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FIFTEEN IS THE DOG | Maggie Hall
I’m not superstitious like the women from the Old Country, but I know numbers run your life.
Take this morning, for example. I got up all fine and dandy on a Sunday and put on my linen suit for a stroll on La Séptima. I wasn’t halfway out the door when Maceo, the brown mutt that Old Man Sendero keeps, lunged at me with his filthy paws. I hit him with my San Lázaro cane across the snout and the brute whimpered away. I should have known he would cross my path today: It’s the fifteenth today and fifteen is El Perro — the Dog.
I like to play the odds. You would think I’d play fifteen today because that’s what today is and because of the dog but, no sir, not me. Playing the calendar date is for pikers. Every other fool placing a bet in the neighborhood today is going for the ripe fruit because it’s the fifteenth. Not me. I didn’t sleep well last night, so no dream sent me a number to play.
Today’s bolita number will take some thinking. I’ll walk to Las Nuevitas to get a shoeshine. The boy there never gets polish on my socks and the rasping of his brushes helps me concentrate. The number will come to me.
Ciccio Manuele struts across the street with his usual following of girls in white Mass dresses and I duck into an alley. I can’t stand that braggart. He must hit la bolita at least once a week. Having money in his pockets means girls throw themselves at his pressed suit. He says he doesn’t have a system for picking numbers and that he’s just lucky, but it’s been said by more than one person that a certain bolitero owes him favors because of a little trouble with the law. Ciccio plays thirty-two and it seems to come up very often in the drawing. It’s no wonder that’s his number—thirty-two is El Cochino — the Pig. It makes sense.
There’s a breeze this morning to bring more families out for walks on the avenue. Another Sunday in Ybor. People spend half their lives outside in the summer sitting on kitchen chairs to cool off while they gossip. A scrawny cat laps water from a puddle, but I don’t like playing El Gato, which is number four. I took a bath playing that number last year when I put down half of my pay on what I was sure was a winner. I had dreamed a big tabby was chasing me. I woke up with my heart pounding and put it down on four that day. The cat didn’t deliver the goods; in fact, that was another day when thirty-two came up and Ciccio treated everyone at the tavern to drinks to celebrate his win. I gulped my rum after saying a prayer the bastard would get hit by a streetcar.
I wrote a list of all La Charada numbers and what they signify for Bobby, the German kid who lives in the room upstairs. He was just picking bolita numbers out of the air without any idea of what dreams and what comes your way means when you pick winners. Pepe the butcher gave me a piece of brown paper and a pencil. I wrote every number and what I means from one to a hundred — without getting stuck once. La Charada is a number system that came from the Chinese but we Cubans perfected it and added more meanings. We’re smart that way.
Bobby had to learn it goes like this: In La Charada, the number one is El Caballo, the Horse. Two can be La Mariposa, the Butterfly, or El Dinero, Money. Three is El Marinero, the Sailor, until you get to thirty-six, La Cachimba, the Pipe. We Cubans kept going and added the other 64 numbers the Chinese couldn’t think of.
On the nights I dream about San Lázaro, my patron saint whose walking stick protects me from evil, I play seventeen because that’s his number. It can get expensive if you dream San Lázaro hands you a pipe and a horse, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
“Amigo, numbers are just numbers,” says Bobby. He says he’s a Catholic and doesn’t believe in dreams telling you what to play in la bolita the next day. I guess he forgot that old man San José had a dream telling him to get the hell out of Bethlehem when the Romans killed all the babies. St. Joseph could have told our Blessed Mother that he was a Catholic and that he didn’t believe in dreams and where would we all be in that case? We might still be Jews playing numbers from the Chinese. Poor Bobby doesn’t get it.
The numbers are there to help you pick a winner, even if Ciccio Manuele seems to hit that number thirty-two a lot.
The church bell rings at the same time as the bell on the streetcar. That has to be an omen, but I don’t get the same tingle on the back of my neck that makes me sure about a number. The Forti girls get quiet when they see me coming. Rumor has it that Connie Forti is sweet on me, but I am not interested. Those girls live at number sixty-seven and that’s El Cementerio, the Cemetery. Bad luck if I ever saw it, even though that Connie is pink and plump — just the way I like ‘em. If she ever moves out, I may just call on her.
The shoeshine boy at Las Nuevitas waves a blackened rag in the air when he sees me because he knows I’m a good customer. His chair is empty, so I sit on the cane chair.
“Ready for you, Señor!” he says as he puts the rag back in his box. “Best scuiscia for my best customer.”
Bootblack, rag, brush brush brush. I toss the boy a coin when he’s done and I still haven’t thought of today’s number. I’d better come up with something by the time I get to Charlie’s place to make my bet.
Today is starting to feel like an umbrella-inside-the-house day. I think it’s that kid Bobby’s fault. I almost slammed him against the chiffarobe because he was about to show me the new parasol he bought for his girl Marie. Opening umbrellas indoors makes you the worst form of unlucky. Sometimes that kid can be so backward, even if he is my friend.
There’s the casita on the corner where the kid is learning to play the violin. He’s getting pretty good, too. With all the windows open, half the block can hear him play. I’ve heard the tune he’s playing, but I don’t know the name. It’s a happy, peppy one I probably heard in the flickers or in the theater that day I took Rosie to the theater with her mamá as the chaperone. The old lady’s evil eye was too much for me and I never took Rosie out again. I heard she got married. Let that guy keep the old lady and her evil eye. He’s probably dead by now.
The kid keeps practicing the same tune. I tap the rhythm on the lamppost but it still doesn’t come to me.
A hard slap on my back and a cloud of bay rum. Ciccio Manuele has found me outside the kid’s window.
“Severiano, my friend, we share a love of music!” says the bastard, pumping my hand. “Who doesn’t like Il Barbiere, eh?"
“What about a barber? The violin kid is a barber”?
“No, Seve,” says Ciccio, smoothing his oily moustache. “He’s playing the Figaro aria from The Barber of Seville. It’s a beauty.”
On the sidewalk under a lamppost, Ciccio takes off his straw hat and sings.
Tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono, donne, ragazzi, vecchi, fanciulle: Figaro… Figaro Son qua, son qua. Figaro… Figaro…
Each of those Figaros pound my skull. The kid stops playing and leans out the window. Old ladies walking arm in arm stand around Ciccio smiling. A few of the girls in white dresses who had been trailing him applaud.
“That tune is called The Barber, you say?”
It’s then that I see my bolita number: forty-eight, La Barbería, the Barber Shop. The sign came to me right on the sidewalk on La Séptima, with the sun shining and the saints looking over me. And to think the number came from that bastard Ciccio and his infernal singing. Won’t he choke on those Figaros when I hit it big today!
“You are leaving so fast, my friend. I’m going to Mister Charlie’s to bet my number. Walk with me a while.”
Since I’m heading there myself, I decide it’s better not to let on to Ciccio or his acolyte girls that I have today’s winner figured out. Better to let the bastard stay ignorant.
I check my pocket to make sure I still have my wager because I just know it will be a big one today. Just stroll and don’t hurry things along. The sign came at the right time. Today is my day.
“That’s why I like you, Seve. You’re a decent and upright man, not a hothead like so many others in the neighborhood. Yes, I like you, my friend.”
It’s all I can do to clench my fist in my pocket so I don’t sock the bastard in the jaw. When I buy drinks tonight with my winnings, I’ll put rat poison in your rum, cochino.
Ciccio rests his arm on my shoulder and I almost flinch.
“Listen, Seve, I’m going to do you a favor because I like you and because I have plenty money already. When we get to Mister Charlie’s, put it all on trentadue, thirty-two. Guaranteed winner. You could use a new Sunday suit.”
A wink and a slap on my shoulder.
“Take my advice, friend. I don’t mind sharing with you today.”
The dirty bastard. Guaranteed. Then it is true what they say about Ciccio and los boliteros. Guaranteed. Thirty-two wins on the days he wagers. The bastard.
“You look a little pale, Seve. You need a drink.”
It would be a sure bet, money coming in to replace what I’ve lost this week on trusting dreams about bulls and machetes and wells. Letting Ciccio pick my number will give me a little bankroll and even a new suit. Then again, I would owe something to that fool. The money or my pride.
The one-eyed bolitero nods to Ciccio when he sees us outside Charlie’s. Ciccio nods back and points to me with his arm still around my shoulder. The bolitero throws up his hands and motions us to come in.
I hesitate, but thirty-two is too much for me. Ciccio makes his bet and I follow him like a slave. Thirty-two is also El Mulo, the mule, and I feel as stupid as one.
Ciccio and his girls say goodbye and head back to La Séptima while I walk home dejected. Forget seeing el perro this morning, or the kid playing that tune about the barber shop or all the dreams that have given me losing numbers. I’m all in on thirty-two. I could see an elephant on a streetcar in Ybor today and it wouldn’t change my bet to nine, El Elefante. I do need a new suit.
San Lázaro, my patron and protector, has let me down. La Charada, too. All those lovely numbers dancing in my dreams as fish, spiders, ducks and scissors have lied to me. That bitter taste swirls on my tongue with the sweetness of being a winner tonight.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll pretend Ciccio is my best pal. I’ll find out when that bastard bets and I’ll get rich, too. The rest of the time I’ll just let the numbers whisper to me.
Severiano, eres un payaso.
Payaso, The Clown, number sixty. Tomorrow.
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