Safety in Numbers

 “You know, baby,” Griffith said as he took a long toke, sitting up so his chest could expand with his inspiration, “numbers… are… holy.”

He exhaled grandly, an exclamation point of smoke and mystery, as he passed the joint down to me. I was lying on my back on the floor in front of the couch, listening. Grif stretched out above me, while he explained again why it was necessary to spend twenty-five dollars or more a week on lottery tickets. He went on about various numerical configurations in the Bible and the Koran, Kabbalah, the Tao, how nothing in the universe was random, how there was order in all chaos. This time he segued into the history of the numbers game, explaining how in another era it used to be run in order to help those in need: the widows, abandoned wives and children, the drunks and the down in the mouth; the long in the tooth or bed-ridden and disabled of the neighborhood. But then it got too big for a black man to be making that kind of cheddar, so the mafia muscled in and took over.

I flicked the ash into my hand and dumped it into the big terracotta pot of the rubber tree. Fifteen different plants of various sizes, types, in the living room alone, crowded the huge square glass picture window. In the lamplight, the leaves silhouetted the carpet, my face and body, in a shadow forest. The rubber tree was the largest and its branches arched like a praying mantis over the couch. They were his but I’d always taken care of them as I used to help tend my grandmother’s backyard garden.

I’d just started at school again and we could use a little more money, though his twenty-five dollars and climbing ticket money wasn’t so much to miss, but what I did miss was the point. It was two in the morning. Grif covered the dinner shifts, late nights, and I’d set the alarm for two or three in the morning depending on the type of restaurant he worked in. He’d arrive either reeking of grease, spices and food, compost of odors, when he got in. He showered and then we’d light candles and talk, listen to music, or have sex, a passionate beat where we’d look each other in the eye, during, after, talk without speaking until I had to get ready for work. Grif read every free moment—always had—-and I was sure what he said was true. He stuck mostly to history or philosophy and religion. He turned me on to the Essenes, the Gospel of Thomas, and esoteric stuff. He was suspicious of my novels, casing my piles of books or removing them from his as if they were counter-intelligence, spies in their midst.

Before I got up and left for bed, he turned on to his back, staring at the ceiling as if it were a campfire sky, “And it won’t be like the last time. Hit a few numbers for chump change. It’s gonna be the whole thing.”

I knew Griffith from when we both lived in the same public housing court. My family’s row of two story apartments faced his row in the quad. I could see his kitchen window and back door through the swing set in the middle. I didn’t know know him. He was the same age as my older brother and so he didn’t speak to twelve year olds. Plus I was bussed up to the heights while he went to the high school downtown. But, I saw him around mostly by himself, sometimes jogging lightly as if it were just another way of walking a little more quickly. Seldom in a rush, his serene face like an uncut ruby, dark black skin with a glow beneath that reached up into his hair; shiny black sprung springs all over his head gave him an alert yet bewildered air.

We did meet once. The summer before my family moved out. Along with straightening my hair and wearing designer jeans, I wanted to learn to play tennis. Mami refused the iron hot comb, her own afro rivaled the new moon, and I was passing off Kmart brand jeans with the strategic placement of shirt hems to hide the knockoff label. I eventually battered wood racket and a can of balls back in the crawl space of the hall storage closet, evidence of my mother’s past life before divorce and kids and trying to earn a degree. The top edge was splintered and looked gnawed on from someone dragging it on the ground as they’d walked. I bounced my hand on the racket’s flossed face, the top of my head and then my own face, testing the tension. First lightly and then harder, clapping as if it were part of my other hand until the vibration pleasantly twanged up my arms and spread over my body.

I practiced against the brick wall that bookended our apartment row, using the parking lot as my rebound court. Not many people had cars and since we were the first apartment or the last, depending how you looked at it, I could practice volleys while my mother was at work without bothering anyone or smashing windshields. After a week or two of this routine, I heard the faint slam of Griffin’s back screen door. From the corner of my eye, I clocked Grif standing at the edge of the lot studying me. I tried to will my pores to dam up or at least to sweat in a more mystifying, less boggy way.

While my back was turned, he appeared at my side, gently gripping my bicep.

“Backhand,” Grif said as he sawed my arm back and forth slowly. I stared like a dope at his fingers. He let go and stepped back to watch as I hit some more. The blacktop lot was a hot plancha and still, I could only focus on the warm bracelet, the heat his hands had left on my wrist as he stepped in to show me again. Finally after an energetic bunch of volleys, I whirled around to look for him, only to see his back already across the street,walk-running off to wherever he’d been going before he saw me.

Eight years later, after dropping out of state university, I ran into Griffin in the tiny elevator of the public library. He recognized me as my brother’s sister and he looked exactly the same only much taller. He’d been living in Albany, doing nothing special. Now he looked exotic for these parts. He’d grown his hair out on top into large springy ebony coils, shaved low on the sides, half Rasta, half punk that was to me so offhand and natural. Still, when I met my old girlfriends later over fries and pie at the State diner and told them who I’d run into, they considered it queer.

“Well he’s f-f-fine all right, was aaaall-ways good looking. But that hair!” Chloe ucked her teeth. “He came back lookin’ c-c-crazy—to me anyway,” her usual, stuttered “c” stressing the insanity.

“Y’know just doing something a little different doesn’t automatically make a guy gay.” I rubbed my fingers across my forehead to hide the extent of my irritation.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Gotta give it to him though. N-n-never c-c-conceited.”

Danni added, “Don’t even seem to know he cute. Running around town in them tight-ass spandex pants—damn!”

It stunned me again how Chloe talked about Grif as if he were just another guy on the street, another kid from the block. Chloe was Grif’s half sister. Although their father, an upright bassist, had married Niecey, Grif’s mother, he’d also fathered a checkerboard swath through downtown before taking off to play jazz in Brooklyn. No matter how light-skinned or short the mother was, all his kids were the tallest, wiry and darkest around, including Chloe and her younger brother.

“Puh-leeease,” Danni interrupted, “You know full well, he’s always been messin’ with the white girl college students.” As she sipped her soda through the left corner of her mouth, she said out the other corner, “Before AND after he came back. Jordan’d be doing us a public service.” Danni said everything out the side of her mouth, with or without straws—out the actual corner, sarcastic all Mae West sarcastic. “Bring him on back to the fold girl…,” slurping her snicker.

I saw him everywhere it seemed after that, including one morning on my way to work. I turned a corner and there he was on one of his jogs, both torch and runner, the mirage in a miracle. He worked in one of the more upscale college-town restaurants where students brought their parents and out-of-towners. I’d hang out at the bar waiting for him to get off and then we’d wander through the night down the gorge steps with the stream garbling along with our talk, leading us downtown. After a few dinners, Thai, Indian, Greek, pizza became our ritual, the walking or riding bikes, the gorges, climbing trails through the woods.

But that’s what life always was in this small city. Once you’re too old for 4-H or those community center campouts, summers were spent crisscrossing town in packs, Northside to Southside, to what my friends and I called smokeouts or fuckouts. We chased down rumors of Black frat parties we would never be let into up on the hillside campuses, only to drift back down to the Southside, where the small wood frame houses rambled into one another around the project quads. In winter, our steady course interrupted by class buzzers and blizzards. Through an ice-webbed bus or car window, the genuine brilliance of a fresh snowfall, we became as dumbstruck as the waterfalls, suspended from the rocks in frozen daggers. At Papa’s (because he was the eldest at nineteen of his six siblings), we watched TV and drank beer that he’d buy us, surrounded by soon to be fenced mountain bikes and stereos, much of it stolen from the dorms and apartments of student living. In the warm dusk, dealers and their hangers-on came out on the corners right along with the mosquitoes. Only in cold weather did they huddle alone in the shadow of a telephone pole, empty porches or cornerstones, pacing around the block in forsaken circles with cigarette upon cigarette flashing signals in time with clicking traffic lights on empty frost ashy streets.

“The last time” was six months earlier when Griffith had won $2500. It happened the night I made crespelles, crepes filled with spinach and cheese smothered in an aromatic sauce. My dinners were becoming more elaborate as I grew bored with my receptionist job in a department store office downtown and contemplated school. We lived like students in a first floor apartment in one of the split-up Victorians and worked our service jobs like the townies we were.

Grif supported me all the way.

“If you have the grades you should go,” and I could feel his pride in me.

I had made what turned out to be a five-course meal, complete with soup, salad, two entrees—the crespelles and an island pelau—and dessert. I always made meals when he was off, to give him a break from his prep cook job. Turned out his father was Bajan, but Grif knew nothing except music, from the isles. So I often tried to cook something to give him a taste of home.

“I used to love to listen to your mom’s talk, yknow her accent when she’d call you guys in and shit.”

This time though, I’d started with a soup and couldn’t stop, going from one recipe to the next. Grif looked around the table. He seemed to suddenly get a joke and he grinned wide, showing the tiny chip on his front tooth.

“That’s a lot of food, babe. “

We both ate, eyeing the dishes as if they were land mines that needed to be dismantled.

All the while, I was getting monthly envelopes from my grandmother with Christian brochures like: AIDS, THE MODERN SCOURGE and $20 or $50 bills tucked in the pages and dodging calls from my mother that always led to the vast mic’d phone silences that magnify and echo all unstated desires and wishes.

He paused mid chew, “I can’t taste any garlic. Did you put enough garlic in this?”

“You always say that. I used almost the entire bulb in the sauce.”

“Garlic, clean water and ginseng, it’s all you need, you’ll never get sick.”

As I washed the dishes later, I divined the menu for the next day. Fish seemed inevitable. Grif appeared in the doorway. Usually he did the cleanup, order was his delight. Instead he’d gone into the bedroom with the newspaper after eating. Tomato sauce grease skimmed my arms as I fished the last fork from the sink bottom.

“Look at these for me,” he said, stretching his hand out with the ticket and held the winning numbers torn from the newspaper next to it. I craned my neck, back and forth.  

“How much do you get with five numbers like that?”

“Twenty-five HUNDRED dollars!” With his eyes clenched, “I almost had it all!”

He dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms around my waist, my thighs, my calves. Still clutching the last fork, I held my dripping hands up like a just scrubbed surgeon as his weight pulled me down.

 

It was by accident I became involved in Grif’s number playing, stumbling on to the gift as Grif put it, on a day I was feeling particularly happy, blessed even. I’d gotten the classes I wanted, and a line on waitress job. I called a used bookstore where I had requested a search on an out of print book by a writer I admired. It had been almost a year.

“Hey-hey, you won’t believe this but a copy just came in this morning, big house sale.” The bookstore owner was a graying blonde, part of the hippie hangover establishment. His voice was fiending over his new stash, “a mother lode of books, a really sweet haul from an estate sale. I was gonna pull your name out in a few to call you later, just pulling it up. Yup, how about that. You’d be amaaaazed how that happens. Not a lot but sometimes, customers checking the day their book comes in,” he drawled on, “It’s always so cooool!”

That afternoon when Grif asked me for a number, I thought about that day’s date. January 11th and I told him to play the Pick 3 game with 111

“All. The same. Number?” he said in a monotone to emphasize his question. He looked at me as if I’d cursed him out and then softened, “Jordan, those never come out.”

He was quiet a minute. “I’ll play 1 and 11 in the regular game, so give me five more numbers.” As usual whenever he’d ask before, my mind became randomness itself.

Two days later 111 came up in the Pick 3 game. Grif ‘s gaze was a cocktail of awe and disbelief, “I see…I see…well, swami if you feel that way again, you let me know.”

A few days, weeks went by, I didn’t look for numbers at first. I told him to play 1259 from a phone number and a digital clock moment that I had.

He played the Pick 4, box. Box meant if they came up in any order he’d win.

“I guess you were wrong,” twisting his mouth as he stared at the losing tickets.

Slowly the numbers would rise out of my own daily coincidences and moods and music.

Once, I offered one from the page numbers from books, word count on a paper to the number of birds on a telephone wire, the city bus ticket number. It came up in a different game than the one he played.

“Damn it, Jordan! Can’t you tell me when and how, which damn game I should play it?”

It went on like that for months. I didn’t have a number every week. When I did he played it and it never won because either he played the numbers on the wrong day or he’d play the wrong game when they came up or the wrong order. The $2500 win was the result of a computer picked number because neither of us had a number. Nevertheless this fact was lost on him.

He pretended to be his usual laid-back self about it all. I could feel him waiting for me, waiting and hoping for a number to reveal itself. That’s what he called it, “revealed.” Late nights at the library or hanging out after work began to bother him more. I’d invite him along. He’d hesitate, sitting up to consider leaving the apartment with me. Then he’d slump back into place on the couch or walk to another room, shrugging. Or, he pretended that he was too engrossed in a book or cleaning up or whatever to go.

When I did have a number, he’d be happy for days, anticipating the wealth.

“What would you do if you won, anyway?” I asked. “Start that restaurant?”

“If this one comes up this time, I’ll be able to take care of everything, you, me. We could do or go, whatever or wherever we want. Don’t you get it? No need for a restaurant.”

“Yeah but like what? Buy a house, start a business. Move to the city? Travel?”

He thought for a minute or two, slowly grinning, and speaking slowly, as if enunciation was the problem, “Baby the whole point is you wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just be. The end.”

As long as there was a numbered chance, his face came to life, his hair stood on its curl in expectation. It always ended the same and I avoided him. His eyes frisked mine when I came home, sure I had a number hidden somewhere. He began to interrogate me about my day to see if he could piece together a number to play. His skin flaked with disappointment when he didn’t win or there was no number to play. His hair flagged.

We weren’t arguers, too ordinary. And Grif rarely raised his voice and never from anger. Service, curiosity and generosity were our talents. Nevertheless we just snapped over lipstick. I was wearing some to a dean’s reception when I never wore any. Why don’t I wear it for him, he said, I know you don’t like it, I replied.

True enough. How could I explain my attempt to send up a small flare: I am here. Childish. I came home from the reception and cut classes the next day so I could be alone in the apartment since he was working double shift. After turning on the TV, I uncorked one of Grif’s bottles of wine he’d brought home from work. He had started studying wines and had quite a stash. I drank it from the bottle while watching talk shows, then an old movie and another bottle and another until I fell asleep on the couch. The next day, I willed a hangover that never really took. Grif’s questioning trailed my every move, yet didn’t ask anything as I reluctantly unrumpled myself, in the way you smooth a lost receipt saved from the very top of the trash. That evening I broke up with Grif.

“You’re right, you don’t have to leave. I will. I have my brother I can stay with until I figure something out.” He took only his books, clothes, CDs—classic soul, world reggae, punk— and stereo, left the plants. I was a little ashamed at how much I’d miss the music.

For a month we talked only by phone.

“Maybe we’ll get back together,” I said, “when you figure out what you want to do, to be. You’re too unhappy,” I said.

“I dunno, I get that you’re looking out for me in a way. I do get it.” He sighed, “I’m not un-happy though Jor. Not how you think I am anyway.”

When I got lonely, I’d sit with the plants, trace patterns in the dirt, dust their leaves. Once we met for lunch and his eyes looked murky and red although he tried to play it off and be upbeat. I returned to the apartment we’d shared. I was about to ditch the place. I couldn’t afford it on my own. In the refrigerator I had saved the gross white crème center of a couple packs of Oreos, scraped them into plastic sandwich bag as Danni and I heckled a weekend marathon of movie videos. I drew a square on the wall and shaped the chilled Oreo icing into a good-sized ball, chilled it again, and then lobbed the Oreo ball around thirty times from across the room into the square successfully before the icing’s shape yielded.

Another month and I sat at one end of the couch as Chris, a short engineer grad student from Chicago, sat at the other. Nervous, I picked at the label that had softened on the moist bottle. Peeling off the bar code, the numbers typed beneath the black and white thick-thin stripes, its order gradually took form: month day year. It was my birthday.

“Hey look it’s my birthday on the barcode.” I said aloud before I could think. Something soft and pulpy as the edges of a label sank in my chest as soon it slipped out. I noted the brand of the beer to distract myself.

“Really? Kinda cool, yeah?” He paused, frowned “Ooo and a little weird too,” and he did Twilight Zone music, wiggling his fingers in my face, flicking water drops from the bottle’s condensation and started to try to tickle me.

As I pushed a smile, how could it feel so planned when it wasn’t? I could see it all unfold before it actually did, the tickling and then the kissing, my eyes widen and his pores, and tight sideburns the heavy foreign topography of his square body beneath his clothes. Then hearing the front door inhale as it swung open just as I remembered at that exact moment that I hadn’t locked it. And there was Grif. Eyes lit and sweating a sweet boozy liquor.

“How c-co-ooould you,” in a smothered wail, its accusation still plain. He didn’t move again. He stood where he was as if awaiting a fate both under his feet and beneath him. Chris walked carefully around him as he did the male ram settle-down dance to Grif’s shaky yet simmering chest bump. I had told Chris to leave as I kept reassuring that I’d be fine and followed him to the door. Griffith would never hurt me, anyone. Plus, I thought to myself, fair’s fair. Hadn’t I disturbed his peace?

“That’s right leave!” Grif shouted from the living room, murmuring loudly “she don’t know what she’s doin’. What IS she do-ing…here? here? here? here? Where’d she go?”

When I got back, Grif had pulled every plant out of its pot, including the rubber tree, which languished across the couch, a diva suffering from the vapors. The rest were jumbled nebulas of stalks, and lolling leaves, their exposed roots and broken stems in clumps of speckled starry soil that dusted all over the coffee table, floor and chairs. I looked around, avoiding his eyes, tangling my fingers in sympathy with the scene before me. I knelt down to place in its half-filled pot, the plant closest to me, a variegated jade tree that never could get enough sun lately, dropping its thick leaves, often at the slightest touch.

Grif stared down at me for a long while and the evening’s natural light made our silence and its troubled current sparkle. No, I wasn’t scared of Grif, only of what couldn’t be asked and answered, or really ever understood beyond a rattle or hiss in the heart.

At last, he took a step forward and slapped the plant and pot out of my hands. And then, he left.

The following day, I turned the channel to the numbered ball drawing at 7:30. And again the next day, and the next one after that. No ticket, just wanted to see if those last digits would play out. But then I stopped. I knew my date would not come up until I quit watching out for it.


 

Image Credits: Flickr: Jeffery Schwartz