10-year-old Mac didn’t believe in good luck. If such a thing existed, then why was everyone living in his neighborhood so damn unlucky? His own pa suffered a lifetime of misfortunes, the first being Mac’s birth, all of which were blamed on bad luck, or as he called it, “just my luck.”
“I mighta been a country singer, but then you came along, just my luck.”
“Christ-Almighty, I’m three numbers short of da big ‘un, just my luck.”
“The one day I skipped out on work, and they served up a hot breakfast of biscuits ‘n’ gravy, ah, just my luck.”
It was on Mac’s third name day that he learned the hereditary nature of just my luck. To celebrate the big day, his ma had organized a little get together—too modest and too small to be called a party—inviting his cousins, of which only one attended, and all the neighborhood kids, of which none attended. His pa was in charge of bringing the cake home, but after work, he ended up at Mickey’s—a well-known breeding ground for misplaced souls suffering from a bad case of just my luck—instead. He arrived six hours late, penniless and cake-less.
“Sorry, me boy, got to talking to da gang down at da shop. Just my luck, one of the fellas was in need of sum compensating. His dear mother’s got the cancer. Oh well, maybe a cake next year, eh? Don’t be cryin’ on me now, ya hear?”
Mac didn’t get a cake the following year either. His parents were too busy with his month-old little sister, fresh from the hospital after being born prematurely. All Mac got was a lousy card and some socks. The matching underwear came a few months later at Christmas.
When, at the age of six, Mac was held back in the 1st grade, he figured it was just his luck. He had the same thought the Christmas of his eighth year when, instead of getting that army action figure he’d been bugging his ma for, he got his standard underwear and a size-too-big-for-me sweater instead.
“It’s too big,” he complained after trying it on and finding the sleeves hanging a good inch past his hands.
“You’ll just have to grow into it,” said his pa.
“It’d be just my luck that I don’t,” mumbled Mac who was so skinny he could hide behind a rake and was the smallest boy in his class, despite being a year older, two years running.
“Ya need to put some more meat on ya bones, son,” pointed out his pa. “When I was ya age, I didn’t leave a crumb on the table, not even for da mice.”
That was the problem. There was never enough food, let alone crumbs, to go around. Mac was lucky to get seconds most nights and could only eat so much potato-onion soup before his stomach filled up on the simple notion of no longer craving the same thing.
It only fared slightly better whenever he ate over at Gary’s house. At least there, he got some protein, soggy boiled hotdogs and the occasional liver and onions. Gary never came over to eat at Mac’s house, complaining he got enough potatoes at home.
Gary was Mac’s best friend by default, mostly because of a shared commonality—they were both held back from the 1st grade, with Gary having the distinction of being held back twice. Mac’s pa even went to school with Gary’s. They were in the same grade, both taking the fifth grade twice.
“Ya know what Gary’s old man is good for, Mac, me boy?” His pa liked to say after a few beers after dinner. “Standin’ in traffic, dat’s what.”
Mac and Gary walked home from school nearly every single day, kicking stones, sharing secrets, and filling each other’s head with the nonsense poor boys coming from nothing schemed up. “You know what I hate most about the Flats?” asked Gary, the gap between his teeth causing a spray of spit to fly from his mouth.
“Ain’t nobody better off than nobody else, yet they’re always treating each other like one’s better than the other. We’re all poor, why squabble over who’s poorer?”
“Well, Mr. Felix, the banker, he ain’t poor.”
“Yeah, and he don’t live in the Flats either, just works there. Even poor people got to have a bank to cash their monthly checks.”
“Yeah, I s’pose.”
“The only person who has close to any amount of money around here is old man George. And he’s the most miserable bastard the world’s ever seen.”
“If he has all that money, why’s he so unhappy?”
“Heck if I know. If I know’d the answer to dat, I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you about it. I’d be sharing my secret with all the bums at Mickey’s, chargin’ ‘em a dollar each to hear it. Then I’d buy me some tater chips and one of ‘em big candy bars. The ones dat are twice the size and twice the price.”
“Well, speaking of a dollar, I have one.”
“No you don’t.”
“Let me see it then.”
Mac reached into his pocket and pulled free a crumpled dollar bill. If it wasn’t green, it could’ve been mistaken for a piece of trash.
“How’d you manage that?”
“I found it.”
“Ya don’t say. Where?”
“Found it lying in the ditch, next to the pawn shop. The one old man George owns.”
“Who in the Flats has the sense to lose a dolla?”
“Yeah, prob’ly. I’d sure like to shake his hand, see if maybe his fortune would rub off on me. Dat way, I could afford to lose a whole dolla. Imagine the good luck I’d have then.”
“Mr. Felix says people make their own luck.”
“Mr. Felix wouldn’t know a pile of shit if he stepped in it. Come on, let’s go poke around Mickey’s and see if anybody’s willing ta throw us a quarter for a game of pool. I bet ya one of the drunks be willing to part with a quarter.”
They moved like children with nowhere to go except everywhere, their steps fast, at a near sprint, the fine line between walking and running. They were about to turn a corner when something made Mac stop.
“Wait a minute, Gary. You hear dat?”
“Just shuddup and listen, will ya?”
They both stopped and listened, statues against the bricks. At first, there was nothing, just the whistle of traffic, the occasional breeze, the shuffle of feet, and then it came again, no louder than a whisper from the neighboring dumpster, a high-pitched meow, followed by another.
“Sounds like a couple of kittens,” said Mac. “Help me find ‘em.”
They dug through the trash in the dumpster, each unearthing an orange kitten. They were tiny and cute, a moving fire in their hands.
“I think I’m gonna keep him,” said Mac. “I’ve always wanted a pet.”
“I think I’m gonna toss mine back,” said Gary, scrunching his nose. “It smells like the bottom of my shoe.”
“Don’t toss it back. Give it to me.”
Gary did as instructed. Mac stood with two fires in his hand, holding them up to eye level, inspecting them like they were each a nugget of gold.
“What ya gonna do with two kittens?”
“Keep ‘em, I guess.”
“Your folks barely got enough food to feed you, let alone two kittens.”
“All they need is milk. I can give ‘em mine from my morning cereal and eat my Cheerios plain.”
“Suit yourself. I, for one, ain’t giving up my milk in my cereal for two kittens picked out of the trash. Fool on you. Come on, let’s get to Mickey’s. I want to play some pool.”
“I can’t now. I got to take ‘em home and take care of ‘em.”
“And I thought I was the stupid one,” said Gary, shaking his head and heading in the direction of Mickey’s. Mac turned around and came back the way he went, two kittens rested in the folded bottom of his shirt.
“Good luck explaining dat to your pa,” his mother said as he entered the door. She gave the kittens a quick look over, their cuteness finding a soft spot in her heart. “Let me get ‘em a dish of milk. Don’t expect me to be takin’ care of ‘em, Macready. They’re your responsibility, ya hear?”
Mac nodded with a satisfied smile. His pa came home late that night, stinking of Mickey’s. Mac was lying on the couch, both kittens sleeping on his chest, unmoving like two tangerines soaking in the sun.
“What in the Sam hell is dis?” his pa called.
“It’s my kittens.”
“Where in da hell did you find ‘em?”
“On the street,” said Mac, figuring the dumpster was too much information.
“Well, dat’s where you need to be returnin’ ‘em. Ain’t no cat, let alone two of ‘em, livin’ under my roof.”
“Ain’t no but about it. I pay the bills around here, not you.”
“Now, Walter,” his mother said from the kitchen. Her demeanor was as straight and pressed as her apron. Her lips tight. “Last I checked, I paid half the bills here. If you can afford compensation every night at Mickey’s, Mac can afford to take care of two kittens.”
His pa’s mouth worked back and forth like he was chewing. “Fine,” he barked. “But ya keep ‘em in your room or outside. Not in the goddamn house, ya hear?”
Mac kept the kittens in his room until they were big enough to venture outside. As they grew, they were in constant motion, always playing, and itching to get outside and explore. It took a while for Mac to settle on a name for them. At first, he just called them Orangie and Tiger, but then settled on Fred and Ted. One because of its resemblance to Fred Flintstone’s orange shirt and the other because Mac needed a Ted to replace the Teddy bear he had given his little sister.
No two cats were more different. Fred was lazy, easy going, always walking in slow steps wherever he went, not a care in the world. He enjoyed company and attention and would often cuddle with Mac on the bed or sit on his lap, preferring naps in the open, where everyone could see him. Ted was more anti-social, always hiding in spots—like the top of the cupboards or underneath the bed—where no one could find him. He was always in a hurry, wherever he was going, running in fast, manic steps from one corner of the house to the next.
As soon as they were big enough and allowed the freedom of outside, they hardly ever remained inside, except for rainy days or cold nights. They came from the wild, and that’s where they liked to return.
“Looks like ole Freddy got himself another mouse,” his pa said with a big, proud smile. “I knew ‘em cats would serve a purpose.”
“That’s Ted,” corrected Mac. “He’s the hunter. Fred’s too lazy to do anything but sleep.”
“How’s I s’pose to know the difference? They both look the same. Not like we have one orange pussy and one nigger-colored one.”
“Don’t say that word pa?”
“Which one, pussy?”’
“No, the other. The N-word.”
“Why the hell not? It’s my own damn home. I can say what I want.”
“They say it’s a bad word.”
“Who, in da Sam, hell is they?”
“My teachers at school.”
“Gee-sus Christ. All that school does is fill ya head with bull-sheet. If I was you, I wouldn’t believe half of what they tell ya. The best thing I ever did was get outta there after da the 8th grade. At least my job pays me to be there.”
His pa put an exclamation on his point by taking a big gulp of his beer. Mac didn’t press the matter. He went outside to play, instead.
Often times, Fred and Ted accompanied Mac while he played in the small plot of grass and weeds that acted as their front yard. Fred always stayed close to him, rubbing against his legs and purring loudly, while Ted watched them from a distance, sprawled out beneath the shade of a tree. If the two cats ever became humans and had the chance to take in a movie at the cinema, Mac speculated Fred would prefer a seat in the front, while Ted one in the back.
“Dem cats sure grew up quick, didn’t they?” Gary said. “I figured they’d only last a week or so.”
“My pa even takes to ‘em now on account of how many mice they catch. That’s mostly Ted’s doing.”
“Which one’s he again?”
“The one with more stripes on his tail and looks like he’s angry all the time.”
“Looks constipulated to me.”
“You mean constipated.”
“Yeah, dat’s what I said, ain’t it?”
They watched as Fred and Ted wrestled, with Fred getting the best of it, causing Ted to run off and seek shelter in a bush.
“Too bad they ain’t dogs. Dogs we can walk and play with and take on adventures. Cats are pretty boring.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Wanna go to the corner store?”
“Sure, but I ain’t got no money.”
“Me neither, but we can look around anyways.”
They went with empty stomachs and full hearts. Afterwards, they went to Mickey’s where two drunks gave them a quarter each to play pool. The bartender even gave them Cherry Cokes. Mac couldn’t believe his luck.
He was still riding a sugar high by the time he made it home. Ted was out near the curb, watching him approach.
“Hey there, Teddy,” called Mac. Ted meowed in response, arched his back, and looked ready for a rare show of affection. A car backfired, causing both Ted and Mac to jump. Mac turned to see a large pickup speed down their street. It was old man George’s, distinguishable by its cherry red paint. He was driving like he had a place to go, unmindful of the 25 mph speed limit. Ted was so spooked by the truck’s arrival that his first instinct was to run regardless of the direction, which ended up being the direction of the road, right into the path of the speeding pickup.
Mac heard the thump. The truck didn’t stop or flinch, but kept going. Mac ran to where Ted lay, hoping against hope. The cat was on its side, a pile of blood gathering around the soft spot that was its head.
“No—no—no,” cried Mac, the tears spilling down his face. “I told you not to play in the street, you stupid ole cat. Now you gone and done it.”
He stood over Ted, too scared to touch him. His tears filled the day, while the day failed to notice. He felt something brush against his leg and looked down to find Fred, who looked up at him and meowed. As Mac cried, Fred circled the still-life corpse of Ted, meowing softly and patting at Ted’s leg, hoping to get a reaction. When none happened, Fred sniffed Ted and peered up to Mac for help.
“He’s gone, Freddy,” Mac said. “He’s dead and gone.”
He didn’t have the heart to say it was just his luck.