Bad Luck Barb just won big. The phone call came in notifying her at 12:01 p.m. as she was getting ready to go to lunch. She could hardly believe it.
“Yes, I’m sure,” said the woman on the line from the North Valley Hospital Association. “$100,000, you are the grand prize winner of the hospital raffle this year Barb.”
Barb hung up the phone, gripped the winning ticket stub between her thumb and forefinger, then stood up and peered over the top of her cubicle across the expanse of empty cubicles at Orin Insurance Company.
Good. Everyone was gone for lunch. She wanted to be sure no one heard. She’d made a deal with herself that if she won, she’d keep it a secret. She didn’t want anyone coming around looking for a handout.
Of course, she never really thought she’d win. She never won anything. In fact, she may have been the world’s unluckiest person. At least that’s what her brother Calvin told her.
Calvin first dubbed her Bad Luck Barb when she was nine years old. It was during an unfortunate string of incidents that included a perpetual skinned knee, a foul ball that knocked her unconscious, a near drowning accident and six stitches thanks to an irritated beagle named Sam.
Three years older than Barb and the star pitcher for the Brody Electric Little League baseball team, Calvin never paid much attention to her. She wasn’t even sure he knew her name.
That all changed the day he was forced to sit in the emergency room waiting area with her and their mother while she tearfully held her bitten arm. Their mother, Abigail, had yanked him away from his friends and made him come with them to the hospital. He glared at Barb from a seat across from her as Abigail softly rubbed her daughter’s back.
“You know what your name is? Calvin said and crossed his arms. “Bad Luck Barb because you’ve always got bad luck.” Abigail shushed him and told him to move to the other side of the room if he couldn’t be nice.
He got up angrily: “Why am I here anyway?” he said. He threw a children’s lego toy over Barb’s head, then turned to glare at her again. “Bad Luck Barb, that’s right, you bring bad luck to yourself and everyone else,” he said before he stormed away.
The name stuck. Twenty years later, Barb sees Calvin three times a year: On their mother’s birthday in October, at Thanksgiving in November, and at Christmas in December. During those get-togethers he doesn’t say much. If he needs to address her, he never calls her Barbara, Babs, Babe or anything like that. It’s always Bad Luck Barb.
They live blocks from each other, but they rarely speak during the remaining months of the year. Sometimes, when he hears she’s suffered one mishap or another, Calvin reaches out. “Well Bad Luck Barb strikes again,” he inevitably says and chuckles.
But that was all behind her now. Today, Barb was a winner.
She put her winning ticket carefully in the back pocket of her jeans, sat back down at her wobbly office chair and rolled herself to her desk. She rifled around her top drawer until she found a picture she’d ripped out of a magazine at the dentist’s office.
Scottsdale, Arizona—that’s where she was going. Ever since she saw the picture of a woman on a horse with the Arizona sunset behind her, Barb knew that’s where she wanted to be. With $100,000 she could even live there—leave this lame place behind. Start fresh. No more Bad Luck Barb.
To celebrate her win, Barb threw the lunch she’d made (a turkey sandwich with a small yogurt and apple) into the plastic garbage bin in the office kitchen. She had plenty of money now, she was eating out for a change.
That’s how she found herself at one of the city’s finest restaurants, Gino’s Trattoria, with a plate of lasagna and a glass of chilled Chianti in front of her. She was sitting in a dark, back corner booth, tipsy and relaxed considering her move to the desert when her mother called on her cell phone.
“I’m in a meeting Mom,” Barb said when she answered. “Is this important?”
“Barb, have you seen your brother?
Barb sneered. “Um, no. Isn’t he at work?”
“He hasn’t worked for over a year Barb. I wish you two were closer.”
“Why don’t you ask his wife?”
“She called me,” said her mom. “She’s very upset.”
“Isn’t she pregnant? Maybe it’s hormones.”
“Barb, they’re having problems. Real problems and he left, she’s concerned.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
Her mother lowered her voice. “I think they’re losing the house.”
Barb raised her eyebrows and took a sip of her wine. “Okay, well let me know if you find him,” she said. “I’ve got to go. My boss is calling me.”
She finished her drink, pushed her plate away and asked for the check. She’d called in sick for the afternoon and had an appointment in a couple hours at the hospital association where she was to present her ticket and pick up her winnings.
“I know this sounds weird,” she said to the waiter when he returned her credit card. “But can I leave through the back door?” Her office was across the street. She didn’t want to risk being spotted. She slipped him a five dollar bill and he happily escorted her through the kitchen to a door the led to the alley in back.
She was still slightly drunk and had to shield her eyes from the sun when she stepped out onto the pavement. Even in her condition, she immediately recognized Calvin in the alley ahead of her.
The limp gave him away. It was the artifact of a childhood injury suffered when he jumped into Lake Francis and got his leg stuck in a sunken dock. The leg was badly broken and never quite healed. She suspected he blamed her for the injury and the end of his baseball career. But she reminded herself, as she watched him limp along, she didn’t ask him to try to save her when she went under and started flailing in the water. A lifeguard was on duty. Calvin should have just left it alone.
She was going the same direction and followed silently behind him for about half a block as he limped along a few feet in front of her. Finally she called out:
“Hey Calvin, your wife’s looking for you.”
He turned around, their eyes met, something like fear crossed his face and he limped away more quickly. He turned a corner and disappeared.
Barb shrugged her shoulders and looked down at her phone. She checked the weather in Scottsdale —72 degrees and sunny. She stopped briefly and stroked her chin while she pictured herself sitting by a pool with a tall, fruity drink and a tanned, shirtless hunk.
She had time to kill. She was curious. She turned to follow Calvin.
Aside from the limp, Calvin was easy to spot. He was tall—six feet two inches so he stuck out in the crowd. He also attracted attention. He had a large, square scar that stretched from the left corner of his right eye down to the right corner of his lip and then across his face toward his ear about three inches.
The scar was there courtesy of a Roman Candle and nearly every time she looked at her brother’s scarred face she thought to herself: Who in their right mind jumps on a firecracker?
She’d been holding the Roman Candle with her friend Joanie at the annual neighborhood Fourth of July softball game. She’d just lit the fuse, when a foul ball flew over the backstop and hit her square on the top of the head. She fell to the ground along with the lit firecracker. Joanie ran. Calvin, who happened to see the incident, jumped from the bleachers and onto firecracker, apparently to shield it with his body. Mr. Crowell, the school principal thought fast enough to grab Calvin by the back of the shirt, pick up the firecracker and toss it away. By then, though, Calvin’s collar was in flames. When Barb came to, the fire was out. A crowd had gathered, an ambulance was on the way and fire had burned a good portion of Calvin’s face and neck.
The scar faded over the years, and once you got to know him you hardly noticed it. But it was still prominent enough to provoke a reaction among some strangers.
“Oh man, did you see that guys face?” a lanky teenager in baggy pants said to his friend as they strutted down the sidewalk in the other direction. He looked back, covered his mouth and laughed.
“That guy’s messed up,” the other teenager said and joined in the laughter.
Yup, she was going the right way.
Because of his limp, Calvin moved relatively slowly. Barb caught up with him in front of small cafe with outdoor seating. She scooted behind a barrier to be sure she wasn’t seen when he stopped abruptly to pet a dog tied to a metal bike rack. She stayed there, well hidden until she noticed that the tables and chairs at the outdoor cafe looked rather inviting. She thought, “why not?” She crouched down to avoid detection and snuck to an empty table 40 feet from where Calvin was bent over the dog.
The dog was a white, spotted lab-something mix. It’s whole body wriggled and its tail spun in a circle when Calvin scratched it behind the ears. The whole thing repulsed Barb. She’d hated dogs— too needy. The only thing they were good for was a swift kick to the ribs, she thought as she absently rubbed the indentation on her arm where the beagle’s teeth landed so many years earlier. Sam the beagle followed her everywhere until, tired of it’s unyielding attention, she tried to kick it away. The dog didn’t appreciate rejection. It jumped at her and bit her on the arm. In one fell swoop, that dog proved what she’d always suspected—dogs suck.
It was just like Calvin not to learn his lesson. After all, when he pushed Sam the beagle off Barb, the dog bit him too. Calvin’s skin was just barely broken, but he had to get rabies shots right beside her. Actually, she remembered, the whole shot thing ended pretty quickly for him. He was allergic and went into severe anaphylactic shock after the first round.
“The after effects of the rabies shots caused Calvin’s anxiety issues,” her mom said to anyone who would listen. “The doctors told me so.”
Barb groaned as her brother fondled the dog.
For all the years she lived in the city, Barb had never really spent time in this neighborhood. As she settled in at the table, she realized she was enjoying herself. The sidewalk was busy and she liked watching the people go by. She ordered an espresso.
She’d need a sundress for Scottsdale, she thought. She started browsing her phone for resort wear. She got so engrossed that she missed Calvin limp into the small, independent bookstore next door to the cafe.
She just happened to look up from her phone when Calvin reappeared and stopped on the sidewalk a little further away. It looked like he was carrying something like a bucket. He had piece of cardboard. She picked up her coffee and switched to a closer table that was partly shielded from the sidewalk by a large fiddle leaf fig to get a better look. Peering around the plant, Barb watched her brother thread through the crowd, put the bucket at his feet, turn the cardboard sheet around at chest level. He held up a sign that read: “Please help. Anything is appreciated,” in careful block handwriting.
“Oh God,” she said loud. She crinkled her upper lip.
A man in a neat suit and tie who was walking by leaned down and dropped a bill in the bucket. Calvin nodded and thanked him.
When the waiter brought Barb the check she asked him: “Hey, have you ever seen that guy before?” and nodded her chin toward her brother.
“Calvin, oh yeah he’s here nearly everyday,” said the waiter. “Nice guy, too bad about his face.”
After paying the check, she began to plot a way to leave undetected. She was packing up her purse when a blonde girl about seven caught her eye. The girl had a sweet face, white patent leather shoes and a springy pink dress. She stopped directly in front of Barb. The girl turned to her mother with her hand outstretched. Her mother handed her a dollar bill and the girl ran excitedly across the sidewalk to drop it in Calvin’s bucket. She was running too fast, slid on the pavement, fell and skinned her knee just inches from Calvin. Even before her mother could reach her, Calvin lifted the girl off the sidewalk, he kneeled in front of her and began rinsing her knee with water from a water bottle and dabbing it gently with a paper towel from a roll he had nearby.
Barb became very still watching Calvin and the little girl. She stretched across the table to try to get closer to hear what her brother said to this stranger.
“You’re going to be all right,” He said. “Just a little bad luck.”
Barb exhaled. She hadn’t known she was holding her breath.
The girl’s mother prodded her daughter. “What do you say to the nice man?”
“Thank you,” the girl said. She stopped, frowned and briefly covered her eyes with the back of her hands. She looked up to her mom and back to Calvin. Then she opened her mouth and vomited. Some of the vomit landed on the sidewalk, but Calvin was still on one knee in front of her. He took the brunt of it. His shirt was covered in the little girl’s puke.
“Oh God,” said the mother. “I’m so sorry.”
Calvin’s face turned stony, his eyes grayed and narrowed. He knitted his eyebrows together.
“There is no way this is your fault,” he said. “There’s another force at work here, I can feel it.”
He stood, balled up his fists and turned in Barb’s direction. He scanned the milling crowd carefully, searching from face-to-face as if seeking out the responsible party. Barb ducked under the table and stayed there unseen until he gave up and limped toward the bookstore to clean up.
Barb left town as planned without ever telling anyone she won the money. Unfortunately, the weather turned in Scottsdale and the temperature was averaging 110 degrees when she arrived. On her second day there, as she was nursing a dirty martini in a small bar near her hotel, a handsome, tanned man—exactly the kind of man she’d dreamed of— sat down on the barstool next to her. He ordered a gin and tonic, turned to her and extended his hand. Raymond Johnson,” he said in an Australian accent. “But people call me Ray.”
She wanted to tell him her name, but she couldn’t answer. She was choking on an olive. He performed the Heimlich Maneuver. She spit the olive out on the floor. He broke an ankle when he slipped on it. She never saw him again.
Calvin went back to work one month later. He and his wife had a healthy seven-pound baby girl. Barb anonymously paid the past due amount on their house knowing Calvin wouldn’t take the money if it came from her. He is convinced his luck changed when she moved away.