“How does the test work?” he asked. “What does it look like?”
She popped off the sofa and headed toward the bedroom, where the bathroom was, chatting to and from, explaining the test procedure. She was back within a minute with a slip of paper.
“See,” she said, cradling it in her palms, as if it was the baby itself. “There’s a plus sign. When there’s a plus sign, it means you’re pregnant.”
“A boy?” he asked.
Her eyes crinkled and there it was again, a cute radiance. “You’re silly, Gari. The test doesn’t tell you the sex.”
“Oh,” he said, as if this was a revelation.
“You are silly,” she said, her crinkles deepening, obviously happy he was kidding with her.
Carefully he said, “Gosh, Loretta, I honestly hope this is my baby. I’d like to be a father.”
“Well you will be, Gari, in a little less than nine months.”
“You know how guys are. We like to be sure.”
The crinkles fading, she said, “What do you mean? It is yours. I’ve told you it is.”
They were at a dead end, he knew, and he began mulling his option: the out clause. She’d demonstrated she would not listen to reason. He wanted to do the right thing, which in his view was to support her and the baby. But only if the child was his and the proof was incontrovertible. He was within a few words of suggesting a DNA test. She’d ignored his claim of having a vasectomy. She’d never agree to a DNA test. Even if she agreed, she wouldn’t believe the results. No, he was convinced she wanted a husband, a child, a family, and Gari was the man to provide it, and that was that. And why fight with her? He didn’t battle with Emily, and she was his wife. Invoking the out clause was the easiest way to resolve the situation.
He reached for her and embraced her. “Yes, you did tell me it was mine. I guess I was a little surprised. Hey, haven’t you ever acted goofy when somebody surprised you?”
He felt her head nodding against her chest. “Uhuh,” she said.
“Okay, good it’s settled. We’ll get a good night’s sleep, wake up fresh for tomorrow. Maybe we’ll do the Grove. Hit the beach, too. And dinner out. You’re not going to have much time soon for dinners out.” He patted her stomach for good measure, causing her to giggle.
“Don’t forget the doctor,” she reminded.
“How could I?” he said.
They undressed in the bedroom and as they did he observed her surreptitiously. She was the same Loretta. Her legs were long, slender, lightly muscled, and silky. Her ass was round and snug. Her stomach was flat as always. Her breasts were wondrous. She was the same—and yet in the most important way she was different. She wasn’t fun anymore. She wasn’t someone to play with. Now she was someone to escape.
When she nuzzled him in bed, both naked, he claimed the travel and the drinks had drained his spirit and he’d be better tomorrow.
But he knew he wouldn’t be better again, not with Loretta.