Charlie considered himself the unlucky one. Similarly his family tended to see itself as an unfortunate lot. Charlie was certainly the most miserable of them all, the perfect example of what misfortune really meant. There were stories all over the place about Charlie missing it always by an inch or so, his very name being associated with lost opportunities, dreams unfulfilled and ultimate defeat for each and all of his trials at happiness. At age ten, he had suffered a bout of rheumatismal fever and, while it was common knowledge at the time that the nasty inconvenience should not leave sequels, he did find himself, after four months of bed confinement and discomfort, with a heart murmur. So much to listen to the doctor's dicktats, him surviving the experience with a conviction that he would not live long. Which at the time of this writing was yet to be proven.
That started it all. Poor Charlie, his mother would call him. Poor, poor Charlie, his grandmother would add which had a soft heart and used to cry herself to sleep every night, for one reason or another, mostly because of that notion of her that life had not treated her properly, his grandfather having deserted her for some Australian dancing girl younger than his aunt Susan. Susan, who lived next door at 5543 Riverview, a sucker's name if there was any since the view was all on Al's garage and the dreary cars that he insisted he kept for his dead beat clientele, and Clara, her mother and his grandmother who alternates from her place to theirs at the turn of every six months period. Charlie used to find it a nice arrangement, being the last to realise that too much attention on him by women calling him poor Charlie and poor poor Charlie was no way to build a strong character. Instead, he kind of enjoyed the fact that he was good at one thing, that is being miserable and the unluckiest of them all. It had the advantage of putting him into a lot of stories and anecdotes with his sorry predicament as center stage. So it became his way to shine and with time, he became adept to contribute to the legend by improvising real life episodes with a sad ending, the sadder the better. In the end, it turned out that he could not tolerate anyone within earshot with claims of being more bad lucky than he pretended himself to be. This, when some wretched fellow, with not enough good sense to choose the right auditory, would make for very strange dialogues, two people fighting each other over which terrible disease was the worst to be have. Poor Charlie always argued his way to triumph, leaving his very sick opponent with just one option,retreat, go home and die alone and unrecognised.
He met Arthur on a rainy afternoon not long after Valentine Day. Arthur was a lawyer. His ad boasted of how lucky you would be if you choosed him. He was a divorce lawyer. Charlie's wife had not appreciated her Valentine daygift. It was the wrong kind of chocolate and now, he was on the street. He badly needed a lawyer.
In Arthur's office, there were all the niceties that would serve to impress a client down on his luck. Well hardbound serious looking books and an impressive number of pictures on the walls showing Arthur with unknown celebrities. Plus the expected diplomas and certification of membership in the Florida Bar and its St-Pete affiliation. When he first saw Charlie, Arthur took a look at the summons that he had been served with and said:
- Don't you worry a bit. We will fix this in no time.
As Charlie was saying nothing, was asking nothing, Arthur pointed at all the knowledge that surrounded him and added:
- I will throw everything at her.
That brag just met silence. Still his lawyer persisted:
- I will give Sharon, it was his wife name, the ride of her life. She will realise that she should not have mess with you.
Charlie kind of liked that, made himself as comfortable as he could on the soft cushions of the sofa he had been made to sit upon and prepared himself for the worst.
Later, having survived the experience that left him free and completely broke, -his solicitor had been true to his word. He really had thrown to Sharon all his assets - he would remember Arthur for just one thing. He would recollect the slick lawyer for the incredible tale the man had part with him at the courthouse after the hearing and while both were waiting for the axe to fall. It had all to do with fate, Arthur's story being the perfect example of life hazards.
- It was in the summer of 1970. For three months, I had studied to pass the bar exam. Six subjects. Six written examinations over a three days period, one exam in the morning, one in the afternoon. This was the last week-end before the ordeal. Me and my wife, we went to a fine restaurant that Saturday night. I was feeling great. I had promised myself not to open one book that Sunday. I knew it all. I was ready. Nothing I could do at the last minute would change anything except fuel my anxiety. But I was not nervous. I can't believe how cool I was that weekend. Whatever.
So I did resist up to 5 that Sunday afternoon. At that time the devil had the better of me and I did what I thought I had convince myself not to do: proving myself that all would go right tomorrow with the examination on contracts. There was this book that contained hundreds and hundreds of questions of past exams that us students used to prepare ourselves. I decided to open the book anywhere and to let my index finger land wherever God decides it should and to answer the question thus designated. I had done that hundreds of times before. In fact, I had answered them all. I could not fail that test as I sensed, against all reason, that I needed to do it one ultimate time, so that I would know for surethat, come tomorrow, all would go as it should.
That book was 500 pages thick. I opened it. My eyes were closed. I put my finger someplace, can't remember if it was right of left and there it was, question # 363, 5 lines long. I read it fast, hoping for an easy answer. I re-read it. Once. Twice. Still, nothing was coming. No familiarity with the subject. My mind was a complete blank. Suddenly, I wasn't feeling that well. There was a chill on my back, some traces of perspiration on my forehead. Suppose that the very same question should have found its way into tomorrow's exam. The first that you glanced upon, expecting, from the start, some reassuring familiarity with the expected answer. Instead, what you look at is some word gibberish, a text that could have been written in Sanskrit for all the sense it made at the time. Five questions. Twenty points assigned to each. And now this! It isnot even the beginning of the show and yet, you started at 80. But all was not lost. I thought "You can still make it, can't you? They give you 24 minutes for each question. Time to get to work."
So I look in the statute on contracts. 400 pages long and 1131 articles. The answer is there somewhere. I will find it easy. Like I did hundreds of times, didn't I? But 15 minutes passes. Then, half an hour and nothing happens. I know now that I should leave that question and do the four others. But I cannot stop myself. I feel miserable. All the comfort I sought from a fast resolution has transformed itself into a sense of irresistible doom. When Helene, my wife finds me into that state, she screams: "Are you sick? You look like a ghost!" At that point, I am ready to cry. There is nothing left in me except despair and full capitulation is achieved when I resign myself into looking for resolution of question #363. The banality of it hit me like a punch in the stomach. It is article #755 and the reason I overlooked it is that the damn thing starts at the bottom of page 289 and continues up on page 290. Easy to miss. Which obviously, I did. Suddenly, the Bar Exam doesn't look like fun anymore. That night, I went to bed, hating myself for what I had done. I was beaten without having fired a single shot.
My mood had not changed much in the morning even if Helene did as much as she could to put some iron into me. So I took the car and managed to get to the hall where I joined other would be lawyers waiting to get their ability tested. I received my envelope and found myself a table where I sat. I opened the envelope, got the test out, and forced myself not to look at it before having put he issued pen and paper properly in front of me. In the right angle. Like if this ritual meant anything. Then, I took a peek. Never in my life had I been more afraid of anything like I was that morning. My heart was beating so fast that I could have run all the way from home to get there.
And now, guess what?
The first of the five questions, as I was incredulously reading it, was question 363, the same that had given me so much trouble at home the day before. This had to be a sign of Heaven. This was a miracle. Pure, real, authentic, genuine, unadulterated good fortune. The luck essential. The ultimate definition of it and no less. No way to have a better example of the phenomena on this earth. Better than winning one million at the lottery because this was a life-defining moment, something that did contributed to make me what I became."
At that time, Charlie's case was called and they both went into the audience room.
Much later, they met again, him and his lawyer. They were in a bar in downtown Tampa. On a 50-inch TV, a grinning Vikram Pandit was telling his ruined audience that all was well at City, even if one could buy shares in his firm for 49 cents, which was the price of the most recent transaction on Citygroup as shown on the pull down menu parading below the happy CEO. Now, Arthur was yelling at him.
- Lehman Brothers went broke. What do you say?
Charlie answered nothing.
- Can you believe this? Shares of C for less than the price of one passage on the Pinellas Bay way bridge.
Arthur had a house just on the beach at Pass-A-Grille. Mortgaged to the hilt. Charlie remained his usual silent.
Then, Arthur asked again:
- Do you own shares in banks?
Arthur was not his normal self. He looked defeated, had a distract look on his otherwise placid face. Charlie said no, he did not.
- How fortunate you are.
The barrister gulped the last of his drink, and then put the glass back on the counter, with a bang.
- God, he added, this thing is killing me.
On that, they parted.
Still there was on Charlie's lips the semblance of a smile, invisible to all and himself. At that instant, he formed a thought that stayed in his mind the time it takes an eye to blink:
So, maybe he was lucky after all.