Jones finished high school in three years, got a job with a financial firm that made it okay through the crisis, and had a corner office with a balcony and garden by the time he was twenty five. But I knew him long before that, when he was a tiny kid and so fast that no one could catch him, his legs pumping on the playground, running for a hiding place behind the portables. I found him there all the time, scribbling numbers in a notepad, pulling his shirt down around his knees to make himself look bigger.
The place the train lets me off is old-style girder with bolts everywhere, and gum on most of them. The street is cleaner, but it’s tough to get a cab. I get to his place by 2 o’clock, and stand waiting at his buzzer for half an hour.
“I can’t find him,” I say into the phone. “I don’t know where he is.”
“Try the pub around the corner. Callys. He sits at the front.”
Two days ago, Jones called me and told me about his new car. Black, big German, smart enough to drive itself. He sent me pictures. The car looked like a horse in the snow, panting, ready to run. He also sent me one of him standing in his great room, wearing a sweater I had got for him a few years ago. It was beige, tight at the neck, made him look slim. He called me back later that night and apologized, said he wasn’t trying to make me feel bad. I told him it was fine, I didn’t. Somewhere in the middle of his Guyana story, he asked me to come down.
The waitress at Callys has a green mini-skirt, a white top. She asks my name, tells me that she knows Jones as the funny guy in the suit, the one who slicks back his hair and forgets that he’s recycling compliments about once a month. “Are you his friend?” she asks.
“I’m trying to be.”
“Right, so you’re funny too.” I order a beer; it’s flat on purpose, she says. “He hasn’t been here in a few days. The last time I saw him, he was buying rounds for his staff and tipped me two bills. You know when he’s going to come back?” I tell her I don’t. “Too bad, I wanted to say thanks. Go see his bookie. Here’s the number.”
“He’s gambling,” I tell the phone, in the cab. “Nothing too bad.” The response is loud. “He’s got a nice place, yes. He’s got a new car. Enough money to buy drinks for everyone at work. I saw a picture of his trip, he went with a girl but I don’t know who she was. He said he was thinking about coming to visit you, maybe in the spring. I’m sure he would be happy for you to come here.”
The streets look clean until you get a whiff of sewage through the car window, then you picture it all backed up and flooded. The cabbie has a talk show on, but there’s also a small tv screen in the back of the chair that shows ads and the scores from last night. The cabbie asks if it’s okay for him to smoke, and if I’m sure I have the right address for the place I want to go.
I take out a leather book from the backpack. Jones’ notepad is like a diary, except there’s sums and figures in the margins. The numbers are big, guesses as to where he might be going scattered around words describing where he is. I flip through the pages. My name shows up a few times; so do the names of other friends, but over all of them, the numbers. I stare at the digits next to my name, add them up. At the back of the book, on the last page, is a drawing of a yacht with a stripe along the side. There’s people on the deck, stick figures that are waving out of the page – and on top of every one of them, a number.
“Can you wait?” I ask the cabbie.
“Can I ever,” he says, sitting back to smoke. He taps the meter. “Don’t go in there looking to get rich.”
The inside is benches soaked in beer, a little light through the windows, a colour tube in the corner, the picture shaking. The bartender tells me where to go, but the bookie isn’t what I pictured. He’s my father’s age, but with a whiter beard. He’s reading a newspaper, the editorials.
“Sure,” he says, “he left a note for you. Here.”
Jones’ note says that he’s happy I came, wasn’t sure that I would. Wasn’t sure if I had the time, because he knows how busy I am, how hard it is to get away. Says a few things about what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, but he leaves the decisions up to me and just says that it will all be taken care of.
“He said you’re going to settle his business,” says the man.
“It doesn’t say that in the note.”
“Yes it does. Take it.” He pulls out a paper bag. “He played a longshot and it came through. Give it to him and tell him to come back when his luck turns the other way. I don’t want to see him until then.”
I flip open the envelope. The bills are stacked in bundles, each one held by a rubber band.
The cabbie takes a bridge out instead of a tunnel. He points a few things out to me. “Your phone is ringing.”
“Hello?” I ask; it’s her again. “Almost found him. He’s just around the corner. I called his office, they say that he says he’ll be in tomorrow and that there’s no problem. He just needed some time.” She hangs up. Before she does, her voice rises, like a car horn, until there’s no point in listening to it anymore.
The cabbie makes a noise when he hears the sirens. He pulls over to the right, as far as he can on the one-way, but the road is already full and the fire trucks have to flip their tires up on the sidewalk to get through. People are stopping to look at a building up ahead. It’s a restaurant, a corner shop and a hairdresser’s on the bottom; the next row up is fire escapes connecting four storeys of apartments. The fire started on the third floor, and smoke is coming out cracked windows.
“You want to go shopping somewhere instead?” asks the cabbie, saying that he can probably turn the car around on the one-way if he really has to. “The next block over is much better.”
A block of stone falls from the building, leaving a jigsaw piece on the fourth floor. A ladder company shows up and firemen rise into the sky with their hoses. But the water doesn’t come and they have to lower the crane again to fix something. In the meantime, the building just burns.
Jones is sitting with his back to a shelf of atlases. He’s wearing a dark blue suit with something black and white underneath. His running shoes are wet with slush.
“Couldn’t you just have waited for me at home?” I ask him.
“Wanted to make sure you saw some sights first.”
“I’ve seen bookies and cabbies before.”
He smiles and adjusts his glasses. “You know how many times mom’s called my cell? It keeps track.”
“Your office says you’re coming in tomorrow. Maybe you can buy me dinner tonight.”
“That depends on what you want. Anyway, I am going in tomorrow, and mom needn’t worry. I took some time to figure a few things out, but I have it now. See these?” He points at the books in front of him. “I just need to get a little faster. More efficient. Better memory. Stronger organization. Just need to read a few of these.”
“Where are you going to get the time to do that?”
“Obviously you didn’t see the one that will teach me how to speed read.”
I hand him the envelope from the bookie. He tucks it into his coat. “Lucky longshot, I heard.”
“Yup. I’m going to win next week, too. And the week after.” Then his mind flips. “By the time the season’s over, I’ll have made Team Leader. Did I tell you that? Two years from now, I’ll be a VP.”
“It’s better. I’ve got some investments on the side, they’re coming through. I’m going to sell the black car, get something better.”
“Are you going to keep the sweater?”
“I love that thing,” he lies, smiling. He starts picking through the books in front of him, making a stack on the ground between his crossed legs. “It’s so easy. Everything comes, and it keeps coming no matter what.” The tower of books is leaning to a side, hanging on nothing more than the air from the vent above us. “This is going to last forever, you know. This winning streak. This upwards projection. All this luck.” I nod and take out the phone; on the other end, she speaks quietly for once. When we’re finished, I let Jones rest his head on me and talk about whatever he wants, even the small things.