Beginner’s Luck

By Rochelle Rodak

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The Free Range Insurance closed at four, and Gina was balancing the drawers when she received the text message from her babysitter, “I just put the last diaper on the baby, and you’re almost out of formula. Also, Kristen wet the bed during her nap and you need more laundry soap.”

“Shit,” Gina muttered under her breath.

“Everything alright?” Heather asked.

“Yeah, thanks. Just kid stuff.”

“Kid stuff? Is everyone ok?” Heather’s voice grew concerned.

“Oh, yeah. No, they’re both fine. Just, you know, diapers, food, etc. Always spending money it seems.” Gina responded.

“Yeah, I get it. Good thing payday is this Friday!”

Heather didn’t have kids, and she most certainly didn’t ‘get it’. Heather’s parents put her through college. Heather had a nice car and a great apartment, but she was single a But she had been Gina’s friend for the past six years. And it was Heather who got Gina the job when her soon-to-be-ex-husband pulled his disappearing act; leaving Gina to care for two young girls on her own. So Gina smiled and nodded, looking at the drawer of cash that she was putting into the vault, wondering how she would make it through the rest of the week.

The first time, it was only a twenty dollar bill slipped out of the drawer as Gina was locking it in the safe. Gina felt guilty as she bought the off brand diapers and formula. Being thrifty wasn’t a new way of life for her, and she was able to squeeze out a jug of the cheapest laundry detergent, frozen chicken strips and a treat for Kristen, with twenty-three cents to spare!
Gina struggled through the door of her low income apartment, juggling her keys, purse and groceries.

“You’re late.” Shannon said, coat in hand.

Just then the grocery bag burst and the contents fell to Gina’s feet. The door, wide open, was letting out the expensive electric heat. Gina closed her eyes and calmly pushed the door shut behind her, sighing she slumped against the door frame. Claire began to cry from her baby swing.

“I know, I’m sorry. We had issues balancing and, because of your text, I had to stop by the store. I get paid Friday though, and I’ll throw in a little extra. I’m really sorry about this.”

“Look Gina, I like you and I like the girls, but I can’t keep doing this for free. My kids need me too,” she said.

“It’s not for free. I’ve always paid you before. This month has just been extra hard,” Gina paused and looked around the corner for her girls. Kristen was trying to soothe her baby sister with a binky while singing along with the Bubble Guppies on the Disney Channel. “Their dad hasn’t paid anything in months, and it’s catching up to me.”

“I know, I get it, but like I said, I have to get paid. I’ll do it next week, but if I don’t get paid — then I have to find something else.” Gina could hear the finality in her voice as she slipped past her into the cold November evening.

“Mommy? Can we have sketti for dinner?” Kristen came running around the corner.

“How about chicken nuggets?” Gina hoped this wouldn’t be a fight, while she mentally took inventory of her extremely bare pantry.

“YEAH! Sicken Nooguts!” Kristen jumped and clapped her hands. “Can we have cat-soup too, Mommy? Pwease?” Gina couldn’t help but smile at the way she pronounced ketchup.

“Of course, now take these diapies and put them on the changing table for Mommy, ok?” Gina bent and kissed Kristen’s soft blonde curls.

After feeding the girls and putting them to bed, Gina found the sock of money she’d been putting away for Christmas and pulled a twenty to put in her purse. Then she lay awake most of the night, worrying. She worried about the money she didn’t have, and the money she had taken. She worried about the money she already spent against next week’s paycheck and how she was going to be able to afford a sitter the rest of the month. She worried about Christmas and her car that was making an ugly sound when she started it. Between the worrying and the guilt, sleep did not come easy to Gina that night.

The only thing Gina had going for her was the fact she was the only cashier who did the daily balancing. Gina was fairly certain no one would notice that the twenty dollars was gone before she had time to get it back in the till. Despite her confidence, Gina waited anxiously at the door for Shannon to arrive.

“Morning Shannon, thanks again. The girls are still sleeping. I’ll see you at four!” Gina hurried to her car before she could hear any more ultimatums from Shannon, and spun her bald tires in the fresh layer of slick snow.

It was with a sigh of relief that Gina stuffed the stolen twenty back into the till only minutes before Heather arrived.

“You’re here early.” Heather greeted her as she came through the door. Gina was still wearing her jacket and starting to turn on the computers at her receptionist desk.

“Yeah, Shannon got there early this morning, and the girls were asleep. It’s easier on everyone if I get out of there before they wake up.” Gina gave Heather a genuine smile filled with her secret relief.

“I can only imagine. I’m so glad I don’t have kids to worry about in the morning. Gina, I just don’t know how you do it all!” Heather said. Gina thought she heard a little pity mixed with the admiration in her voice.

***

Gina made it through the next couple of weeks, and was even back on Shannon’s good side before she found herself in another sticky situation. The company Christmas party was coming up, and she was worried about being the only one who wouldn’t participate in the gift exchange. But when her mom came to town she took advantage of the childcare and agreed to an afternoon of window shopping at North Town Mall with Heather.

“I don’t know if I’ll make it to the Christmas party,” Gina said as they browsed JC Penney’s clearance racks.

“What? Why?” Heather replied, “You have to go–, you’re the only reason I want to go!”

“Oh I don’t know, I just feel bad leaving mom with the girls so I can have fun. She’s only here another week. I should spend more time with her. And to be honest, I shouldn’t be wasting my money on parties.” If she didn’t have child care, she didn’t have to go to the party. If she didn’t have to go to the party, she didn’t have to buy a gift for the exchange.

“Oh, come on, it’s just a couple of hours. I’m sure she loves having time to be grandma. Besides, with Jason gone I figured you could be my date. I can spot you some cash if you need it.” Heather said nonchalantly.

“Oh, it’s not that, I just feel like I should be spending it on the girls, not company gift exchanges. Where’s Jason?” Gina changed the subject, embarrassed she had said anything about her finances.

“Oh at some conference or something.” Heather said waving her hand as if she were shooing a fly. “Hey! You deserve to have fun too, Mama! Don’t feel guilty about that!” Heather scolded her.

“Fine. I’ll go, but only to keep you company,” Gina smiled as she followed Heather towards the cuter, trendier, and more expensive section.

Gina had intended to try on a few things, to look like she was interested. Just like she intended to put it back and pretend like nothing fit. That was until she slid into the faux black leather pants that fit like a second skin, and the red sequined strapless top that showed off her small waist and nursing mom bust. She stepped out of the dressing room to show Heather.

“Oh my God, Gina. If you don’t get that outfit I will scream. Girl, you look hot!” Heather exclaimed. “I truly hope I look as good as you do after I have kids!”

Gina blushed. She felt sexy, and these days it was hard to feel anything but tired and broke.
The next day, when she realized she had predictably overdrawn her bank account, she took $100 to get through to payday. But, this time she took it from the petty cash bag in the safe. It hadn’t been balanced in months. Everyone had a company credit card these days, and it was much easier to use those than to bother with the petty cash.

“This is the last time, Gina. You’re pushing your luck and you know it,” she whispered under her breath as she clicked the safe’s lock into place.

Most of the initial nerves were gone, and she was sleeping nearly guilt free by day six. When no one noticed the difference by payday, she was feeling pretty alright with her situation, confident it would never happen again.

“No harm, no foul,” she smiled to herself as she slipped the five twenties into the petty cash bag.

***

Gina was officially introduced to Steve at the company Christmas party. He was the new office manager of the branch. Gina noticed Steve coming through the front office in the mornings, and thought he was cute. He had a snobbish quality to him, rarely giving Gina more than a nod. So she was surprised when he approached her after the gift exchange.

“These things make me so damn anxious,” Steve said quietly from behind her.

“Oh, goodness, I didn’t see you there. You startled me!” Gina said.

“Sorry about that, I really didn’t mean to startle the most beautiful woman in the room,” Steve said.

Gina blushed, “Oh. Well…uh” Gina was at a loss for words, so she took a sip of her wine instead.

“I thought I should at least introduce myself. I’ve been trying to get to know everyone, but since my first day I just haven’t made the time.”

“Oh well, yeah I guess the receptionist isn’t probably high on the “need-to-know” list.” Gina’s cheeks grew hotter. “I’m sorry, that sounded terrible, really. It’s nice to meet you, I’m Gina.”

“No, you’re absolutely right. Would a fair maiden like you please accept my humble apology?” Steve bowed before her, his hand to his heart and a twinkle in his eye.

“OK. Now you’re just being an ass!” Gina laughed.

From there they hit it off, Gina found out that Steve was newly divorced and had a three-year-old boy, just a bit older than her Kristen. For most of the evening they chatted amiably and before Gina left with Heather, she had changed her mind about his stuck up attitude, attributing it to his busy schedule both at home and in the office.

“So, tell me all about him,” Heather accosted her as soon as they got in the car.

“Who?” Gina asked, feigning ignorance.

“Gina, really? Steve! Tell me, did you guys exchange numbers or what? I hardly talked to you in there because he was holding your attention so well. Or maybe it was those pants holding his?” Heather winked at her.

“Not much to say, we just talked a bit. He’s got a boy about Kristen’s age, and he just got divorced. Oh, and I called him an ass.” Gina said with a laugh.

“You what!? Well, he must not have minded or he wouldn’t have spent the whole evening with you! Did you give him your number? Or what?” Heather was vibrating in the driver seat.
“No, but I’m sure I’ll see him again. We do work in the same building you know,” Gina said laughing. “Come on now, let’s get out of here, people are starting to come out and we’re going to look like a couple of weirdos out here gossiping in the frozen parking lot!”

“You better tell me the SECOND he asks you out, Gina, I swear you better!” Heather said dropping the car into drive.

***

Monday morning Gina was extra careful as she picked out her most professional but flattering work attire. She must have looked good because even Shannon noticed when she arrived.

“Wow, you look great, some big wig coming to the office today?” Shannon said as she took off her gloves and hat.

“Um, nope,” Gina said blushing, “Sometimes a girl just wants to look as good as she feels, ya know? Things are looking up Shannon, I can feel it!” With that Gina kissed Kristen on the forehead and headed off to work.

Gina was behind her desk and looking great by the time Steve came through the front glass doors, looking extra sharp in a navy pinstripe suit.

“Good Morning Mr. McCurdy,” Gina said with a smile.

“Good Morning to you Ms. Stanton,” Steve replied as he stopped to lean an elbow on her
counter. “Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you.”

“I guess that depends,” Gina replied skeptically.

“I have tickets to see Jeff Dunham at the Northern Quest casino this Saturday, a birthday present from my brother. Anyway, I’d hate to have to go all by myself.” Steve asked with a smile that reached his eyes.

“You’re right. I don’t think there could be anything more pathetic than a grown man laughing to puppets by himself,” Gina said, “I’d love to save you from that embarrassment. What time?”
Moments after Steve left, Heather, who had obviously been eavesdropping, jumped from behind her computer screen.

“Gina!” Heather squealed, “Oh. My. God! I’ll watch your princesses. You need this girl!
Seriously! Oh! We can go shopping before your mom leaves too. You need another killer outfit, you know, to seal the deal.” Heather was winking again.

“Ok, Ok, thank you – but please stop winking, it’s creepy!” Gina said with a laugh. “She leaves Wednesday, can you come with me tonight after work?”

“Sure! I’m leaving early to pick up Jason at the airport, but he has a meeting this evening so that will work!”

Heather left at noon, leaving Gina a lot of time to think about her upcoming date. It also left her a lot of time to think about the money she didn’t have. Christmas was only a week away and she had already blown through most of the Christmas money she had set aside. But then again, it had been nearly 4 years since she’d been on a date. Didn’t Heather tell her to stop feeling guilty for enjoying herself? Besides, they were going to a casino; she might get lucky and come out ahead.

“And what if you don’t get lucky?” Gina thought out loud, “You get fired, that’s what you get.”
Gina’s cell phone buzzed in her desk drawer. Three unread messages. The first one was from Shannon letting her know that she needed to buy diapers again. The second was from Steve thanking her for accepting his invitation and confirming he would pick her up Saturday at six; the last one was from Heather.

“I’ll pick up you @ 5! We can get dinner – my treat! I’m so excited for you Gina!!! 😉 ;)”
“Sheesh, even her text messages are creepy!” Gina laughed.
That night Gina took $200 from petty cash.

***

Saturday evening Heather was watching for Steve while Gina was finishing up her make up.

“Ok, how do I look?”

“Mommy is soooo pretty!” Kristen squealed as she wrapped herself around Gina’s legs, covered in graham cracker crumbs.

“Oh honey, come here, you don’t want to get your dinner on your mama’s outfit do you?” Heather asked as she put Kristen on her hip. “Gina – You look so good. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t propose after tonight. Oh, and if you need me to have a sleepover with Princess Kristen and Mistress Claire, you have my number.” Heather was winking again.

“Where you going Mommy? Mommy, are you coming home?” Kristen said with her three-year-old concern.

“Mommy is going to dinner with a friend and I’ll be home before you know it!” Gina reached over and kissed her eldest on the cheek before going to check on Claire. Claire was happily rocking in her swing, chewing on a book that made crinkling sounds. She smiled and kicked when she saw her mom. “I love you too, Claire-bear,” Gina kissed her fingers and placed them on Claire’s head. “Now you two be extra good for Auntie Heather, ok?”

“We will, Mommy! I’m going to help with baby Claire. Oh! And we’re going to have a tea party!” Kristen was wriggling to get down from Heather’s grasp. She hit the floor running for her bedroom.

Just then there was a knock at the door, “Gi-na! He’s he-re!” Heather called out in a sing song voice.

“Cut it out! He’s going to hear you!” Gina grinned as she reached for her jacket, “I’ll try not to be too late, thanks again, Heather, I mean it.”

“Don’t you worry about us, we have a tea party to attend to!” Heather exclaimed as Kristen came out of her room dragging a blanket full of said tea party supplies.

“Bye Mommy!” Kristen called.

“Alright, have fun ladies, I’ll be back!” Gina blew a kiss over her shoulder as she slipped outside to greet Steve.

“Hey,” Gina said, tying the belt around her wool jacket.

“Hey. Wow, you look great. Ready?” Steve said, offering his arm.

“More than you know!” Gina wrapped her arm in his as they took off for the evening.

***

The casino was decked out in full Christmas cheer and their dinner was perfect, with hardly a second of awkward silence or conversation. They both thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Dunham’s show too. Gina forgot how nice it was to sit with an adult and laugh at adult things. She also realized how nice it was to be called by her name, not just ‘Mommy’ all the time. In fact, when Steve held out her jacket, Gina realized how badly she didn’t want the evening to end. He must have been thinking the same thing, as he folded her jacket over his arm.

“Hey, how about we try out a few of the tables, since we’re here,” he asked. “Unless of course you don’t like that kind of thing?” His nerves were starting to show.

“I haven’t ever really done it…” Gina said with a shrug. “What about you?”

“Me either, but when in Rome…” Steve laughed as he placed his hand on the small of her back.

“Well, maybe we’ll get lucky tonight,” Gina said. It was Steve’s turn to blush.

“Oh my God. I didn’t mean that, honest!” Gina blushed even harder and covered her face with her hands.

“I know what you meant,” Steve said with a smile, his hand now moving in a slow circle.

They started at the roulette table, where Gina’s luck continued. Before long she was ahead by $100.

“Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” Steve asked, grinning with amazement.

“Beginners luck! I swear!” Gina was showing off when she placed the full $200 on black, confident that her luck would continue. Just this one last bet, then she would pay back the petty cash and give the girls a really nice Christmas, and never take from work, or anywhere, again. The ball took a lifetime to stop bouncing from red, to black and red and black again. It stopped for good on red. Gina stared at the ball for a few seconds. The dealer looked at her with indifference as he shrugged and scraped her chips into the well.

“Oh well – you win some you lose some. Let’s leave before we’re out too much, huh?” Steve bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “That was a great go for a beginner!”
Gina, still high from the booze and the evening with Steve, didn’t feel the despair as much as she should have. “You’re right. Let’s get out of here,” Gina agreed as she slipped into her offered jacket.

***

Gina could see Heather peeking through the blinds as they pulled into the drive.

“Thanks Steve, I really had a great time,” she said as she opened the truck door to leave.

“Hey now, wait a minute,” Steve jumped out and ran around to her door. “I can’t leave a first date with the lady getting the door herself!”

Gina laughed as she slid out of the cab and nearly fell into his arms. He pulled her close and brushed her hair behind her ear. “I believe you have some explaining to do.”

Gina stiffened and her smile faltered, but before she could question him, “I believe someone is a bit eager to hear how your night went,” Steve chuckled as he nodded over her shoulder at Heather, still peeking through the blinds.

“Oh,” she sighed, “Yeah, I suppose this night is only about half over.” Gina reached up and kissed him quickly and softly on the mouth. “Thanks again, it’s been wonderful,” she started to slip from his arms when he pulled her in tighter.

“I had an amazing evening Ms. Stanton, better than I could have imagined. I hope it’s not the last,” Steve bent and kissed her with a bit more purpose.

“Oh, Mr. McCurdy,” She said, cheeks flushed from the kiss. “I don’t think you have to worry about that.” She slipped out of his embrace and hurried for the door. She stopped once to look back and give him a little wave before she went inside.

“So?” Heather was bursting with excitement, “Tell me. Everything.”

“Oh Heather, it was great, it really was,” Gina began, as she kicked off her heels and curled up on the couch. “Can I give you a recap tomorrow though? I’m just so tired.”

“Sure, of course you are!” Heather yawned, giving away her own exhaustion and a little disappointment. “But I’m bringing coffee and donuts first thing, so be ready to dish!”

After Heather left, Gina looked in on the girls, both sound asleep, both sucking on their thumbs. Gina smiled at her babies as the tears began to fall. What now? Pay day was two weeks from Monday, and she couldn’t afford to pay it back then anyway. “I have to come clean,” she whispered as she slipped into the cold and empty bed.

As promised, Heather was there by nine, with sugar coated donuts and giant peppermint bark lattes – Gina’s favorite.

“Good morning sunshine!” Heather sang through the apartment.

Kristen, barefoot and bedheaded, came squealing from the kitchen. “Donuts! Donuts! Donuts!”

“Here you go, sweetheart!” Heather handed her a white powdered donut that appeared to be exploding from an over injection of red syrupy filling, “go eat this, carefully, in the living room ok?”

Gina gave Heather a disapproving look, but was so concerned with the upcoming conversation that she let it go.

“Ok, now spill!” Heather said.

Gina told her everything. She told her how funny the comic was. She told her how great the food and conversation had been. But when she told her she lost $200 gambling, Heather stopped her.

“Gambling? Steve’s money?”

“No,” Gina was staring into the foam of her barely touched latte.

“Your money? Oh, Gina…”

“Not exactly,” Gina interrupted.

“What are you talking about?” Heather was genuinely confused now.

Then Gina told her the rest, all of it. She told her about Shannon threatening to quit, she told her about the first $20 and the next $100 and how it had all worked out. She told her that she really thought it was going to be ok this time too. She told her she never planned to do it again after this one last time. Then Gina started crying.

“Look, I’m sorry. You got me this job, and you’re my best friend, and I love you. I’m just so sorry,” Gina’s shoulders were shaking with her sobs, “I’ve ruined it all.”

“Oh Gina.” Heather wrapped her arms around her as she cried. “Why didn’t you say something before? You know I would have helped you.” The hurt was palpable in her voice.

“I just couldn’t. I was ashamed, after everything else you’ve done for me. Heather, it felt like pity. It felt like, begging.”

“Well now I am stuck between helping you essentially cover up a crime, or covering my ass and doing ‘what’s right,” Heather said, making air quotations with the last part.

“I know, I’m sorry. I understand if you have to tell the manager – Steve. What is he going to think? I’ll get fired, but it’s my own fault. He’s going to hate me, and that’s my fault too.” Gina was resigned to the worst case scenario.

“Hey now, it doesn’t have to be that bad. You have half of the money right? You’re coming clean? So let me think about it, we’ll get through this, but things will be different. I hope you know that.” Heather said. “I’ll loan you the other $100, you still have half right?”

“Yes, but…”

“Don’t think I’m covering this up – I can’t afford to do that. Besides, it would be bad for your professional and personal relationship with Steve to hide this.”

“What relationship after this?” Gina sighed, frustrated at losing the one good thing she had found lately, and all due to her stupid pride.

***

Monday morning Gina was at work early. Heather came in and gave Gina a great big hug,

“Look, this sucks, but you’re not a bad person. You and I both know that. So let’s figure out the best way to do this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“Oh God, Heather. I will never, ever consider this again,” Gina said. “If I still have my job after today, it will be a miracle.”

“Let’s hope for the best,” Heather gave her a smile and crossed her fingers.

“Whatever Heather, I am just so thankful that you don’t hate me.” Tears were starting to pool in Gina’s eyes again.

“Stop that,” Heather gave her another hug. “Steve’s pulling up right now, and you don’t want him to see you all raccoon eyed and sad, do you?” Heather looked at her with genuine concern.

“We’ll get through this, you’ll see.”

“Hey Steve,” Gina said, “Can we talk?”

***

About Rochelle Rodak

Rochelle Rodak is graduating from Central Washington University with a B.A. in Professional and Creative Writing. She comes from a sleepy gold mining town in NE Washington where she shares her home with her best friend and two children.

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