Freddie sat alone on the curb, waiting for Eddie but thinking about his girlfriend. Under a cone of yellow light, he used the last of the kitchen matches he’d stuck inside the cellophane of the generic brand he smoked to light up a cigarette. Only half conscious of it, he let the final match burn down to his fingers before he flicked it away into the night. At thirty-three, Cherry was four years older than him, but pretty like a model is pretty. Possessing long, slender legs and curly dirty blonde hair, Cherry always dressed stylish and sexy. When he’d met her at a party two months prior, she’d worn a denim skirt and silk blouse, with green calf-high boots and black leggings. And even her name had sounded luscious. Like April, Candy, Summer, or Violet. Men had names like Butch, Dick, Brad, and Joe. Or Freddie, which was no better. The Freddies and Eddies and Charlies of the world were never called Baby.
Cherry liked to be called that, although she couldn’t have a baby anymore, after her miscarriage. Which meant that giving her some of the other things she wanted–on a progressively larger scale–had been the only way to prevent her from walking out, like she had with other men.
And time was running out once again.
Where was Eddie? he wondered. Late again, his friend had probably stopped by the lanes to wrangle a bet, and stayed to roll a few frames or shoot a few racks. Fast Eddie was stuck in the present moment, ready for whatever was going down, with no conception of tomorrow. So would he understand this? Had he ever been in love? It wasn’t important, Freddie decided. Eddie was just a ride. Let him keep his opinions to himself, for once. Cherry was all that mattered tonight, as she had every night of the sixty he’d spent with her.
When a beat-up black Chevy Impala suddenly lumbered around the near corner, eclipsing the distant line of neon bar signs, Freddie got to his feet in anticipation. Then, like a defective hearse rolling under a spotlight, Eddie’s car invaded the space where his toes had been. He noted that the Impala idled hot, while rumbling an out-of-tune Blues note in a base key. Nonetheless, the grin stitched on his friend’s impish face indicated that this was music to his ears.
“About time.” Freddie gripped the chrome handle, and let the door swing wide open under its own gravity. He slid into the seat on top of something, before he realized it, and reached beneath him to find a black school composition notebook.
“Never ya mind that,” Eddie said, trying to nab the thing from his hands. But Freddie held it back, and looked down at it. It was one of those bound notebooks by Mead, with tiny blotches of white like galaxies from the Twilight Zone, and a bar code in the lower right. Oddly, Freddie imagined a huge barcode floating somewhere out in the stars, a light year wide, like God had moved elsewhere and the universe was now for sale. He opened the book, and saw rows of amounts and dates printed by hand in both pen and pencil.
“You keeping records now?” he asked.
Eddie gave him a half smile in reply, then pulled away from the curb. He shot out his right hand to snatch the notebook, tossing it in the back seat. Then he took each of the three audiobooks Freddie retrieved from under his feet, one at a time, and tossed them back, too: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE by Ben Mezrich, MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis, and LOADED DICE by James Swain. “Wanna tell me where we’re goin’ now? Across the riverbed, ya said?”
Eddie resembled actor Willem DaFoe, but in an early incarnation, years before Auto Focus. For as long as Freddie had known him, Eddie had never worked for anyone other than himself. Of course, due to his problem with authority, Eddie wouldn’t have been able to cut it on some assembly line. Or even at Sudzo, the full service the car wash where Freddie had worked full time for two years. “Yeah,” Freddie replied, “under the rail bridge on Fourth, over to Grand, then you just make a right, and it’s a couple blocks to the Kelsey Arms apartment complex.”
“Whas the score?” Eddie wanted to know, and gave him a quick look while holding out one hand to bum a cigarette.
“It’s Cherry,” Freddie said, then added, “you wouldn’t understand.”
Eddie chuckled at that, and stuck the proffered cigarette in his mouth, letting it dangle and bob as he talked, waiting for the car lighter to heat up. “Understand the attraction? I do that, kiddo. Trust me.” A low-rider car passed, the guy in the passenger seat eying them both as gangster rap music gifted the late urban landscape with magic fingers of vibration. In the fading wake, Eddie added, “Although I don’t see her attraction to you.”
“Anger,” Freddie said, ignoring the comment. “It’s like they’re stuck in rage, frustration. Or maybe it’s all an act to look cool.”
Eddie lifted a finger toward the car ahead of them. “Ya mean. . .”
Freddie covered Eddie’s right hand briefly with his left. “Don’t do that. They might think it’s the wrong finger.”
Eddie used the hand to retrieve the cigarette lighter, which now glowed red. Cherry red. “Hell, didn’t ya see the rims on that car? They ain’t the shootin’ type. They wanna be on stage, cool breeze. Except that act has run its course. Tell me about yours. Thas the one I’m wonderin’ about.”
“It’s no act,” Freddie declared.
“What, you in love?”
“Like I said, you wouldn’t understand.” He looked out the side window, his eyes spontaneously tracking the laundromat, the gas station, the liquor store, the–
“Well, thas just super,” Eddie said. “If I was a bettin’ man, and I am, I’d say yer just runnin’ scared tonight. Kinda like runnin’ numbers the first time. Except for you, the numbers ain’t there, buddy. There’s no percentage in it.”
“What do you mean?”
Eddie took a draw, then tapped ashes out the window. “You looked in a mirror lately? Go ahead. An’ don’t get me wrong, yer a nice guy, but she ain’t hardly yer type, my man. An’ this is comin’ from a friend goes back to high school.” Another draw, another quick tap. “Woman like her, way she looks. . . she wants someone with the folding green. Understand that?”
Freddie stuck a hand deep into his pocket, then jerked out the wad of bills there. All hundreds. “You mean like this? Watch the road.”
Eddie slowed and pulled to the curb, looking intrigued now, his grin changing into something else. The Impala’s engine became a subdued rumble, filling the silence between them. Eddie’s voice, when it finally returned, sounded hesitant. “You buyin’ her a car, so you can get yer Camero back? Ya know she’s already hung dice from the mirror, right? Or maybe you just wanna buy her a Gucci handbag, or something ta go in it?”
“What are you saying? What do you know?”
“What do I know? Not enough, obviously, or I’d know where ya got that.”
“Overtime. Been saving it.”
“Really? Ironic, if it ain’t for a car, what with you workin’ the car wash, an’ her drivin’ yer wheels.” He paused. “What yer doin’ tonight . . . it is illegal, right? Like playin’ the numbers?”
Freddie frowned, considering it. “I suppose I have to tell you. You being the driver.”
Eddie nodded mechanically. “Me bein’ yer friend.”
Through the tunnel, and across the riverbed, they drove toward Grand, and made a left. “Wrong way,” Freddie said, and hooked a thumb in the opposite direction.
“Need ta make a quick stop, first. Didn’t plan on being over here tonight. Just be a sec, okay?” Eddie pulled into a lot adjacent a sports bar, and killed the engine. The neon read SHOOTERS, but the S at the end of it flickered, and gave off an audible hiss. Eddie paused before getting out, and then spoke carefully, still considering his recent confession. “I think yer makin’ a mistake, Freddie. I really do.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll explain the details to me.”
“Will they? The devil’s in those details.” A longer silence between them. “Look. I know ya think you gotta do this thing. It’s just. . .”
“It ain’t gonna turn out the way ya think. Cherry won’t love you ’cause of this, either. Never works that way. An’ I think ya know it, too.”
Freddie turned away briefly, and closed his eyes tight against a brief throbbing there. “I know I can’t lose her. I know this is my one chance. Maybe my last chance. Our last chance.”
“Ya think you know these things? Love is blind, my friend.”
“You’re just a pessimist.”
“A realist. I count my cards.”
Freddie blinked open his eyes, like water had been thrown into them, and turned back to Eddie. “You never been in love,” he said, and with conviction.
“How do ya know that?”
“Life’s a ball game to you, is how. Numbers in a book. But what’s it mean, whether some jock makes another goal? What are you trying to win? You don’t even know.”
Eddie digested that while looking up at the sputtering neon sign, spread out across the windscreen now like the title of a movie. At last, he sighed. “I suppose we do what we gotta do,” he said. “Maybe ya will get married. Maybe I’ll do the deed too. ‘Cept for me, my wife’ll give me a kid ta go with me to the ball games. We’ll sit there, too, like all the other dads and sons with the caps an’ the hot dogs. Just like my dad trained me. An’ sure, maybe, just like that, my kid’ll start bettin’ on this and that, an’ be watchin’ the tube an’ readin’ the sports page, just like you say. But ya know what? When the game’s on, buddy, there’s the thing ya don’t know. ‘Cause there’s no past or future to think then, see. An’ ya can be sure there’s always another game comin’ on soon.”
Eddie got out, letting the door slam shut behind him.
Freddie watched him go inside, and when he was out of sight, pondered the odds of what he intended succeeding, and whether he was really committed to Cherry. Or had he just been playing a game on himself, and on her? Had he merely pretended to care–like his own dad had–hoping it would lead to the real thing? He wondered how it was for Cherry, too. Women were inscrutable creatures, not going from point A to point B, but dallying with G by way of Z. That they included or excluded you had nothing to do with your inherent worthiness, although they were hard wired to be attracted by worth, much like men were hard wired by shape, proportion, and look. So what was love, then, given these differences? There were no answers on a lonely night in the city, this far down the road. On a night like this, you were simply asked to place your bet and hope for the best.
The Kelsey Arms apartments loomed on the left, a horseshoe-shaped former motel made of concrete block, painted pale green and lit by upturned cones of greener light. Freddie finished the beer Eddie had given him in one long draw, and let the longneck slip between his knees onto the passenger side floor. Eddie hit his turn signal when he saw that an oncoming car was a cop car. Then, when the patrol car passed, Eddie made the turn too quick, not noticing the bump up onto the lot. As the Impala’s shock absorber bottomed out with a hollow thump and bounced, Freddie warned him: “Watch it now, okay?”
“All right! Chill.”
They parked next to an aging El Dorado. Eddie cut the engine, pulled out the key, and began to twirl the rabbit’s foot at the end of its chain. After a moment, Freddie said, “What are you doing?”
“Waitin’ for you, Officer. Where’s the room?”
Freddie pointed across the U of cracked asphalt and empty pool, in the direction of a stainless steel ice machine adjacent some facing apartment doors. “Over there, I think,” he said. “Number twenty ten.” Like our best year together. My recovery year.
“Twenty-ten. Yer lucky number?”
“I don’t believe in luck.”
“Well, twenty-three was lucky for Michael Jordan.”
“Luck had nothing to do with that, either.”
Eddie huffed his amusement, getting out. Then started to cross the span. In a sudden and inexplicable panic, Freddie scrambled out after him. Catching up, he stopped Eddie beside the pool’s low fence, where a small sign on the gate read, OUT OF ORDER.
“Wait,” he said, and grabbed at Eddie’s forearm.
“What, ya got second thoughts now, Reverend?”
Freddie turned toward the cracked lime green depression beside them, and stared down into the shadowed deep end, which was the only area of the lot hidden from the floodlight on the roof beyond it. “I don’t know,” he said. He put one hand behind his head, and looked straight up, searching for stars, impossibly high and faint above the light pollution. But the sky too would not be fathomed, and he felt abandoned by it. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “Don’t know what else I’m. . . supposed to do.”
“Well,” Eddie reminded him, “ya said they’d explain it to ya, didn’t you?”
“No, I mean–”
“I know what ya mean. An’ I been tryin’ to tell ya, you should go in with me instead. The odds are on my side, man. I’ll double whatever ya got in a week. Promise.”
“But that wouldn’t be enough. And I’m not a betting man.”
“Sure ya are! We all are. Some fools just don’t know it.” Eddie stepped closer, lowering his voice to a whisper, as if someone might want to overhear, and Eddie was there to protect him from the embarrassment. “Come on, man. Why ya doin’ this to yourself? Two months? Ya don’t even know her, trust me. Just stop right here. Okay? Just say, ‘hell with it.’ Say it. An’ then just walk away. That’s all ya need to do. Can ya do that?”
“You don’t understand. That’s what I’ve always done. Walk away. It’s why she’s gonna walk out on me, too. Just like my dad walked out on my mom.”
Eddie started to reply, but squinted into his eyes then, and saw something there. Something he’d seen before, like in the eyes of true believers. Dropping his arm instead, Eddie shook his head, cocked his chin, and then took his own turn at studying the shadows at the bottom of the pool.
At that, Freddie sighed and said, “Eddie, I’m sorry, man, but listen. . . you ever considered that God or fate is watching all this? Waiting to see what we’ll do? I mean, ‘cause it’s the one thing He can’t control, right? Or chooses not to. Call it free will, if you can believe in that. Or maybe you think I’m nuts, and it’s all chance. Shit. Don’t you feel the power we got here? Or is this really all just a crap shoot to you?”
Eddie didn’t reply. He just stood there, resigned to it now, staring down as though in a trance. Maybe he’d been thinking of a final pitch before they knocked on the door, but that idea was history now. Something in Eddie’s eyes, this time. In the glare of the floodlight, he looked like a man who’d just lost another bet and knew it.
“Look,” Freddie consoled him, now. “This is what Cherry wants more than anything, I’m sure of it. And these people, they can help. It may not be legal, but it’s certainly moral. This baby’s only six months old, and the mother is even here to approve the sale. Black market or not, what’s it matter? We’ll give it a good home, and get out of this limbo we’re in. I don’t know how yet, but we’ll make it work, you’ll see. You should be happy for us. You can even be the kid’s godfather, if you want. Take him to your ball games.”
As though wanting to get it over with, Eddie approached the door marked 2010, under the portico and out of the glare. He turned to see Freddie open the stainless flap of the adjacent ice machine, and reach in for an ice donut, which he rubbed against his temple briefly.
“Here,” Freddie said, offering the melting ball. “Try to be cool, like him, okay?” Freddie hooked a thumb at the ice machine, smiled, then closed his now empty hand into a fist, and knocked on the door behind Eddie’s head. Three times, for luck.
Eddie looped the ice in an underhand pitch so that it arced and dropped into the pool, like a dead comet into a black hole. He was left looking out at the lot beyond Freddie’s shoulder, and at the last moment saw a car parked there that he hadn’t noticed before, due to the glare. It was a blue two-tone Camero. Dice hung from the rear view mirror. As the apartment door opened, even before he’d turned to see who answered, he smiled back at Freddie.
“Cool,” was all he said.