By Jon Moray
This story was first published for an online magazine called Ink Drift and was inspired by an odd man that work colleagues and I observed during our lunch break at the mall. Enjoy!
“Going to the mall again for lunch, Jack?” asked the receptionist, as he was leaving through the lobby entrance.
“Yep, I got a 20% off coupon at the sandwich shop in the food court,” answered Jack, knowing she knew he wasn’t telling the truth.
“You’re going to spy on the mystery man at the mall aren’t you?”
“I am not spying. I am observing him. I still can’t believe he leaves all his belongings at the food court for at least fifteen minutes while he goes to do whatever he does.”
The receptionist rendered a careless shrug that Jack took it as his cue to catch the elevator to his destination.
Jack Scolari was an eccentric person who possessed plenty of quirks. People intrigued him and the man at the mall piqued his curiosity to its highest level. He was an engineer by trade, battling many deadlines under an unforgiving supervisor. Polo shirts, slacks, and comfortable shoes were his daily uniform and he did plenty of walking during his lunch hour. Most of the time he could recruit a colleague to join him but today he was on his own. The mall was within walking distance and a five minute walk and escalator up through the upscale department store would get him to the food court.
He made a beeline to the sandwich shop but not without glancing over to where the mystery man usually sat. The man was there and appeared deep in his work. Jack guessed he was an accountant and entertained the thought of finally approaching him. While on line to order, he convinced himself he would take the leap and introduce himself to the man. The deli worker prepared his ham and cheese, lettuce and tomatoes with mayo on an Italian sub. Minutes later he paid the bill and headed toward the mystery man.
As he approached, the man was working a calculator, with intermittent scratches to his forehead. Jack sat at the next table across and overlooking the lower concourse. Suddenly the man put the calculator in his leather bag, got up and headed bare-handed toward the escalator down to the lower level. Jack intently watched as the man reached the lower level and out of sight.
Jack took this opportunity to study every item left on the table including the bag resting on the seat. Reading glasses, the Wall Street Journal, a fancy pen and a fold-up clock littered the table. Between bites, he stared in disbelief about how a man can leave his personal belongings behind for at least a ten to fifteen minute stretch. This was the man’s ritual every day or at least every time Jack was at the mall. Approximately fifteen minutes later the man returned. Jack surmised he was probably using the restroom but couldn’t understand why he went to the lower level when there was one by the food court. The man sat, put on his reading glasses and began fiddling with the clock when curiosity got the best of Jack.
“Excuse me sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?” asked Jack, with an anticipated negative reaction.
“You just asked me a question,” the man said deadpanned, without looking up.
“I am sorry to bother you but this question has been gnawing at me for as long as I have seen you here.”
The man looked up, slid his glasses down his nose and then said, “Ask your question.”
“Sir, every time I have seen you here, which is during my lunch break, you go off somewhere for at least ten to fifteen minutes, but what is really puzzling to me is how you just leave your belongings behind at the table.”
“So? Aren’t you afraid that when you return to the table your stuff is gone?”
“No? You have stuff that is worth taking and you leave it behind like if it is a soiled napkin.”
“My belongings are always here when I return,” The man said, flatly.
“Always? You mean you have never had anything stolen from you?”
“Not at this mall. Never. And it never will.”
“How do you know this? How can you be so nonchalant about your stuff?”
“I know that if I play my numbers right, nothing bad will happen to me or my belongings.”
That answer left Jack spying the tiled floor, the acoustical ceiling, and the man‘s stone veneer in search of sanity.
“Forget about the numbers comment, let’s just say I know,” the man answered, hoping that would be enough to satisfy Jack’s curiosity, but it only made him more determined.
“What’s the story with the numbers? Some kind of superstition or something?”
“No. Forget about it. You asked your question. Enjoy your lunch,” the man said, pushing his glasses back up to work the clock again.
Jack decided to let it go for now or until he finished his sandwich. Taking the last bite he now saw the man writing in a spiral notebook. He rose up out of his chair, discarded his garbage and began his descent back to the office. He was about halfway to the department store when he stopped, turned back and headed towards the man. He wanted answers and wasn’t nearly satisfied with the lack of info the man had already offered.
“What’s with the numbers?” Jack asked, almost demanding.
The man’s attention went from the notebook to the clock. An uneasy silence followed as if the man was waiting for an alarm to go off. Suddenly, he spoke, “I can tell you are not going to leave me alone. I live my life by numbers. The doctors label me OCD but my life hasn’t gone wrong since I went to my numbers system.”
Jack took a seat opposite him with childlike anticipation.
The man continued, “my life depends on even numbers. I first addressed your question when the minutes hit an even number, hence the long pause.”
“By the way, my name is Jack Scolari. I work for an engineering firm across the street.”
“Robert Gentry. Private Accountant.”
The man studied Jack’s face as if he was trying to find clues in a crystal ball. A glance at his clock, a slight pause and an answer followed, “I am not really a sharing person, but I guess it is therapeutic to discuss my condition with someone. Ever since my uncle won a lottery with all even numbers I have experimented living my life around even numbers.”
Robert went on to explain his even number strategy with wild eyes, from waking up at 6:10 every morning to leaving the house on an even minute. He leaned forward and explained how his fetish escalated to rising out of a chair, using the bathroom, and beginning speech on an even minute. He then nodded affirmation for the reason he frequented this mall is because the temperature is always a comfortable seventy-two degrees.
“I have followed this system for eight years. Nothing bad has happened to me since I paid attention to the numbers. Since playing the lottery, horses, and sporting events with even numbers, I have won over sixty thousand dollars in the past eight years. I am working on the Lotto game and I feel I am close to making that payday,” Robert boasted, as he leaned back stretching his arms up before resting them on the back of his head.
Jack sat frozen for a moment not knowing what to ask next. Suddenly, he blurted out, “well, what about days that land on an odd number, like tomorrow the seventh?”
“I don’t play any numbers on odd days or months for that matter. I use the odd days and months to research other ways to make my system work. I figure if I stay mindful of the even numbers on those days, having my cruise control on sixty, I can compensate for the odd days and months.”
Robert further added with a satisfied smile that all of his winnings in the last eight years came on only even number months.
“By the way, I am gone for fourteen minutes at a time, not fifteen.”
Jack shook his head at his new friend’s quirk. He checked his watch which read 12:33. “Well, it’s been nice chatting with you, but it’s time to get back to work.”
He got up to leave when the man grabbed his arm while watching his clock. A few seconds later, the man released his grip. “Have a nice day, Jack.” Jack looked at his watch, which now read 12:34. Jack smiled and walked away.
He descended back to the office and was walking through the parking lot when he saw a ten dollar bill up against a concrete parking bumper. He picked it up, folded it, and put hit in his back pocket. He turned back towards the mall and shuddered at the coincidence. When he returned to the office he mentally debated whether he would divulge the secret of the mystery man to his co-workers but decided against it. Besides, no one asked him anyway.
The next day Jack decided to meet with Robert again to discuss his newfound fortune. After buying his lunch, he headed for the table occupied by Robert.
“Hi Robert,” he called out, but the man remained silent. Jack knocked on the table but Robert didn’t budge from his attention to his clock. Finally he spoke, “good afternoon, Jack. It is now 11:50, I can talk.”
“You’ll never believe what happened to me on the way back to the office yesterday.”
“You found ten bucks?”
“Now, how did you know that?” Jack demanded, as if he had just seen an impossible magic trick and wanted the secrets to it.
“It’s all in the numbers and the laws of probability. You left on an even minute, on an even day on an even month on an even year. You wore a beaded bracelet with ten beads. You wore two rings on your right hand. I bet the change from your lunch was in even denominations.” Jack checked his receipt from the day before and from the ten dollar bill he paid, he got back $2.46. Robert smiled as Jack’s face was glossed with mouth opening amazement.
“Couple that with the fact that at the time of your exit yesterday, there were twenty six patrons seated in the food court, eight of which wore hats, fourteen were female, twelve were male, eight of which ordered from the same sandwich shop as you and the laws of probability now work in your favor. The ten bucks was just a wild guess with the LOP, as I call it, in my favor. By the way, when I do excuse myself for fourteen minutes, I always leave when there is an even number of patrons seated at this food court, which happens to be on the second floor. You can call it coincidence but I call it playing the percentages. I’m a numbers guy by profession, you know.”
Jack lips pursed with less enthusiasm and more skepticism. “Give me some time, I will debunk your numbers system.”
“Look, Jack, I don’t see any harm of you joining me for lunch on occasion. It wouldn’t mess with my system and I would enjoy the challenge of proving your theories of coincidence wrong.”
“Then it’s a deal. As a test, tomorrow I am going to deliberately wake on an odd minute and start everything I can on an odd minute. I will wear one ring and take a bead off the bracelet. What do you think of that?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t tempt the numbers, Jack. I highly advise against it.”
“This is just the beginning of me proving you are wasting your time engrossed in the numbers.”
“Please, don’t do that.”
“I already have my heart set on it,” Jack said, between chomps of a halfway eaten sandwich. The numbers conversation continued as Jack washed down his meal with a soft drink. Jack looked at his watch, 12:33. He got up quickly and bid adieu before Robert had a chance to detain him.
The next morning Jack woke up purposely at 5:57 AM. He ate one egg, made three cups of coffee instead of his usual two and left his apartment at 7:01 AM; five minutes after the time he normally leaves. He set the cruise control on his sedan to fifty-seven while enjoying light traffic on the Interstate. When he got to work, all e-mails he sent or read were at odd times. He tried to answer questions on the odd minute but was bombarded with rushed queries from several colleagues. At 11:31 AM, Jack left the office for the mall. He entered the department store at 11:37 and stalled his progress so he could take the escalator up at 11:39. Halfway up, his anticipation bubbled over as he began to run up the steps. He almost reached the top when he miscalculated the landing and fell backwards. He stumbled down the escalator only to be pushed back up by its movements. He suffered minor scrapes on his arms and face, and also suffered a twisted ankle, but otherwise he was okay. He limped over to the food court without stopping to buy lunch.
Robert was at his table working his calculator, writing in his notebook, and checking his fold open clock. “Good afternoon, Robert,” Jack stammered.
Robert checked the clock, peered up at Jack and snickered, “I’m doing better than you.” He surveyed Jack from head to toe and deliberately tried to make eye contact but Jack turned his head and took a seat across from him. Robert leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and smiled expecting to be entertained by whatever spewed out of Jack’s mouth.
“Everything was going fine. I deliberately planned many of my daily routines around odd numbers and I got careless when I took the escalator up, that’s all. That had nothing to do with your theory,”
Robert took a deep breath and shook his head with pity, before turning away to check the people seated in his vicinity. He checked his clock again before speaking. “Please don’t tempt the numbers again. If you don’t believe, you don’t believe. But don’t go out of your way to try to debunk my theory. You were lucky this time. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
“I think you have gone way overboard with your theory.”
“If you keep doing what you did this morning, I can’t associate myself with you any more. Your karma will offset my theory and I can’t have that. Understand?”
Jack looked over at the line at the sandwich shop and back at Robert. He rubbed the bruises he had gotten from his fall and then checked his watch. “I don’t buy into your theory and suspect I never will, but I won’t do anything to undermine what you believe. I promise.”
After a pause Robert nodded in agreement. “Then you can join me for lunch anytime. And I won’t try to detain you if you leave on an odd minute. That doesn’t affect my karma.”
The next two months the two met in the food court and their company grew into a true friendship. Robert would still try to debunk the system without any success. He began to respect Robert’s devotion and dedication to his belief but couldn’t bring himself to practice it himself. One day at the food court, June 8th, 2016, Robert presented Jack with a special, get rich plan.
“Jack, we have known each other for four months. I consider you a friend I could trust. I have a proposition for you. I need your total cooperation in order for my plan to work. You will be well compensated if, I mean, when the numbers come in.”
“What are you talking about, Robert?”
“Do you know how much the Lotto is this Saturday?”
“Yes, two-hundred sixty million. Everyone at the office is talking about it. How come?”
“Well, I believe I have put together the winning numbers to win it. I have studied this game for years and have come close three times, but now I think I have figured it out,” Robert exclaimed, with bouncing eyebrows.
“If you have figured it out, what do you need me for?”
“Because, I can’t be the only winner. There has to be an even number of winners in order for me to cash in. It won’t work if I am the only winner.”
“So, what do you want me to do?”
Robert carefully explained with squinted, determined eyes he would give Jack the winning numbers also. Jack would have to play two games, one with the numbers he would give him and it had to be the second game on the card. He went on to stress that the first game cannot be by quick pick and any numbers Jack chose would have to be all even numbers. He further implored Jack to play on that day, since the date is even, and also hand the card to the cashier on an even minute. “That’s all you have to do and you won’t have another financial worry in your life.”
Jack studied the excitement on his face but deep down burned of skepticism. He never believed in a sure thing. He would reserve his enthusiasm for the moment the numbers truly came in. “What if there is another winner?”
“You ask the tough questions. If there is another winner or an odd amount of winners, I will surrender my winning ticket to you since according to my numbers I can’t benefit from such an outcome. It would have a reverse effect on my karma even though on the surface would look like a dream come true. You could just say you forgot you had played those numbers and played them again.”
“You seem to have it all figured out, don’t you?”
“Like I said before, I have been researching and experimenting for years and now I believe the time has finally come. Are you in?”
“Sure, I’m in,” Jack mumbled, fighting back every urge to roll his eyes in disbelief. I only have two dollars to lose and millions to gain. I will play the game today just as you described.”
Robert nodded his head in satisfaction and relayed final details, with the urgent reminder to play the game today and hand in the card on an even minute. He also made it clear to turn on his TV on an even minute to watch the drawing through on Saturday night. “You can do whatever you want to after the drawing and you can claim the prize whenever you want.”
“Sounds easy enough. Thank you so much for including me in your scheme. If it does happen, I will be indebted to you for the rest of my life.”
“When we do win, there is nothing you can do to repay me since I will have everything I ever wanted. Oh, just one more thing, since tomorrow is an odd day maybe we should not meet. I don’t want to do anything to disrupt the LOP.”
“I understand. I’ll eat with some co-workers at the park.”
“And now, the envelope please,” said Robert, as he produced an manila envelope from his briefcase and handed it to Jack. Jack began to tear it open when Robert stopped him.
“Uh, uh, uh…not until you are ready to play and on an even minute.” Jack folded up the envelope and put it in his back pocket.
“There are no further instructions. Play it right and your economic worries will be over.” They shook hands and laughed simultaneously. Jack rose to depart, not without a pat on Robert’s shoulder.
“It’s 12:20, enjoy your new life my friend,” said Robert, with a tip of his visor.
“Too-shay, my friend. Get it Two-shay?”
“Very funny. One last piece of advice, think even in whatever you do and wherever you go, my friend. Think even,” Robert said, with a frozen, blink free stare.
Jack decided he would play the numbers on his way home. He got out of work and drove to the nearest convenience store. He entered the store and headed towards the lottery counter to fill out the card. He fidgeted as he checked his watch, just turned 5:42, and then entered insignificant even numbers on the first game without much consideration. He then reached into his back pocket for the envelope. He tore it open, and began to scribble in the numbered circles. The numbers in order were 2, 4, 8, 22, 28, 44. After finishing up the second game he checked his watch, 5:43. He got on line to play his card with one patron ahead of him. He wiped emerging sweat from his brow as his focus was on his watch and the person in front of him. The watch turned to 5:44 and the customer ahead of him just ended his transaction. Jack handed the card to the cashier and promptly paid as the numbers were being registered. The cashier handed the card and the tickets back to him. Jack exited the store and drove home with work issues on his mind, and the lottery nowhere to be found on the brain.
The next day, Friday, Jack went to work and struggled through the issues that were presented before him the day earlier. As agreed to, He stayed away from the food court and enjoyed a lunch at a popular burger place. Friday turned to night and Jack and a few of his buddies took in the downtown nightlife. The partying would last into the wee hours and he finally returned home around 3 AM. He slept in the next morning, the day of the big drawing. He awoke up after the noon hour, showered, and just lounged about the apartment, working the remote, and checking e-mail and social media sites. He made a microwaveable dinner and listened to music until he turned on the television at exactly 10:50 PM.
11:00 arrived and the lady that would draw the numbers appeared on the monitor. She quickly explained the legalities of the state drawing and then began to reach for the first lottery ball. “The first number is 2.”
“The second number is 4.” So far so good, Jack thought as his heart began to beat faster.
“The third number is 8,” followed by heavy breathing as Jack’s eyes began to widen.
“The fourth number is 22,” his heart pounded and would be visible through his flesh had he not been wearing a t-shirt.
“The fifth number is 28,” his heart now mimicking the speed of a woodpecker going at it on a tree.
“The sixth and final number is 44.” Jack shook like a leaf and goose bumps engulfed his entire body. His forehead and hands damp with sweat. He fell back into his recliner and checked his ticket against the numbers on the screen as they were being repeated. He gulped for saliva as his mouth went dry. He got up, shuffled around the house and sat down again not knowing what to do with himself. He mouthed “I won, I won, the crazy old man was right,” in utter disbelief. He wanted to scream but didn’t want to alert his neighbors through the paper thin walls. He checked the television one more time and turned it off after confirming he had truly struck it big. He spent the rest of the evening in bed staring at rotating blades of a ceiling plan, in shock, until he drifted to sleep.
The next morning he awoke about 9 AM and turned on the television to watch the morning news. The newscaster announced there were only two lottery winners from the 260 million dollar jackpot and both tickets were bought in the same area. Jack picked up his ticket and danced around his apartment like Gene Kelly without the rain. He spent the rest of the day planning his future, which would include a house on the beach. Tomorrow he would leave for the state capital to redeem his prize, which was 74 million after taxes if he were to take the lump sum. He figured he would retain Robert’s accounting services to help him plan how to manage his millions. That night he hardly slept as his bed felt like sandpaper with all the shuffling he did in it.
Monday morning, a call in sick to the office, a fill-up at the gas station, and he was off to make himself famous for the day. His blood pumped more rapidly with each mile and the sensation traveled to his foot that was firmly planted on the gas pedal. With each passing of a mile marker, Jack lulled himself into luxurious day dream fantasies and his driving skills went into autopilot. The mental fog he worked himself into along with the high rate of speed caused him to lose control of his sedan and sideswipe a semi just twenty miles from his destination. The momentum forced him off the road as his car tumbled like a flattened tin can into a ditch. The trucker called for help and when the ambulance arrived they found Jack thirty feet away from his car, dead. The crash would back up traffic for hours and aerial footage was caught by the local news crews. Jack’s rush to fortune was met with a careless end courtesy of a bump with an eighteen-wheeler.
6:00 PM, Robert, as his ritual, turned on the news to catch up on the days events. The lead story was the crash Jack caused on the turnpike. The newscaster deferred to the field reporter for the latest developments.
“The identity of the person in the sedan that hit the semi is Jack Scolari of Hannahstown. He appeared to be on his way to the state capital to claim his winning ticket in last Saturday’s lottery worth 260 million dollars, as evident of the ticket found on his person. We can now confirm that ticket was the one bought in Hannahstown at the 7Eleven on Fifth Street and Third Avenue. Back to you Bill.”