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Rodney McDaniels pushes open the kitchen door enough to be able to crane his head out and scan the bar. He spots the guy Lisa Cassavetti’s talking about, then pivots back into their conversation, door closing behind him.
“He is not going to bother you, Lisa,” Rodney says, in his graveled voice. “He’ll probably tip you, but good.” As he speaks, Rodney replaces the scrap accumulator tray that he’d just rinsed clean back into the dishwasher. He slaps the machine, eliciting a hollow bong, then turns back to Lisa.
“It’s ready for takeoff,” Rodney says.
Lisa’s working the bar, including the tables. No seating in the restaurant section yet. That’s dinners only and besides, the new waitress is late again.
“He already freakin’ bothers me,” Lisa says. “Just the way he…”
“Leers?” Rodney offers.
“Bingo,” says Lisa, pointing to him as if he’d just answered a gameshow question correctly.
“Hazards of the job,” Rodney reminds her. “Shut him down. You do that. I’ve seen you.”
“But he’s not exactly saying anything wrong, Rodney. It’s just … I don’t know. This way about him.”
Rodney reiterates: “He is not going to cross the line, Lisa.”
“How do you know?”
“How do I know? I just know, that’s how I know.”
Lisa is Rodney’s age — 40. In fact she’s about two months older, because Rodney turns 40 this very day, though that he keeps that to himself. Rodney looks like the life he’s lived: 50 or maybe even older. Lisa doesn’t age; she could pass for 30.
Her blue-black hair rebels against constraints — scrunchies, clips, bandannas — exploding in curls and waves that accent the vitality of her face, the raucous inclusiveness of her laugh. She could play a flower child in a movie about the ’60s, but Rodney knows that the hippie persona masks steely discipline.
Lisa eats healthy, exercises often. Her regimen nurtures a body that defies gravity. Her delicate necklines pedestal a smile that advertises life’s adventure, and her steady green-eyed gaze makes men stammer. Lisa gets hit on often — as much as the 20-something recruits — but like any seasoned waitress/bartender, she straight-arms come-ons with one hand, while reeling in tips with the other.
Her innate dynamism masks a gift for patience — Zen-like stillness even — that makes it seem sometimes as if she’s tranced out.
She’s very much here at this moment, though. Lisa waits for Rodney’s explanation, but he doesn’t tell her why Mr. Creepy won’t bother her. The guy is made — mob — and those characters don’t like causing too much commotion. The dude shows just enough flash to let anybody who’d know about such things — somebody like Rodney, for instance — know what he’s about. There are giveaways. The watch, ring, leather jacket, and arrogance he sports tell the story. Rodney can spot racketeers from since his boxing days.
“How do you know?” Lisa asks again, arms akimbo.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Rodney promises with a shooing motion.
“I hate this job.”
“Me?” Rodney says. “I am living the dream.”
As she glides toward the other end of the kitchen, Rodney consciously avoids staring at her in that way, reminding himself that they’re buddies. Nothing more. He’s come to appreciate the friendship of women, something that he’d never thought possible in his younger, wasted years.
Platonic, my ass, he used to think.
Lisa’s good people. Too good. He once caught her writing a check to that famous hospital that helps kids with cancer. Bending over a table, designing her signature. He’d been walking by, and Rodney can read upside down, one of many tricks he’d learned in his outlaw life. He stopped, hovered for a moment.
“What?” Lisa asked, not looking up.
“Lisa,” Rodney explained, “someday you might be in a better position to do something like that. You’ve got your own kids.”
Still not looking up, Lisa had said: “Thanks. I forgot.”
“Right. None of my business,” Rodney acknowledged.
But before he continued, Lisa explained: “If I wait until I can do it, I’ll never do it. And someday both of my girls will be able to make much bigger contributions.”
Her children are her life, the story of which Rodney assembled with bits of info grabbed here and there, pieces of a puzzle strewed across months of casual exchanges in the hurly-burly of a restaurant’s kitchen.
Lisa had delayed college to marry and put her high school sweetheart through law school. Someone had to earn money. She delayed college again when two babies — surprise! surprise! — came. Then she caught the stupid husband cheating, and he then became the stupid ex-husband. Except he’s not so stupid. He and his woman disappeared, hiding somewhere in Europe to avoid paying alimony and child support.
“They’ll catch him someday,” Lisa says.
Maybe, but for now Lisa’s stuck. No time for college. She makes more in tips here than she could starting out in any office job. Plus it’s close to home, close to her kids’ school. She walks to work.
Rodney walks to work as well, but for him that entails going down two flights of stairs. Squire’s Hotel Tavern and Restaurant, had once been a real hotel. Now it’s a rooming house. Rodney — broke from a second divorce, a third bankruptcy, some hassles with cops, the IRS — boards here, living two flights of stairs up from where he works. Talk about a short commute.
And Squire’s owners and managers always know (well, not always, but mostly) where to find him. That proximity puts him on call. He’s said “no” to extended shifts sometimes, but always worries that turning down extra work too often would stop the hours from being offered altogether.
He needs the money.
Forty-stinking-years old, and washing dishes. But that’s the here, Rodney reminds himself. That’s the now, for now. Speaking of which…
Rodney goes to the bar, pretends to inspect the supplies. All good, but he already knew that. He glances over to where Lisa talks to the gangster.
Look how she hugs herself.
If she were any more closed, she could high-five herself behind her back. She smiles professionally, shoots a quick glance Rodney’s way. She wants no parts of this guy, and even though he’s behaving himself, she thanks Rodney for keeping tabs with a barely perceptible nod. The guy’s tall, solidly built. Good posture, but there’s now a distracted air about him. Lisa’s just not interested; he begins to realize this. Most likely the guy’s hatching schemes. Gangsters got to gangster.
Rodney heads back into the kitchen.
Lisa Cassavetti would have kicked ass in college. Rodney just knows it. She’d been a scholar/athlete in high school. But you can tell she’s smart just by talking to her, even though she tries to hide it. Lisa’s the one who told Rodney about Squire’s past. The building’s an historic site, certified as such by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
“You noticed the plaque on the wall outside,” Lisa said on his first day.
Actually, no, Rodney hadn’t.
“Do I need to take notes or something?” he joked.
“Customers do sometimes ask.”
“Customers,” he responds.
Rodney had stated that he wanted a job in which he had zilch-zero-nada interaction with patrons.
But plowing along to get his GED during those few years in prison he’d spent for beating up a would-be tough guy who “simply looked at him the wrong way” (that’s how the judge put it during sentencing, but it had been more than that — the guy owed him drug money) had turned the young boxer into something of an autodidact. Rodney had discovered to his surprise that he liked learning.
He also knows that if he were to keep on track in this job that he’d like to hold on to until he can come up with the plan for the rest of his life, then an alliance with Lisa Cassavetti needs to be cultivated. Plus, he admires the way she teaches. He admires a lot about her.
Squire’s, located in a Philadelphia suburb, had been built in 1703, before any of the 54 signers of the Declaration of Independence had even been born. During one renovation in the 1920s they’d discovered a hiding place under the basement. Turns out that Squire’s had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“Pretty cool,” Rodney had said when Lisa had pulled on a rope, opening a floor hatch in the storage room to show him the mini-dungeon where the runaway slaves had taken shelter. Entire families had hidden out in a space half the size of Rodney’s room.
Now Rodney squints into the steam coming out of the dishwasher as the conveyor belt slides another rack through the blue splash-shield flaps.
Forty years old.
“Not giving up,” Rodney growls as he pulls the basket out along the draining counter. Yes, he talks to himself sometimes and doesn’t much care what people make of it.
Vapor curls off the works before dissipating. When they’ve cooled enough, Rodney will stack the dishes onto the cart and settle the silverware into containers. When the trolley’s full, he’ll pull it out and park it near Boris the cook’s table in the kitchen. Every once in a while he hits the switch that stops the machine and dumps the scraps collected in the accumulator into the slops can. It’s really a two-man job, this, but Manny and Banger both called out, and Toke can’t be found.
As he works, Rodney sometimes bends his wrists, making the muscles on his forearms expand and shrink the faded tattoos he’d gotten back in his boxing days. Rodney “The Dagger” McDaniels, had been his billing. Sharp powerful left jabs, his trademark.
He’d been climbing the ranks in the light heavyweight division, but then lost to the champ. He lost the next two, and decided enough already. That’s when he accelerated his marathon of self-destruction that stopped not too long ago when he finally chose life over extinction. He’d found the 12 steps.
Rodney still exercises. A lot. It’s an addiction that replaces all the other addictions he’d shaken off, and through the years he’d carried a lot of monkeys on his back: meth, blow, horse and, of course, alcohol, the keeper of the gateway. Always alcohol and he’s always on watch because addiction never clocks out for good. Booze, totally legal and totally everywhere, is especially hazardous.
This job keeps the pounds off, too. He’s always moving; lifting stuff here, carrying stuff there, walking miles per shift in an area the size of two jail cells. He sweats profusely at rush times.
Overhead exhaust fans pull some of the hot air out, and they probably help a bit. However, in all seasons, but especially summers, workers need to step away from the job to find true relief. There’s a little walled-in area in the air conditioned restaurant where kitchen help can sit when they need it.
Also, there’s always outside and the ones who smoke — like Rodney and Lisa — go there, hanging by the employee entrance. Even on the hottest summer days, it’s cooler outside than at Rodney’s work station. He wears bandannas to keep the sweat from blinding him: red, blue, green, black.
He brings gallons of bottled water that he swigs from throughout the day, holding them up to the back of his shoulder and turning his mouth so that he looks like a woodsman quaffing from cider jugs. He can lose 10 pounds a shift.
The grease fumes from the deep fryers lord over an unruly kingdom of odors. Spices and cooking meat and cut onions and pickles and… The chorus line of food and ingredients that allow a successful kitchen to turn out thousands of meals a month becomes the air workers breathe, the swamp that they wade through.
The noise level climbs and falls throughout the day like an army attacking a fort, being rebuffed, then trying to storm it again. Rodney’s adjusted to this, as well. There’s not much goes on at Squire’s that he doesn’t see or hear.
Now Lisa bursts into the kitchen from the other side, slaps two orders in front of Boris. He holds one up to the light, as if reading hieroglyphics. Makes a show of it.
“Both well-done, Boris!” Lisa calls back impatiently as she walks toward Rodney’s station.
Boris’s Russian accent amplifies sarcasm: “Thank you, so much! Thank you! Thank you!”
Lisa wheels about, continues walking backwards: “My God, Boris, isn’t it too early to be whining? Even for you?”
Boris recently stopped smoking again. One of his jobs is to chalk specials on the blackboard in the restaurant section. He often starts with a quote by some famous person like, for instance: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” — Benjamin Franklin.
Usually, the adages have at least a tenuous connection to what a restaurant does, but Rodney notices that since Boris went cold turkey, some Biblical verses have slipped in. For instance, last night’s: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Doesn’t exactly work up an appetite.
Plus, as Rodney, who sports a cross tattoo on his right shoulder, pointed out to Boris: “A lot of the eaters aren’t Christian, my man. And even those who are want to leave it in the pews.”
Boris jutted his chin out.
“Well, tomorrow I quote Mao. Better?”
Rodney walked away. Still, the quotes have gone back to being about food and bits of generic Hallmark wisdom so maybe Squire’s owner had also spoken to Boris.
“Will somebody give bitch-boy Boris a cig, please?” Lisa says. “I forget to write ‘burn it’ on a hamburger order, and he goes full-out PMS.”
Rodney asks: “Well?”
Lisa pauses, momentarily searches for the last thread of their discontinued conversation.
“Oh, Mr. Creeper,” Lisa says. “You’re right. He’s calmed down. Still creepy, but controllable.”
“You should be a psychologist, Rodney.”
“I know people, Lisa.”
“Or a bartender.”
“I don’t want to know people, Lisa.”
He’s always being nudged in the direction of interaction with customers. Never. How many times does he have to say it?
“How did you know the creepiness would stop?” Lisa asks.
“Guys like that don’t make noise.”
“He asks me if I ever been to Spin.”
“Racetrack. He tells me he owns horses.”
“OK, then,” Rodney says. “See. It’s too early for assholes. That’s why Truck and Dizzy tend bar at nights.” Two young studs, big beefy bartenders who handle the occasional troublemakers and, if they can’t, the three or four off-duty cops who usually congregate at Squire’s will.
Lisa says: “Well, he did throw one border-liner at me.”
“Go on,” Rodney says.
“He asks me what I think I’m worth.”
“Oh.” Rodney starts for the door, but Lisa grabs his shirt.
“No, Rodney, it’s OK. He’s almost done. And it wasn’t said like…”
“What did you answer?”
“I joke it off, tell him most regulars tip me a thousand, but newbies can get away with a half grand.”
“Then he asks…”
“Then he asks if I take risks.”
“What’d you say?”
“I told him no. Not at this stage in my life.”
“You told him nothing about your kids.”
Boris calls over: “Oh, your majesty!”
“Off you go,” Rodney says.
Lisa glares at Boris. Then sighs.
“Off I go,” she says.
Last year, when he turned 39, Rodney worked his shift with a hangover after getting drunk for the last time. All day he kept asking himself: “How the hell did I get here?”
This year, he doesn’t ask. He’s stopped blaming the world, his exes, old bosses, trainers, managers, teachers, family, including Monster Dad — everyone. He’d finally come to realize that he washes dishes for a living (for now) because of his decisions.
“That’s a huge achievement, Rodney!” his therapist, who took him on pro bono, had told him. Her gray hair sat like a helmet and light glazed her glasses, masking her expression.
“I always take the blame. The fall,” Rodney said, shifting a bit in his chair. “I told you our first time.” He glanced at the couch, which he never used.
“That,” the therapist interjected, making the “stop” gesture with her hand, “that had been a goal, not a reality. Not at that point. But now, this time, you’re saying it because you crossed the finish line, Rodney McDaniels.”
“If you say so, Doc. Is this the last session?”
She shrugged. “Your decision.”
It was. Pro bono work must get old for a woman who makes $200 an hour from paying customers with insurance.
Well, he had changed. Changed his spots, not being the leopard his old man claimed he’d always be whenever he took the belt to Rodney as a kid.
“Leopards never change their spots, Rodney-girl,” he’d mumble between whacks, alcohol-burdened breath fouling the air. “You ain’t no son of mine.”
His old man was wrong, though. Pain makes you change. That’s a lesson Rodney delivered to Monster Dad the last time he’d taken his belt off to beat his son yet again. Sixteen year old Rodney grabbed it, threw it off to the side, and then flashed a quick one-two to the nose and chin. Monster Dad lay on the living room floor. A flash of lightning.
“Don’t even think about getting up,” Rodney warned.
His father buried his face in the carpet. Beaten, at last.
“If I hear you touch Mom or any of the other kids, I’ll be back. And you’re right. I ain’t no son of yours. I ain’t no leopard, either.”
Rodney walked out that day and never again returned to his childhood home, even for his mother’s funeral. She loved him in her way, he knew, but not enough to figure out how to protect him. He forgave that, even understood it a little. But he’d parked a good mile or so from her burial on the day of.
Now, Rodney pulls another tray through the machine, the last one for a while. The lunch crowd had gone, taking the lunchtime rhythm with it. Quiet settles over the kitchen, except for the occasional clang of a pot being put away, or a spoon getting tossed into a sink.
“Taking five, Boris,” Rodney calls.
The cook waves him off.
“Cigarette break! Join me?” Rodney says, heading outside, before Boris can throw a knife at him.
The late waitress, who wants it known that she’s in college and too good for this place, arrives just in time for this lull and Rodney knows that Lisa would be bounding out in a moment.
He sits on the stoop at the employee entrance that leads to the bathrooms, bar, restaurant, and the stairway to the 144 square feet that he calls home. Rodney intends to quit smoking someday, too, but for now it helps fill the emptiness left when he kicked all of his other bad habits.
The trees along Maple Street sport the blurry green of early spring. Some people wander about their lawns and yards making their to-do lists. Pure Norman Rockwell. Leaves stretch toward the sun. Bulbs congregate in flowerbeds near front porches and, on some lawns, mulch has been laid.
For everything, there is a season…
Where did that come from? Rodney guards against becoming a holy roller, which happens to some ex-addicts. Nah, he thinks. Not him. He just dabbles and, as the man sang, whatever gets you through.
Rodney takes a drag, and then along comes Lisa.
“You were right!” she cries.
Her eyes glisten as if she’d been swimming. Her joy matches the promise in the April air.
“That surprises you?” Rodney says.
Lisa unfolds the bill, holds it up like a placard.
“Is it real?” she asks.
Rodney stands, reaches out, and Lisa hesitates before handing it to him.
“Real,” he pronounces after a quick inspection.
He hands it back, and she squints as if she’s deciphering code.
“Well, hello there Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Grover Cleveland,” Rodney corrects. “Grover Cleveland’s on a thousand dollar bill.”
“Do you think it’s drug money?’
“I think it’s your money.”
“Lisa, it’s your tip. You earned it.”
“He only had a cheesesteak and fries.”
“You earn it every day.”
She leans closer, whispers: “Listen, Rodney…”
“What thousand dollars? I don’t know nothing about nobody getting no thousand dollars.”
“Yes!” Lisa throws her arms around his neck and he hesitates before putting his arms around her and patting her back.
The door opens. Boris clears his throat.
“If you two lovebirds…”
“Chill,” Lisa orders. “We’re coming. Why don’t you join us for a smoke, Boris!”
Boris slams the door.
A thousand dollars, Rodney thinks when Lisa goes back inside. What he couldn’t do with a thousand dollars. Rodney rolls his neck, and snuffs out a flicker of jealousy.
Come on, dude. You’re better than that. It’s Lisa. Be happy for her.
There’s something else though. Rodney had felt it when she hugged him. Not so much their friendship being reconfirmed as a door being opened. No, that’s not it. More like a door being kicked open, and him stepping into an unfamiliar room.
Just like that — out of nowhere and everywhere — it hits him. Rodney McDaniels loves Lisa Cassavetti. No. Wait. He realizes that he’s loved her for some time, now. Of course, he’s always been attracted to her. What guy with a pulse wouldn’t be? No, Rodney understands that he’s actually, truly in love with her. Her. Her very essence. He loves the way Lisa moves through the bramble of the everyday with such grace.
The inner brake he had to develop in order to get clean holds at bay anything that could become an addiction. What’s more addictive than love? That’s why in the months he’s been working here, he couldn’t admit it to himself. Until now.
Shut it down.
Getting involved with someone you work with — even if it’s at some rinky-dink-chump-change-earning-disposable-just-passing-through job — is never a good idea.
We’re just friends. Keep telling yourself that.
Still, this moment outlines a future that could be. Their future, his and Lisa’s. If she would have him. Lisa’s good fortune makes Rodney re-evaluate his circumstances on his 40th birthday. Not to the point where he restarts the blame loop. It had indeed been his bad decisions that led him here, about two levels up from living on the street. And good decisions will give him — who knows? — a better life, a great life even. At least a meaningful life. Despite the punishment he’d put his body through, Rodney could conceivably live another 40, maybe even 50 years.
But what just happened to Lisa — her unexpected windfall — forces Rodney to once again test his hard-won self-evaluation. He hadn’t completely forgotten about luck. But he had decided that most of the time we make our own luck. Well, maybe not. Yes, maybe not. Luck indeed figures into his journey, starting with the bad luck of having been the offspring of Monster Dad. He’d been damaged goods, and damaged goods become damaging goods.
Rodney continues to ruminate on the subject as he heads back into the kitchen and his work station.
Just do the job. Don’t think.
Rodney dumps the remains of somebody’s lunch into the slops can. That’s when he sees it. Dark marks on a crumpled napkin. He leans over, peers more closely. Ink on white. Some compulsion makes him reach into the can — ew! — scoop up the napkin, wave it open. He sets it down on the counter, leans over. It is writing. A note.
Top line: “Sometimes you need to take risks, Lisa!” She hadn’t given him that info; the waitresses all wear name tags.
Underneath, a list. The first item’s a phone number (in parenthesis: “not my number”). The next one is the word “accumulator.” Rodney glances at the scrap accumulator on the dishwasher, but the rest of the list confirms that’s not the accumulator the mobster had in mind.
Then comes the names of racehorses:
At the bottom, another phone number (in parenthesis: “My number!!!!”).
Rodney gazes at the note, looks around the kitchen blinking, as if something’s burning, then reads it again.
But he doesn’t listen. The realization that he loves Lisa lets the inner demons — though firmly tethered to the 12 steps — prowl restlessly in their cages. He calls over to Boris, points at the ceiling.
“One minute,” Rodney says.
Boris turns his back.
In his room, Rodney takes off his pants, turns the legs inside-out, rips open the squares of cloth he’d sewed into the seat, right behind his pockets. Grabs the money. There are a few other hiding places he raids, until he collects $1,132.
Everything he’s saved so far to start over; the first step in his long journey back to the path he hadn’t taken.
Rodney clumps downstairs, but before going into the kitchen he makes the call at the payphone, the only payphone that still exists for miles in this era of cells, because down-on-their-luck borders need that phone. Rodney hears his voice waver, as he leaves the message.
A robotic response informs him: “Call at four-thirty for full results.”
When Rodney returns to work, he just can’t help himself. He glances up at the kitchen clock often even though he knows that’s the closest a human being can come to actually making time move backward. When finally — finally! — it says 4:30. Rodney makes the call. Too early, the voice says. Check again… Rodney hangs up.
Stupid kitchen clock.
Rodney struts back into the kitchen (he’s always strutted if he thinks he’s lost some altercation) and calls over to Boris: “What time you got on your smartphone, comrade?”
Boris, dicing something, doesn’t look up when he calls back: “Half past the cow’s…”
Rodney pivots and heads back out to the payphone. Drops the change in slowly, hears the rattle in the coin box and tries the number again. This time the voice reads the results. Rodney bows his head as he listens, like he used to do all those years ago in a confessional in which he always asked forgiveness for hating Monster Dad. Forgiveness was never withheld by the priest, but that didn’t stop Rodney from continuing to hate his old man.
When he hangs up, gently laying the phone back onto the cradle, Rodney’s heartbeat breaks loose; his entire body pulses. His knees nearly buckle, a sensation he hasn’t felt since his last fistfight.
He’s tempted to run up to his room again, but that would spur questions from coworkers, complaints from Boris. Instead, Rodney feels his way back into the kitchen and the dishwasher, as if someone had turned off the lights. He leans against the draining counter, weak and gasping.
Lisa sees him, comes over.
“Could use some air,” Rodney says, and when her eyes widen in alarm he knows that he must look like hell.
He slowly walks back outside, sits on the stoop, lights up.
In about a minute, Lisa comes out as well.
“Just thinking things through. Thinking. Thinking.”
“Well, stop thinking. You look sick. Scooch over.”
He does, and she sits beside him, hugging her knees.
“Let me…” Rodney gestures as if he’s telling somebody to keep it down.
“Ooooooo-kay,” Lisa says.
$254,000? $254,000. $254,000!!!!!!
He’d hit the accumulator — the horse racing version, not the metal part in the stupid dishwashing machine. All five horses listed on that napkin that Rodney betted his pitiful life savings on had won. Now what? Rodney massages his temples.
Lisa pats his back. “When you’re ready to tell me, Rodney…”
She rises, twists her cigarette dead in the sand of the standing black ashtray.
When she goes back inside, Rodney’s deep breathing takes in traces of Liza’s perfume along with lingering smoke.
Rodney already knows what he’s going to do with some of that money. He’s going to help Lisa, pay for her college and help Lisa’s girls as well.
But wait. Wait.
Something’s not right. Since when’s a mobster that generous to a struggling waitress, a stranger? Especially to a woman who made it clear she wanted no parts? Was it the thrill of the chase? Was it another bet? Had the mobster’s gambling addiction led to this? Had he taken Lisa’s measure and knew — just knew — that even if she ever once in her life bet on horses — doubtful — and even if she knew anything about accumulators — even more doubtful — she’d never risk losing $1,000 of found money?
Or had good fellow gone rogue? About to turn state’s evidence and figured that this would be a fun way to screw his former compatriots? And what about those compatriots? How long would it take them to find out who’d hit the accumulator?
These practical life-or-death calculations — for suddenly they’d become life-or-death matters — lay rooted in the material world.
There are spiritual considerations, though, and they troubled Rodney as well. Where had this money come from? Think about that. It surely wasn’t clean. It was drugs, and sex trafficking, and racketeering, and porn, and probably even fixed boxing matches. Certainly fixed horse racing. The stench of misery clung to it.
It needs to be laundered, freed from its background.
Within the steam coming off the dishwasher Rodney sees the outline of a plan begin to form. He’ll help Lisa. That, he has to do. He’ll clean the money through her grace. For grace can’t be bought. Nothing good can come from this windfall without Lisa’s grace.
“I’ll help her,” Rodney promises the God that the 12 steps had reacquainted him with. “I’ll help that cancer hospital for kids that she donates to.”
Rodney will do this even though he accepts that he may never win Lisa’s love. She won’t pretend because he suddenly has money. Not Lisa. But he’ll risk it. He’ll tell her about the winnings someday. Soon. This week. He rehearses.
I have feelings for you, Lisa.
“Have feelings for you?” Rodney thinks. No. It’s going to be: “I love you, Lisa. I have always loved you.”
He’ll declare this before saying anything about the $254,000. If she can’t reciprocate, he will put her through college anyway, because he said he would and he’d at least always have her friendship.
He doesn’t yet vow that he — Rodney McDaniels — will never spend a dime of that money on himself. But that possibility also begins to take shape. Too much of his life had been pulled hell-ward by everything that jackpot represents. But now this accumulation of bad decisions points in this unexpected direction.
Rodney glances about; nobody’s near.
He practices, saying softly: “I love you, Lisa.”
He’ll need to build up to it. He can’t just blurt it out from nowhere. However, he presents it, it will be the ultimate gamble, because unrequited love can break you. Rodney’s seen that. He looks up at the clock. Time for a pre-dinner rush smoke break.
When Rodney McDaniels steps outside, there’s Lisa Cassavetti. She holds two saucers of chocolate thunder cake with a single candle stuck in each. The light from the flickerings gentle her features as she quickly sings a stanza of Happy Birthday that might be the worst version Rodney’s ever heard.
He says: “How did you even…?”
“Are you going to make a wish or aren’t you?”
Lisa with that smile, a smile Rodney’s been seeing in dreams of late but hadn’t yet figured out who it belonged to. They sit on the stoop, eating the cake.
“Well?” Lisa says, her mouth full.
“I wished that maybe we can take in a movie sometime, Lisa.”
She turns her head, regards him. Rodney stares at his plate. There is no doubt what he is asking, and Rodney has to swallow hard to get a forkful of cake down. It’s a moment long enough to squeeze that prayer in.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Lisa finally says: “I think I’d like that very much, Rodney McDaniels.”
“Thank you so much, Lisa Cassavetti.”
Rodney’s smiling when they both rise to go back to work. How strange. Winning $254,000 turns out to be the second most life transforming thing to have happened to Rodney McDaniels on his fortieth birthday.
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