In today’s featured fiction, we present an excerpt from chapter three of Ann Beattie’s new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, out today from Viking. Kirkus praised the book, calling it an “elegantly sculpted tale that is both wrenchingly sad and ultimately enigmatic.”
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
A car pulled in and a woman hopped out, unscrewed the gas cap, and began pushing buttons before inserting her credit card. Someone else came out of the store, eating a candy bar. There were people around them. Lee wasn’t an eagle whose talons were going to lift them from the planet. A man had gotten out of the passenger seat and was hitching up his pants while walking toward the store.
Why did Ben feel like these people, this place, might be the last things he’d ever see? Lee had turned his back and walked off. He was lifting the hose. He didn’t seem dangerous. He seemed to be having some sort of discussion with himself—anybody who went to Bailey became hypersensitized to that conversational mode. All along, it had seemed like he’d been preoccupied with something else while talking to them.
“Joke’s on us,” Lee said, hanging up the hose. “All of us going to some sad café in Hicksville, me hoping to get laid, just like you wanted to fuck my buddy, LouLou. Wish me luck with that, huh? Ben— I think your girlfriend wishes I’d drive away and disappear.”
“You have a good night,” Ben said. “Sorry about the mix-up.”
“Benny! You’re too much! You pay for gas and now you’re going to insist on getting me a package of cigs, too, aren’t you?”
“Fuck you,” LouLou said. “Don’t do it, Ben.”
He stood there thinking. Then he walked into the store and bought Marlboros, hoping the woman behind the counter wouldn’t ask to see his ID. She didn’t. She was polite. She gave him matches. He looked at her pudgy fingers grasping the cigarette pack and the matchbook, her hovering index finger’s pink painted nail the cherry on top of the treat. She was missing a tooth.
Back at the car, he handed the package to Lee, though he’d pocketed the matches. He had no plan for them, but they seemed like a good thing to keep. Boy Scouts knew how to rub sticks together to make a fire, but he had no such skills. He also didn’t think that they’d be camping in the woods. With a pretty girl, it would be easier to get someone to pick them up.
“Much obliged,” Lee said, pushing the cigarette package into his shirt pocket. “Lots of loonies out there on the interstate. Best to take back roads.”
The man who’d gone into the store earlier now came out, hopped into the passenger seat, and the car drove away, its exhaust fumes so dark the rising cloud turned almost green as it hung in the air. Lee got in the car. The door slammed shut. Music played loudly as the ignition turned over: Prince. Lee put the wagon in gear and drove past, without a look in their direction.
Gone—back on the road. The taillights quickly disappeared. For a wavery second, Ben remembered his mother running, trying to track the disappearance of a shooting star. But maybe he really only remembered his mother on the ground, hurt.
“We have to hitch,” he said. It had begun to get dark. She was looking down. He thought about extending his hand, but didn’t. Something bad had happened between them. He didn’t know what. He supposed he’d now become a coward in her eyes.
“We’re not riding with some stranger,” she said. “I’m calling Binnie.”
“What?” Binnie popped into his mind as a character in a Dickens novel. She was in her apron, leaving the Sunday social, carrying a pile of half-eaten food on a tray. The thought of food made his stomach clench.
“I’ll pay her to pick us up.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, as Binnie settled back into reality.
LouLou turned away—she had Phillip Collins’s phone! She’d borrowed Collins’s phone with the skull decal! He could hear her talking quietly as she walked farther away. She was calling the caterer’s daughter? How would she even have number? He stared at her dark mane of hair, glossy and He walked up behind her and lightly wrapped his hands around a clump of it. She spun around, frightened. He was going to pull her hair out of her head, was that it? He was that angry? Because she’d told him not to be manipulated by Lee? He could hear a high-pitched voice on the other end of the phone that was recognizably Binnie’s. “LouLou, tell me where you’re at!”
LouLou raised and grasped his, still wrapped around her hair.
“Give me the phone,” he said, surprised to see tears rolling down her cheeks. “I can explain better than you.”
From A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Ann Beattie.