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Burning Bridges


Harry Buschman

I think I have climbed the stairs to my bedroom fifty thousand times. Double that for coming down again. The risers are seven and a half inches high and I count thirteen steps -- that's over four hundred thousand feet. That's well over seventy five miles.

I think of things like that while I lie here on my back counting the tiles in the ceiling of this four bed ward. I'm a numbers person you see -- always have been. My car has thirty-six thousand miles on the odometer and I've been married eighteen years, six months and twenty-four days. Words mean very little to me, and even though I can read my name on the card in the holder on the wall above my bed, the name Patrick Pending means little to me.

Numbers have always been important to me, I was a teller in a branch of the Yankee bank at the Bloomington Mall. The Branch President, Mr. Roquefort and I, were the only middle-aged white males there. There were six Indians, four Indonesians and three African Americans. We had little in common and little opportunity to pass the time of day, we hardly spoke to each other. In fact I was more familiar with the face of Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill than I was with the face of the young Indonesian girl who worked in the cage next to me. She did have attractive legs, though, a little short, but shapely. There were two of them.

I had only one thing in common with these people, I shared with them a common and intense dislike for Mr. Roquefort. He was a bilious man, consumed with frustration and preoccupied with the hopeless goal of getting out of the branch office and into the main office downtown. I say 'hopeless' because he was the type that no home office could stand.

My wife Patience and I had two children --still have I guess. They were and are both boys, one now sixteen and one twelve. We will probably not have any more -- we cannot afford to feed the two we have, and on top of that, I am more or less permanently confined to this ward in the St. Christopher's Home for the harebrained. The oldest boy, Philip, I believe his name is, was planning to go to a university in two years. He was thinking of Princeton. Hah! He will be lucky to get to Queens Community College.

I fell in love with numbers at an early age. My teachers graded my tests with numbers. My father measured my height on the jamb of the kitchen door with numbers. When I needed shoes, the man in the shoe store would say, "I think this little fellow is ready for a size four," and I could count the money in the collection basket in church on Sundays as it passed in front of me. "There's forty-three dollars and seventy-five cents in there so far, Ma."

"Ssh, Pat," she would say.

Although parents are seldom aware of it, their children are a mystery to them. If their children were left alone to develop on their own, they might grow up to be remarkable citizens. But no, they are manipulated, twisted and kneaded like bread dough into socially acceptable creatures. Creatures indistinguishable from their parents. "You remind me so much of your father," a relative might say. Or - "You're just like your mother," a bedeviled husband might say to his wife. In my own case I may very well have been a great mathematician or the CEO of a large multi-national corporation if my parents had not stepped in to frustrate my natural gifts. So it goes. I'm just an ordinary American husband with a number fixation.

How many of you can recite your automobile license number, your Social Security number, your PIN number, your credit card number and your wife's birthday -- right now, off the top of your head without looking in your wallet? You can't can you? Well I can ... and I can tell you the batting average of every player on the Yankee roster for good measure.

Be all that as it may, the gift of numbers is of no use to me in St. Christopher's Home. I'm lying on my back in a four bed ward counting the tiles in the ceiling and listening to the wheezing of the man in the bed next to me. He is wearing a silver plastic derby hat that he was given as a party favor this afternoon. It was a birthday celebration I believe for a lady in another ward -- an elderly toothless woman with disheveled gray hair and wild maniacal eyes. She wanted to dance with me but I would have nothing to do with her.

But why am I here? That's the question, and as you might suspect, it's got to do with numbers. There's no sense denying it any longer -- I frankly admit to a lottery fixation. It's the numbers again you see, numbers in their most delightful form. Like most people I've lost far more than I've won in the lottery, but I've won just often enough to keep my pecker up, (as the saying goes). Picking the numbers is a daily challenge of my ingenuity with numbers. Shall they be those I see in dreams? License plates of the buses I see passing the bank at the Bloomington Mall? Birthdays? Zip codes? Bust sizes perhaps?

The "Take Five" challenge is the most fascinating of all. Five sets of double numbers -- I chose the numbers 20/21/22/25/33 on a weekly basis. To me, they represented my age when very meaningful things happened to me. I would never reveal these secrets to anyone - even if I won, and even as I lay here now reading the pithy sayings on the sugar hearts in my paper party basket, I find it difficult to recall what those numbers once meant to me, but I chose them carefully at the time, let's let it rest there.

Having chosen them, I remember walking to the CVS Pharmacy at the Mall on my lunch hour and heading for the checkout counter where the lottery lady worked. I smacked my lips in satisfaction, there was a considerable crowd, but not as long a line as I expected. After all, Saturday's jackpot was 26 million dollars. Money like that draws people like flies to sugar -- the bigger the jackpot, the bigger the crowd. I handed the girl my selection -- 20/21/22/25/33, and double checked it when she was through. I put the ticket in my wallet reverently -- between two twenty dollar bills actually, so there was no chance of it being lost. I ate a bologna sandwich on a roll at the counter and walked back to the bank.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in dreaming of what I would do with the money. It was only Thursday but I fantasized on being a millionaire - I always did so. People who play the lottery as religiously as I do, know exactly what they're going to do when they win. Yes, 'when' not 'if.' With that kind of money at stake it pays to have plans.

For the next day or two I would repeat the number combination in my head like a mantra. 20/21/22/25/33. It was my Hail Mary Friday at the bank, and all day Saturday the numbers echoed down the vacant corridors of my brain. My better judgment advised me to compose myself; to let come what may, but the possibility of a bonanza kept rising to the surface like a cork.

I'm an early riser but on Sunday I was up and roaming around the house before the dog awakened. The paper man arrives about six and he was startled to find me out on the lawn ready to catch the Sunday Times as he flung it out on the lawn. I left a trail of paper behind me as I hunted for the Metropolitan Section, I opened it to the second page, and there it was ... finally! That magic number ... 20/21/22/25/33! Large as life!

A low guttural moan started at the very bottom of my throat. The dog heard it first and ran upstairs, as it increased in volume, the boys heard it too. Finally, when it erupted into a roar of triumph, wife, children and dog huddled together in fright at the top of the stairs -- each of them waiting for the other to go down and see what had gotten into father. I finally gained control of my speech and I shouted up stairs ...

"We're millionaires!

That brought Patience down in a hurry, after her, the dog and then the boys, the oldest first.

"You okay, Pop?"

"Look at this -- just look."

They gathered round me like hungry sparrows, and we went over the numbers again and again. First my ticket ... 20/21/22/25/33. Then, the lottery results in the Times ... 20/21/22/25/33! We must have checked it twenty times.

Their reaction was similar to mine as I recall, and as the full impact grew on all of us, we experienced a peculiar weightlessness, as though we had achieved some sort of orbital levitation. For the moment we floated on the wings of that 26 million dollars and we could look down on the rest of the world as from a great height. It was our oyster!

We spent Sunday discussing a plan of action. We needed a lawyer first, then an investment advisor and a real estate agent -- we even settled on a protection agency. By Sunday night I was ready to confront the lottery lady at the CVS Pharmacy. I would see her a moment after I paid a call on Mr. Roquefort at the Yankee Branch Bank in the Bloomington Mall. I tossed and turned all night savoring all the things I was going to say to Mr. Roquefort.

When I left in the morning, my wife warned me, "Now Pat, just tell him the good news. Don't say anything nasty -- after all ... "

"Leave it to me dear."

I didn't consider the things I had to say 'nasty.' I thought they reflected a perfect closure to my banking career. I was a wealthy man now. I could buy and sell shitheads like Roquefort every day, and I was going to get it off my chest. It wasn't as though he didn't have it coming.

On Monday morning I pulled into the employee's parking lot at 8:30 and parked in Mr. Roquefort's private spot. I knew that would drive him up the wall. I walked inside, hung up my coat in the locker room as usual and then stood by the window overlooking the parking lot. I watched as Mr. Roquefort drove in. He stared at my car in his parking space and turned to scowl at the employee's entrance. He found a spot further off and walked with purposeful steps towards the bank -- he was going to give somebody hell.

He glared at me when he walked in, "Pending." he said, "I want you in my office immediately."

I had 20 years of pent up, constipated and suppressed indignation begging to be released. So many words came crowding their way into my throat that almost none of them could find their way out. A "Fuck you, Mr. Roquefort," was about the best I could muster. The three black brothers grinned broadly, and the short-legged Indonesian girl looked at me with new respect -- as I think back, lying here in a four-bed ward in St. Christopher's home, I consider it to be the high point of my 20 year career at the Yankee Bank.

My fellow employees made way for me as I walked out. It reminded me of a movie I once saw in which the king descended the steps of his throne and passed slowly and stately through a corridor of sycophants. Yes, I remember it clearly -- with measured steps I walked down to the CVS Pharmacy, checking my wallet to see if my winning ticket was still there. It was. CVS posted the winning numbers of the Take Five Challenge for all to see. 20/21/24/25/33. I read them once - then read them again. Something was wrong! It was supposed to be 20/21/22/25/33! They had obviously made a mistake, I had the New York Times results in my wallet along with the winning ticket.

Here, in St. Christopher's I have time on my hands and the doctors tell me to go back over the situation again and again. By doing so I may arrive at a rationalization of the event and put it behind me. I remember reaching for the door, (it opened outwards) I pulled it and held it open for a lady in a black woolen coat. She looked at me strangely for some reason, so I can only assume there was already something visibly peculiar about me. The numbers had gotten to me I'm sure.

I walked in and headed directly for the lottery lady and flashed my winning ticket -- that was probably the last lucid thing I did ...

"Oh, how sad," I remember her saying. I showed her my winning ticket and the New York Times results. "Isn't that a shame," she said. "Did you see this morning's Times? They printed a retraction." I focussed on her mouth. She seemed to be talking from a very great distance. I realized she was telling me bad news -- I didn't win anything! Someone else did! I was close, only one number was wrong. The middle digit was two numbers off. Close Pat -- very close! But no cigar! The lottery lady's voice faded away completely, in fact, everything seemed to retreat from me, and it was as if I were alone in space. They say I lost it at that point. That I ran wild-eyed up and down the aisles, pulling merchandise off shelves and throwing bottles clear across the store.

I'm sorry for all that, of course, but I have no way of making amends. I suggested to the doctor just this morning that the least I could do was send a card of condolence to the store manager, but my repentance was of no concern to the doctor - it was probably of no concern to the store manager either. Apologies are empty gestures anyway, about as heartfelt as that retraction in the New York Times.

©Harry Buschman 2004

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