|Excerpts > Winter 2001 > Special Fiction Issue|
The Queen of Sparta
The Queen of Sparta
I was thinking that we wouldn’t be here, making all this money, if Junior didn’t have that arm. Short and compact, with veiny forearms. Back in the 80’s when we were both kids playing ball, he could flip the ball from third to first with just a flick of his wrist. A deep step, and he’d turn his hips into it, launching it from the waist, a gentle arcing ball that almost floated. That’s how we met. In a pick-up game in Philly. I was lunging into my throws and hurling them with everything I had. Saves your arm, Tommy, Junior used to say, saves it up for when you need it for the big one, the crucial throw.
But the last throw was small compared to what was coming up. I watched him shiver down the last gulp of his drink. This was our last table for the night, our last night in Vegas. I thought of the small spot of dust that hung in the air after the ball hits the heart of the mitt. I saw them all coming, Jack, ten, two, six, Queen, Queen, four, Ace, three. We were up sixteen hundred fifty. Junior gave the waitress a fifty buck tip, and I folded with the seven of hearts coming. It was late, though most of the big tables at Caeser’s were still crowded.
Junior talked in a steady stream of exclamations and hyperbole. He was blitzed. I couldn’t tell if he was catching my hand signals anymore. I had the tape running smooth, the long reel in my head where I keep the numbers, the decimal designations, a strip of white on a sea of green felt. We were through three decks in the five-deck shoe and I had them all. After the next hand I’d have the rest too.
Junior dumped about a hundred each hand, doubling down, taking cards on up faces, even when I tapped out a stay on my glass. He had lost enough. The pit boss hadn’t even glanced at us yet. I was getting the numbers lined up to score a couple big hands. But he wouldn’t take them. I rubbed my neck but he didn’t goose it. My chest started getting tight.
Junior dumped another grand on some garbage hands trying to pick up some girls, and kept tossing chips around to anybody that walked by. I had the last fifty cards in the shoe lined up exactly now, every card in my head. I saw the last two aces coming to me, a face, the dealers twelve. The hit would be a ten. So I went ahead and stuck it. I went huge, pushing out all my stacks into the hole. When I was at nine grand the pit boss came over and went to a six-deck. I was in no shape to handle that, so I gave Junior the clear out and cashed in. I could feel the patterns creating without me, the matrix sizing up. I put up a grid and started to sort the combinations.
I waited for Junior a few blocks away in front of the Mirage. After about twenty minutes I saw him coming down the block, collecting the flyers and brochures that lay stacked in iron racks along the sidewalks. The wind picked up, the only wind I ever felt in all the time we spent in Las Vegas, flinging whole stacks of the glossy leaflets into the air. They were everywhere, a tickertape parade, a thick snowfall, and the passing cars spun them around in the streets. Junior clutched at a few papers as they swirled past. His eyes were wide, his blonde hair stuck up at odd angles, and he had his drink in his hand. The streets of Vegas were full of people at five o’clock in the morning, a lot of them looking like Junior. And that was the idea I guess. Men fell awkwardly to their hands and knees, men in wrinkled jackets pitched forward, sprawling on the pavement or swayed into a leaning tack, staggering into buildings and parked cars. For no apparent reason at all. No one laughed or pointed or said anything. It was out of my hands. The shape of the future was spinning, running the numbers faster, building the pressure. The burden of this kind of truth, the foresight of prediction based on generating patterns, even in Vegas, this burden may be too great for anyone to bear. The Cornell Math Labs, The Turing Society Counters, the Mathematical genius of Alan Turing, they couldn’t teach me how to handle this. But I found a solution. We were twenty-two years old, I had sixty grand in my shaving kit. We just had to hang on a little longer.
The act of memorization is not a simple one step process. There are at least two separate stages, involving different physiological mechanisms and brain regions. The first process, or short-term memory, is much shorter than the second, or long-term memory. Most people will be able to repeat a small series of numbers given to them, but will fail to remember after several minutes. Short term memory, in this way, decays over a period of minutes to hours if it is not transferred to long-term memory. Unless these numbers have some particular significance to them, such as an important phone number, birth-dates, or lock combinations.
I flopped on the bed while Junior talked on the phone. It was a decent room, far bigger than we needed. We usually hit the dumps, the places with rubber sheets on stained mattresses and cigarette burns on the nightstand. As long as it met our criteria. I broke out the information case and undid the locks. I took out the clipboard and logged in the numbers. This was a small place, tucked in behind The Algiers, next to the Wet ‘n Wild. Across the street the twin towers of Circus Circus and the glowing hump of Westward Ho loomed brightly. We liked to stay at this end of the strip, and play the other end, never playing anything closer than Harrah’s or The Mirage. We never stayed in the casino hotels, even separately. It wasn’t worth the risk. We’d had shills from the casino try to follow us back before. We never talked or even stood close together in public.
I lay on my back and held two one hundred-dollar bills in my hand, folded once lengthwise over my middle finger. When Junior got to a certain part of the conversation I held my arm over my head toward him sitting over on the other bed. He snapped it out of my hand like a sharper. He never had a problem before this trip. He always treated the whole thing like a game anyway, which is what made him the perfect make, the kind of partner you needed to stay in it long enough to score big. We covered both parts well, because I wasn’t acting much either. His natural social element made me unnoticed, unwatched, which is what I needed to concentrate on the numbers.
We weren’t big spenders by any means. But we certainly had a lot of money. Two weeks in Atlantic City, six days at various Mississippi riverboat casinos, eight nights in Reno, minus the money we blew in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. We always saved Vegas for last. We’d do about ten days, then to the West Coast to relax until the semester started up again. We were up one hundred and eighteen total, plus the nine we made tonight. Sixty in my shaving bag, and fifty-eight in a locker in Boulder, Colorado. You can’t deposit money like this. I kept my razor and shaving cream in a plastic baggie.
Clinical evidence has proved that environmental contexts play an important role in memory recall. Certain heavy drinkers, when sober, are unable to find alcohol and money that they hid while drunk. However, they have no problem locating the items when they are drunk again. These contexts can include not only place, time, physical environment, and mind-state, but emotional contexts as well. In this way mood can be an extremely powerful memory tool. When you become angry, you will more likely remember an event or item first experienced in a similar or equal state of anger. The same goes for joy, sadness, frustration: any emotional state. The Turing Society found that this was the key, this was the extra step you needed to hold the really big numbers, to access them. But nobody ever thought that they cold reach the prediction stage that Turing himself only dreamed about. But I know he believed in it, he knew it could work.
We had been on the road for two months. This was our first night back in. We spent a couple weeks in Colorado, taking time off from our tour. After a few big nights I would get this fear, different from the binding guilt that I used to count. It’s like it would build up, and for a while I could hold any number in the world, as long as I wanted. Then it got too much and I couldn’t do it, I just plain got too scared. I wasn’t scared of getting caught necessarily, our system was perfect if we played it right. But it distracted me, kept me from holding onto the numbers, being able to manipulate them and find the patterns.
A few years ago one of our teams got busted up in Atlantic City. They had a room key and came in right after Isaac and his make got in from a particularly big night at the Taj. Isaac was one of the best counters I’ve ever seen, and one of the best students at the lab. He invented and built his own scientific calculator, with twice the processing speed and power of the best TI or IBM ones. It was a winter run, in 1990. His make was this guy Charlie, a local kid from New York. Charlie was huge, six four and a shaved head and he always wore these thick black framed glasses. They made a good team. Charlie was good protection for Issac, but this was different. A couple of guys just walked right in and pounded them unconscious. They used pantyhose and batteries. Put them in the hospital for two weeks. They couldn’t go to the police obviously. Isaac was a little guy, real thin, and all the bones in his hands were broken. Neither of them did another tour and they both removed themselves from the society list the next spring. Every once and awhile I would see Isaac walking on campus, and he was actually in my Advanced Numerology course last fall, but we never talked. He had special braces on his wrists with these long, metal finger extensions so he could punch in his problems and lab reports on the computer. The last time I saw Charlie he was back bussing tables at the Caribou lounge. People said he spent a lot of time up in this little cabin he bought, deep in the woods. He had to get CAT Scans every month. He grew his hair out, I think it was to cover the scars.
While I lay there on the bed watching the ceiling move in slow circular patterns, I tried to picture that perfect, blue, bowl-like Colorado sky. Junior and I both loved to ski, and we had plenty of time and money. On the days we didn’t ski we mostly sat around the lodge deck at the top of the mountain and drank ice-cold Canadian beers in green bottles. There were huge black ravens that hung around the rooftops of the mountain lodge. They were inky-black and their heads seemed too large. They weren’t scared of anything. I saw a particularly large one swoop down and seize a whole grilled chicken breast, right of the hot grill, right in front of a whole crowd of skiers.
The ski lodge was at twelve thousand fifty feet above sea level. At first the altitude made you stagger like someone had cut off your toes. Junior puked out the gondola window on the first trip up. He hung his head out the window and dropped streams of steaming vomit on the snow-laden boughs of passing trees. He wiped his mouth and grinned at me through the frosted window. Has to happen, he said, you have to give up something to get to the top of a mountain like this. Junior hung his whole upper body out and drummed his fists on the outside of the gondola window, looking at the peaks across the valley.
Those birds are ancient, Junior said tossing a hunk of ice at a raven, older than this whole mountain. He would say something like this, then try to bury my head in a snowdrift. That’s what he was like. He would say things like never name your kid John Wayne anything. Never name your son after the Duke. He’ll be a cold man, a killer. A third of the men on death row were named John Wayne something, or some variation of Wayne. Things like that, things I never thought about.
Or when Junior was up at the blackjack table our last night in Reno, and he hit his third blackjack in a row, he swiveled his head to me, leering and with that odd, slightly awkward look he has when he drunk, and said God isn’t this lucky. God Damn it, God isn’t this lucky! After a big hand in Mississippi Junior held up his hands sniffed his fingertips. Smells like roses Tommy, he said, smells like fucking roses to me.
In 1937, Alan Mathison Turing developed an automatic problem-solving machine that became the starting point of all philosophies, and practical hopes, of digital artificial intelligence. The Turing machine can be visualized as an indefinitely long tape of squares on which are numbers or symbols or blanks. The machine reads the squares one at a time, moving forward or backwards, and can print new symbols or erase old ones. Alan Turing was the master code-breaker in World War II for the Allies. He broke the highest level German codes, and revolutionized the field of cryptography. He changed every conception we had about the storage and acquisition of data, and memory.
Some of the guys used amphetamines. Speed definitely helps with the numbers, amphetamines and strychnine. So if a guy needed help, speed was about it. That’s also why a lot of the guys burned out after only one tour, that much speed wore you out. You learn that on your own though, they don’t teach you that. In the beginning, training was like being at some sort of boot camp. You basically spend a month going through hundreds of scenarios. Then there was the scheduling. It’s pretty tough to run three teams around at a time without getting them too close to one another. We spaced it out, and never hung around any particular place. After the first tour, you were pretty much on your own. Every time it was different. We had to keep it that way to make it work. Even so, The Flamingo, the MGM, and Luxor are off for me now, and that’s just in Vegas. Plus other places, little grind houses like O’Shea’s or Bourbon Street, where we could warm up and rack up some easy scores, but it doesn’t slow Junior and me down much. We usually made at least seventy grand apiece each tour, after everything. We could have made a lot more, but not without drawing a lot more attention to ourselves. Making maybe ten grand a night is not a big deal to a lot of professional gamblers. But when you are counting blackjack, you have to stay low to keep from getting tossed out or maybe worse. We are small time players really, but seventy grand or so in three months is a decent chunk of change for a twenty-one year-old student.
Everybody in the Turing Society used an outside partner. That was our sort of trademark. And it made us a lot harder to catch. The MIT guys worked in pairs and got busted all the time. So I brought in Junior and we spent a month in that basement, going through all the variables. Essentially the Society counters worked with a make, a guy who ran distraction. He would lose, get drunk, and after I started racking up and bringing some heat from the guys in back looking at the monitors, I would begin to lose and work the hand signals. Junior was great at catching them, even right in the middle of some crazy stunt, messing with a waitress or another player, even me. Then Junior would get up big, and because he was so loud and drunk, everybody assumed it was dumb luck. He played better drunk too, for real. The make essentially had to stay light, to lose, win a little, and keep going. He had to forget about the losses he would rack up early. He had to trust me to get the count right, get up big, and also for the hand signals. We had to act like we didn’t know each other. I would act extremely annoyed by him, which always worked well for me anyway. I was faking. I felt guilty about it.
Lying on the bed with my head back I could see the lights of Circus Circus through the window curtains. When we came into town I was drinking gin and tonics, listening to Junior tell me about his last moments. That was one of our favorite games, the last moment. How we would want to go. We even came up with variations. Driving into Vegas we were doing how we would want our father’s last moments to be. If we could be there too of course. It’s pretty tough to listen to a story like a father’s last moments as you drove into Las Vegas on a summer afternoon, drunk, and all the lights coming on. When you come out of the hills and the valley spreads out golden and curved slightly at the edges. Junior was talking about a baseball game, 1951, the Giants and Dodgers, something about Bobby Thompson, and the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. He’d want to be there for that, Junior said, but this time he’s in the outfield bleachers and catches Thompson’s home run in his old mitt. A leaping spear, rising above the others, and bringing it down, feeling the hot palm, the sting sparking down his arm. Then he’s gone. I’d heard this one before. Or 1954 and Willie Mays. Willie Mays, he’d say, Will-ee Mays. Then he’d sigh a bit and go into Mays’ numbers, .341 and forty-one homers in 1954, the pennant, their eighth World Championship. He was always talking about those kinds of things. I didn’t say anything when he got the numbers wrong.
When I tried to imagine my father’s last moment, I always came up with the same thing too. I see him as a young boy, eight or so. He’s running through a field of wheat, back in Oklahoma. The light is like morning, the best morning, with a bright sheen to everything. I’m chasing him in the wheat, both of us running and laughing, then I catch him, and we both tumble to the ground together. I can see his eyes bright and shining with a certain kind of joy, the kind of joy that you lose later on. Then it always switches, hard, I don’t see him anymore, I don’t see his moment. The field turns to a vast white plane, like a sheet of paper. A small marble sized ball, metallic like steel, is rolling toward me. The plane tilts a bit to give it motion. I can see the extent of its plane, like a geometric graphing grid. The steel-like ball is so small that I shouldn’t care. But I know that the steel marble somehow has the mass of something far greater. It is incredibly dense, the weight of a thousand suns, a weight that cannot be calculated. I am afraid of this thing, every time. The density could crush everything. My feet feel heavy and I can’t think.
I watched the Circus Circus blink through the window, while Junior ordered up a woman like a pizza. I hid the money under the bathroom sink, then sat on the edge of the bed and lit a cigarette. I didn’t want one really, I had smoked too many already that night, but it seemed like the right thing to do when you were sitting in hotel in Las Vegas at five in the morning waiting for a hooker. Junior was in the bathroom washing up.
I don’t want to do this, I said.
What? He was running the sink and I could hear him brushing his teeth. I walked over to the bathroom and leaned in.
I don’t really want any part of this, I said.
Okay. Then don’t.
Then what the hell am I going to do?
What do you mean? He said. He stopped brushing his teeth and looked at me in the mirror. His hair was wet and he was trying to push it back with his other hand. He still had on his oxford shirt and blazer, but no pants.
Junior was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents lived in a walk-up just down the street from the old site of Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers used to play. But his father and grandfather were born in Manhattan, so they all went out for the Giants. He said he like the Polo Grounds better anyway, though it was a ridiculous shape for a ball-field. Centerfield was way too deep. No way Mays could have made that catch, the famous over the shoulder basket catch, in a regular stadium, it would have been out by a mile. On the actual spot of Ebbets Field there is a series of high-rise projects. I’ve seen a picture of him near a small cornerstone in one of the project buildings, a crouching blonde kid in a Giants ball cap. The inscription said Here stood Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. His father orchestrated that picture, thought it was a nice spit in the eye for the Dodgers. Junior carries around a picture of his grandfather at the Polo Grounds. He looks a lot like Junior, the same broad grin with prominent, healthy teeth. His grandfather is wearing a floor-length raccoon jacket and a pork-pie hat, grinning and waving a rolled-up program in the stands surrounded by other similar looking, grinning men. He keeps it in his wallet along with a ticket stub from that ’51 championship game.
Junior’s father was an urban planner who helped develop those project buildings. Now everyone knows those places are hubs for crime, the drug trade, violence, and desperate poverty. Another spit in the eye from my old man, Junior says, he bore that grudge all the way to the end. Wasn’t enough they tore it down, he grinned, my old man had to salt the earth. Do it Roman style. Either way, Junior’s father made a fortune in that project boom in the sixties, and eventually moved the family away from those projects he built, down to a rich suburb in Philadelphia.
I joined The Turing Society during my sophomore year at Cornell. Everybody in the Mathematics program knew about it, but it still had a sort of mythical status. You never really knew who was in it, until they went “on tour” for a semester or summer. The Turing Society never had more than six members. Any more than that and it would get too big, too well known. Even then we had careful scheduling to keep us all spread out and moving. I know that MIT has a group, as well as Yale. We liked to think ours was the best though, we had the best cryptography students in the world coming to the Cornell Math Labs. The society has been around since the forties, but we only started hitting the casinos about twenty years ago. In the beginning those guys just hung out and talked math, or worked on some problems. Most of the guys were in numerology, or in cryptanalytic theory like me. You had to be invited to try out, and only three or four guys were asked a year. Some guys would graduate out, when they went on to jobs in stock analysis or artificial intelligence. But most didn’t stay in for more than a year or two. They would get burned out, or scared.
This was our third year, Junior and me. We weren’t really players, so to speak. There were a lot of better card players than us, people who played the people, the psychology of the game, all those kinds of things that most professionals use. I knew numbers. I could count, hold, and access around three hundred numbers in my head. I could see the patterns in random sets of numbers that others couldn’t.
When I met Junior he was an incredibly graceful infielder, the only kid in fifth grade who could easily turn a double play from short every time. And he was the only kid who talked about people like Pee Wee Reese, Sal Maglie and Gil Hodges. Nobody ever knew what the hell he was talking about. In those days it was all Vida Blue, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose. I couldn’t hit worth a damn so I didn’t play past my sophomore year in High School. Junior played a season in college, Division III. He wasn’t much of a hitter either, couldn’t hit anything but fastballs, but still a natural talent. He was smart enough to know he wasn’t going anywhere with baseball.
Lately when he gets real cockeyed with drink he’ll curse me for it. We were in a hotel in Atlantic City two weeks ago and he really broke down. For this, he muttered, for this. He was sitting on the bed with four large stacks of hundred dollar bills. He turned to me. His white oxford shirt was torn down the front. What do you know, he said. What do you know about anything? Junior started picking up thick wads of bills and throwing them into the duffel bag. I was standing there with my hands in my pockets, waiting for morning to come. He went into the bathroom and slammed the door. I kneeled down and started picking up the crumbled bills off the floor, and a few minutes later I heard him muttering to himself a bit. A couple hours later he got into the shower, packed up his clothes, and we got into the car without saying anything and drove to Mississippi. This is not an easy thing to do. It can tear you apart from the inside in a way that I’m only beginning to understand. My bones felt loose in my skin, like they might float apart. I could see every space, every line in the road miles before we got there.
Junior still loves the Giants, even though they are the San Francisco Giants now. Horace Stoneham moved the team after the ’57 season, following the Dodgers move to the West. Loves Barry Bonds, though he’s still not the player Mays was. Can’t cover the green like Willie, Junior says, nobody covered that deep center like Will-ee. I think it’s mostly because of that single picture of his grandfather. But he also said that when the Giants moved it almost killed his father. You have to take that kind of history with you, he said to me, you have to hang onto that. My grandfather would want it like that. I owe it to him, he said, I owe all of them that.
I knew Junior would be perfect for the job. I needed a new partner, and we never picked guys from Cornell. So I called up Junior at Ithaca College, just down the road from Cornell, and asked him if he wanted to take a semester off and earn some huge money. Doing what? he said. Just for being you, I said.
He toweled off his face.
I can’t stay here, I said. I don’t want to be standing here when she shows up. What the hell would I say? I sure as hell don’t want to see it.
Then get out of here, he said. Go take a walk or something.
This was Las Vegas, five in the morning. I was drunk. Anybody walking the streets this hour is to be avoided. I wasn’t about to do that.
How ‘bout I hide out in the bathroom? I said. I’ll just stay quiet.
Fine, Junior said. Fine with me.
I was trying to read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when she came in the hotel room. I could hear her very clearly through the bathroom door, that musical distinct girl-not-man voice. Actually I was sleeping, holding the book in front of my face. I was sitting in the bathtub, with the curtain drawn and the door closed. I left the light on, because I intended to read while Junior had his little visit. I know now this was a dumb idea, and besides I was reading History of Western Philosophy. It’s a very thick book, nine hundred pages, with lots of massive ideas. Heavy stuff, as Junior would say.
Earlier Junior flipped through my book and said: why don’t you just have a cement truck back up and pour a load in your head? That stuff will just fill you up and weigh you down. That was when we were in New Mexico, in the White Sands National Park. Junior was videotaping a UFO that we had been watching. It hovered just over the rim of the vast canyon for almost an hour. I was reading the section on Spinoza. The only living things out there on those white sand dunes were these huge black beetles. Junior threw some sand on them and they turned around and stuck their ass in the air. We sat with our backs to a steep dune, and after an hour several dozen of these beetles were lined up in front of us in a semi-circle, all with their asses pointed in our general direction. We drank a bottle of Burgandy, the only wine Junior liked, and watched the sun play over the dunes. The wind kicked up sand particles for miles and it seemed like the sun was setting over just the next dune, and the next one, and all the ones around us. The color shifted in blues and golds with each gust of wind, like curtains moving over an open window. Junior ran into the sunset, holding out his arms like a plane. Thaaaaaaank Youuuuu! he yelled as he ran. Thaaaaaank Youuuuu!
I tried to read some more, but it wasn’t going to work. I was stuck on the Spinoza section. The bathtub wasn’t so comfortable either. I heard them talk a bit, though I couldn’t distinguish what they said because the bathroom door was closed of course.
She walked in the bathroom just as I was dropping off again, the book still open to Spinoza. I could tell it was her, just by the way she moved. I had the shower curtain pulled, and I could see her shape through it as she used the sink. The smell too. She ran the sink for a bit, humming to herself, and rummaged through her purse. Then she turned toward the shower. I froze, gripping the book so hard that I tore a couple of pages. After a moment, she stepped forward and pulled back the curtain.
She was startled for about a half-second. Then her eyes narrowed and she smiled. She wasn’t beautiful, not really beautiful at all. Plain and ordinary. I wondered if Junior was dissapointed. I expected something in spandex or at least tight. But she was going with the school-girl look, a short plaid skirt and white blouse. Thin horn-rimmed glasses and one of those tiny little backpack purses. Her face was shiny.
I almost maced you, she said.
What? My voice cracked a bit.
I almost maced you, she said. You know, mace? She shook a little metal can of mace in her fingers. I hadn’t noticed it. Spray it in your eyes and it hurts like hell?
Oh yes, I said, that.
You guys should have told me. I wasn’t expecting someone to be sitting in the shower.
I just nodded at this. It was after all pretty important advice.
She leaned up against the sink and lit a cigarette. She could have been twenty or forty years old, I couldn’t tell.
You want to join the party?
Ah, no thanks.
So what the hell you doing in the bathtub? You normally read in the bathtub at four AM?
No. Just tonight.
She sucked on her cigarette with great concentration, squinting. Whatcha reading?
I just held the book cover up. Her eyes brightened a bit.
Philosophy. I like history myself, she said. I read history books all the time.
She crossed her arms over her chest. Her hair was up in some sort of loose bun, with two large pins sticking out. With the top few buttons undone her blouse gapped at the neck. I traced the smooth skin of her neck, and the slender prominent bones spreading toward her shoulders. Then I wondered what the hell Junior was doing.
I just think history is more interesting. I was reading this afternoon about the Spartans, you know, the ancient Greeks?
I sat up and nodded, trying to look interested.
I was reading about the Spartans and how they lived and all. It’s pretty interesting, you know, how they did things. They lived a lot like us in some ways. Except maybe things were a lot simpler. Like they used pieces of iron for money. Not gold or silver or anything like that. You know why? I shook my head. ‘Cause they could always use the iron for weapons. Make it into a spear tip or even just bash someone over the head with it. Iron was more important. See, their money was also their weapons, it was the same thing to them.
That’s very interesting, I said. I didn’t know that.
You know what else? she said. You ever hear about how they raised their kids? They would leave them out in the woods for a couple of months. I mean these kids are like five or six years old. Just chuck ‘em out there, all by themselves. And if they survived, they would let them back in. But then all the kids were put together in a big stockade and raised communally. No one had their own kids really. They would train them in this stockade as fighters, warriors. It was pretty rough. And if they ever cried, any one of them, even once, they would beat them and throw them out of the city. So as a kid in Sparta, you could never cry. And the women, the women couldn’t show any emotion ever. Like when their husbands or brothers or whatever were killed in battle? You couldn’t cry or anything. It was a sign of weakness. Isn’t that something?
I nodded. She blew smoke at the ceiling by jutting our her lower lip.
Imagine that, she said, no crying. I would have done well though. My mother told me that when I was a baby I never cried. Never. Didn’t matter if I was hungry or wet my pants or whatever. I never cried. Shit, that’s kind of odd isn’t it? It’s weird to think about. Maybe that’s why I was diggin’ this Spartan thing so much. It seems like that would be impossible. I mean a baby has to cry sometime. But that’s what she said.
That is strange, I said. I lit a cigarette myself, maybe just because she was smoking. I’ve never heard of something like that before, I said, which was true.
I’m pretty proud of that I guess, she said. I think it’s pretty rare. Might be one of my greatest accomplishments I think.
Must have made it easier on your mother, I said.
Yeah, sure. I guess.
That is something, I said. Really.
Most people failed the tryout anyway. I was the only one who made it out of my group that year. I was pretty confident. In a way I’d been practicing for years. One of Junior’s favorite bar games was to set up some guy with a sports trivia bet. I could give you just about any number in the game. Batting crowns, rosters, averages, records, you name it. I think that’s why Junior liked hanging out with me at first. I was never a real popular kid. He seemed to really appreciate it. But I couldn’t put the faces to it, to the numbers, the records. The names just became letters signifying certain variables, like an equation. I was okay with the names, but never the faces.
I’d played cards a bit, and never had any problem counting. I knew the Turing Society used multiple decks, so I practiced some before hand. They knew I was good, or they wouldn’t have asked me. But “counting the stacks” as they call it, is really something else. Artie Goldman and a couple other counters lived in an old Victorian farmhouse outside Cornell. This house had an old unfinished basement with bare rock walls that streamed with moisture in the summer, and in the winter a thin sheen of ice coated the place, giving it a shining, reflective look. They had a set up down there, a table with green felt marked out and a shaded overhead light, just like the real ones. Somebody built it in the seventies and it was a bit ragged but still worked well for practice. A guy stands there like a dealer and just starts going through the shoes. They actually had the shoes, three, four, five, and even six deck shoes. You sit down in this drafty basement, it’s the dead of winter and the snow is piled up against the windows and a layer of ice coats everything. A couple of older counters stand to the side to check you. Then its just hours of the slap slap slap of the cards on the felt, the sweep, a pause, and then your voice, calling out the numbers before they flipped the last cards. They tried to screw with you a bit too, changing up the environment and things. One of the most disconcerting things about the big casinos is the incessant ding ding ding of the slot machines. You listen to that for six hours and you’ll be hearing it in your sleep. In the basement a guy played a tape of Pink Floyd’s Money, just the first thirty seconds, with all the money dinging and clinking. It was a triple overdub, and they played it very loud. I can’t stand that fucking song.
Three decks, or one hundred and fifty six numbers in sequence is not something most people can remember. Most people probably couldn’t do one deck. I knew some tricks. You assign numerical values to every card in the deck, each suit with a different decimal designation. Of course visualization cues are important. I kept my numbers on a long reel of white paper in my head. I could bring it back and forth, to whatever number I needed.
You had to stay emotionally focused, through each part of the process, the deal, the call, the count off. Guilt seemed to work best. I just concentrated on feeling guilty. It’s not too hard, there are a lot of things in this world to feel guilty about. After a few decks I could get it built up to a point where it became automatic. It was like a swelling in your heart, uncomfortable at first, but then you can just breathe with it, and it feels like your heart is actually huge. I mean you just feel so much with it, like I could tap into some sort of empathic force inside of me. Then the guilt would build into a nice, tight feeling, like after a full steak dinner. Or like that feeling you get when you backed the car over your own cat in the driveway.
When I made it through the three-deck shoe pretty easily they had me do them over again backwards. I did the four-deck, the five-deck, and almost made the sixth. They had to start writing the numbers down to keep up after four. I mixed up some clubs and a face card or two. My limit then was about three hundred. I’ve done more since.
In the 1930s most Western military codes were based on the one-time principle, meaning that there would be only one set of keys for the transmission. One copy was given to the sender, one to the receiver of the message. The idea is that the key would be constructed by a genuinely completely random process, something that could not be replicated exactly, like throwing dice, or a shuffle of the cards. In this way, there would be nothing for the cryptanalyst to go on. There would be no way of verifying a guess, or reason to prefer one guess to another. The code depended on the key being absolutely patternless. This is how Turing revolutionized cryptography: he discovered that within the apparently patternless you could still discern a pattern, and predict the results based on past numbers.
Last year in the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City I did six-deck shoes for five consecutive hours. The high was incredible, the pressure, the weight of it. I felt like I was filling the room. They had everyone over there, pit boss, security, everything. They knew what I was doing, but I measured them perfectly. As soon as they looked like they were going to make a move, we split. And Junior always took a lot of the heat off. He knew how to work distraction, that’s for sure. We made thirty grand that night. It’s not too hard to feel guilty during something like that
Well, I better get on the job here, she said. If I don’t get back in a certain amount of time, someone comes and get me. You guys wouldn’t want that.
I nodded, perhaps too vigorously. I searched for something to say.
Good luck, I said, then felt immediately foolish.
But she smiled broadly. You too. Whatever you guys are doing. Stay out of the bathtub. Or maybe you should stay in it. She laughed again.
Yes, I said, I think I’ll stay in it.
O.K. She clucked her tongue once.
You would have made a great Spartan, I said, definitely a good Spartan.
Thanks, she said. That’s cool, thanks. But you wouldn’t, you know.
I know, I said, I know it.
She put her cigarettes into the tiny backpack and walked out.
Then it was silent for a while. All the lines were blurred together in my book, and I nodded off for a bit. My head snapped up again when I heard a heavy thwack from the bedroom. Then more thumping noises, sickening thuds. I put the book down between my legs and griped the sides of the tub. I was suddenly slick with sweat, and I took a deep breath and heaved myself up. I eased the door open, taking perhaps a whole minute to turn the doorknob. The thwacking noise stopped, but I could hear Junior groaning softly. I crept along the wall leading to the room where the beds were. I crouched there for a moment. I heard a slight creaking of the bed and some pained, jagged breathing. All the lights were on and I stood there for a moment longer, then eased my head around the corner.
After about three seconds I whipped it back. There aren’t many worse things than spying on your buddy doing a hooker, without his consent. I didn’t see much, but I saw enough. I saw Junior spread out on the bed, arms and legs thrown out wide, while the Queen of Sparta crouched over his groin, working at it close up with a rhythmic motion. Junior’s eyes were wide open and staring at the ceiling and his mouth moved, forming words without sound.
I got back in the tub, shaking and gulping air. Pure traffic wreck, I told myself. You can’t help but look at the body crushed and bloody behind the wheel. I gasped a few times and fumbled with my book for a few moments before I realized that there were tears going all the way down my neck, and with each breath the whole bathroom seemed to swell slightly. I put my head back, and sitting there in the tub with the book in my lap I felt it coming, building in my chest, and when I slept I dreamt of the numbers.
I woke up a couple of hours later, and found Junior laying naked and sprawled out on the bed. I threw the bed cover over him and turned off the TV. His face was flushed and relaxed, like he was dreaming of home, and his hands lay open on the sheets. I wondered if he dreamed of his grandfather, laughing in the stands of the Polo Grounds, hat tilted back rakishly in the sunshine, eyes full of the hint of glory. It’s not nostalgia, or some foolish lost dream of a better time that moves Junior. It’s something much greater. It’s that brief, tragic, and distinctly American sense of history. He held onto it like playing a game, like gambling even when the odds are never in your favor. Junior never counted a damn card in his life. He didn’t need to. It’s the only way to hang onto to something like that.
The sun was coming up, glinting in an orange burst on the mirrored walls of the casinos down the strip. Sure, we could have probably talked together in public, we could have eaten together, even played the tables together maybe. But why risk it? Follow the criteria and they couldn’t touch us.
People were everywhere, walking on the sidewalks, coming in and out of buildings, crossing streets. A few lone men still stumbled and fell, picked themselves up, and continued on to wherever they were going.
When the exchange is made from short-term to long-term, the memory becomes incredibly fixed. These memories are notoriously difficult to erase. They are the most enduring features acquired during a person’s lifetime. Everything else about you will change, every aspect of your physical being, your skin, your hair, your opinions, your mental abilities, your voice, everything. Except those rooted memories that you hold somewhere in the convoluted folds of the memory center, somewhere deep in the brain. No one knows where for sure. I see the cards in a dark room, in long reels, long unending reels like the tape in a cassette. The lines of numbers move back and forth before me on a table of jade green. My neck sweats as it climbs, the guilt, it builds and builds, and I can go on forever. There is no way of figuring out how it works. The numbers are the same every time I come back to them. Alan Turin knew this. You just have to play the machine.
Junior would wake up in a few hours, and we would have quick breakfast at the Stardust for a dollar ninety-nine. We would sit alone, by ourselves, across the room from each other, and Junior would never even glance in my direction. We would walk out into the punishing sunshine, pile our worn bodies into the car and drive out to San Diego. We would cross-deserts and mountains that day, and we wouldn’t say much of anything. The sun would lie on the side of an amber bluff, showing each detailed ridge of sediment in clear relief, each line a yellow and maroon indicating a hundred years per inch, maybe more. I didn’t want to ask any questions. I didn’t want to give in. I was still saving it for the big throw.
Back in New York State the wind would be coming out of the rocky gorges of Cornell, billowing upwards pushing leaves, flakes of ice, bits of trash, everything, into the sun. Over the streets and the tall, lean buildings of the campus, over the corner outside my apartment where Junior picked me up in his car when we drove out of the city to the old farmhouse. The wind there is the kind of wind that makes you think of the carefree places of the world.
The Queen of Sparta was just stirring in her bed, turning onto her side and gazing at the glow coming through the window blinds. She would have to get up in another hour to work. Maybe she could hear the hum of the city, the electric buzz that blocks out the night in Las Vegas, as the lights began to come on. She could hear the sound of things unhinging, the way the spaces between memory and history spread like old lands.
Junior drove fast, directly west, directly into the sun. The landscape spooled under us, we spun away from the dessert, the crust of dry earth, Nevada, the brief triumph of all the cities of light. You can’t bear that kind of guilt for too long, it will kill you. I knew I wanted to save him. Somewhere near the border of California you lose us as the daylight fades, signaling the end of the day.