Zeros for good luck
It was cold, but certainly not as cold as they’d already experienced. Together with others, the three of them stood at the plaza and shared in the unmistakable New Years’ Eve atmosphere.
“I love this! What about you, Kačenka?” David yelled over the rhythm exuding from large sound-speakers. She was wearing a Santa Clause hat and, laughing from ear to year, watched the adults above her. She’d never stayed up so late. This time it will be past midnight, even. The square was filled just enough to allow the Říha family a good view of the brightly lit stage. They were glad to be together again, to greet the New Year the right way – with a festive mood and a dose of optimism.
“Kačenka, do you see the numbers, how they’re changing there in the front?” asked Alice. “Yes. Is that what time it is?”
“That’s what time it is, and next to it, quickly changing, those are seconds, how many are left in the old year.”
“And how many seconds are in the whole year?”
Alice laughed: “You’ll have to ask daddy, he knows things like that.” Excited and with a red haze on his face from the surrounding light-show and the fresh winter air, David answered immediately: “A lot, Kačenka. A lot. Whole bag. Three hundred sixty-five times twenty-four and that whole thing times sixty and another sixty.”
“And how much is it together?” They were both laughing and dad Říha called out into the celebration around them.
“I don’t know, Kačenka. That, I don’t know. I don’t have enough fingers to count it.” Everyone was in a great mood. Also because David announced that the zeros belonging in the new year 2000 signaled good luck and a surge of exclusively good news. About three or four times that evening he’d declared that good fortune was decidedly on their side. His last exam was a testament, he said. Alice didn’t understand and so David clarified.
“You see, Alice, it is true I didn’t pass the second time. The only reason was the legislature questions. Questions like: ‘a patient shows their identity card confirming her membership among Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the card isn’t signed. Is the physician allowed to administer transfusion or not? Those are trick questions. Or, a patient who’d received pre-medication changes his mind and refuses treatment. Was his decision-making capacity affected, or does his right to determine treatment hold?’”
“But how is that good luck for us?”
“Now I know what to focus on. I was missing only a few points to pass – this is where I lost them. But the last two attempts belong in the last year. That’s the important part. It’s all gone in the past, and now only good things await us. You’ll see.” David made it seem as though he’d submitted an order and now he’s just waiting for the delivery of good news. His optimism was contagious and so he successfully influenced Alice.
“And don’t you feel lonely over there at Superb Accommodations? Do you mind it?” David also felt glad about his ability to keep the reality of his living conditions a secret for so long. Alice had no reason to doubt his words.
“Not at all. It’s a pretty good living environment.”
“I read in the paper that they’re renovating it. Are you living under scaffolding? I can visit you sometime.”
“Alice, they’re not keen on visitors, I told you, lots of paper-work, like everywhere, you know what I mean. Renovations? Those aren’t a living obstacle.” He should know what’s going on there. It is possible Alice might like to surprise him someday. She’s got a car, and his only luck in this regard is Alice’s apprehension about traffic around Superb. “I like visiting you here at Mrs. James’.” He didn’t want to discuss this topic for too long.
“Whatever you think. I just thought, maybe I could clean up a bit. Who knows how you’re managing on your own there.”
“Like a Snowhite at the Dwarfs’. But don’t worry; it’ll change for the better, too.”
“I know, I’m looking forward to it. You mean the loan for our mortgage?” Fireworks cracked overhead and the crowd cheered. One song followed another, but nobody really listened, everyone was cheering, yelling and whistling in excitement. Some spectators twirled their glow-sticks, and the Říhas had a hard time hearing each other.
“We have to make sure not to miss it! Look! Two minutes and seventeen, sixteen, fifteen seconds! Yes, I mean the mortgage for a house. We have enough for a down-payment, eight thousand seven hundred. That should be enough. We’re financially responsible, even if I’m wasting some of it on exams.”
“You’re not wasting it. I think they’re stupid, to not simple accept your credentials. Do you have a medical diploma? You do. And not just any diploma, David. You’ve got post-graduate training and who knows what else.”
“Eleven minutes! You’re right. This time I’ll show them. You’ll see. I’ll go again in March and that victory we’ll celebrate in our own home. It will work and I’m looking forward to it.” David looked at Alice, who was smiling and nodding. Colorful lights danced on her face, when she began counting together with the others: “Twelve, Eleven, Ten…” Kačenka joined in and so did David. The entire congregation now counted down in unison: “…Four, Three, Two, One, Gooooo!”
David and Alice hugged and kissed for a long time. Alice started to cry but kept on smiling. David lifted up little Kačenka, kissed her, stroked her hair and made a small toast, even if without a celebratory drink: “I wish for all of us to be successful, to make it, and to stick together. That’s the key. Our report card isn’t the money we’re saving for a down-payment, or our Crown Victoria. It’s our tenacity and togetherness.” His voice was muffled by the noise. Everyone was shouting something, yelling or giving toasts. An elderly gentleman in a festive hat turned to them and wished them a happy New Year. He evidently came alone. Next to them, an Asian family was shaking their hands cheerfully. Their mom was saying something in another language they didn’t understand, but she was beaming with joy, and so they actually understood. Only now did they notice that the square was flooded with people from all corners of the world.
“Everyone is here,” called out David in Czech. A tall man turned to him in a strongly accented English.
“You must be Czechs?” They immediately recognized his accent.
“Yes. And you are from Poland.” Maybe David didn’t say it quite right in Polish, but the man lit up with joy.
“Sure, sure. My name is Kazimierz. Wroclaw. All the best to you.”
“I’m David and this is Alice.” Immediately they felt overcome with a feeling of warmth and closeness to one another, so far from their own.
“On the stage there, that’s Sven. Sven Olsen. The one with the guitar. Occasionally we play in a club nearby.”
“Really? That’ can’t be! And do you have a saxophone?”
“What? No we don’t! It’s just the two of us!”
“I play the sax! Alice, didn’t I tell you? I play the saxophone!”
“For real? I’ll give you my number – call me.” He pulled out a small notepad from his pocket and ripped out a sheet of paper. In capital letters he wrote: “KAZIMIERZ BLOWIECKI” and his phone number.
It was like a warm hug. David will play again. Hopefully he hasn’t forgotten how. No, for sure not. Such things are never forgotten. They all laughed like fools. Happy about the New Year, which will bring them only good news. They all said goodbye, and slowly walked through the city for a while longer, tasting the sweetness of the New Year marked with the monumental number 2000.
“All computers are supposed to collapse. We’ll see in the morning,” pondered David, “they didn’t prepare for it when computers were first invented, and then it was too late to fix it. I’m curious.” The family felt happy. None of them worried about the computers, and instead anticipating a newly unraveled carpet of comfort and stability.
Softly, it started to snow.
“I’ll drive you to Superb and then we’ll go, I think. Tomorrow’s still a day off, so we can do something together,” suggested Alice.
“Great. Kačenka should hit the hay, anyway.” Around the next corner was parked their beat up Crown Victoria, partially covered in freshly fallen snow. They got in and, accompanied by a clinking sound from somewhere inside the engine, they arrived at Superb Accommodations. It was snowing heavily now, so they said a quick goodbye in front of the building and David walked up the stairs to the main entrance. He waited for Alice’s car to disappear behind the turn and slowly descended back to the sidewalk. He knew already that from the warehouse to the dorm it was exactly twenty-five minutes. He pulled up his collar and set out.
David was now glad that he’d found the courage to move from the shed for shredded paper into the main warehouse hall. The first Tuesday in October forced him to do that. At night the temperature dropped so low that he couldn’t find any effective way of keeping warm. David was thinking of those who routinely slept under bridges and in decommissioned busses. He’d seen them around and felt the need to help them, but he didn’t feel comfortable bringing them into the warehouse hall with him. He couldn’t be responsible for them and it could cost him his job and even bring legal repercussions.
Every morning, David had to get up early enough for the shower floor to dry, before the first shift arrived. At three he was awake, and at four he was perfectly showered, clean-shaven and sneaking out the hall through his secret exit, only to re-enter through the main door at six in the morning. When he needed to wash some laundry, David woke up at one-thirty and brought the wet clothes into the shed. Sooner or later they would dry. The interesting escape strategy resembled chess. To know exactly when the paper shed was safe and when someone could come in.
Snow was coming down heavily now, and David looked forward to finding his way through the back door and inside the warehouse, where he would warm up. He would climb up into an empty metal shelf, where someone had forgotten three Styrofoam boards, luckily for him. David felt he was relatively lucky all the time. He was aware of the fact that the boards didn’t have to be there. Good fortune prepared them for him.
The temperature dropped lower and David was nearing the warehouse. As usual, he looked around to make sure nobody saw him. As soon as he stepped behind the fence and disappeared in the dark between the parked work-trailers, he knew nobody could notice him anymore. His hands were frozen, but it didn’t matter. Over the fence, then to the rear of the western wall and his new year 2000 will begin.
David got his key ready, one more glance over the shoulder and inserted the key….
No, it wouldn’t go in. David tried again, again, inspected the key, yes, it was the right one. Then he looked at the lock. What…what is this? A new lock! They changed the lock! When did that happen? Must’ve been sometime in the afternoon. How come he didn’t hear anything about it? His shelf with Styrofoam is waiting inside. The warmth behind the metal door was suddenly inaccessible. David’s head and shoulders were becoming covered in thick layers of snow as he examined the metal door with his frozen fingers over and over, peering closely into the new lock.
David had no choice. Eight steps, then push out the rear wall into the shed for shredded paper. He squeezed inside. It’s not that bad, he thought. Cold, sure, but at least it’s not snowing. Lucky.