Lucky Strike

Lucky Strike
by Nancy Zafris

Unbridled Books
352 pages, ISBN 1932961046
April 2005

Just as she did in her New York Times Notable debut novel, The Metal Shredders, Nancy Zafris follows a colorful cast of characters into uncharted fictional territory, this time landing in the canyon country of the desert Southwest in 1954.

For motivations as straightforward as striking it rich to reasons far more complex and confounding, they each embark on very personal divergent journeys across an unforgiving countryside, even while their quest to find uranium unites them.

By turns meditative and funny, frightening, witty and refreshingly wise, Lucky Strike explores the ways that language simply put can mine the inexpressible. In the process, a young widow and her two children learn much about uranium but even more about the nature of the love that binds them. This is a story to touch your heart.

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Read the first chapter.

Chapter One

The two children were up there on top of the rocks. Harry caught a glimpse of them but then had to turn away. The sun had decided without warning to knife a wayward beam right into his face. He almost ran off the road, if a road was what you wanted to call it.

He was driving an International Harvester truck loaded down with wares: detection instruments, portable compressors, bits, jack hammers, shovels, picks, a couple of wheelbarrows. He was constantly talking or singing to himself. Arriving at a mining camp after journeying hours alone, he never even had to clear his throat. He was always in mid-sentence, heading toward that motherlode noun and its precious adjectives. When he reentered a town, civilization as he liked to call it, he had to remind himself to clamp his jaw shut so he wouldn’t seem crazy. Probably too late. He had a feeling he had already built a reputation.

It was a boy and a girl up there. This much he could tell despite the sunlight bouncing off at crazy angles to blind him. Well okay, so that was it, they were using hand mirrors. He wondered if the children were doing it intentionally to bedevil him. He didn’t really care in a way. He wondered if his easily hushed temperament was there by nature or forged by his religious upbringing, and was it a good or bad thing? Maybe it had more to do with loneliness. Here were some people – children, of all things.

He was pushing through the road in first gear. Lord amighty, first gear, whoo, top speed. He put an imaginary wife in an imaginary house and there she was in the doorway wagging her finger at him -- don’t you bring me any more of your speeding tickets! His foot came off the clutch and he stalled out. He couldn’t tell you the last time that had happened. The Harvester jerked to a halt. He’d been meaning to stop anyway to check on those children.

He was thinking he also had in the truck a few bargain Geiger counters. The children’s mom and dad might be interested. Another family out for the afternoon to strike it rich, although they were way too far from town to be making a picnic of it. May was already ending and the heat was perilous. These Sunday dogstakers got themselves into dangerous pickles and couldn’t get out. This was not a department store with a down escalator you could take when the prices got too high. Actual risks were involved. Learning this lesson midway marked a lesson learned too late. Well, here he was, Harry Lindstrom. Here was Harry Lindstrom, here to save the day. He realized he was singing. Better stop.

The oddest thing happened. He got out of his truck and was standing there and the tire he was staring at decided to deflate on him. Just like the heck with this or some such thing that the tire was saying to him. The leak was not slow but it wasn’t fast either. The rubber coughed out its air with enough leisure to torment him.

He kept the jack and the tire iron behind the passenger seat. The spare tire (two spare tires) was in the back of the truck, loaded up last so it could be retrieved first. He undid his belt and took off his still-clean pants and folded them. He found his straw boater on the driver’s side floor. It had fallen against the brake pedal and looked to be hanging on a rack. He patted the boater atop his head. The sun was beating down.

He twirled off the bolts with the tire iron and tossed them in the hubcap’s dish. The bolts came off readily, relaxing into their true purpose. Their true purpose obviously was to get screwed off at regular, ever shorter intervals. Their true purpose was to make Harry Lindstrom’s life miserable. He was feeling sick at how good the ruined tire was. He could sink his finger full into the curvy treads. And now here were two children watching him. He’d forgotten all about there being children. The boy was older, but the girl looked stronger. All this he could tell without turning his head. He was still seeing them out of the corner of his eye.

"Did you see the nice treads this tire’s still got on it?" He addressed the children without turning around. No use getting them scared.

"I saw a big hole in it," the boy said.

"There’s no hole in this tire. It’s just the curse, that’s what it is."

"What’s the curse?"

"You like reading the Greek myths?" Harry asked him.

"That’s her line of work," the boy said, pointing toward the girl.

"Okay." Whatever he was going to say about Greek myths was gone anyway. "I’m not too happy right now," he said. "I hate to have you exposed to a bad influence with my temper showing."

Now he could confirm that the two children were brother and sister because they did one of those sibling glances – quick, furtive, genetically synchronized. He saw that, too, even though he hadn’t yet turned his head. That kind of glance had often passed between him and his real brother (but not the other ones). He’d have to tell the children about his x-ray back of the head vision. They might not think he was joking, though. Might get scared. Save for later.

The girl had stepped forward and was checking out the dusty windshield of his International Harvester. A long crack looped across the windshield, magically forking in half right where the driver needed to look out. The crack forked north and the crack forked south, leaving the driver’s equator undisturbed. The windshield had become the map of Utah to Harry, and sometimes his old toy soldiers from childhood went marching across the towns of his youth, shortening his ride by an hour or two as he got lost in their battles.

Harry picked up the tire iron and pointed out the windshield’s splintered trail. "That here is also the curse." His finger traced the crack to its lucky detour and drew a circle on the unblemished glass at the driver’s line of vision. "And this here’s clean living."

The children weren’t responding. Well, who would really. Would he respond to himself if he were acting this way? He moved to the back of the truck and pulled out one of his brand new spares. He rummaged for an old Prospectometer. New, $149.50. He was selling it for $69. Good deal. They might be interested. He ran across a rope instead. "Here’s a rope," he said.

"We could use that," the boy said.

"Fifty feet of fine hemp." He found another Geiger counter, a used Babbel-200. This was better than the Prospectometer, made more sense for a family. He pulled it out and held the mike attachment toward the boy’s head. "Ticktickticktick." He was trying to kid, but the boy didn’t react. "Maybe your dad could use this. Got a revolving shield. See that? Helps protect it. See. Three ranges of sensitivity." He held it out. "You want to hold it?"

"If you want me to."

Harry placed it in his hands. "It’s heavy, isn’t it?"

"Yes, it is heavy," the boy said, and Harry was briefly enchanted by the melody of a complete sentence. He liked this boy.

"A fallout comes by, you gotta get it covered.. Can you believe that? The thing it’s looking for’ll ruin it. With fallout it’ll read every hogback as radioactive. That flat tire, for instance. It’ll tick like it’s got uranium retreads."

The boy nodded. His hands were shaking a little bit, holding it, and that made Harry like him more for it.

"Think your dad could use it?"

The boy shook his head.

"Already got one?" Harry asked him.

"It’s just my mom."

"Just your mom and you?"

"And Beth."

"Who’s Beth?"

The boy pointed toward his sister.

"Of course. I meant you in the plural. You plural and your mom singular."

Your mom singular. That had a nice ring to it.

The boy just looked at him.

"Where are you from? I’m from Scipio. My name’s Harry, by the way. Harry Lindstrom." He reached out but he couldn’t shake the boy’s hands because the boy was holding the Geiger counter. He pantomimed a handshake and the boy gave him a half smile. From this little fellow, maybe that was enough. Maybe a half smile was a whole victory.

"I’m Charlie."

"Pleased to meet you, Charlie. Where you coming in from?"


"Dayton?" Harry repeated the word, mentally scanning the map of Utah, searching for a little spot named Dayton. Couldn’t find it, no matter how hard he looked. He knew the towns of Utah pretty well, was raised in one after the other in fact. Brothers and sisters scattered in seven different towns, all in Utah.

"Ohio," the boy said. He waited for Harry to click back in. "Dayton, Ohio."

"What?" The word what was echoing inside Harry’s head, which meant he must have screamed it. He had a sentence looping around and bothering him: I am Harry Lindstrom and I am in mid-sentence screaming what.

Now he saw that the children’s mother was standing on the road, if it could be called a road and not a bed of blown-up boulders bulldozed by the Atomic Energy Commission in secret government collusion with his wheel bolts, holding her daughter’s hand. Another tire gone, and him Mr. Sisyphus of the road crawling along in first gear and still the tire blows out, probably not fixable either but maybe it was, and no boots on the mother’s feet. Boots were like a good set of tires out here. The mother had on a party dress of all things, wilted in the heat and hanging on her like Tarzan’s loincloth, but a dress all the same, in other words something useless. No boots. That he couldn’t believe. She was dressed like she was poolside at the The Stagecoach Oasis motel. He had perhaps never seen anyone so remarkably reckless and naive and he was tempted to say stupid, though she looked nice, actually very nice, a singular mom. He didn’t want to say pretty because it might show on his face and she’d step back in caution, thinking he was a predator. He didn’t want her getting scared and then scaring her children. He was glad he hadn’t told them about his x-ray vision. Too much too soon. No boots. He couldn’t believe that.

"Look at this," he said, pointing to his flat tire. "Dayton Tire and Rubber."

"What about it?"

Well, he meant, see, kind of – funny...something. He shrugged. Did he just shrug helplessly? The mother was looking at him like he did. Bewildered man. Poor, wayfaring, bewildered stranger. Another song.

"Do you always do that?"

He was doing several things at the moment. Which one did she probably mean?

"Sing." One of the children had helped him out – the boy. Charlie.

"Got to keep myself company." He decided that this was about the best answer he could have given. He had thus presented himself to this mother in the manner of amiable gentleman who could enjoy a laugh on himself. He hoped she understood the gentleman part. A 100 percent absolute gentleman. That was not probably included in the answer. He would have to think of something else to say to let her know that. Men were rough out here. She might be worrying she was in harm’s way.

"You don’t have to fear me," he said. "I’m a gentleman."

Charlie’s sister started to snicker and he could see the brother turn with a foot prod to shush her. The girl hung her head and looked down at the dirt, silent, but with trembling shoulders. He was directing his remarks to the mother anyway, which he barely, just barely, prevented himself from telling the girl. Arguing with a little girl was not a good way to present yourself as the gentleman you claimed to be. The mother was looking at him without expression. But he was a salesman, a traveling salesman, who in his travels met all kinds of people, and he knew that lack of expression was in fact a very expressive expression.

"Maybe you would like something to drink," the mother said.

"I don’t drink."

Her shoulders drooped. "I mean water."

"Flavor Aid," Charlie said.

"Something. I think you need some water."

"Okay," Harry said. "Okay, that sounds good. Okay!" He was following the mother and when she turned to aim that no-expression look at him, he stopped with the okays. He was glad at least his last okay had sounded so friendly and enthusiastic. Okay! Come on, kids, let’s all go get some water! Translation: Don’t be scared, kids, it’s just me, Harry Lindstrom. He hoped they weren’t afraid of him. He wondered if they needed a Geiger counter. The Babbel-200 sold for $400 brand new but he was selling this one for half that and maybe for them he’d take it all the way down to $180.

"Put your pants on, please," the mother said.

"Good heavens," Harry muttered. He went back to the truck and found the pants folded nicely on the front seat. He was glad the tails of his shirt were so long, almost to his knees. He noticed his knees as he pulled on the pants. He saw two perfect blushes of red dirt. The tails of his shirt were starched stiff as pogo sticks and they were seamed in maroon. He was one of his toy soldiers, wounded, marching across the windshield. If he tucked in his shirt the maroon might seep through his pants, which were still very clean. Was it rude not to tuck in his shirt? He couldn’t tuck in a shirt in front of children. They were getting scared, he could see it. He wished he were a Navajo right now, he could just raise his hand and say, How. How was the universal language. He lifted up his hand and found a surprise. "My sleeves have been rolled up," he said.

"Let’s get you in the shade," the mother said.