|A Roll of the Dice|
Written late one night on 6th July 2000 for the creative nonfiction seminar given by Lee Gutkind. This essay is dedicated to him. I read it to my husky; he pricked up his ears for about a minute then rolled over and when to sleep. Please prick up your ears.
A roll of the dice------- everybody wins
I lost; but deep inside me the trumpets sounded, the hand had been played, the cup was full. I have to confess, I have that nasty schoolboy habit of feeling an irresistible desire to “stir it up,” or as our Americans friend say: push to the outside corners of the envelope.
It was July, Paris, a rainy day, an ideal setting for a creative non-fiction seminar. There we were, twelve in the orchestra, seated before a conductor of immense talent not as yet convinced his summer class of writers are up to standard.
Coffee time, the second day, we called the waiter. I looked around. I detected a little group nervousness, some people have written intimate details about their lives and thoughts. I felt an air of concentration, a subtle perfume of the love of writing, a feeling of contentment knowing we are under the instruction of a man that clearly holds the conductor’s batten well. I looked at him, a man of middle age that exuded the professional storyteller; his love of the detail, the tragedies and joy that lie under the skin. The professional, that tracks, like some lonely hunter, the meaning of life. His writings were good, precise, perceptive and on the cutting edge of finding out the truth.
If I was going to “stir it up,” where was the play, where was the envelop? I had vaguely heard that one member of our group had something to do with gambling. She was an attractive woman, marked by the hard knocks of life. Again the little nagging inner voice, where was the play? In that instance, deep within me the animal instinct rose through my body, the sense of smell became exaggerated. The waiter had started to take orders for the ten o’clock coffee break. Inspiration, like a bolt out of the clouds, the playing field unfolded.
I said “ I bet you he gets the order wrong as he is not writing them down” Like some violent wind sweeping across the desert, our gambling colleague replied “ how much?” As though my head had been jerked up like a race house at full canter I knew the game was in play, but in that fraction of a second I also knew this was no game, this was for real, this was about winning. The tone of the voice had come from way back, smoke filled halls, greed, bets won, bets lost. This was the real world, life’s struggle, the ugly side, lost innocence. All those late nights, the miles traveled never seeing the dawn. My senses told me this was not about money, this was about assessing odds, quick calculations, but above all it mattered to win. By this time orchestra had laid down their instruments. I heard shuffling of feet, a little tension, and a slight movement forward on their chairs. I calculated the bet had to be small as this was not about greed. “Ten francs.” I eased back in my chair. “Done,” came the reply
The orders continued to be given, many difference requests, language problems, and pronunciation problems. I felt snug in the comfort of knowing my ten francs was in safekeeping. Time to stir the pot a little more. Innocently, I asked the waiter if it would not be better to write the orders down. Now, I had to win.
With enormous pride the waiter informed me, “ no this would not be necessary as it was all in his head.” This was getting better. I had seen the scenes so many times, a thirteen to one chance, people ordering one thing, but really meaning something else, waiters forgetting, general confusion. As the waiter left I casually asked the professional gambler why she thought she would win. Years of watching people, subtle movements, instinctive gamblers sense, were throw back to me in the confidence of winning the bet. The final statement “ the man is proud of his memory.” This was getting serious. We had highten the stakes; the interest had reached another level. Excitement crawled around the walls of the room.
The first tray arrived…all correct. I move forward on my chair, did I detect a little warming of the hands? The second tray, the service nearly finished. One precious little glass remained….a “citron presse”….it looked wonderful sitting there……my lighthouse, saved. I was enveloped in a sense of contentment. Then I heard that beautiful high pitch from a well tune violin. “Thank you, I order the citron.” Devastation, I had lost. When you stir the pot you like to eat your own cooking.
Without thinking I handed over the ten francs to the only French member of our group to pass on to our gambling friend. Quite innocently she gave it to the waiter, as the winner, had previously said, that if she won she would give it to the waiter. Obviously a sporting jest: one always leaves the odd chip when walking away from a gambling table. The group relaxed, instruments were picked up. I sensed a calm descending, as though some light summer storm had passed. Our gambler left the room sat she was going to recover the ten francs. This heralded another summer storm. Tension mounded again, the wall seemed to close in. There was a prolonged silence. I could see our conductor deliberately rising on his podium; this was the false note he had been waiting for. His body moved in anticipation of her return. My cooking smelled good.
At the very first step on her returning to the room there was a shattering sound of a cymbal that reverberated around the room. “ Why?” How many times has this elegant little word been used in history with devastating effect? Again it came. This conductor was good, the right instrument at the right time “Why…why would you do that?” The sheer joy of the moment overwhelmed me; we were back in play. Back came the answer like some well played triangle that makes itself heard above all other instruments. “I won the bet; I have to be paid” Again the cymbal, clear, awesome, precise. “But why? A pause, silence, nervous looks, lighted faces, the orchestra was tuning up.
Then came a rush of words. They were emotional, strong, and deep from the wells of intimate thoughts. We were sweep, as by some magic, from the beautiful, elegant, city of Paris with its side walks cafes to the dirty waters of the Hudson in New York. We heard about police boats, lights, noise, shouts and fear. A time far off, another period, another bet. It appears that our gambler had taken a bet to swim across the Hudson in the dark, no doubt, so that nobody would notice her. It took longer that expected. The woman betting her became concerned and called the Police. To no avail, our champion reached the other side. This is some feat, I know the river well, with its eddies, under currents, and continual river traffic hauling merchandise up to Albany. No doubt there was remorse, anguish, high emotion. She never got paid. We can only speculate: all those years of learning, of playing by the rules, of struggling to do the right thing, had, in that heroic effort, been shattered. At that moment, in an upstairs café in Paris, our gambler walked on the stage. The spotlight was turned on. The conductor picked up his baton and the orchestra started to play in tune. I looked out of the widow…it had stop raining.
Readers-don’t go away. You have forgotten one actor who was part of this scene. The waiter.
I returned early the next morning to the café. One, to apologize to the waiter, and two, my irresistible desire to push the envelope edges just one more time. In ordering my morning coffee, I apologized, hoping he would not put some horrible mixture in the brew. Then I let the bow of my violin drop. “You know I have one excuse, I was betting against a professional gambler.” There was a pause as he gave me back the bow: now the violin started to play. He did not need to speak, his eyes showed it all. Greed. This changed everything; the chase, the challenge, us against the professionals, everything goes. We were friends in arms, soul mates. The music of his voice denoted many bets placed, many bets lost… “Place the big bet and I will make a mistake,” he said. For one fleeting second I saw the orchestra breaking up all the instruments, the conductor packing his bags, and the lights going out. Pity, I thought, it was getting interesting. “No” I said, “not a good idea… maybe another day, another place.” As he turned on me he lowed his shoulders in a sign of a missed opportunity.
Coffee was served that morning with the orders strictly correct. For one fleeting moment my eyes crossed with the waiter’s; they held our little secret. I turned and looked out of the window. The sun was shining. But deep down I could not help wondering what other fascinating secrets lay hidden in that room. The conductor picked up his baton: the orchestra started playing a merry tune.
David Nutt Paris. July 2001