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--- M A R K W I S N I E W S K I
On my sixty-fifth birthday, this friend of mine Howard said we were both compulsive gamblers. I bet him a C-note that he was and I wasn't, but we never did agree on who won.
"We're on an invisible leash," he said the next morning Monsey. It was early May, cool and sunny, with the sprinklers spraying and the robins holding the sides of their heads toward the lawns. The old brick houses there were close together, but you had to climb stairs to get to each porch. Once you knocked, though, they always gave. Almost always a dollar, which made collecting there feel like a slow-motion miracle.
"Sometimes it's long," Howard continued, five stairs above me. "Sometimes short. But it'll always be yanking our collars."
"Do we have forty yet?" I asked. "I vote we stop at forty."
"Say we hit a big triple someday. I mean for twenty or thirty grand. Anyone - -"
"You have to be senile to bet horses that bad."
"But say we did. Anyone else would take a trip to the Bahamas. You know, enjoy life. But not us. We'd just bet bigger and give it back."
"Why the Bahamas?"
"You have your beach. You have snorkeling. You have the drinks with the little bumpershoots."
"We have beaches on Long Island. We never go here, so why there?"
"There you go rationalizing. The sound of the yank of your leash."
"Don't push it, Howard. You're making your theory sound forced."
"You want it to sound forced."
"I want to stop collecting. My feet are sore."
That was the only problem with Monsey: at least fifty stairs to each porch. And we couldn't cut across the front lawns, Howard said, because the owners would get angry and refuse us.
"See?" Howard said. "You need new shoes, but next time you win big, will you buy even a pair off a truck?"
My feet felt broken. "We're climbing the same hill over and over -- for one dollar."
Then we were standing on the porch. "Who's talking?" I asked.
"You always do better."
"How? Everyone here gives the same."
"Which means you should do it to learn."
The door was thick and varnished. I knocked. That was one of Howard's "fine points." Ring and they thought you were soliciting; knock and they figured you one of their own visiting. They took care of their own in Monsey, and I wasn't Jewish but Howard was, and I looked close enough that, standing beside Howard, I usually passed.
The door opened. A sign above the mail slot said NO SOLICITING. But it was a slot, with a chute bringing the mail closer than a mailbox would. That meant luxury, which meant money, which, in Manhattan, didn't necessarily mean they'd give. An old, white-haired man was standing in the foyer speaking to us, but I couldn't hear because a bread truck was rambling down the street below all those stairs. The rambling faded. The old man was staring at me.
"Do you know Paul Elyshevitz?" Howard asked him. "He was a friend and we're hoping to deliver him some unfortunate news."
Unfortunate news. Another of the fine points.
"I don't know Elyshevitz," the old man said, "but come in." He stepped back and studied me as Howard and I entered. An old woman was sitting in a forest-green velvet armchair, also studying me. She must have been the old man's wife: they didn't look at each other. A green velvet couch stood across from a baby grand piano. Howard sat on it and I sat beside Howard. The old woman had pink splotches on her forehead and sagging nylons, her knees touching, her feet apart and pigeon-toed.
"Comfortable couch," Howard said. "We've been walking for some time. The name's Howard."
The old man sat on the piano bench. "Would you like toast?" the old woman asked.
"Thank you," Howard said. "But if you don't know Paul, we absolutely must move on. Though I could ease back on this couch and nap the rest of the afternoon. It's very comfortable."
The old man's posture grew perfect. "From IKEA," he said.
"We have a cot in the basement," the old woman said. "You're welcome to nap for a few minutes."
We'd been offered cookies, nutcake, teas of various sorts, coffee, and garden gloves for the cold, but never a cot. "You're quite kind," I said, "but--"
"A cot would be nice," Howard said. He glared at me. What was he trying to teach me? The woman rose and led him through a hallway. Why nap? I wondered. Race 1 at Belmont was less than an hour until post time.
The old man scratched the crown of his head. "You're related to him?"
"Cousins," I said. If I were Howard, I'd work slowly and carefully toward the money question. But I wasn't anything like Howard. "We're low on cash," I said. "For the train home."
The old man stared at a bowl of waxed fruit on the coffee table. Grapes and pears. He was probably less than twenty years older than me, and the mathematics of that fact seemed to slap me. But the numbers are only numbers, I told myself. He had aged by the process of settling, with eyes and shiny cheeks that said, "Death won't be all that much different." I had a fire stoked by watching a lot of homestretch action, a kind of youth.
My upper lip was sweating. I was sure he knew I was a Gentile horseplayer. Of course, Gentile shouldn't have mattered, but it probably did to him, and who was I to bicker after I'd asked for scratch?
To be technical, I might have some Jewish blood in me. There was always speculation about my mother's father. But I've never celebrated those holidays. I never celebrate holidays period. When I was a kid, Christmas meant listening to arguments. After I married, the arguments continued, with me arguing and listening -- until I left my wife nineteen years ago.
"I suppose we can help," the old man said. He rose, burped silently, and left the room.
I eased back against the couch. I could see why Howard had said "comfortable." The softness coaxed you to stay put, which I didn't like, but I guess you can call that comfort. My feet were killing me. I took off my shoes. The old lady returned, pointed at me, and left.
They had all left through an arched hallway lined with framed photographs. I stared at the piano. Who played it? I wondered. I decided it was a showpiece. All sight and no sound. My toes felt crowded by my socks.
Then the silence began bothering me. Silence has always meant something out of control is about to happen. And you never knew, with Howard. He was one crazy sonofabitch. I couldn't hear footsteps or words: there was no asking, denying, winning, or losing, no sign of anyone getting anywhere. The only momentum I felt was myself settling into that couch.
The old man returned. Then his wife, then Howard, a pair of brown wingtips hanging from two fingers. "For you," he said, raising the shoes. "Thanks to these wonderful people."
"I can't take those," I said.
"They don't fit me," the old man said. He handed me a cream-colored envelope. "Too big."
"Try them on," the woman said.
Then I simply had to stand, so I did. To smooth that over I took the shoes and put them on. The length was fine but they pinched in width. "I shouldn't take these," I said.
"Yes, you should," Howard said. His eyes, glaring at the envelope, told me he meant it. "These people spent time looking for them, and we should go, so you should wear them to show your appreciation."
Insane as he was, Howard knew the collecting game cold. He made up the fine points as he went, so no matter how many I observed, I was ignorant. He had me on dealing with people, his or anyone's. He was ten lengths ahead of me on getting along with people while taking from them. I hated him for that, but then I was saying goodbye, out of there, on the porch, smelling summer grow warmer, Howard leading us down the stairs without looking over his shoulder. He figures they're watching, I thought, so I followed without opening the envelope. The door closed and he stopped and snatched the envelope, opened it and pulled out a ten.
"You're learning," he said, stuffing the ten into his back pocket. The envelope fluttered down and we made the sidewalk. Then we began up the next fifty stairs. The old man's shoes forced a new pain. But we took the rest of the block without stepping inside once. A dollar each time. It was as if they were phoning one another and fighting us that way.
We collected from several more blocks -- until Howard stopped beside a small gas station. He took out our kitty and counted it. Dividing it one-for-me-one-for-you while staring at the sky, he gave me the ten and a one as if it were only a one. I almost mentioned it, but we both knew he was out of his mind anyway. Once, just after we met, which happened at Aqueduct's finish line, we flew to Vegas. We were both forty-seven then -- the same ages are coincidence -- and he went on a jag shooting craps, and whenever he'd win he'd give his take to the first woman who would tell another woman he wasn't a loser. He was nuts, that's all there was to it. I used to think he was independently wealthy, but he wasn't. He didn't even have a checking account. He lived in a wall-view studio in the Bronx and paid rent and bills in cash, or owed them. He couldn't handle being ahead. For him, nothing was fun unless it felt difficult.
He began walking again. All he'd said to me for the past hour was "You're learning." I wanted to ask: Who needs to learn here? My feet were killing me. "We need to catch the train," I said. As it was, we were missing Race 2.
He pulled out his wad and counted it. "I'm short ten dollars."
"You heard me."
I thought about telling him what happened but wanted to bet the ten by myself.
"We'll collect ten more," he said.
"We have to get to the train."
"WHAT GOOD IS THE TRAIN IF WE DON'T HAVE ENOUGH STAKE?"
"Okay, Howard," I said. "Okay. Let's think this through like the intelligent men we are."
He's cracking, I thought. He needs to get down on a horse. I wanted to talk our way to the train so he would forget the ten when he felt sucked by the OTB's action. I was trying to smooth it all over on him, which was risky.
"You know who gave you a ten," I said.
"The guy with the cot."
"I bet you dropped it on his stairs."
We backtracked the four blocks and he began climbing. I stayed on the sidewalk: what was the point? He stopped and snatched the envelope and turned it inside out, then got the look on his face he'd get whenever blizzards closed Aqueduct. I considered telling him I had the ten, then re-considered. You didn't want to make Howard angry. Once an OTB teller stiffed him on change and he took a slice of pizza and smeared it all over the teller's window, then took running starts at the window and kicked it until it cracked.
So I watched him climb the remaining stairs. He knocked on the door and spoke to the old woman. The old man pulled her in and shut the door -- and Howard got on all fours and began searching the porch. He searched the front lawn like that, in rows. The sprinkler went on and he searched wet. He was so dramatic about what he wanted you either loved him or walked away from him. I probably collected with him because he loved horses the way I did, but that doesn't mean I liked him. Watching him, though, I couldn't help smiling. He wasn't teaching: he was entertaining. And if he suspected me of shorting him, he wouldn't accuse me. Accusation, according to his faith, was a sin.
Then he began crawling beside the house. I heard him opening aluminum garbage cans back there, then kicking them. The front door opened and the old man shouted, "THIS IS WHAT WE GET?"
Then Howard appeared beside the house, slithering on his belly. He began walking down the stairs on his hands and tiptoes. Coins fell from his shirt pocket. Subway tokens. He began searching the sides of the stairs. Then a squad car pulled over. TOWNSHIP OF MONSEY, the passenger door said, and someone had scratched off the "S." The electric window slid down. "You dumping out garbage cans?" the cop asked.
"No," I said.
"We're looking for termites," Howard said.
"If you ever want to return to Monsey," the cop told me, "you'll get him off those stairs right now."
"Yes, Officer," I said.
The squad car idled in park. The old woman stood beside the old man.
"Howard," I said. "Let's go."
"As soon as I find that tenspot."
"Howard, the cop is watching."
"So we want to be able to come back here."
"Because. This is a good neighborhood."
"An easy way to make money?"
"Easier than playing the ponies?"
I sighed. "Is that what you want me to say?"
"Then, yes. Collecting in Monsey is easier than playing the ponies."
Howard stood, ran down the stairs, and stopped three inches from my face. He was very coordinated for sixty-five. "Lesson learned," he said. I glanced at the sky -- a large, gray cloud hung over Belmont -- and he led us toward the train, the squad car rolling behind us. This is one hell of a way to come up with a stake, I thought. But it beat the alternative, which was work.
I hadn't worked once since I'd left my wife. Howard never had. We took pride in that. We weren't the type to have someone tell us what to do. Someone not as intelligent as us telling us when to report? In the morning? No one in my seventy-one years has been able to explain to me why someone not as intelligent as me should be able to tell me what to do. Howard always tried to explain why society believed certain people should boss others around, but Howard, remember, was nuts -- and he himself couldn't have described the sound of the punch of a timeclock to prevent WW3. When he tried to explain why society believed in bosses, he mentioned capital, education, America, investment, Darwin, risk, and the power of the haves over the have-nots. I told him: So does horse racing! And that I wanted to take my own risks -- by having jockeys and horses work for me. That was the day he came up with the leash theory, which he never stopped explaining until the day he tore up a winning exacta ticket and walked out of here and never came back.
He'd always explained that theory as if I didn't understand, as if he were a boss and I could, if I were lucky, work for him. And of course I understood. I even explained it back to him to his satisfaction, but he never stopped re-explaining it. He acted as if he knew something I didn't know, which wasn't true. We both knew that, on some days, like the one when we split a Pick-6 ticket that hit despite four photos and paid $1,507, we knew everything. And that on other days, like the rainy ones in November when the track is sloppy and a third of the horses are scratched but you can't win betting favorites to show to buy yourself a slice of pizza, a guy can know nothing at all. It's obvious what we -- Jews, Christians, Muslims, whoever -- know and don't know. It's all out there, and, together, we know part of it. And any seasoned horse player knows that you get in the worst trouble when you think you know everything and start telling others what to do. Which I'm sure is the secret to my success. I mean, I know when to keep my mouth shut. And I never bet more than I have. Follow those two rules and you can enjoy a relaxed life with a few thrills now and then. Say there's a leash around my neck if you want, but here I am, standing in a warm OTB on Thanksgiving Day, without any arguments, with enough cash in my pocket to tell you that believing in Howard's leash theory is the best way to end up a loser. Sure, my feet hurt, but if you work to support people who argue with you, you'll really feel the pull of a leash. Take control of your life, on the other hand, by putting a dollar or two on a quality horse on the days when you're sure you know everything, and you won't feel any pull, any time, anywhere. It's all a gamble, what a person does on a given day -- or over the course of ten or nineteen or seventy-one years. I mean, who are we trying to kid?
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