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To Gerda Nielsen
It was night and I was alone, behind the locked door, the bulletproof glass. Outside, the city of New York was in the black grip of January. For the last two years, six times a week, I'd come in an hour before midnight and left at eight in the morning. I was neither content nor discontent. The room I worked in was warm, the work untaxing, the necessity to speak infrequent.
My duties left me time for my own amusements, with no one to give me orders or change the routine of the night. I spent an hour on the Racing Form, preparing my bets for the next day. It was a lively paper, written with brio, confident of the future, renewing hope with each edition.
Finished with my calculations of times, weights, distances, sunshine, and rain, I read, making sure always to have a supply of books on hand to suit my tastes. For other nourishment there was a sandwich and a bottle of beer that I picked up on the way to work. Twice during the night I did isometric exercises, for the arms, the gut, the legs. Despite my sedentary occupation, at the age of thirty-three I was stronger and in better condition than I had been at twenty.-I'm just short of six feet tall and weigh one hundred and eighty-five pounds. People are surprised when they hear I weigh that much. I'm vain enough to be pleased by this. But I wish I were taller. Some women have told me I look boyish, which I don't take as a compliment. I have never longed for a mother. Like most men I would prefer to resemble the sort of man who is cast on television as a captain in the Marines or the leading figure in a desperate enterprise.
* * *
I was working on an adding machine, preparing the previous day's accounts for the day staff. The machine made a noise like a large, irritated insect as I hit the keys. The sound, which had at first annoyed me, was now familiar and rhythmic, soothing. Beyond the glass, the lobby of the hotel was dark. The management saved on electricity, as on everything else.
The bulletproof pane had been put in over the front desk after the last night man had been held up for the second time. Forty-three stitches. The night man had taken up another profession.
I owed my position to the fact that, at the urging of my mother, I had taken a year's course in business procedures in college. She had insisted that I learn at least one useful thing, as she put it, in those four years. I had finished college eleven years ago and my mother was now dead.
The name of the hotel was the St Augustine. What yearning for the South the name represented for the original owner or what obscure religious whim would have been hard to say. There were no crucifixes on any of the walls, and only the four potted rubber plants in the worn lobby had any conceivable connection with the Tropics. Although it looked respectable enough on the outside, the hotel had seen better days. As had its clientele. They paid modestly for their accommodations and expected little in return. Except for two or three guests who wandered in late, I hardly had to talk to anybody. I hadn't taken the job for its opportunities for conversation. Often whole nights went by without a single light showing on the switchboard.
I was paid one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. Home was one room with kitchenette and bath on East Eighty-first Street.
* * *
Tonight I had been interrupted only once, by a prostitute who had come down from upstairs a little after one o'clock and had to be let out the front door. I hadn't been on duty when she came in so I had no idea which room she had been visiting. There was a buzzer by the side of the door that was designed to open it automatically, but it had been broken for a week. I sniffed the cold night air briefly and was happy to close the door and get back to the office.
The Racing Form was open on my desk to the next day's program at Hialeah. The warm holidays of the South. I had made my choice earlier. Ask Gloria m the second. The filly had finished out of the money in its last three outings, but had had a good race up North in the autumn and was dropping down in class. The probable odds were fifteen to one.
I had always been a gambler. I had paid a good part of my way through college in fraternity poker games. When I still was working in Vermont, I played in a weekly poker game and figured I was ahead by several thousand dollars by the time I left. Since then I had not been particularly lucky.
In fact, it was my devotion to gambling that had led me to the Hotel St Augustine. When I first drifted into New York, I had happened to meet a bookie in a bar. He lived in the hotel, and paid off there. He gave me a line of credit and we settled at the end of each week. The hotel was cheap and convenient, and my financial situation did not permit me to demand luxury. When I ran up a five-hundred-dollar debt to the bookie, he had cut me off. Luckily, he said, the old night clerk had just quit his job and the manager was looking for a new man. I looked and sounded like a college graduate, the bookie said, and he knew I could add and subtract. I took the job, but moved out to a place of my own. Twenty-four hours a day at the St Augustine was more than anybody could stomach. I paid the bookie off in weekly installments from my salary. I had cleared my original debt with him and was on credit again. I was only a hundred and fifty dollars down on this night.
As we had arranged in the beginning, I would write out my choice or choices for the day, and put them in an envelope in the bookie's box. He never awoke before eleven in the morning. I decided to bet five dollars. If the filly came in it would cut my debt by half.
Lying on top of the Racing Form was a Gideon Bible, open to the Psalms. I came from a religious family and had been reared on the Bible. My faith in God was not what it once was, but I still enjoyed reading the Bible. Also on the desk were Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh and Conrad's Almayer's Folly. In the two years I had been working behind the desk, I had given myself a liberal education in English and American literature.
As I sat down once more in front of the adding machine, I glanced over at the Bible lying open on top of the Racing Form. 'Praise him for his mighty acts,' I read; 'praise him according to his excellent greatness, praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance; praise him with stringed instruments and organs.'
All right for Jerusalem, I thought. Could a timbrel be found in New York? High above, penetrating stone and steel, there was the whining noise of a jet, crossing New York. Descending from the pole, outward bound to Karachi. I listened, thinking of the quiet flight deck, the silent men at the controls, the flicker of the dials, the radar scanning the night sky. 'Christ.' I said aloud.
Finished with the adding machine, I pushed my chair back, took a sheet of paper, held it on my thighs, looked straight ahead at a calendar on the wall. Then I moved the sheet of paper up, bit by bit. Only when it was high up on my chest, almost to my chin. did it come within the limit of my vision. No miracle had happened that night. 'Christ,' I said again and crumpled the sheet of paper and threw it into the waste-basket.
I made a neat, small pile of the bills I had prepared and began filing them in alphabetical order. I had been working automatically, my mind on other things, and I hadn't paid any attention to the date on the bills on my desk. Now it struck me. The date on the bills was 15 January. An anniversary. Of a kind. I grinned. Painfully. Three years ago, to the day, it had happened.
It had been overcast in New York, but when we passed Peek-skill, flying north, the skies cleared. The snow glistened in the sunshine on the rolling hills below. I had flown the little Cessna down to Teterboro Airport early to pick up the New Jersey charter, and I could hear my passengers behind me congratulating each other on the blue skies and the fresh powder. We were flying low, only six thousand feet, and the fields made clearly defined checkerboard patterns, with stands of trees black against the clean white of the snow. It was a flight I always liked to make. Recognizing individual farmhouses and road intersections and the course of a small stream here and there made the short voyage cozy and familiar. Upstate New York is beautiful at ground level, but on a fine day in early winter, from the air, it is one of the loveliest sights a man can hope to see. Once again, I was grateful that I had never been tempted to take a job on one of the big airlines, where you spent the best part of your life at an altitude of over thirty thousand feet, with the world below you just a vast sea of cloud or a remote and impersonal map unrolling slowly beneath you. '
There were only three passengers, the Wales family, mother and father and a plump girl with buck-teeth of about twelve or thirteen called Didi. They were enthusiastic skiers and I had flown them up and back four or five times. There was a regular airline to Burlington, but Mr. Wales was a busy man, he said, and took off when he could find the time and didn't like being tied down to a schedule. He had an advertising firm of his own in New York and he didn't seem to mind throwing his money around. Flatteringly, when he called for a charter, he always asked for me. Part of the reason, or maybe the whole reason for this, was that I skied with them from time to time at Stowe and Sugarbush and Mad River and led them down the trails, which I knew better than they did, and occasionally threw in a little tactful instruction about how they could improve their performance. Wales and his wife, a hard-looking, athletic New York woman, were fiercely competitive with each other and went too fast, out of control a good deal of the time. I predicted to myself that there would be a broken leg in the family one of these days. I could tell when they were furious with each other by the different tones in which they called each other 'Darling' at various moments.