Aunt Renie came to Louisville, Kentucky for a visit. It was in the spring of the year and nearing Derby Day, so I decided to take her out to Churchill Downs to watch the horses run.
We drove to south Louisville where the track is located and parked the car a few blocks away and walked the remaining distance to the track entrance. Aunt Renie is pretty spry for an old lady.
We were both able to get in for the admission price of only $1.00 as we were both senior citizens. Louisville likes to encourage its seniors to go to the track. We made our way through the throng of horseracing fans to a booth where they sell racing forms. I bought one and stuck it in my pocket. Then we walked out to the track and sat in the sun on hard benches and studied the form to make our picks.
We studied the racing form and saw that there was a field of eight horses for the next race. Aunt Renie had never been to a racetrack before so I had to teach her how to handicap the race. I am not an expert myself but here’s how I do it. The first thing I do is to study the form for the information listed about the horses for that particular race. First of all, I look for names I like. Something that clicks. Then, I look at the stats on that horse. Who is the trainer, who is the jockey, how much weight does the horse carry, how many races did the horse win this year, and last, what are the odds?
I take all these things into consideration and make a selection. I picked what looked like a winner: Psycho Blue Boots, the number 5 horse in the 3rd race. I suggested to Aunt Renie that we bet $10.00 to win on the 5 horse. If it won, we would split the winnings. She agreed.
I pushed my way through the crowd to the parimutuel window and placed my bet.
“$10.00 to win on the 5 horse in the 3rd race,” I said. The teller smiled, took my money, and punched my ticket.
The race was about to begin as was indicated by the trumpet call to the gate. I hurried back to where Aunt Renie was sitting and showed her our ticket. Just then the announcer announced, “They’re off!” And the race began.
“On the lead was Solient Green, on the outside Golden Band. On the rail was Shiftless Joe followed by Psycho Blue Boots. Royal Pain was moving up to fourth place, Psycho Blue Boots makes a sudden move…They are in the turn, Royal Pain is in third. Psycho Blue Boots moving up on the outside…now moving in…in the stretch Psycho Blue Boots takes the lead…at the wire…Psycho Blue Boots wins by nose!”
The crowd goes wild. I go wild Aunt Renie goes wild. We are winners!
We won enough on the race we were able to celebrate at one of Louisville’s most prestigious steak houses, Jack Fry’s. We had quite a day at the races and a nice meal to boot.
The next morning, I took Aunt Renie to the airport where she resumed her travels.
I was sitting at a sidewalk table at a café in front of a large window, sipping my whisky and soda. I could watch the passersby on their way home. It was late and everyone had left the café except for me. A tree sat a few feet from me in a large round pot casting a shadow over the empty table sitting next to it. There was enough light to read by. I liked to sit late at night in this café and read and drink my whiskey and soda in peace. It was quiet now that all the other customers had left. There only remained two waiters, one old like me and the other young. The younger one seemed impatient to go home. Probably had a wife to go home to. That was not the case for me nor I suspect for the other waiter.
I noticed out in the street a young man and a pretty girl walking briskly by. I was entranced by the beauty of the girl and I was envious of the young man who was with her.
I signaled the waiter for another drink.
The younger waiter sauntered over.
“What will you have?”
“Another whisky and soda.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, senor?”
I just looked at him. He went away to fetch the drink.
The two waiters were huddled together at a table near the door. They were whispering. Probably talking about me I thought. Probably want me to go. Well, I’m not ready to go.
The waiter went to the bar and poured a shot of bourbon into a tumbler of ice and spritzed it with soda water. He carried the drink outside to where I was sitting. He placed the drink in front of me and said, “Why don’t you just fuck off, old man?”
He probably thought I couldn’t hear what he was saying as I am practically deaf. But I hear well enough in a quiet environment.
The waiter went back into the café and sat down with his workmate. They began whispering again. Probably think I’m drunk and need to leave, I thought. Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer and have one more for the road.
I like this place. It is clean, well-lighted, and quiet.
I motioned to the waiters for another drink.
“Another whiskey and soda, amigo.”
“No,” the young waiter said. “You’re done. Time to go.”
“Another!” I insisted.
“We are closing now.” He began to wipe the table clean with his towel.
I slowly stood up, looked at the bill he had unceremoniously laid on the table. I pulled some cash from my pocket and paid the bill, leaving a modest tip.
I walked down the street away from the café slowly, a bit unsteady on my feet. I could feel the eyes of the two waiters burning a hole in my back. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I didn’t want to face my dark room and the empty bed. One more drink, I thought. There must be someplace open tonight. Only thing was, they would unlikely be as clean and well-lighted or as nice as this last one was. I didn’t want any music. No, I really wasn’t in much of a mood to listen to any music. And I didn’t really want to stand in front of a bar. What was it I wanted? Not much. Just a clean, quiet, well-lighted place.
I came to a bar that was open. It had red and white walls on the outside with an American flag hanging on one side of the entrance and a Mexican flag hanging on the other. There was music pouring out the door from a sound system hidden somewhere within the recesses of the tiny bar. Not really my kind of place, but I was thirsty, so I stumbled there inside.
There was a gentleman sitting on a barstool in the middle of the bar. A couple was sitting at a table towards the back. I went in and sat a couple of stools down from the guy at the bar.
“What would you like to drink?” asked the barmaid.
“Do you have any bourbon?” I asked.
“Si, we have Jim Beam.”
“OK. I’ll have that.”
She poured the drink and marked it on the bottle then set it down in front of me and went back to her perch she was sitting on. She was talking to the other guy, but he turned around and included me in the conversation.
“Hey! Where are you from?” he asked.
“From the States,” I answered.
“Well, I figured that. Where in the States?”
He nodded his head. “I’m from Oregon. You been here before?”
“Yeah, I live here now.”
“A lot of ex-pats here, that’s for sure! I guess that’s why they call it “Gringo Land.”
He laughed. He had a bottle of beer sitting in front of him and a shot of tequila. He downed the tequila and chased it with a slug of beer.
The barmaid looked over in my direction and said, “Do you want to play a game?”
“What kind of a game?”
“It’s called 21. You roll the dice. There are three winners. One who calls the shot. One who pays, and one who drinks the shot. Do you want to play?”
“Sure, why not? Let’s play!”
So, we took turns rolling six or seven dice out onto the bar from a leather cup. Each time the barmaid counted the tops of the dice. I won the first roll so I called the shot.
“What shot do you want?” she asked, pointing to the bottles of tequila behind the bar.
“What are you drinking?”
She pointed to a bottle.
“OK. That’s what I want.”
She poured out a shot and set it on the bar in front of us. We rolled some more. First the guy from Oregon, then the barmaid. At the end of the game, the Oregon guy drank and paid for the shot I called. We all laughed and he left.
In the meantime, the other couple had left and there were only the two of us left in the bar. The barmaid and me. She walked over to where I was sitting.
She was dark and sloe-eyed with long black hair flowing over her shoulders. She was wearing a green plaid shirt with several of the top buttons undone, exposing her ample breasts.
“What’s your name, Gringo?” She smiled broadly.
“Phil,” I answered. “What’s yours?”
“Anna. At least that’s what I put on my Facebook page. You want another shot?”
“No thanks,” I said and then I left. Now, I will go home. I will lie in my bed and try to fall asleep. I will think of Anna and what it would be like to be with her. I am probably not the only one in town who has trouble sleeping at night, I thought to myself. Maybe I will dream of Anna. Maybe tomorrow I will find someplace to read. Maybe a quiet, clean, well-lighted place where I can sit and read in peace.
My young friend Victoria had been wanting to take me to this speakeasy she knew about downtown for the longest. We had our chance to go the other night so we went. The only thing is you can’t just show up, you have to be invited. So, Victoria went through the necessary machinations to secure the invite and we showed up on time in our finest costumes for the occasion.
We walked through the unprepossessing door from an alley off Main Street, then entered a small cubbyhole of a space manned by two standing gentlemen and a woman who was seated at a desk in front of a locked door that was located directly behind them.
We showed our IDs to the woman. She found our names on the roster which was resting on the desk and handed us back our IDs. She slightly nodded to the gentleman guarding the door. He swung it wide and we stepped through the doorway to the top of a sharply declining stairwell.
As we made our way down the steep stairway, I couldn’t help but notice the atmosphere changing with each step. The air seemed to grow denser as if perfumed by some unknown censer. The lighting changed gradually and it seemed to give off a soft reddish glow. The temperature was getting colder by degrees the lower we went. At the bottom of the steps, we were greeted by our smiling host. In the background, we could hear the music playing and I swear I could hear the strains of “Put on a Happy Face.”
“Step this way please.”
We followed our host past a long and rather ornate wooden bar into the inner sanctum of Hell or High Water to our assigned seating. We arrived at a small round glass-topped table flanked by two high-backed leather chairs. He placed two drink menus in front of us and said, “Your server will be with you shortly.”
We looked the menu over and tried to decide what specialty cocktail to order. When the server came over, I decided to ask for a recommendation.
“Do you like the smell of smoke and leather?” he asked.
I allowed as I did.
“Well then, I recommend Sparks Fly.”
I took a look at that on the menu and saw that it contained Mezcal, Cardamaro, Benedictine, Crème de Cacao, and Gun Powder Proof Rum. Sounded like an explosive concoction.
“Ok. I’ll try that.”
Victoria had the Devil’s Advocate, which was fitting.
I looked behind me at the room and on the back wall was a gigantic bookcase filled with books. The lighting was extremely dim and the music hushed.
As we sat sipping our drinks and soaking up the atmosphere, I was searching my head for something unfoolish to say. Victoria is such a good listener I wanted to come up with a good story that would put her in awe and elicit her rapt attention. She was my best audience.
I thought about a book that I had been reading and there was a particularly good scene in it I wanted to share with her about a logic problem. Victoria liked logic problems.
“I say, have you heard about the Monty Hall problem?”
She shook her pretty head no. Her eyes fairly glistened in the low light.
“Well, there’s this book I’m reading called, Sweet Tooth. It’s by Ian McEwan. A very clever piece about a female British spy in the 70s. In one of the chapters the protagonist, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), and her lover/writer/friend Tom Haley were having dinner in their favorite seafood restaurant in Brighton and Tom says, ‘I’m always telling you stories about poems and novels but you never tell me anything about math. It’s time you did. Something counterintuitive, paradoxical.’
“Serena thought for a while.”
‘Well, there was this one story making the rounds at Cambridge while I was there. It’s called the Monty Hall Problem.’
I took a sip of my drink and paused for emphasis. Then I went on telling Victoria about the Monty Hall problem in the book.
“So, let me tell it to you as best as I remember it. I think you will like it.”
“It seems there are three boxes. Two are empty and one holds a fabulous prize like an all-expense-paid vacation to some exotic place on earth. You have to choose which one you think it might be in. You choose box number one. The host, Monty Hall, who knows what’s inside each box, opens another box. Say, box number three. It’s empty. He then says to you, ‘Do you want to choose box number two or stick with box number one?’
I then asked Victoria what she would do. She says it doesn’t make any difference because you have a fifty-fifty chance either way.
“Not true,” I say. “If you switch you have a two in three chance of winning. If you stick you only have a one in three.”
“No. that can’t be. If you have two boxes remaining, it’s a fifty-fifty chance.”
“I know that’s what it seems like, but if you do the math that’s not right. It’s sort of a paradox. It’s really about re-evaluating your decisions as you get new information. Monty filters your choice by opening one of the boxes. You now have new information. You know the fabulous vacation is not in box number three. This changes the odds.”
Victoria sat back in her leather chair and stared into the middle distance. I saw in her face the slow signs of recognition as she grappled with the problem and gradually came to understand the solution with the new information, I had supplied to her.
“Oh! Now I get it. I don’t know why I didn’t at first.”
“That’s because it’s counterintuitive. Most people don’t at first. By the way. Tom didn’t get it at first either. Now here’s the kicker, getting back to the book. Tom takes this math problem and decides to incorporate it into one of his short stories.”
The server came over and asked us if we’d like another drink.
I nodded my assent and said, “Yes, but I think I’ll have something more traditional this time. Do you have Old Forester?”
“Good! Well then, I’ll have an Old Forester and soda. Club soda.”
“And for the lady?”
Victoria says she’ll have a rum and coke.
The server gives a slight bow and disappears back into the gloaming.
“So,” I say. “Getting back to the book. Tom and Serena spend the rest of the weekend together back at Tom’s apartment. He claims to have had an epiphany and now totally understands the solution to the Monty Hall problem, although at first, he insisted just like you, that there was only a fifty-fifty chance the prize was in box number one or two. Serena gave him another way of looking at it. She said what if there were a million boxes? And you choose box six hundred thousand? Monty opens all the other boxes except box number ninety-seven. Now the only closed boxes are yours and ninety-seven. What are the odds now? Tom still insists fifty-fifty. ‘No! It’s a million to one against it being in your box. And an almost certainty it’s in the other! Finally, he gets it.
“So, they go back to the apartment, and Tom thanks her for the idea and starts writing a story about the problem. He calls it, ‘The Adultery Probability.’ They make love, eat leftovers and on Sunday afternoon Tom escorts Serena to the train station. She takes the next train back to London.
“Monday morning, she is back at her job at MI-5. Tom doesn’t know she is a spy and is responsible for his newfound fortune of being awarded a financial grant so that he doesn’t have to work and instead can concentrate on his writing. This is the ‘dirty little secret’ that is hanging over Serena’s head and stands between them like the sword of Damocles as she tries to figure out how and when to tell him about it.
“Three days go by and Serena gets a manuscript in the post. It’s Tom’s story. He has attached a note: ‘Did I get this right?’ She reads it before going to work and is horrified to learn that alas, he did not get it right.”
I can see Victoria is getting a little bit restive. Must be her ADHD kicking in again, I thought.
“Do you want to walk around a bit and explore,” I ask Victoria?
“Sure,” she says. Victoria is always up for a little adventure.
“We’ll continue on with the story when we get back to the table.”
So, we pushed our chairs back and grabbed our drinks, and went for a little trek about the place. We were sitting in the Library Room which was two stories tall and opened up to the ceiling. Up a flight of stairs, there were two other rooms and a mezzanine looking over the downstairs portion of the library. Off to either side of the mezzanine were the two other two rooms, the boudoir Room and the Fumoir Room, only there was no smoking in the Fumoir Room. What went on in the Boudoir room, I wasn’t certain. Each room was richly appointed with distinctive features of the period offering its occupants intimacy and privacy.
Downstairs, in the bar area, there were lounges made of richly upholstered plush red velvet with lamplight gently streaming over each one. I had the feeling that I could sink down into that velvet lining and disappear forever. We stood there transfixed for a while, hypnotized by the ambiance. We snapped out of our reverie and headed back to our table in the library.
We sat back down and a little silence ensued as we thought about what we had just witnessed.
“Don’t you just hate that?” Victoria asked.
“That awkward silence when no one has anything to say?”
“Oh that. No, I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s good to just sit and think about things for a while and something naturally will come up of its own accord.”
“Well, I tell you what. Why don’t you tell me the rest of that story?”
“Good idea.” I raise my drink to her and say, “Here’s looking at you kid.”
She smiles back and touches her glass to mine as I resume the story.
“Now, where was I? Oh yes! Serena has just read Tom’s story and discovered to her horror that Tom indeed did not get the problem right. His story went something like this. A London architect suspects his wife of fooling around. One day, when he has time on his hands, he follows her to a sleazy hotel in Brighton. He spies her in the lobby with a man. They obtain a key from the desk clerk and head up the stairs. Terry, the architect, stealthily enters the hotel and follows them up the stairs, staying out of sight. They reach the fourth floor and Terry can hear a door open and close, but he can’t see which one. When he arrives on the floor, he can see there are only three rooms, 401, 402, and 403. His plan is to wait until the couple is in bed together then break into the room and catch them in flagrante delicto. Only one problem. Which room are they in?
“Terry listens for a sound but hears nothing. Time passes. He needs to make a choice. He chooses door 401 because it’s closest. He steps back to make a run for the door when the door to 403 opens and an Indian couple with a baby comes out of the room. They smile at Terry and go down the steps.
“He figures he has a one-in-three chance his wife was in room 401. This means that until now there was a two-in-three chance she’s in either 402 or 403. Now that he knows 403 is empty there must be a two in three chance, she’s in 402. Only a fool would stay with his first choice, for the laws of probability are immutable. He makes his run and crashes through the door of 402 and catches the couple in mid-stroke. He gives the chap a slap across the chops and makes a hasty retreat out the door and heads for London to file for divorce.
“Serena thinks about this story all day long after she gets to work. It was a good story but it was flawed. It couldn’t stand as written. It didn’t make sense. The Indian couple coming out of room 403 did not tip the balance in favor of 402. Their emergence was random while Monty’s choice was not. He knows what is in each box. If Terry had chosen room 403 the Indian couple could not magically transfer themselves to another room so they could come out another door. After they come out of 403 Terry’s wife was just as likely to be in 402 or 401.
“Serena didn’t think she could just tell Tom the story didn’t work, rather she felt she had to fix it. She had an idea how. Tom could re-write the story and make it work. First, she had to get rid of the Indian couple. Then as Terry takes a few steps back to run at the door to room 401, he overhears two housekeepers talking on the landing below. One says, ‘I’ll just pop upstairs and do one of the two empty rooms.’ The other says, ‘Be careful, that couple are in their usual room.’
“Terry quickly re-figures the odds and decides to stand in front of room 401 forcing the housekeeper to go into one of the other two rooms. She knows where the couple is. Whatever room she chooses, Terry will move to the other door, doubling his chances. And that is exactly what happens. The housekeeper goes into 403. Terry makes his move and crashes into 402 and voila, there they are!”
“And there you have it. The rest of the story!”
I finished my drink and the server came over and asked if I wanted another but I said no I’d had enough. Victoria declined as well. We spent the rest of the evening in pleasant conversation as is our usual custom and we were well-positioned to engage in another one of our favorite pastimes, that of observing other customers and making up stories about their lives. We found this to be very amusing. Oh, I know, we were perfectly awful, but it was fun.
Later I got to thinking about that evening and thought it would be fun to reconstruct it as a story. I thought the parallels between the two couples were interesting. Similar, but slightly different. Sort of like an alternate universe. There was magic in the invention. You take a little from here and a little from there and you take all the parts and put them together to form a comprehensive whole, synergized and harmonized. Sort of like a stew cooked by chefs to create something new and delicious. A story within a story, like the windmills of your mind. We had fun that night. And I vowed we would come back someday, no matter what it took. Come hell or high water.
Sitting alone and his dorm room, Kenny Wayne was trying to figure it all out. He was a young college student and he wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do with his life or how he might become successful in the future. He had a part time job in a local pub serving beer and cheeseburgers. But he knew he wanted much more than that. He reasoned to himself that if he always knew the right time to begin a new project and if he knew the right people to listen to and if he always knew the most important thing to do, he might have some reasonable chance of success.
So, he set about to find the answers to those three questions. He began by talking to his friends and people he worked with and some of his customers. He then talked to school guidance counselors and some of his teachers that he trusted and respected. He talked to family members. He asked them all the same three questions.
One business associate told him that to know the right time for every action one must draw up a detailed plan for everything that needed to be done and schedule it on a calendar. Then execute the plan. In other words, plan your work and work your plan he said.
A guidance counselor told him it was impossible to know beforehand the right time for every action. But if you were always mindful of what needed to be done you will know automatically what to do next.
Still others said it was impossible for one man to decide the right time for every action. He should therefore surround himself with the best possible advisors to help him decide.
But others said some things could not wait to be decided by a committee. They needed to be decided at once. But to make the best possible decision it would be necessary to know what was going to happen in the future. What he needed was a fortuneteller or a crystal ball.
There were similar concerns about the second question. Who were the right people to surround himself with and to listen to? Some said he most needed his friends, others said he needed counselors and psychologists and still others said family members.
The third question: What was the most important occupation? Some of his friends said that the most important occupation was science. His sister told him to go into plastics. Others said business, some said arts and still others said spiritual development was the way to go.
After listening to all this advice, Kenny still couldn’t make up his mind. He decided to consult an individual that he had heard about who lived on the outskirts of town. He lived all alone and had the reputation of being a wise man.
The old hermit lived in a forest. Kenny Wayne drove his battered old pickup truck out to see him. It took him about a half an hour driving along the interstate highway to get there. He went alone wearing simple clothes. He parked his truck at the base of a hill and hiked the rest of the way up a steep and narrow trail. The hermit lived deep in the woods.
When Kenny Wayne reached the cabin where the hermit lived, he saw him outside in a field just to the rear the cabin digging in the dirt. Kenny approached the hermit who noticed him but kept on digging. The hermit was skinny and smallish, and each time he stuck his shovel into the dirt and turned it over he grunted.
Kenny walked up to him and said: “Howdy! Mighty hot day today, ain’t it?” The hermit kept on digging. “I came out here to ask you for some advice. I’ve heard you are a wise man and I was hoping you could answer some questions for me.”
The hermit looked up and leaned against his shovel. He had a blank look on his face.
“How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need in my life and who should I listen to? What are the most important things that I need to do in life?”
The hermit listened but did not answer. He spat tobacco juice on the ground and kept on digging.
“You look like you could use a hand. Here, let me take that shovel from you and do a little work.”
“Thanks!” said the hermit. He handed the shovel to Kenny and sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two rows, Kenny stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the shovel.
But Kenny did not give him the shovel, he continued to dig. An hour passed, then another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and it grew darker. Kenny at last stuck the shovel into the earth.
“I came looking for some answers. If you cannot or will not answer me just tell me and I will be on my way.
Just then then they heard a gunshot.
Kenny Wayne turned around and saw a large bearded man come running out of the woods. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the patch of ground where Kenny was standing, he fell to the ground, moaning and writhing in pain. Kenny and the hermit undid the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. Kenny washed it as best he could with a jug of water from the cabin, and used a towel as a compress to stanch the bleeding. But the blood would not stop flowing, and Kenny had to remove the towel that was soaked with blood and apply another one. Finally, the blood stopped flowing.
“Hold on there, partner, stay with me!” Kenny cradled the man in his arms.
Meanwhile the sun went down and it had become completely dark. Kenny and the hermit carried the wounded man into the cabin and laid him on the bed.
Kenny looked at the hermit. “If he doesn’t get medical attention soon, he will die. Do you get cell phone service up here?”
“Young man, I don’t have a cell phone. As you can see, I don’t even have electricity.”
He then struck a match and lit a candle.
“Well, I’m going to try anyway.”
Kenny took out his cell phone and dialed 911. To his pleasant surprise the phone worked.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
Kenny Wayne gave the particulars and described where they were located. They were going to have to life flight the wounded man out on a helicopter. The helicopter couldn’t land so the EMT’s had to fasten the man to a basket and the helicopter crew pulled him up on a cable.
While they were waiting for the EMTs to arrive Kenny asked the man what had happened.
“We were stalking you,” he said. “We were going to rob and kill you when you came back down the trail but you were up here all day so we came up the hill to attack you up here. On my way up I tripped and fell and my gun went off and I shot myself in the abdomen. You saved my life. Can you ever forgive me?”
Soon they heard the sound of the helicopter over head as the rotor blades whirred about and the helicopter stayed in a fixed position over the cabin. Just then the EMTs arrived. Kenny got out of their way so they could do their work. By the time they got the man stabilized and secured on onto the basket Kenny was so exhausted, he sat down on the floor with his back against the wall and promptly fell asleep. He slept through the night.
When he awoke in the morning, he was a bit disoriented and it took him a while to realize where he was. He went outside to look for the hermit. Before leaving he wanted another crack at the hermit to see if he could answer his questions. The hermit was in his garden planting seeds in the earth that had been dug the day before.
“One last time, will you answer my questions, old man?”
“You already have your answers,” said the hermit.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you see? If you had not had compassion for me yesterday by digging those rows for me, that man would have attacked you on your way down the trail and possibly killed you. So, the most important time was when you were digging the rows. I was the most important person to be with, and to help me was the most thing for you to do. Later, when that man ran up to us, the most important time was when you were helping him. If you had not bandaged his wound and stopped the bleeding he would surely have died. So, in that case he was the most important person to be with, and what you did for him was the most important thing to do. So, the answers to your questions are simple: the most important time is now. The most important person is the person who you are with. And the most important thing to do is to be good to that person. That is your main purpose in life and the secret to success.”
The next thing you see when you get off the plane at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport after the “Welcome to Kenya” sign is the sign which says, “DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS.” There were other signs I saw along the way during my two weeks stay in Nairobi but I chose to ignore them. In Uhuru Park there was a sign that read, “Beware of Human Beasts, Don’t Be the Next Rape Victim, Every 30 Minutes a Woman is Raped in Kenya.”
At the Nairobi Serena Hotel, before we were allowed to drive onto the property, a uniformed armed guard probed the underside of our car with a long-handled mirror. Once inside and checked into our room I looked out the window and saw a uniformed guard standing watch. At a restaurant we went to called The Carnivore, we passed through a security fence which was manned by security guards carrying automatic assault rifles and flanked by large German Shepard dogs straining at their leashes. Yes, I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.
I had gone to Kenya on a business trip. Actually, I was traveling with a companion who was there on business attending a worldwide meeting of company officials who were stationed around the globe. While Mary was going to meetings, I was on my own.
On the first day I hung out at the Hotel. The Serena is a Five Star Hotel and very nice. I had breakfast with Mary in the dining room and later I had lunch out by the pool by myself. I had a cheeseburger with fries and a Tusker beer. Delicious! After lunch I had a dip in the pool and sat in the sun reading as the water slowly evaporated off my body.
After a couple of days of this I got bored and decided to venture out on my own. I am an adventurous sort and had walked the mean streets of some of the toughest cities of America, so I wasn’t too worried.
I struck out midmorning on a beautiful sun-drenched day. The skies were azure blue with cotton candy clouds. Nairobi is a mile high so the atmosphere was crystal clear and every object stood out in vivid colored relief.
I walked the half mile stretch along Uhuru Highway to downtown Nairobi. It was as crowded as any major city might be and traffic was going about in a chaotic fashion. I walked to the corner of a busy intersection crowded with people. I was approached on all sides by people who wanted to sell me things like trinkets or cheap jewelry. A rather large and burley individual who was head taller than me and wearing a tight red T-shirt walked up to me and pounded his chest. “Promote me! Promote me!” He said over and over again, striking his chest for emphasis.
I just walked away. Soon others were following me and asking me questions. They all wanted to know if I was from the States? Did I know Obama? One fellow dressed in raggedy clothes stopped me and asked for money to buy some rice. I wasn’t inclined to give him any, especially in front of the crowd and all, but I did say to him, “I’m not going to give you any money, but if you will meet me here in one hour I will buy you some rice and give it to you.” He looked a little disappointed but reluctantly agreed.
I continued to walk along the street deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. As I walked along, I noticed another fellow tracking me and falling into step beside me. He was wearing a dark brown suit, but it looked like it had seen its better days. A little shabby with frayed cuffs. He had on a soiled white dress shirt and a thin black tie loosened at the throat. He was wearing black dress shoes that were run over at the heels and in bad need of a shine. “Hello!” He said, flashing me a big smile. “Can we have a conversation?”
“Sure,” I answered. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I like to talk to Americans about politics and history.”
“Ok. What did you want to know?”
“Can we go somewhere and sit down at a table to talk?”
“Where did you want to go?”
“I know a Tea Room not far from here. We could go there.”
I’m starting to get a little suspicious now and I’m not in any big hurry to go anywhere with this stranger.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Sudan,” he answered. “I am staying at a refugee camp near the border.”
“I’ll tell you what. I am going to walk around a little bit, you want to meet me here in an hour, we can talk then. How’s that?”
He hesitated a little bit but finally agreed. So, I had the same arrangement with two strangers I had met in Nairobi and I had only been in town 15 minutes! I thought chances are either one or the other or both wouldn’t show up, and I had bought myself a little time.
So, I spent the next hour exploring the city. I went to gift shops, hotels, and had lunch in an outdoor café. I checked my watch and saw it was time to head back to meet my new friends.
I got back to the corner at the appointed time and guy #1 wasn’t there yet. I looked around and noticed a market about a half a block away. I walked over to it and went in. After my eyes adjusted to the low-level light, I saw baskets of various products including rice. The pungent smell of spices hung in the air. I secured a bag of rice and walked out returning to the corner. My new friend showed up with a big smile on his face.
“Jambo!” he said
“Jambo!” I returned.
I handed him the rice. We had a moment then he left.
Now the second guy, the guy with the suit. I thought was going to be a no show. I waited about 15 minutes and was about to leave when he rounded the corner. He greeted me warmly and pointed his hand out in front of him and said, “The Tea Room is down this way.”
We walked about six blocks and I was beginning to wonder where he was taking me.
“Say, where are you taking me?”
“It’s just a little further.”
We walked on another two blocks and my friend became a little more excited as we stopped in front of rather impressive looking two-story structure in the middle of the block with a wide set of steps leading up to the front door.
“Ah, here we are,” my companion spoke to me as he swept his arm up the stairway in the direction of entrance. We had arrived at the Jade Tea House.
We mounted the steps and went inside. Once inside I had the distinct feeling, I had stepped into a time portal. The interior of the Tea Room was dark and the blades of the overhead fans were whirring about pushing the hot air around the room. I felt a little uneasy as I looked around the room. Others were seated around at various tables deep in what seemed like conspiratorial conversation as if they were plotting some crime against humanity or an act of terror. We went upstairs to another level where it was a little brighter and sat down at a table. Soon a waiter come over and we placed our order. We each ordered a cup of tea.
Asim and I started having our conversation about what was going on in America. We worked it around to politics in Africa. There was a presidential election going on in Kenya and we talked about that. Then he reminded me that he was Sudanese and was living in a refugee camp. Oh, boy I thought, here it comes. I had been waiting for this and wondered just how and when he would work it. I figured he’d put the bite on me before it was over with. Of course, I was reluctant to play along. I didn’t like getting played. As we were sitting there, I noticed a lone individual sidle up to the table next to ours and had a seat. It seemed like he was listening to our conversation. He didn’t order anything, he just sat there on the edge of his seat. I didn’t pay much attention to him as I was focused on Asim and how I was going to handle his request. I decided I would excuse myself to the bathroom to buy some time.
When I got back to the table, I decided I would pay our tab and leave. Whatever change I had coming I would let Asim have and that would be it. I called the waiter over and asked for the check. When he got back, I handed him a 50 Shilling note and he brought back my change which I pushed over in front of Asim.
Just as soon as I pushed the money over the guy at the other table jumped up and four other guys, all wearing suits, came out of the shadows and surrounded the table. Two of the men led Asim away, one on each side of him. Two others stood guard and the ring leader came over and sat directly in front of me. His eyes were shot with blood and his breath stank with alcohol. He flashed an ID at me and said he was a police officer with the Nairobi Police Department. I didn’t get a good look at the ID but it looked like an ordinary driver’s license.
“Why were you talking to that man?” He wanted to know.
“I don’t know. We just met on the street and he wanted to talk.”
“We have been looking for that man. Did you know he was a drug dealer?”
Uh oh! I thought to myself. Here it comes. First the hook then ….
“He’s also a counterfeiter. I see you gave him some money. Why did you give him money?”
“I was just leaving him the change because I thought he might need it.”
“How much Kenyan money do you have?”
“About 20,000 Shillings.”
“Let me see it.” He reached out his hand.
I slowly reached into my pocket and retrieved my Kenyan money. He reached out his hand further and I reluctantly handed it over. He grunted his approval and stared to count it.
“Do you have any American money?”
“Yeah. I guess you are going to take that too?”
He didn’t’ like that. He scowled.
“If you are not going to cooperate, we can take you down to the station with us and make you cooperate.”
I didn’t like that idea. So, l reached back into my pocket and got the rest of my money out and handed it over to him which he promptly proceeded to count. He took out a small notebook and wrote some figures down in it and tore it out. He handed it to me with the amount of money he had taken as a receipt.
“We have a machine at headquarters that can tell if this money is counterfeit. We will run your money through the machine and if it is real, we will return it to you. Where are you staying?”
I didn’t want to tell him. If I ever got out of this alive, I never wanted to see them again. But I felt like I had to play along so I told them I was staying at the Serena Hotel but I gave them a false room number. Like that would do a lot of good.
After that he stood up and motioned for me to get up. They escorted me out of the building down the front steps to the curb where a car was waiting. They got into the car and sped away leaving me standing on the side walk in a total state of bewilderment. It was only then that the full force of the experience hit me.
I looked up at the sky and the tops of the building were literally swirling around in the blue canopy overhead. Or was it just in my head? I didn’t know. I became momentarily quite dizzy and thought I would pass out. I had to find my way back to the hotel but I was disoriented and actually quite lost. Calm down, I told myself. At least you are still alive and free at last. Now just assess your situation and you will be fine.
I looked around again and saw in the distance the top of a building I recognized that was in the direction of the hotel. I started walking in the direction of the familiar landmark, navigating by dead reckoning. The closer I got to the building the more familiar were my surroundings. Soon I found myself back on Uhuru Highway and almost home.
When I made it back to the hotel I went right to the room and collapsed on the bed. Mary wasn’t back yet and I feared telling her what happened. I knew she would be furious with me for putting us both in danger. When she finally got back, I told her the story and she was sympathetic but I could tell she was not happy with me. Hell, I wasn’t happy with me either. We spent the rest of the trip looking over our shoulders as we never knew if the rough and rowdy crew would show back up again and cause more trouble.
We got out of the country with no further incidents but I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t talk to strangers.
Eloise woke early on a Saturday morning. The bedroom was filled with light and the sheer curtains hanging over the large windows danced lightly in the cool breeze. She sat straight up in bed and stretched her arms out overhead, twisted her body to the left and let out a pleasant sigh as she yawned trying to wake her body up. She could smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
Fred, her husband, had gotten up earlier and went downstairs to make the coffee. This made Eloise happy. She got out of bed and put on her white silk dressing gown and went downstairs to meet the day. She was lighthearted and there was a spring in her step as she walked down the steps. On the way down she noticed the pictures of Brigid, her daughter, in a series from when she was a little girl until she was grown. These pictures were hung on the wall in stages as one descended the stairs and told the life story of little girl who grew into a beautiful woman. It had been her wedding day just a few short days ago and she was now on her honeymoon with her new husband, Bob. The newlyweds traveled to Paris right after they got married. Eloise could not be happier. She felt like it was a good match and that Bob and Brigid were a good fit together.
After coffee, Eloise decided to go out into her garden and pull weeds. It was situated in the backyard of their spacious house next to the pool. The house was a two-story Colonial located in a subdivision in the east part of town. The rooms were light and airy and filled with beautiful furniture. They had lived there the whole time Brigid was growing up. Now that she was gone Eloise would have to find more ways to spend her time. She couldn’t help but being happy for her though and a great feeling of pride rose in her bosom as she gazed out over her flowers.
Fred descended the stairs in the gloom of the early morning and headed to the kitchen for his first cup of coffee. The ancient wooden steps creaked under each of his footfalls as he traversed the stairs. He walked slowly through the dark hallway into the living room to pick up the morning paper so he would have something to read with his coffee. He noticed the tattered tapestries hanging from the dark gray walls which perfectly matched his mood for the day. He has been living in an atmosphere of sorrow ever since the day his only daughter, Melissande, left home with that guy from the carnival, Lukas.
Once in the kitchen Fred opened a tin of expresso coffee and filled the filter basket. The window of the kitchen looked out over a dull and deadly terrain. Viewed from the outside the window looked like a vacant eye. There was a large tree in the center of the yard which was still hidden in shadows. It had been struck by lightning a few years back and was in a steady state of dying. There was a malodorous fragrance wafting inside through the open window from the slate colored pond that smelled like decaying organic matter. Fred closed the window, nearly gagging as he did so.
As he drank his coffee Fred looked around. A lot needed to be done he thought. This kitchen is a mess. The dishes have piled up in the sink ever since she left begging to be washed. There were crumbs on the counters and in the corners the linoleum was starting to curl up. Oh well, he said to himself. I’ll get started tomorrow. Maybe she’ll stop by for a visit someday this week.
Fred sighed and drank his coffee. Then he put his head down on his arms resting on the table and you could see his shoulders gently rise and fall.
Johnny Applegate grew up in the sleepy little river town of Louisville, Kentucky, the gateway to the south. Louisville is primarily known for Churchill Downs and Bourbon, but it had its fair share of pretty girls too.
When he was eighteen-year-old, Johnny bought his first car. He ventured downtown to a dealership by the name of Broadway Motors. His salesman was a guy name of Grundy Hayes. Grundy was a flashy dresser. He wore a green sharkskin suit and sported brown pork pie straw. He always wore a wide smile to greet the customers that lit up his face.
The car Johnny picked out was a 1959 two tone Chevy Bel Air, white over green. It had a manual transmission with a three-speed shift lever on the column. The car had huge tail fins that flattened over like the fin of a great white whale. Johnny paid $800 dollars cash for the car. He had been saving up the money for months. Grundy was only too happy to accommodate and they struck a deal and Johnny drove the car home that day.
Now the car was fine, the only thing it lacked was a radio. So, one day when he had saved up a little more money, Johnny went down to the local junk shop and bought a radio for the car. He had to go out on the lot and find another wrecked Chevy like his so he could harvest the radio and put it in his car. He was in luck and found the one he was looking for. It took him about an hour to uninstall the radio from the wrecked Chevy. When he got it out, he took it up to the front office and made his purchase then went home to install the radio in his own car. While he was at it, he installed two speakers in the rear of the car and surrounded the speakers with a colorful bright orange cloth. Now he was cooking!
Johnny was very happy with the car. He would wash it and polish it in his drive way every Saturday morning. On Saturday night he would pick up his girlfriend, Lynn and some of their other friends and drive out to Cox’s park down on the river. There they had a little party. It was sort of a precursor to the tailgate parties you see today.
Cox’s park was located down along the banks of the Ohio River. In the summertime the grass was of a vivid blue green color and on this particular hot summer night they could smell the fragrance of the freshly mown lawn. It delighted the senses. Johnny parked the car in the spacious parking lot under the spreading leaves a large chestnut tree. From there you could watch the river roll by and the sun go down as the day turned to twilight. Johnny popped the trunk of the car and played the radio real loud. The sound came booming from the rear mounted speakers. Johnny and his friends drank beer and danced in the parking lot. They whooped and hollered and howled at the moon while they were listening to the tunes broadcast from WAKY, a local AM radio station. Bill Bailey, who billed himself the King Kong of the Kilocycles, was the DJ. He played such tunes as Born to be Wild, Dance to the Music, and Those Were the Days. Later, after it got dark, they climbed back into the car and watched the submarine races.
Instruments of death that fit snugly into the palm of your hand were gleaming dully in their showcases lovingly caressed by blue velvet. Oiled wooden handles jutted from solid blue-black bodies. There was a faint odor of oil and metal lingering on the air-conditioned atmosphere of the room. The soft sound of creaking leather reverberated through the reverential quiet as the clerk tenderly, ever so gently, eased a delicately balanced, but heavily weighted .357 magnum pistol out of its holster. Firmly, but gently, he gripped the butt of the gun in his right hand. He placed the web of his thumb over the hammer of the awesome black revolver and slowly began to exert pressure on it. The man’s hands trembled slightly and he closed his eyes. Small beads of perspiration began popping over his upper lip. A little metal clicking noise emerged from the gun as the hammer went through it first cocking phase. A slight smile appeared on the lips of the clerk as he continued to pull back on the heavy hammer and another click emerged – the gun was half-cocked – the clerk began breathing heavily now and rapidly and his face grew flush. He slid his thumb to the edge of the hammer and applied the tip of it to the ridges cut deeply into the top edge. He pushed down hard and fully cocked the revolver. A tiny teardrop appeared in the corner of the clerk’s eye. The gap between the ridged head of the steel hammer and the body of the gun was a chasm. It looked like the jaws of a primordial reptile. It was powerful and it was frightening – the stored-up energy of the hammer begged to be released. He pulled the trigger. Snap! I jumped. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and a shiver ran down my left arm. The clerk placed the gun back into its holster. He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and blew clouds of tobacco smoke across the room. He had a distant look in his eyes. I turned on my boot heels and walked out of the store into the bright afternoon sunlight.
I stopped into the strip club out near the race track early on a Friday night. They had just opened so there wasn’t a whole lot of action going on. Strippers sitting in little clumps here and there. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Budweiser. This is de rigueur for me at strip clubs because its an easy drink to order, it’s cheap, and doesn’t call a lot of attention. Usually a good way to change a twenty and get a lot of singles for the strippers. Strippers love singles.
“What’ll it be Bud?”
“I’ll have a Budweiser, please.”
“This Bud’s for you.”
She opened one of the glass paneled doors covering the refrigerated room back of the bar and retrieved a bottle of beer and set it down before me.
“Just a minute,” she said when I tried to pay her.
They were still opening the joint and she and another barmaid were hovering over the cash register counting money and signing in. It was OK with me. I was in no hurry.
I was sitting there on my bar stool swigging my beer and swiveling around on the stool to check the place out. Back behind me there was a large main stage with two stripper poles. Music was playing in the background. Kind of low for a stripper place I thought. There were tables and chairs in the space between me and the stage. The lighting was low and seductive and of course mirrors everywhere. I had turned back around to the bar facing the mirror on the back wall when I noticed a thin young girl with long brown mousy hair wearing a black athletic jacket heading in my direction. She was wearing black heels. Under the jacket was a nice lingerie set of matching black bra and panties. She was distinguished from the other girls because one, she was wearing a jacket, and two because her lingerie was nicer than the rest. The panties were high waisted and the brassier was rather full, more like a bustier, and while she looked good, she really wasn’t that sexy.
“Hi. What’s your name, cowboy?” She asked.
“Philip”, I answered. “What’s yours?”
She lowered her head and got closer and got a silly grin on her face.
“My real name or my stripper name?” She purred into my ear.
“Well, I always like to know a girl’s real name.”
“We’re not supposed to tell what our real name is.” She dropped her head and laughed. “It’s Crystal. My stripper name is Bella.”
“Oh, Bella! That’s a pretty name!” I was wondering if she knew what it really meant.
She smiled. “Thanks! Yours is pretty too.”
I smiled back.
“I don’t usually do this. I only work a couple days a month. Just enough to make a little money to pay the rent. I’m a single mother. I have a six-year-old daughter at home I have to take care of. She’ll be six in August.”
“Oh really? What day?”
“The ninth. August the ninth.”
“Wow! Really? That’s my birthday too!”
Her smile got bigger.
“Really? You’re a Leo?”
“Yep! Just like your daughter. What’s yours?”
“Oh! The most dangerous sign in the universe!”
“Do you study signs?”
“A little bit. You?”
She nodded her assent.
“Are Leos and Scorpios compatible?”
She laughed and allowed that they were. “I’m very passionate.” She said.
Then she went on about how she didn’t’ drink but that she smoked a lot.
“Yeah. Buy me a drink?”
“I thought you just said you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t. Except when I come here. I couldn’t do this unless I drank.”
“How much are they? I don’t usually buy girls drinks because they jack the prices up and I don’t like that.”
She grimaced. “I really don’t know. Get me a shot of tequila. I’m going over here to talk to my friend to make sure she is alright. I’ll be right back.”
So, I ordered a shot. I figured if the barmaid thought it was for me, she would just charge me regular price.
“Silver or gold?” She asked.
She poured a shot and set it down in front of me.
“Lemon or lime?”
“You want salt with that?”
“That’ll be seven dollars.”
In a few minutes Crystal drifted back over to where I was sitting and spotted the shot of Patron sitting on the bar.
“Where’s your shot?”
“I’m drinking beer.”
This seemed to satisfy her. She picked up the shot of tequila and poured it down her gullet and then sucked on the lemon and made a face.
“Oh, that was awful!”
“No, the tequila. I told you I didn’t drink.”
The she proceeded to tell me the story of her life. “You know, when I was younger, I was pretty wild and I did a lot of bad things. My boyfriend was killed right in front of me.”
“Bad drug deal?”
“Yeah. We were sitting in the car together somewhere in the west end and they just shot him right then and there.”
“Yeah, that was kind of a wakeup call for me. Ever since then I have been trying to get my act together and turn my life around.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
She lowered her head again and smiled.
“Hey! Don’t go anywhere. I’m going back over there to check on my friend again.”
So, she walked back over to her friend who was sitting at the other end of the bar.
I figured she be back for another drink but it looked like she got caught up in the conversation with her friend and some others who joined them. Thought it might be a good time to blow so I took the air.
Note: I published this story once before, but this is a new and revised version.