Becky Hagenston

Priscilla

 
Both of their hearts were bro­ken, and they had the same scars slic­ing their chests in per­fect halves. They met in the car­diac ward. Lana had a bypass at thir­ty-two; Mitch had a trans­plant at fifty that almost didn’t take and then did. Later, lying togeth­er in bed, they pressed their chests togeth­er and mar­veled at the sym­me­try. He put his ear against her left breast and then leaned back in sur­prise. “What on earth is that?” he said, and she said, “It’s a bell, of course.”

It was true: he had heard it chime. When he asked about her fam­i­ly, she said, “My moth­er was a slot machine, and my father was a church.”

*

He was an accoun­tant for a drug store chain and she worked in real estate, but then there were lay­offs and the reces­sion, and they sold their house and moved far­ther from Boston and clos­er to Manchester. The cold made their lips turn blue. They hired a stur­dy neigh­bor boy to shov­el snow. Sometimes Mitch felt the grip of his heart’s for­mer owner—a stamp col­lec­tor who had been hit by a snowplow—and he locked him­self indoors and past­ed rows and rows of flags and but­ter­flies and pro­files of lead­ers he didn’t rec­og­nize into leatherette books. Don’t lick the stamps! Lana warned him, but he would emerge dazed and ashamed, his tongue coat­ed in glue.

*

On their first anniver­sary, they went to Vegas and stayed at the El Cortez on Fremont Street, which they chose because it was thir­teen dol­lars a night and fea­tured an Elvis imper­son­ator in the lounge. Outside, a giant red slip­per twirled and twin­kled against the desert sky. Inside, coins fell into buck­ets and smoke filled the air, and they sat side-by-side and fed nick­els and quar­ters into sil­ver machines that dinged and clanged. Coins over­flowed their plas­tic tubs. The Elvis imper­son­ator sang “Don’t be Cruel,” and pulled Lana onstage to croon to her. Reflected in his sun­glass­es, she looked like she was in out­er space, float­ing. Mitch applaud­ed.

After two days, they had won almost three thou­sand dol­lars. Wrapped in a sheet after mak­ing love, Lana stood up and looked out the win­dow, at the free­way and the palm trees and the revolv­ing slip­per. She touched her bel­ly. “Jackpot,” she said to Mitch.

*

Their daugh­ter Priscilla’s heart was per­fect, and her laugh­ter was like coins falling. At three, she took to wear­ing sun­glass­es inside. At four, she stole the pen­nies from the col­lec­tion plate at Sunday school and when Lana tried to coax them out of her purse, she said, “They’re mine,” and would not let go. Lana and Mitch enrolled her in danc­ing and singing lessons, and she won every tal­ent con­test at school, singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” in a star­tling, per­fect Elvis voice. One after­noon, Lana found Monopoly and Life mon­ey stashed in Priscilla’s dress­er draw­er; she returned it to the game box­es but lat­er found mon­ey miss­ing from her own wal­let.

When Priscilla was six­teen, she took Mitch’s car to Boston and lost it in a snow­storm. “Everything isn’t yours,” Mitch told her, and Priscilla said, sur­prised, “Oh, but it is.”

On her twen­ty-first birth­day, she told her par­ents she had some­thing impor­tant to say, and set out a deck of cards on the kitchen table.  She laid out a King, then an Ace. “I’m mov­ing to Vegas,” she said. Mitch’s heart squeezed up on him, and he spent the rest of the after­noon with his stamps. Lana’s heart gonged—“Stop it, Mom,” Priscilla said, rolling her eyes—and then, shamed, tin­kled like a din­ner bell.

*

Priscilla sent post­cards: spark­ly, glit­tery ones fea­tur­ing casi­nos that hadn’t been there all those years ago: the Eiffel Tower, a New York sky­line. A sphinx. There was no return address. Her phone num­ber was always going out of ser­vice. In this way, sev­er­al years passed; Mitch and Lana retired and decid­ed they should move to Las Vegas, buy a house in the desert and find their daugh­ter. A post card still arrived every month or so, fea­tur­ing a new casi­no, a glit­ter­ing wheel or a strobe of light, with mes­sages like: Doing fine. Love, Priscilla.

That win­ter, dur­ing a bliz­zard, Mitch was hit by a snow­plow and killed. Lana’s heart played the chimes that called the mourn­ers to prayer, and as she fol­lowed the cas­ket to the frozen ceme­tery, she felt some­thing crack in her chest as the clap­per slammed.

Her doc­tor sliced her open and replaced her heart with a doorbell—a mod­ern appli­ance, with a buzzer—and when she was final­ly healthy enough to trav­el, Lana went to Las Vegas and searched for Priscilla. She stayed at the El Cortez and took the dou­ble-deck­er bus to the end of the new strip, and she wan­dered through every casi­no, past the roulette tables and the slot machines—all elec­tron­ic now, flash­ing lights and car­toon char­ac­ters, churn­ing out tick­ets in a sound-effect burst of fake coins. She wound her way through the black­jack tables, the deal­ers stand­ing with their hands crossed like corpses upright in their coffins. She sat in smoky lounges lis­ten­ing to Elvises, try­ing to see their real faces through their big sun­glass­es. She worked her way from one end of the strip to the oth­er, and then she start­ed over.

Her daugh­ter had van­ished, but Lana had the odd thought that Priscilla was, in fact, everywhere—something about the sound of those machines. She was sur­round­ed by Priscilla’s laugh­ter like coins falling, or maybe it was the oth­er way around—the coins were like Priscilla’s laughter—and final­ly it didn’t even mat­ter, because it would have to be enough. Everything that had ever hap­pened to her: it was all trea­sure, it was all just luck.

~

Becky Hagenston’s first col­lec­tion of sto­ries, A Gram of Mars, won the Mary McCarthy Prize; her sec­ond col­lec­tion, Strange Weather, won the Spokane Prize. Her third col­lec­tion, Scavengers, won the Permafrost Prize and is forth­com­ing in March 2016 from University of Alaska Press. Her sto­ries have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Subtropics, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and many oth­er jour­nals, as well as twice in the O. Henry anthol­o­gy. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at Mississippi State University.