by Dana Anderson
I’ve always been my father’s son. In both physique and temperament, with the exception of his broad shoulders and love of mathematics, I am a bona fide genetic duplicate. Even my grandmother gets us confused from behind, and to this day I can convince my mom over the phone from 3,000 miles away that I’m the middle-aged once-economics professor, now marketing manager for some conglomerate gauge company, toiling in the same closet-cum-office for the past ten years, complaining about the paperwork he delegates to the secretary he’ll never have. He designs and sells those little counters on gasoline pumps. I think about him when I fill up, those clicking spools of numbers, their sums filling the columns of some strange existential ledger. I always try to stop on an even fraction of a gallon, thinking that somehow he appreciates this discrete precision, listless behind that ochre metal desk, calibrating his micrometer for the third or fourth time that afternoon.
My father is the man for whom Franklin planners and pocket calculators were invented. It seemed to me, growing up in our borrowed Pittsburgh flat, that his whole life was an attempt to formulate some algebraic control over our futures, to deduce some Newtonian comprehension of the vectors of our lives and then steer them to the vanishing point of material and spiritual well-being. Newton, however, couldn’t envision the havoc Einstein would wreck on his theories; nor could my father presage the five-year string of relocations, layoffs, and unemployment that would reduce his optimism and careful planning to debt and uncertainty.
However, my conservative father provided for his family no matter what, and he accepted whatever odd job or favor he could. Once he even took a job selling plaster casting material door-to-door to private medical clinics. It was supposed to be some revolutionary new one-step cast-on-a-roll, so easy it would sell itself. Dad practiced at home the evening before his first and last big presentation pretending I had fallen down the stairs, then deftly setting the fractured leg I kept elevated on the arm of our plaid hide-a-bed. He wrote on it in big letters with his Cross mechanical pencil when it dried:
Those are the breaks. Love.
By afternoon the next day he was again walking downtown in his pressed shirt, the want ads from the city daily under his arm.
My father never lost his composure, never left to chance anything that he could pry away. Every position available he applied for, every palmful of coinage he methodically deposited in the small black tin at the back of his sock drawer. It was as if these were the last two variables he could control in his elusive theorem of happiness – his temper and his spare change. At least he had these two sure things. Let the fickle forces of supply and demand push him into and out of every job from here to Harrisburg: he would never crack the scowl of the discomfited, and he would always have a tin full of quarters.
The reliable tedium of meter marketing eventually found my father that year, uprooding us from our uncle’s attic and planting us 200 miles away with the welcome compensation of a steady salary. It was half what he made teaching economics – ten times what he gleaned pushing instant-cast. But the money was a feeble salve for the frustration of his metaphysical impasse. He had given up theorizing about the grand equation. Life was a numbers game not even Descartes’s command of probabilities could call. There was no formula to be divined, no functions by which ambition and effort would yield certain success.
I shared my father’s abhorrence of unpredictability. My life was also a composite of lists – meticulously ordered sequences of things to do, things to plan for; each check mark in the margins was my own attempt at forging absolutes form the abject relativity of every day. But Dad, unlike me, never articulated his disillusionment. He never moaned that the higher math had beat him. He simply fell into the deadpan recitation of maxims that encapsulated his frank acceptance:
“Sometimes your best isn’t good enough.”
“You can’t lose what you never had.”
“C’est la vie.”
Behind the small certainties of his Franklin schedules and regular pay loomed the pall of an indisputable truism – life was not a closed system.
A week-long petroleum convention in Atlantic City, however, somehow kindled in my father that year the subtle, yet unmistakable ardor of a man possessed. As usual, he brought us souvenirs. For Mom, a paperweight. A man stood in the middle of its glassy sphere, his arms outstretched against the city’s skyline in silhouette behind him. Shake it, and hundreds of dollar bill flecks swirled around him, occasionally perching on his palms and shoulders. For me, a deck of cards from the Tropicana Resort with a pencil-sized hole punched through them.
“These cards were actually used in the table games,” he explained. “They punch the hole in the middle so that people can’t sneak them back into the casino and cheat. These could have won somebody a fortune.”
He spoke like the same man unwittingly emulated – the man who pretended that his contribution to the proliferation of gauges made a difference, who invented anecdotes about his insipid days to tell over dinner, who gave thanks in our family prayers for a job I know he hated. But in his stoic composure flickered some hint of hidden knowledge, some trace of revelation. He strode pensively down to his basement study like a prophet descending a mountain.
Mom wasn’t sure what to make of his strange, vatic air. Even our dogs noticed: at the command of his pointed finger they exited the house, urinated, and returned in record time, as if by Olympian decree. We interrogated him nightly. Was it a promotion was it a raise? Did he somehow acquire the secretary they told him he’d never have? He denied all of these, and his usual late hours and we’ll-make-it-to-next-Friday paychecks validated this. I would have wondered forever, if not for the happenstance that made me the sole sharer in the secret of his transfiguration.
I had only gone down to the basement to borrow his scissors. It was late evening. Through the crack in the study doorway I saw him leaning over a dilapidated folding table, a glass of chocolate milk for his ulcer on a napkin, a small book open on his lap. His left arm hing at his side. His splayed fingers forming seemingly random configurations, while his right hand manipulated something on the table top. I poked my head quietly through the doorway. He was dealing cards.
Before I could withdraw he turned, holding aloft a queen he had just pulled from the top of the deck.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“I just needed to borrow…”
“I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing down here,” he interrupted.
“No. Grandpa taught me how to play solitaire years ago.”
“It’s blackjack,” he corrected, his eyes focused on the queen of spades sandwiched between his index and middle fingers.
The word was almost an invocation, deep in his throat – three incantatory syllables: Bl-ack-jack. Without invitation I straddled a metal folding chair and watched him deal out the four hands he was playing. He leaned to gather the cards and the book closed on his right thigh, revealing its title: Avery Cardoza’s Beat the House Companion (over 500,000 copies in print). Noting my glance, he set the book on the floor, jugged the cards into a crisp rectangle and slid them in front of me.
“52” he said, like some fragment of a combination.
“What, cards in a deck?”
“No,” he uttered, exuding the wisdom of the oracles, “52 percent.”
Somewhere in that Tropicana gift shop, along with our cursory souvenirs, dad had discovered the magic of card counting.
“Roulette. Craps, Baccarat. You name it,” he elaborated. “Like every other game, the odds are against you. You can’t out-play them. But not blackjack.”
He leaned toward me. I sensed a sermon.
“Not blackjack. The secret is to watch the cards. Not just yours – all of them. Low cards are worth plus one, high cards minus one. Just keep up with the addition. If you run a tight count the whole game, you can predict if you’re gonna get. High or low card.”
“Every time?” I puzzled, struggling to grasp his method.
“No, but just enough. Enough to give you a two percent edge over the house. Two whole points!”
This was beyond math. This was karma.
He dealt us each a hand. Solemnly he turned the cards from the top of the deck, awaiting my response of “plus one” or “minus one” before taking another. I fumbled with the summations, holding out with two hands a total he marked on only two fingers.
“That’ll never do,” he chided. “If they know you’re on to the math they’ll cheat you or show you a quick way back to the street. Either get it together up here,” he advised, tapping his right temple, “or keep your hand in your pocket.”
He paused to let the lesson settle.
“The count is seventeen,” he exclaimed, extending his pinky and middle finger.
With a coy grin he explained the reason for his recent late nights in the dank study.
He was learning binary notation – he could count to nearly a hundred effortlessly on one hand. He finished the remaining half of the deck in silence, his knuckles ticking like those spools that indexed the sum of his daily drudgery in gallons. He was a five-fingered abacus.
“Two whole points!” he intoned like a mantra, his eyes surveying the panoply of numbers and suits on the table top. “You won’t get better odds than that, son. Don’t look for them.”
Selling gauges occasionally takes my dad near Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City – a few of the places he can practice his statistical legerdemain. When I pick him up at the airport he confides in me how the tables have treated him – pilfering a few dollars he wouldn’t cry over, or forfeiting ten, sometimes twenty dollars from some ethereal vault he’s paid into all his life. Those night he’ll take Mom and me to dinner, and at home I hear him drop the change from the bill in the black tin at the back of his sock drawer. My dad’s no gambler. He’s just looking for the loopholes of probability – for the calm smile in the face of indifference, for the nickel on the sidewalk – for any small, sure thing.