STANDING ON HER FRONT PORCH, Donata Szpatowicz pressed a scrap of paper against the flaking wooden column and scribbled a note with her pencil.
“So, Mimi, Mr. Szpatowicz’s forehead took six stitches from a hunky’s shovel last shift,” she said as she wrote. “Yesterday was the twenty-fourth? I’m playin’ my dime on six twenty-four.”
Maria di Mercurio, Mimi for short to everyone in Lindera, wrote the number in her little notebook.
“No malice aforethought, I hope,” Mimi said, tucking away the pad.
“Nah. Bodrogi had no reason to hit him,” Donata said. “A total accident. Besides, that melon of Janek’s is always getting in the way of something.”
“Yeah, he’s got some noggin’ on him alright,” she said.
“Dangerous business, that mill, Mimi,” Donata said. “Everywhere you step. Have you ever seen those boys swing them shovels on the open hearth?”
“No, have you?”
“No. Me neither. But I heard.”
She handed her the paper and two nickels.
“So, di Mercurio,” Donata began, looking the black woman up and down. “I always been wanting to ask. What parta Italy your folks from anyhow?”
“Who knows? Who cares?” said Mimi. “Mr. Katz calls me a Schwartze, but I don’t know where in hell that is. Prob’ly a little island off the toe of the boot or something. Sounds exotic, don’t it.”
“The man is a world traveler and very sophisticated. So he should know,” the Polish housewife said, putting her change back in her purse. “All I can say is I seen some dark Eye-talians, but you’re the darkest yet.”
“Thank you, Donata,” Mimi said. “I think.”
“Hey, Mimi. I got one for you.”
“Okay, but hurry it up. I gotta get back to the pool hall with these slips. Else my ass is grass.”
“All right all right,” Donata said. “So one day some woman asks the numbers runner, ‘What’s the numbah?’ and he says, ‘715,’ and she says, ‘Mary Jesus and Joseph, I played 714!’ The next day she finds him again and asks him, ‘What’s the numbah?’ and he says, ‘229.’ She says to him, “Jesus Christ I played 230!’ So this goes on all week, and finally he’s had it up to here with this broad, see, and on Friday he sees her comin’ and he gets ready, you know, so when she asks, ‘What’s the numbah?’ he looks at her and says, straight as can be, ‘ABC.’ ‘Dammit all to hell,’ she yells, ‘I played DEF!’”
Mimi barely smiled and looked around.
“What, you don’t think I never heard that joke before, Donata?” she asks. “Jus’ cause I’m a runner, everybody thinks they gotta tell me the numbers runner joke. Like I woulda never heard it before.”
“Okay, sorry, Mimi, never mind,” Donata said and walked back in the house. “See ya tomorrow.”
“Yeah, and I never heard that one before, either,” came Donata’s voice from inside the house.
Mimi continued down Woodlane, the westernmost street on her route before she would turn around and go east on Spicebush, the home stretch back to The Tartarus Club.
Most company houses owned radios, and most players listened hopefully to the sporting news every evening, so she’d rarely deal with a pesky broad like the one in Donata’s joke. They’d wait through the scores and stats to hear the daily take at the racetrack over in Wheeling, on the edge of their seats to catch those last three digits, the ones before the dot and the cents. That was your winning number. Or your losing number, assuming you didn’t happen to pick it, which of course very few did.
Mimi imagined the whole town getting quiet right about that magical hour every day. But she didn’t play, considering it bad luck to be both a player and a runner out of the same bank. Mel Katz’s bank. As loyal as Mel might be to Mimi, and her to him, the kind of bad luck that might come out of that was the worst possible kind. A very predictable, unfailing kind of bad luck.
But this way, compared to Donata’s dame, the worst she might face was a sore loser, and just about the worst a sore loser might do to Mimi was to swear off playing the numbers, and even that was only annoying since they’d be calling her over the next day to give her their pennies once again. Anyhow, even if they did get sore, it allowed her to disarm them with her favorite come back, “Hey, don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.” It had a way of getting through to even the lousiest sore loser.
Except occasionally there was one who really did try to shoot the messenger. Or at least take a swing at her head with a black jack, or put a knife to her throat. As if she was the one who’d picked the numbers. So Mimi had resorted to carrying two weapons for her own protection: a derringer tucked in her pocket and her bets in a wool sock. Lindera had yet to hear the crack of Mimi’s little banger, and might never hear it, because word got around quickly enough that getting clocked by her sock full of nickels could put a grown man in the hospital.
She walked her regular walk at her regular pace, up the south side of Woodlane, waving at the non-players and conversing with the rest, whether they were sitting on door stoops, or waiting on porches, or hanging out of second-floor windows.
“Butter and eggs, Mr. Pataky?” she called out to one man smoking a cigarette in an upstairs window.
“Naw, Mimi,” he answered. “I’m still busted from last week. Don’t be teasin’ me now.”
“Hey, I’m just the messenger,” she smiled and walked on.
She stopped for bets at the Bichsels, the Vasileviches, the Petrutis, and the Stifkos.
By the time she got to Margarite Swetye, the old woman was pacing her front walk, a tattered old book held to her chest.
“I didn’t have a single dream last night, Mimi,” she fretted. “How am I going to know what number to play?”
“Well, you better think of something quick, Mrs. Swetye, I have to get back.”
“What did you dream about last night?” the woman asked. “I’ll just look up yours!”
“Dammit, Mrs. Swetye, I didn’t–” she sighed, and her eyes scanned the front of Margarite’s dilapidated house. “–I dreamed about a shovel, okay, Mrs. Swetye? A damned shovel.”
“Well, what kind of a shovel?” the old woman asked.
“Just like that one,” Mimi said, pointing to a rusted coal shovel propped against the siding.
“What were you doing with it, Mimi?”
“I was shoveling, Marge. It was a damned shovel!” Mimi said, throwing her hands in the air. “But what difference does it make? Just look it up and let me finish my route, would you?”
The woman flipped to the back of her book, ran her finger down the page, then wrote a number on a piece of paper and handed it, along with a penny, to Mimi.
“One cent on 302,” she said with a smile.
“Tonight, before you go to bed, get your dream all lined up ahead of time. Okay, Mrs. Swetye?” Mimi said and then continued down the sidewalk.
As she turned on 3rd Street and trudged down the steep incline toward Spicebush Road, she spotted Anthony Schioppo’s head poking out of his window upstairs.
“Polizza, Anthony?” she called out to him.
“Si, si, Mimi,” he responded and sticking his cigarette in his mouth, extended one hand out over the front walk. When she arrived, eighteen feet below him, he dropped two pennies that rang out as they bounced off the bricks at her feet. She found them and looked up just as he let go of a white piece of paper that tripped and skipped its way down the wood siding of the house.
She chased it down, picked it up and read aloud.
“Two cents on–” she studied the note. “–123. What else was I expecting? You play the same number every week, Tony.”
She looked up at him.
“One of these days,” Anthony smiled.
“Yeah, one of these days, Tony. Day number nine hundred and ninety-nine, maybe.”
Mimi headed east to hit the last few company houses before the start of the stores and beer joints that marked the end of her territory.
Those were the places that handled all the receipts for downtown. The demarcation created a friendly rivalry, but it was also business she had no interest in competing for. It was the roughest of all. She was happy to earn her take off the millworkers and their wives in the relative safety and comfort of their neighborhoods, only rarely having to deal with the minor threat of a sore loser, only rarely having to wave her two-shooter at them, or swing her sock of nickels around and around over her head like David taking on Goliath. She knew that any woman, much less a black woman, might not fare so well behind the blacked out windows of a beer joint, two-shooter or no.
The blacked out windows of The Tartarus Club were another matter though, and she never felt as safe as she did once she walked back in the front door of Mel’s little universe. There she was everybody’s favorite niece, although family relations unfortunately included a lot of pinching and grabbing as she made her way past the bar to Mel’s office in the back.
“Where’s the green, Mim’?” Mel said looking up from his desk as she closed the door behind her.
“Ain’t so much green, Mr. Mel,” Mimi answered. “Pennies and nickels mostly. Almost all pocket change.”
She patted the loaded sock bulging in the pocket of her sweater.
“Ooh, a third boob,” he said. “We can finally send you on the road with Ringling Brothers.”
They both laughed.
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