CL Writing Contest 2016 Readers' Pick: "Lucky Stars"

Craig Anderson's tale was the one our readers loved the most.

In my elastic-banded blue shorts and red and white striped polo, I am a vision of polyester patriotism. While I find this uniform to be awkward and itchy, it somehow works on Jennifer. She is a few feet away, flitting back and forth from the front of our little stall to the back, scooping up errant darts from the ground. Her uniform clings to the curves of her slender form as though it were sewn directly onto her body, and her blond hair is pulled back into a ponytail with a red rubber band. 

“Frankie,” she says. As she speaks she moves to the back wall, a whitewashed corkboard backdrop covered with a field of painted green stars, for which the game has been named. She transfers the darts she has collected into her left hand and uses her right to pull three more from the board.

“It is Frankie, right?”

“Actually, it’s Franklin.” 

Actually, it’s neither. Going by my middle name this summer is one of my reinvention strategies. I’m just two weeks out of high school, but already desperate for distance.

“Listen Frankie,” she says. “I like to take advantage of these little lulls between players to gather darts. You only need two things to be successful in this game — you gotta be fast, and you gotta be fearless.”

“Fearless?” My voice sounds slightly deeper than usual. 

“Fearless,” she repeats. “This ain’t the bean bag toss.” 

Lucky Stars holds the enviable center position in a row of a dozen games along a stretch of the midway near the front of the park. Together, these games form the coastline of a sea of colorful cacophony. Before us, cotton candy stands, animal-shaped topiary, and vendors hawking blinking souvenir cups and oversized sunglasses lie in the shadow of the towering wood and steel coasters that are the park’s claim to fame. Hidden speakers play a medley of summer pop songs that have been sanitized for public consumption. The Beach Boys will haunt my dreams for weeks, Jennifer warns me. Every summer the crowds come, following the thrilling call of the coasters. I, having come from a place where everyone knows me, did not come for thrills, but for camouflage.

A bearded man in a Hawaiian shirt approaches the front of the stall, holding hands with a little girl in a yellow sundress. He lays a dollar bill on the counter as the girl gazes up at the array of green plush animals that line the walls and ceiling: giant turtles made to resemble a certain band of cartoon crime fighters, with just enough differences to avoid trademark issues. Jennifer springs to the counter, her ponytail hovering in the air behind her. She swipes the bill from the counter and slaps a dart down in its place.

“There you go, sweetie! Shoot for the stars!” There is a Southern twang in her voice that I hadn’t noticed a moment ago. She turns toward me.

“Don’t worry, Frankie, the first day is always the hardest. This your first gig away from home?”

I nod, wondering if she can somehow smell the small town on me.

“Well, you’re gonna do just fine. I’m the top performer in the park, and they’d never start you out with me unless they see something special in you.” 

She says this without a hint of conceit. “Trust me,” she continues, “If they didn’t like you, you’d be spending your first week polishing the whack-a-moles.”

“Thanks,” I say. 

“For today,” she says, “Just stand off to the side and take it all in.”

The man at the counter throws his dart, which misses the back wall and lodges in the foot of a stuffed turtle. Jennifer is standing at the counter in front of him before he even realizes that he has missed. 

“Try again, sweetie!” she exclaims, slapping another dart onto the counter. He pulls another bill from his pocket, and hands the dart to the little girl.

“Maybe you’ll do better than Daddy,” he says. This seems unlikely, as the girl can barely see over the counter. Meanwhile, Jennifer is retrieving the first dart from the turtle in the back corner of the booth. The little girl bites her bottom lip and flings her arm forward. Her dart arcs downward, and the man gasps. Jennifer doesn’t realize that the dart is sticking out of her left calf until she turns and sees the look on the man’s face. She quickly reaches down and plucks it from her leg.

“Hazard of the job!” she yells with a forced grin. “Give it one more shot!” The man is already leading his daughter away, mumbling an apology.

“Are you okay?” I try not to stare at the blood trickling onto her white sneaker.

“I’m fine, honey,” she says.

“That happen a lot?”

“Not a lot,” she answers. “But it happens. The way I see it, the best thing you can do is just accept that at some point you’re probably going to get stuck, so there’s no sense in worrying about it. Otherwise, you’re going to spend all day holding your breath and dodging darts. You know what I mean?”

I nod. I know all about dodging. Last September in government class I came out of the closet during our Monday morning current events discussion. I never actually spelled out that I was gay, but I said enough to complete the bullseye that, thanks to my dedication to the drama club, was already forming on my back. From insults flung in the hallway, to crumpled milk cartons tossed in the cafeteria, my senior year was full of projectiles.

Jennifer explains that the customers tend to come in waves. Over the next hour, the midway crowd swells and more people start to find their way to the Lucky Stars game. My co-worker’s energy seems to build with the crowd. She becomes a blond blur, darting from collecting dollar bills at the front counter to collecting darts from the back wall. I notice that our customers are almost exclusively young men, and that they seem less motivated by the stuffed turtles than by an unspoken need to prove that they can hit one of the stars. And none of them seem to be able to say no to the smiling Southern belle when she asks them to “Try again!” Except she never really asks, she demands.

Late in the morning, a young man in a white tank top steps up to the counter. He is clean-shaven with a military-style buzz cut and a faint smattering of freckles across his cheeks. He smiles as he hands Jennifer a dollar, and his teeth are impossibly white. He grips a dart with his right hand, while his left arm hangs over the shoulders of a round-faced girl with curly brown hair. She shows no interest in the game, or in him for that matter. She chomps her gum and stares over her shoulder toward the midway. If it was me there under the weight of his arm, I wouldn’t be so easily distracted. There, pressed against the thin fabric of his t-shirt, I would be too busy watching the muscles of his arm contract when he pulls it back; too busy listening to his pulse quicken as he throws. As the dart flies forward I would look up at him and see the field of emerald stars reflected in his hazel eyes.

“So close! Try again, sweetie!”

I notice Jennifer smiling at me from across the stall and realize that I am staring. The man’s girlfriend glances at me, then grabs a handful of his shirt and leads him across the midway. Jennifer flits over to me.

“Don’t worry, Frankie,” she says. “You’re gonna meet a lot of nice boys here.”

“Oh I wasn’t…” But she is already gone, pulling darts from the back wall. Halfway down the counter, Hawaiian Shirt Man is back, with his dangerous-armed daughter in tow.

“I promised my little girl I’d take one more shot at winning one of these turtles,” he explains. The little girl holds a cone of rainbow-colored cotton candy, and has shoved so much of it into her mouth that I worry her cheeks may explode at any second. Her father lays a dollar bill on the counter. When I reach for it, he looks me in the eye and gives me a crooked smile. He leaves his hand on the bill so that our fingers overlap for a second when I pick it up. I don’t have the confidence yet to make sense of this gesture. I am still too used to dodging. Later in the summer, though, when I am keeping pace with Jennifer and have blood on my own sneakers, I will remember this brief interaction and laugh. For now, the best I can do is slap a dart down on the counter and force a smile.

“Shoot for the stars!” I exclaim.

click to enlarge Craig Anderson reads "Lucky Stars" at the 2016 Writing Contest awards event in CL Space on Mar. 16. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Craig Anderson reads "Lucky Stars" at the 2016 Writing Contest awards event in CL Space on Mar. 16.

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