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.
by Aaron Eastley
Sharlimar looked up. Moved to the bank to be sure. Far up river she heard the engines. They were early, she hadn’t expected them till Thursday at least, it must be something gone wrong.
She walked quickly back up the trail to the camp in the clearing and fired up the single burner. Poof. Almost out of kero. Good ting they comin’ already, she thought. It ent regular though. Even Vishnu ent able to drink out as many Caribs in fived days as last trip’s gold and di-monds probably sold for. But trouble for the boss-man usually does be good for she.
Sparks flashed in the flames. She lowered them expertly.
Back out at the bank she listened to the heavy ruble of the approaching engines blasting before them down the corridor of trees. Two boats. Maybe three.
Behind her, filling the emptiness all around, a thousand palm fronds and fern branched struggled madly, chatoticly, but utterly still in what seemed to her a never-ending effort to thrust their long necks out beyond the thick, intertwined tangle of growth, out of the enveloping warmth and moisture into a cooler, finer air that doesn’t exist in the bush. The mammoth ferns, she had often thought, struggled hopelessly, irrelevantly, and only the river brought life.
A spider fell from the canopy off to her left, and caught itself with a line about four feet above the ground. She knocked it down with the flat palm of her hand, then covered it with one sandal and worked it methodically from side to side. The ground by the bank was worn and hard. Almost imperceptibly, her lips curved. She knew to be afraid of the black ones. Killing them was like killing mosquitos – there are always more – but she liked it anyway. It was plenty bad if they got to you first.
“Why you does be back so early?” she asked Vishnu after they finished unloading.
He spat on the ground.
“Rasheed get in trouble in Georgetown. He talk all too big about de di-monds we findin’ an about he nice set-up here in the bush. Before we get all our gear an food an’ ting arranged for proper, a street boy we meet get all excited an try to fine out we camp spot an sell the story to people in the Organization. At las we haf to take the boy he self an run back here to keep quiet the story.
“So, here we is,” he went on, “in the bush without nuf food or haf our replacement gear. An I’s still suppose to sen’ de divers down an make the kidnap’ boy work.” He kicked at the cook fire and looked straight at her.
“I tell ya. Is Rasheed get styupid, an now we all is drinkin’ Ginger Tea fuh he fever.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything.
He started to walk away, then stopped up short by his cot, rummaged through a bag and pulled out a cotton print dress, yellow with red hibiscus blooms printed on it. Walking back he pushed it into her hands and walked away.
“Deh nah,” he said over his shoulder, “I was able to get that one ting. It should take yuh figure well.”
“Dis roti does be col’ like de dog nose,” one of the men yelled from his cot. Sharlimar looked up from the fire.
“Ya is lucky to get dahl-pouri a-tall,” she replied looking sidelong at Rasheed.
“I find is nicer working for Americans,” the first man said. And this time he too looked at Rasheed.
“It was the first night. Rasheed pulled out his revolver and spun the cylinder once, twice slowly. It was loaded, all chambers. He took out one bullet and rubbed it on his pant leg as if to clean it. Sliding the bullet back into place, he clicked the cylinder in line with the barrel and rested the gun on his knee, then continued to eat. The other man looked down at his roti and didn’t say anything again.
“If yuh still hungry,” Sharlinmar said to him, paying no attention to Rasheed, “yuh can hunt for wild meat in the bush.”
Rasheed glared at her. “Don’t talk to dem stypid lickle boyz, Sharlimar. They ent worth nothin’.”
They ate in silence for awhile, then turned to talking about where they would work in the days to come. Across the clearing, on of the new men whispered to Vishnu.
“Why she cyan’t talk with us?”
Vishnu didn’t say anything. But Rasheed heard and answered.
“Yuh shut-up boyee!” he yelled, jumping up and crossing the clearing. “Yuh jus’ shut up.” He leveled the barrel of the revolver at the man’s head.
The man’s plate clattered to the ground and he stared wide-eyed at Rasheed. But before Rasheed could move or speak Sharlimar came between them and stood still, looking stolidly at Rasheed, ready. Rasheed stared at her, saying nothing, and slowly lowered the gun. Without a word Sharlimar moved back to the stove and Rasheed fixed his eyes on the man, who remained as he had been, wide-eyed and speechless, and spoke to him very quietly.
“Is what I say yuh do, uh?”
The man recovered himself slightly. “Ya mahn, ya mahn!”
“Dat’s right,” Rasheed whispered. “Dat’s bettah.”
Later, after Rasheed had gone to his cot in the higher clearing she stood out of the light at the edge of the clearing, and listened to thtem taling among themselves.
They liked she. “Dat woman does be sharp like a half-grown tamarind,” one said.
“Yah mahn. You see how she ent care about if she be shot or en-ting? She have more guts than ah calabash.”
Still, she ignored them, mostly, in three years she had seen plenty of them, and buried plenty, too. It ent no use to be friendly, she’d learned. It only vex Rasheed and make he send them down more often.
These days it only did be Vishnu she talk to, because he been with Rasheed too long an he too good a diver for Rasheed to shoot he or do he en-ting, and sometimes he could make Rasheed listen when she needed he to. Probably Rasheed know Vishnu will kill he when he ready, an he doesn’t want no trouble, especially in the bush.
They’d been working for six days now, but so far it was only gold dust and small diamonds they found. The new men were getting anxious. It always happened that way. The old ones just sent them down more and laughed at them once they were gone below. The boss-man himself, he never went down.
They had fled Georgetown without much flour, but they had brought a big six-cylinder diesel engine. Three hundred horsepower, Rasheed said, strong enough to pull water through an eight-inch pipe. Sharlimar knew what that meant: dangerous but fast. Plenty more than mud and rocks an ting come up the big pipes . . . but also sometimes man arm, an sometimes man whole body. She had watched them at work plenty times, moving the floating platforms up and down the river, the pumps thrumming deeply as they churned water and mud up from the river bottom and spewed it out into long wooden troughs lined by the remaining men. She had even worked the platforms on trips when Rasheed had come back without enough men, so she knew the work and the code of rope pulls the divers used.
The pipes were flexible with handles for the divers to old onto on each side of their mouths. Holding a pipe with both hands, and with one rope around an ankle and another one around the waist, the divers would swim down fifteen or twenty feet to where the slope of the bank met the flat river bottom. A tug of the ankle rope meant they were ready. Once the engine was on, the divers moved the mouths of the pipes across the base of the bank, sucking up as much raw material as they could. Most divers couldn’t stay under for more than three minutes, so they worked in threes: every couple minutes the ankle rope would jerk and another one would go down. Above, the free divers breathed and watched the signal ropes. One jerk on the ankle rope meant I’s ready, two jerks meant kill the engine, three on either was for full stop and bring me up. Anything but one jerk, the boss-man get mad. She had seen it all plenty times. Rasheed never cut the engines for switches.
About half an hour before sunrise on the seventh day, six men went upstream in one boat and the remaining five went downstream in the other. Most of them had never known any climate but that of South America and the Caribbean, and the chill breeze past the speedboats made their skin rise. They wore only short pants cut off just below the knee.
Sharlima watched the downstream boat pick up speed and plane down the corridor, and noticed the boy, Ravi. She’d asked Vishnu, he was thirteen.
Whatsoever, she thought. He ent nah child or Rasheed wouldna have even bring him. If is a story he had an Tasheed ent think he tough, he’s be at the bottom of the Essequibo now.
Dat would be like Rasheed. Rasheed, de big boss-man. Biggest coward in the bush. Curious, she followed the downstream boat, in spite of it being lead out by Rasheed, and hid in the bush to watch them work.
“Wa-djoo do deh boyee?” It was high afternoon, and the boy had found something in the pumping mud. Found, and pocketed. It was a di-mond. A big one. But Fozzle done see him.
“Waa! How ya mean?” the boy called out. “Wa-opin witchu anyway, sneakin’ up behin’ me all quiety an ting?”
“Ya shut up mahn! I ent styupid ya know! . . . Yadoes think I’s styupid?”
“Na mahn, na mahn! Let go ya me!”
“It have a di-mon in ya pocket boyee! It have!”
“Na mahn, ha mahn! Ent have! Ent have!”
“Ya lie boyee!”
On the near bank, Fozzle had the boy by the throat with both hands and was holding him with his feet a few inches off the ground. The boy could barely choke out his violent denials. Fozzle threw hims to the ground and held him, kneeling across his stomach with one leg to each side.
“It have!” Fozzle roared. “It have!”
The boy just gasped.
Off to one side and behind Fozzle’s back, Sharlimar saw the di-mond half-covered by leaves. It was still crusted around with sand and smeared with mud, but hot sun reflected in one surface clear and bright. She jumped from the bush and planted her foot on it, driving it into the mud of the riverbank.
Others were coming now, in from the platform.
“Wa-oppnin’ here?” Rasheed yelled, waving his gun at Fozzle and the boy and Sharlimar all at once.
“It have a di-mond somewhere on he,” Fozzle growled, still furious, but backing cautiously away from the marauding barrel. Rasheed didn’t need any cause to send him to the bang-ground, and Fozzle knew it. The boy’s eyes were mostly all white now.
Rasheed put the barrel in the boy’s face and told Vishnu to strip him.
“If it have a di-mond,” he said, “then we does out yuh light.” The boy passed out.
When they didn’t find en-ting, Rasheed almost shot Fozzle for he was so vexed at all the trouble. The divers had been jerking at the ropes for three, five minutes, running out of air and getting real desperate. If they came up with the pipes they would suck air and the whole thing would have to be primed again.
The boy lived. Rasheed was sore vexed at she for leaving the camp, but he only swore at her a bit. She ent care. He always got vex with she when she show she ent afraid to move in the bush or talk to the men. He always afraid she will run away with one of them, or go back to her own people in the deep Rupununi. Today, she thought, he right.
Later that night, when the moon had drifted down across the river, she moved out to the bank and looked up-river. She watched the moon ripple and settle brilliant white on the crystal black water. Half an hour later it descended behind the drooping branched of the trees that stretched out over the river from the far shore. The bush was silent. All around, she knew, a million things were moving in that silent darkness, but all were invisible and mute, shut-up tight in the giant living grave of the bush, intentionally silent, prolonging life only by this chosen death of silence, both hunters and prey. For here, during the night, everything was always both, so each creature kept silent and was never certain why.
Once the moon was gone, she stared forward at nothing for awhile. Then, turning her eyes up-river again she whispered: “It ent life there either. In de bush it ent life anywhere a’ tol.” It didn’t take long to dig the di-mond out of the mud and get back to the camp.
They had found another big one that day, and all the men were drunk, laughin’ and kicksin’ with each other around the fire. They had bush whiskey they bought on their way in, so it couldn’t have taken long. By three-thirty they were all passed out, and she left for good.
She knew it was no use stealing a speedboat. She didn’t know how to drive one, and they’d just follow her in the other. She had to stick to the bush. Vishnu was the only one with the guts to follow her and she knew he wasn’t stupid enough to try.
After a long, nearly emotionless final look at the oblivious face of Rasheed, she moved to the edge of the cleared area and out into the night. The moon, so high and clear before, had sunk low into the canopy across the river, and she picked her way through the great trunks and hanging, finger-thick vines in almost total darkness. In the canopy above all was silent, almost completely silent, disturbed only by the almost imperceptible hiss of rapidly beating bats’ wings.