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“It’s a number thing, isn’t it?” she asks. Ms. Question Girl, soft khaki slacks, a gauzy white blouse, and the kindness of lovely skin, cozying-up to me, Mr. Middle-Aged and Mr. Alone.
Yes, I tell myself. It’s a number thing. She’s been watching me picking winners. I need to still my lips when reading the Racing Form. Mom harped on that habit of mine, signing me up for that Evelyn Wood course. You scan only with your eyes, 300 words a minute. It was money wasted.
“Let's win the next race together,” she says. “I’m Nancy Bolt,” shaking my hand, her ring finger without a ring. “I’ll just sit next to you. I’ve watched you win.” She flicks her long hair aside in a gesture attractive women share.
I’m a firm believer in matched sets, and warning signals go off. Ms. Sitting Down Next to Me, ah Nancy Bolt, is a nine on the infamous scale of one to ten and I’m not; OK make it a ten. You should always add a point for proximity.
But sometimes good beginnings turn out to be simply good beginnings, and I’ll check my wallet pocket after I sit down.
I'm not a beach guy. Sand percolating between my toes gives me the willies. And Chicago baseball’s a drag—well, until recently. Cubs fans cheer like crazy for routine fly balls I could‘ve caught one-handed when I was a kid. When I travel south to see the other team, beer is spilled on me just before the fisticuffs. Today, at Arlington Park, our City’s beautiful and underused racetrack, there’s a special simulcast from the Saratoga Racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s a big time event, and I’m overly excited. One day last week, I accidentally pulled out the Racing Form in front of the presiding judge instead of my 32-page brief.
My job? I go to court and explain to the judge and jury why the government did what it did when it rejects a business bid. These rejections aren’t my decisions, I just defend them. Beside my paycheck and retirement benefits, the sole positive is the waiting around in the courthouse, because quicker than you can say James Thurber, I become Walter Mitty. My daydreams flash erotic in content, which I understand is quite normal, and they interweave nicely with my gambling successes with point-spreads, over/under wagers, and the horses.
My boss, a redhead with colored streaks of fire, courtesy of Clairol, is easygoing and quite civil. Sometimes when we make eye contact, I get a fuzzy tingle, and after rescuing her from the pirate king, and weathering the tropical hurricane, she snuggles close, head on my shoulder, arm tight around my waist, until the courtroom clerk calls my case.
Joy at winning horse races is tempered by neighbors spewing spittle on my written notes as they shout to comrades halfway across the stadium, or dramatically tear up losing tickets, the shreds finding their way by some GPS magic into my beer. Another thing, and I trust our lawmakers are working on it, these people should be required to wear loose fitting garments to hide their extra-value-meal-sized bellies. Where are my hosannas for the hours I spend modeling crisp clothes in front of the full-length hallway mirror, making sure I appear svelte? Never mind the good polish I keep on my shoes.
Maybe you can guess why I’m divorced and still single. It didn’t help that a morning guy married a night person, of a different religion, with unlikable parents and siblings; me a neat freak, she less than fastidious. I feasted on Mel Tormé and Samuel Barber, she on Latin jazz. Like binary stars endlessly circling each other defying Newton’s gravity, we never became one.
Four, I say out loud. I like the four horse--Mr WonderfulWonderful.
“There are four Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John; and four elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water; and they’re good fours—very good fours,” Nancy says.
“But then again there were The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and the four letter words shouted in anger,” I say. No matter. Circling inside my head is the Hindu-Arabic numeral four, the right-sided ninety-degree angle pierced with a vertical arrow. “Let’s place forty bucks on four to win,” I say.
“You never scream when you win and you don't rip losing tickets and shower them over people?” I ask Nancy.
“Let’s send MrWonderfulWonderful good vibrations and serenade him to victory,” I say to my new friend. And serenade I do, belting out my favorite Johnny Mathis song, trusting that the lyrics will become contagious:
You turn to me with a kiss in your eyes
And my heart feels a thrill beyond compare
Ms. Close to Me joins in, a duet, Sonny and Cher perhaps; we’re loud, and neighbors laugh, soften their faces, we smile, she’s good, and I’m in Valhalla.
Our four horse settles comfortably in the middle of the pack. He’s a stalker and likes striking from behind. “Come on baby,” I call out. Quietly of course. I’m a professional man. Down the long straightaway home, the jockey whips the chestnut beauty, left hand, right hand, left hand again, and our number four horse rockets forward like a space shuttle ascending from Cape Canaveral on an early sunny morning and wins “going away,” as they say in racetrack parlance.
The betting windows are staffed with faces I remember from my childhood when I came here with my father. Maybe these people are their children. They look the same. I think they’re unionized now so they don't have to be nice to you. But by and large they are, nice that is, and attentive, even with their emotional detachment about your wagering.
Carefully laying down their dollars, patrons conjure up grand schemes for winning big, hope haloing their faces. By studying the past performances, factoring the odds and variables such as the track condition and level of competition, betting choices become logical and winning should happen more often than not. But it doesn't, and yet that doesn’t seem to matter. Young and old, well dressed and not, they politely queue up—the betting line is the great American equalizer.
Picking a winner in the next race is tricky. It’s for horses that have never won a race; and I understand that—the track has to fill up its program. There’s no need to compare running times or search pedigrees for champion sires. And if the nags don’t start winning, they’re on their way to the petting zoo or worse.
I concentrate on the Racing Form until the number one flashes off-and-on in my brain like the defective neon Budweiser sign outside the Come-On Inn, a place I frequent on lonely nights. I’m partial to number one. It’s clean, simple, bold, and of course, the first of all numbers. Charlene, my sixth grade heart-throb, thanks to the modern English alphabet always sitting one seat in front of me, would turn around, wave an index finger in my face like a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, and tell me I was her number one. Of course, comely Charlene told that to all of the sixth-grade and many of the seventh-grade boys, but still...
The grandstand is filling up. The late arrivals are more affluent than the early birds. Some of the men wear striped business shirts with shorts, or suit slacks with gym shoes. Where are their style consultants? Maybe their spouses are dressing them that way for sadistic pleasure. Children are here. You can’t help wondering what lessons they’re learning.
After a few sneaky peeks, I know who Nancy reminds me of. As a kid, maybe I was seven or eight, I was taken to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the Chicago Theater. I think my parents paid extra, or knew somebody important, because after the show we went backstage to see the performers. Dale was standing outside their dressing room.
“Where’s Roy Rogers?” I blurted.
“Why, honey,” Dale said, her hand reaching out for my face, “Roy is out catching bad guys and putting Trigger to bed in the stable.”
Even I knew that couldn’t be correct. Trigger slept at home with Roy. I was old enough to know that.
“And what do you do?” I asked Dale, who was rocking back and forth from the long tiring show or from drink, her billowing cowgirl dress swaying a little like the dancers in the Nutcracker ballet I was dragged to every Christmas.
“Why, honey,” Dale said again, fondling my chin, “I catch bad guys too and if they talk out of turn, I lasso them up real tight and bring them to jail.”
Thirty years later and I still succumb to sweet dreams of Dale, the Beauty, the Singer, the Enforcer, swirling her cowgirl dress, or sometimes she’s wearing her buckskin fringed leather skirt, while tying me up in carefully constructed knots and singing “Happy Trails to You.”
Nancy nudges me. “Hey, did you just fall asleep on me or are you conjuring up winners?”
“Nancy,” I ask, “is there any chance you know cowgirl songs?”
Two and eight, that’s what I see in my mind. It’s easy, the numbers sing to me: two, eight; eight and two: choo, choo; choo, and choo, they steam around in my frontal cortex aided by rhythms from my old Lionel Rocket that chugged around the play table in the den.
“Two and eight will finish first and second,” I tell Nancy. We’ll place an exacta bet on those horses.
“Two and eight are good numbers,” Nancy says, nodding her head in affirmation. “I like them. Eight is two cubed, you know.”
“And any number in the world, any number you can think of, is divisible by eight if the last three digits are also divisible by eight,” I say, and we nudge each other. Hot damn, we’re smart.
Our boy-meets-girl talk comes easy. Charles Ives is more subtle than Aaron Copland, the Everest restaurant was finer than Charlie Trotter’s, the Kennedy Expressway is a parking lot until 7:30 pm, Northwestern University will never surpass the University of Chicago, Seabiscuit was the best, the definitions of picayune and picaresque always escapes us, Nancy makes no request for bail money for an ex, and I offer no complaints about my former missus.
Our two and eight horses finish first and second so handily that Nancy and I simply hug. There is no need to shout. We’re a team now and I’m on a streak similar to those that have happened to me in the past.
The Saratoga simulcast is the feature attraction of the summer racing season. We’re able to watch the best twelve horses in the world, including the Kentucky Derby winner, at our racetrack some 800 miles or so due west. But, in spite of all that excellence, you would think I could do better than see two mediocrities like the three and seven horses finishing first and second.
One August, I traveled to Saratoga Springs for their racing season. The racetrack is the nation’s oldest, and George Washington, yes, that George Washington attended the races. And he likely slept there. Crowded steam baths, second rate hotels and mediocre food are forgiven because of the excitement. Everything is low-key, but big time low-key, if you know what I mean. Mingling with the owners and jockeys and trainers in Saratoga Springs spices the experience. On race days, trains from New York City and Albany arrive jammed with horse racing aficionados who leave when the afternoon ends, enjoying the safety and quiet of the train ride home, reveling in their winning or near winning with a beer or Scotch in their hands.
“The three horse is taking Lasix for the first time,” Nancy says. “They run faster on Lasix, it stops pulmonary bleeding, and number seven has a new jockey. I like your choices. They’ll keep your winning streak intact. Both three and seven are prime numbers, right?”
“There are three dimensions of space,” I add, “and the number three is like great, greater and greatest; and seven are the days of our week, dies solis, the days of the sun, plus the herald of good fortune, and yes, three and seven are prime numbers.”
“Be sure to divide the bets,” Nancy says. “Go to several tellers, because if we cash in one big ticket it’s reported to the IRS, federal taxes are subtracted right off the top, and we don’t want that. Quickly now,” and her hands turn me toward the tellers. “We’ll each wager $100, and then we’ll meet at our seats.” Instructions reminiscent of a casino boss in Las Vegas organizing the chaos at a busy craps table after spending her off-hours at Mensa meetings.
The low-level buzzing noise surrounding us is mixed with pleadings directed toward the top level jockeys. There are silly interviews with owners, who like the chances of their horse winning. As if they entered them in this race to lose. One at a time, skittish or not, the horses are pushed and pulled into their slots in the starting gate by the anonymous ground crew, who ignore the danger of being kicked by these powerful racing machines.
The explosive release of these monsters travels to my excitement center as wondrously as seeing my horse win as they bunch together with the apex headed by the front-runner, a rabbit for the other horses bred for more staying power. The favorite, the Kentucky Derby winner, stumbles when leaving the starting gate, which bodes well for our exacta wager. In this high-caliber race, losing even a fraction of a second lessens the likelihood of winning.
Three and seven are around, huddled in the middle of the pack, not bad, although the three horse is slipping behind with each furlong as the crowd roar rises and falls with the placement of the steeds. Our horses are stretch runners and their positions remain comforting. It’s a two-minute race, 120 seconds, that’s all it is, but as the horses position themselves back and forth for the stretch run, time slows like a second hand ticking away through a cup of molasses. Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein must have wagered on horses before expounding about their theories on time.
The three horse is making his move, speeding my heart. I feel like giggling. The Derby winner is nowhere in the camera view of the front-runners, but I have trouble finding number seven. If we had wagered $200 to win on number three, we could shout like the rest of the crowd for only one horse to guide across the finish line. No more exacta bets for us. “Please, Lord,” I plead, dispensing with any remnant of my agnosticism. “Keep number three driving strong and find number seven for us,” I whisper.
And there he is, number seven, blurred rider with a bright yellow cap, hunched forward almost on top of the horse's ears. The yellow saddlecloth, now a dirty amber color, and the seven number blurred by speed. The three horse is holding on and two other horses are half a length back, nose to nose fighting for second place. The finish line comes quick, the race is over, number three wins, our horse, thank you, and the place and show horses are but a blur.
No celebration yet, but then the slow-motion replay shows darling number seven placing. We picked two wonderful horses at good odds, yellow baby was 10 to 1, and number three that we now took for granted, was 8 to 1. Not a favorite combination, there were too many well-known horses in this race that didn’t finish in the money. A two- dollar exacta ticket paid $180 and we had a hundred of them. We did it. We outsmarted the world and pocketed big-time dough. Our hugs were serious.
Cashing in our tickets, a few at a time, the bills are crisp and slippery, fresh from the bank and with the sweet smell of success, as we leave the crowded and happy racetrack. It’s warm and beautiful as only a late Midwestern summer afternoon can be, with a slow steady breeze sweeping our hair and freshening our faces, the zephyr starting sometime past over the Pacific Ocean. The pacific-Pacific, the quiet, peaceful Pacific described by Magellan; Balboa knew it as the South Sea.
The Metra railroad trains run as locals on weekends: Mount Prospect, Cumberland, Des Plaines, the conductor sings out the stops, walking through the car, alerting the comatose and the morose. It’s quiet, Nancy and I don't talk, winning is exhausting, the train is slow, too slow, too much time for me to think and my thoughts work overtime. You see, I know nothing about this Nancy and we’re sitting on a pile of cash. Knock-out drops, chloral hydrate I believe it is. Will they be dropped into my martini like in the old black and white detective movies, but with no Charlie Chan and number-one son around to save me and my winnings?
“Amazing! You’re amazing,” Nancy says. “One winning race after another, I was watching you, you know, two wins by yourself, then two exactas with me, like a chain reaction—tons of money, impossible odds, you’re the best,” offering her hand to be kissed, shaking her head no, not the back of her hand, stretching her palm over my mouth. “Let me lean against you and close my eyes.” She does, and her graciousness wins the day.
The Ogilvie Transportation Center in the west part of downtown is not crowded on weekends. Taxis are abundant. In our town, it’s easy to find a cab, very easy, except when it’s raining or snowing, or if you’re poor or lame. Don't tell the driver you’re going to a distant neighborhood before you’re securely inside. And please, no touristy questions, put the map aside, look assertive.
The Michigan Avenue restaurant offers exquisite Chinese cuisine. Nearly empty, yet the hostess expresses disdain when we deny phoning in a reservation. But our smiles triumph and we’re offered a well appointed table, white table cloth, linen napkins that cover our entire lap, a flickering wax candle, and a tuxedo-clad waiter standing at attention ready to serve us. Cold Tilburg’s Dutch Brown Ale to start: full-bodied, delicious, the color of amber and seemingly nothing in common with the Han dynasty; then Bombay Sapphire martinis on the rocks, dry indeed, just a tinkle of vermouth, their invention also somewhat remote from traditional Chinese culture.
A small appetizer, hot and sour soup with spice to awaken your tongue, vegetables swimming in lobster sauce, soft noodles topped with a touch of crisp pork and beef, and we’re sated. We dine quietly. There are people who need to fill the silence, but not us. I read my fortune cookie out loud: “Today is both beautiful and bountiful and you’ll meet a gorgeous lifelong friend. Your lucky numbers are three and seven.” Okay, I made it up, I confess, but Nancy laughs.
Maybe I shouldn't be so sanguine, because without pausing, Nancy removes an 8- 1/2 by 11 inch sheet folded in thirds from her purse, her hands clearing away her side of the table. Four symmetrically spaced photographs capture my attention: Men, Middle-Eastern appearing, two with beards and turbans, the numbers, one to four sequentially printed below each of them.
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” I say, and stop to stare into the void, blinking my eyes several times as I sample the disillusionment, while my fingers drum a number on the rim of the porcelain tea cup. “You want me to point out the terrorist, don’t you? Pick out the bad guy. That’s what this afternoon was all about.”
Nancy nods yes. “Sorry, very sorry,” she says, “but it’s business. I hope you understand. The racetrack is my territory. This is what I do.” Nancy’s eyes meet mine, her voice distant and even chilly.
“Check out lottery winners, read their names, study their photos, they’re men, always men, they look alike, and they have this number thing. And it’s been there since shepherds counted sheep with pebbles, and pebbles became abacuses, and Sumerians wrote the numbers down, and the shamans, magicians, conjurors, wizards, ran with it. And it goes on and on and you have it. It’s so intermittent it often goes undetected, although we’re working on that. The wizards with the best record end up in the cloak-and-dagger services. We have several of them in the agency.
“I know, I know, it’s confusing,” and Nancy shrugs her shoulders, as if it’s too bewildering even for her.
I’m thinking to myself—what does she mean that we/they all look alike, is it my high forehead, my gait? Is she really talking about me?
“My chief says there’s a bubble that distorts the fabric of time for these people. Think Archimedes,” Nancy says. “Think Blaise Pascal and the mechanical calculator he invented in the 1600s; think Christian Doppler who described the Doppler effect in the 1800s. Uber das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne…no need to give it all to you in German unless you’d like. Do you understand what I’m saying? Think Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, their mathematics shaped the hereafter before it was the hereafter.” Nancy’s palms are open and horizontal, as if she is making sense.
I wondered later if this explanation would have been so memorable without the day being so long, the beer and the martini downed so effortlessly, and the company so appealing. In spite of Kenny Rogers’ Gambler, who “never count(s) the money when sitting at the table,” we split the money, quickly and quietly.
“Number three is evil,” I say. “It’s easy.” This guy’s number jumps out at me like a coiled spring trapped in a child’s faux peanut can offered to an unsuspecting younger sibling.
Nancy folds the money and the photographs back into her purse and leans over the table until our lips lightly meet. “Please don’t be too disappointed. You’re great company,” she whispers, skidding over the awkwardness. “Thanks for the lovely time, but you know sunlight also brings shadows.”
“Nancy,” I say, not taken in by the endearment, “before we part, I need to see some I.D., some identification. As bright and lovely as you are, who do you work for?”
Nancy meets my eyes once more, smiles blissfully, and pulls away. I grab her wrist, and also offer a smile, but of course not as lovely. She nods to the doorway where an André the Giant bad seed stares at me and she extricates her arm and walks out.
Two months later and a lot had happened. There was a roundup of a terrorist group. The newspaper and television pictures of the detainees are grainy, and I can’t tell for sure if any of them is man number three, but I think so. I feel good about that, patriot that I am. I won't let myself think that perhaps they arrested the wrong guy.
While idling in the courtroom, my fantasies include moving to Las Vegas and playing poker or the roulette wheel. Surely my chances of winning are better than most, although my competition might turn out to be lost relatives with similar skills. I am entranced by the idea of landing at a table with a bunch of men who look and play like me. Would we smile the same and laugh at each other’s jokes or repel one another like similar ends of a magnet.
My boss suggests a dinner. Along with her lovely hair, she possesses a winsome smile and teeth whiter than a Hollywood starlet. She keeps a neat apartment. And her thoughts about horse-racing: “Why, it’s the sport of kings,” she says. We splurge at a fine downtown restaurant where I know the chef and we’re treated well. She laughs easily, so maybe there’s no job change for now.
My brother tells me he has never won anything, and I query my cousins about their fondness for games of chance. I learn a lot of family business this way and it keeps me occupied. My nephew, my brother’s oldest, is a government employee and has never exactly explained what he does. If only he would respond to my emails.
When I get home, I sit at the computer and punch in family searches, and email relatives for information about origins. I know one set of grandparents and great-grandparents came from Nałęczów, near Lublin, kind of in-between Krakow and Warsaw. Founded in the eighth or ninth century, it was a spa town because of the healing waters. But I’m not much of a traveler and I have no plans to visit. Even an hour or two of time change wreaks havoc with my bodily systems. That’s when the phone rang.
“Poland,” Nancy says, “start packing, we’re going to Poland. I need help finding your relatives.”
Maybe our tilted, slowly rotating planet lying far out on the arm of an ordinary galaxy is realigning, tossing me numbers as the past and the future begin to merge.