The Numbers Man

This first appeared in Counterclock. The full version appears in my collection, A Flame on the Ocean. Please enjoy this excerpt.

On the second Tuesday in June, a small airplane flew low over the river that bisected Helena, West Virginia into six blocks of downtown and twelve blocks of uptown. A banner with a message printed in large, block lettering trailed the plane. 

Downtown traffic slowed at the noise. Drivers pressed against their seatbelts and gazed over the aging two-story brick storefronts. People running errands stepped from the shops onto the cracked sidewalks, five-and-dime merchandise still in their hands. Everyone cocked their heads toward the river. Uptown, people stood in doorways gaping, faces upturned and lunches forgotten. Dogs on sagging porches raised their heads, ears pricked at the unfamiliar droning from above. Helena was far from commercial airline’s flight paths, and small planes had few reasons to stray this far into coal country. People craned their necks toward the sky and squinted into the bright blue to make out the banner’s words, “The Numbers Man.” 

Those who shielded their eyes at the wrong moment missed the apparent cloudburst that poured from the plane’s underside. It trailed behind the plane for barely a breath. The plume fell, separating into tiny shapes as it descended. Helena’s collective eyes, all gazing at the same phenomenon, settled on the drifting, cascading shapes. Was it a flock of miniature, wingless birds? A storm of buoyant hailstones? 

Thousands of ping pong balls, each with a black number, fell with a deafening clatter. They ricocheted on the asphalt, the old cars, the leaking rooftops, and on the citizens themselves. Few thought to take shelter. Instead, they froze, engrossed in the spectacle. Balls landed in shopping bags and baby carriages. They bounced into lowered car windows. Shops with doors open to the breeze flooded with balls, and they filled the spaces beneath shelves and racks. The balls covered sidewalks and rolled down the streets in a flash flood of white plastic. The gutters clogged, and the balls piled against car tires like snowdrifts. The citizens were dumbfounded by the cacophony. They scrambled to gather the balls at their feet, unsure of their significance but confident that secrets would be revealed. Someone let out a cry, and they knew The Numbers Man would be there soon.

Lottie Voss did not stand on her porch, starstruck during either grand display. Both times, she was getting ready for work, insulated by the hairdryer and the accompanying bustle that precedes a cocktail shift at the Fortune Hill Casino & Racetrack. 

***

Those too young to remember the last visit from The Numbers Man, almost a generation ago, were related to someone who did. Those who remembered it had not been to the event themselves, but they knew someone who had been. Few souls in town did not have a story about The Numbers Man that they could retell with confidence. Each one began with the person who was at the event; their barber’s brother, their cousin’s fiance, the third shift foreman who had the job two winters before the mine closed. The third shift foreman told his own story, and it was, in fact, the superintendent who was there. 

It was said that those who’d been there and received a ticket with a number, or maybe they selected a ticket from a deep bowl, or perhaps they heard a number read from a ticket and raised their arms with fierce intensity to claim it, received their true number at the event. Those people came away with answered prayers. 

The streetcar operator’s wife, or was it his sister, had a healthy baby after two stillborns. Some said she already had the baby and it recovered from the measles without consequences. The coat-check girl at Lawson’s Department Store, or was it the nurse at Dr. Sharp’s office, won the Bingo jackpot at the Protestant Revival Church three weeks in a row. Others remembered her winning the superfecta on the ponies at the new track in Charleston. Helena’s populace agreed that there were many truths to be told. When each retelling of the legend offered an incredible bounty, none questioned the lore and its variations. 

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