I tore up my ticket in disgust. My pony lost it at the eighth pole. This other nag, at forty to one no less, exploded out of nowhere and trashed the field. His jockey never even used the whip, for Godssake. My horse was sure to win; at least in my own mind. I mean, I go to the track plenty, I’m something of a student of the art of handicapping. Ever since I moved to Miami and became fascinated by the statistics, the huge quantity of sheer information available about each horse in each race, highlighted by the various tout sheets for sale around the track, I was hooked. A worthy undertaking for an active mind in retirement, and each exercise of the art costs a mere two dollars.
Hialeah is a beautiful track, a rich, almost brown oval framed by tall palm trees waving in the Florida breeze against a tapestry of blue sky punctuated by scudding puffs of white clouds marching towards the ocean. It is a peaceful place underneath the pounding beat of the horses, and splashed with racing colors and peppered with people of all sorts, well worth a critical look and a random speculation as to provenance, wealth and personality.
And yesterday, a diminutive, well-tanned man caught my eye and tweaked my imagination by reason of his serene demeanor. One thing about people at the track; they typically carry a harried aura around with them. There is not a lot of time between races to figure out how to lay down one’s bets if you are more than a two-dollar-on-the-nose kind of guy, and you need to consider not only what you studied the night before in the statistics but also the late scratches, the moving odds on the tote board indicating, perhaps, the direction of the smart money, and how your favorite pony looks in the slow walk to the starting gate. But this fellow, well, he was just walking towards a cashier with a thin grin, holding what looked like a single ticket. And his dress was unusual in that it was, well, stylish but not in a race-track-y sort of way; sharp crease in his trousers, crisp oxford button-down shirt, well-cut seersucker blazer, and a pocket hanky matching the band on his boater.
But what really caught my eye was what I was able to see about his transaction at the betting window. It took a long time to process his one ticket, the woman behind the cage seemed to take forever to count out a reasonably large stack of bills. Unless he was getting his pay-off in single dollar notes, he had quite a hit.
You generally do not start a chat with someone at the track. It is just not, well, protocol. Single men at the track are often lost in the process, alone with their horses and strategies, jealous of their judgments, and in spite of the reputation of bettors as active “touts” giving advice to anyone who will listen, at least at Hialeah I have just about never seen anyone talk to strangers. But a few minutes later I found myself standing next to this fellow in the mens room, each of us slowly relieving ourselves in the way that men in their seventies typically do – slowly, carefully, and accompanied by a gentle sigh signaling success.
“Excuse me, sir, and I don’t mean to intrude, but you seemed to have the last race doped out; I had the two horse and while not the favorite I was very high on him.” Notice I did not ask for any information, just put that comment out there to see what would come back to me.
He turned his head slightly and narrowed his eyes, taking my measure it seemed. “Come here often, do you,” he asked.
“Yes, I do, a couple of times a week during the season, matter of fact. I find it – peaceful and beautiful. I love the horses, they are sort of stately if you know what I mean.”
“Really? I actually never look at them. They are sort of irrelevant.”
We each stood there, shaking off the last drops from our wrinkled tools, a couple of old men in the most awkward of moments. But I could not resist.
“How can you say that the horses don’t matter at a horse race? I mean, we come to watch them race against each other, the whole thing is about the horses. Yes?”
We walked to the sinks together, at first in silence. Then he turned to me again. “Buy me a cup of coffee?”
“Sure if you tell me how you doped out that last race.”
“Not sure I’m willing to do that but I only bet the sixth race and I could use a cup of coffee.”
We spent a pleasant twenty minutes or so just chatting. A widower like me, Carl acquired his mildly British lilt as a researcher with a team of antiquarians working in the mid-East; his life had been spent in preserving and translating ancient Hebraic scrolls found in cliffs some distance from the site of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls site. Turned out he was doing graduate work at Columbia at the same time I was in law school there and we traded recollections of restaurants, events, what the city was like fifty years ago. Suffice it to say we hit if off pretty well, a couple of older guys who found out, by talking with each other, just how lonely they really were while living under the sun in God’s Waiting Room.
“Let me suggest we have dinner tonight,” Carl finally said. “It is hard to find someone to talk to down here. I really don’t like Florida at all, the heat reminds me of the caves and hills where I worked for decades. Most of the people I meet are just plain boring. If it weren’t for my work, I would live in London. Or New York.”
“You are working,” I asked with some surprise.
He grinned. “Yes, I am working. In fact, you just saw me working.”
I must have looked confused; I was confused. Carl reached across the small formica table and patted the back of my hand. “Tonight at Jonah’s Crab Shack on 21st. I’ll explain.”
That night I took a cab to Jonah’s, a restaurant I did not frequent on my adequate but finite budget. It was the kind of Florida restaurant where most of the menu consisted of sea-food flown in from Boston to cater to the tastes of snow-birds who really never did get the idea of what Miami had to offer. But Carl had invited me and in the back of my mind I harbored the hope that he would think it appropriate to pick up the check also. He was waiting for me; the maitre’d smiled at me and said he would take me to Mr. Lester’s table; seemed Carl was something of a regular.
We both ordered the grouper with an excellent panko crust and Carl mentioned in passing that he was paying so I should not be concerned when he ordered a $700 bottle of Le Montrachet and, as the evening wore on, he ordered a second. By 9:30 we had been at table for three hours and the restaurant was emptying; even at expensive Florida restaurants it is an early crowd unless you are a Metrosexual hanging at South Beach. Carl leaned forward, a small splash of precious wine landing in his cup of espresso.
“I have a question for you,” he almost drawled. “Can I trust you? I mean really trust you? Because frankly I think you are a kindred spirit. We could be friends, or well, maybe that overstates it, but at least regular acquaintances, you know. So, what do you think?”
I hesitated, not because I thought myself untrustworthy but, rather, because I was taken aback by the question and its circumstances. Then realizing that my delay in answering might be taken in a negative way, I started to answer and found myself saying what I feared was far too much.
“Sorry for hesitating, Carl. I just was surprised, that’s all. You know, I consider myself a very trustworthy person, and loyal to my friends. I was a lawyer, as I told you, and I think the very best kind, a trusted advisor is the way I was often described. I am not sure that I want to intrude on you and burden you with any doubts, I did not mean to pry deeply into any secrets of yours. I was just frankly curious, you know.” I petered out.
“I sensed that about you, which is why I am asking you, in what seems a formal way, to promise to take my – information and keep it in confidence. Because, well,” he looked down now as he made what seemed to be a personal confession, “I could use a friend down here and you surely are the most intelligent person I have met and someone who could actually enjoy what I could tell you.”
I sat for a moment to digest it all. There was, after all, no downside for me to hear Carl’s story. It might be boring and disappointing. Or, it might be fascinating and elucidating. I surely would not generally violate a promise I made to any person so I felt confident I could and would protect whatever Carl might tell me. What did I have to lose?
“Carl, I would be delighted to be your friend. I like you and I like talking with you. I also like your taste in wines,” I said in an effort to lighten the moment, an aside he met with a broad and reassuring smile. “If you have a story to tell, I would be delighted, anxious to hear it.”
And here is what Carl told me when we retired to the lounge and sat until after midnight over snifters of Louis XIII cognac:
“It was in the summer of 1997. We discovered a small single cave about 30 klicks South of the Dead Sea site, just where the topography was changing from cliffs to desert. Not a promising site for finding caves; most are high up and easily defended and hidden, but there were some texts, Aramaic references to a people who lived between the Sea and the desert and who were revered as most holy. The leader of our team was one of these intrepid Israelis; as if each stone were a gift from the God of Abraham, each discovery a further proof of the right and entitlement of the Jews to the whole of their land. In any event, he sure as hell could find caves, I’ll give him at least that.
“It was deceptively near the base of this small escarpment, almost where you would not even look. Perhaps that is why it seemed undisturbed for so many centuries. We opened it early one morning, before the heat made it unbearable to work and drove us to our tents at mid-day, to sweat on cots, preferable to sweating in the choking dust. There were some evidences of fires and human occupation which we later used for dating, but the main thing was we were looking for amphora, the pottery vessels into which scrolls typically were stored. Since the cave was seemingly undisturbed, and far from the salty inland sea, any scrolls we might find could indeed be well preserved. And from what was recorded as a site inhabited by a holy sect.
“So to make short some details which were fascinating to us, but likely not so interesting to you, we finally found a small cache of sealed pottery vases of very great age based on their style and sparse decorations, and we carried them sealed back to our laboratory in Haifa and began the tedious task of unrolling them, preserving them and finally deciphering them. Immediately we knew that these were of the most ancient sort, the writing was so primitive that it took some effort to unlearn the techniques we had used on the Dead Sea Scrolls so that we could actually translate what was written.
“Now you will recall that when Moses came down from the mountain the first time, he was appalled by the heathen behavior of the Israelites and he smashed the tablets containing God’s commandments to express his anger. I was reading a small scroll recounting this story when something caught my attention that was new and different, however. It began with the words ‘and here is what Moses said unto me, Aaron, upon descending a second time with the Law, which Moses made me swear never to reveal unto the peoples.’ I confess that I did not tell the rest of the team of this discovery; I wanted the personal rush of pleasure of being the only person on earth who, for at least one brief moment, knew this secret of thousands of years. I never thought that the scroll was written by Aaron of course, that would be too spectacular for words and in any event would run counter to what we knew of history and the creation of the scrolls. But the revelation, I must tell you, began to make me wishfully speculate.
“And Aaron recounted in this scroll, which had been very carefully prepared and preserved with exceptional attention, that the original tablet, the one that Moses cast down upon the heads of the people and smashed to smithereens, contained not ten but twelve sacred Laws.
“I spent many nights, secretly while everyone else on the team sat in the cafes overlooking the Mediterranean, feigning vague illness so that I could sneak back to the laboratory and work on my scroll. I was looking, of course, for the missing two Laws, the word of the Lord. It seemed that Moses had in fact told Aaron the missing Laws, their content, but could it be that Aaron had not written them down, had adhered to the instructions of Moses as the vessel of God’s word and left these sacred Laws unrecorded, lost to history, known now only to the Almighty? Feverishly I strained over the text, word by word, slow progress in the midst of the ancient writings and the arcane words, some of which had to be coaxed into having meaning, a few of which were unknown even to me after forty years in the field.
“And then, one night, my last night with the scroll, I found what I was looking for. It read, and I will never forget it, ‘I Aaron, unworthy of Yahweh’s forgiveness but unable to control my desire to know all of His holy word, record here the precious eleventh and twelfth Laws of the Lord Most High, Blessed be His name, and here seal them in the most secret of all holy places in the wish some day, when the Lord deems the people of Israel worthy once again, that these scrolls be found and the Twelve Laws of the Tablets again be complete in the word of the Almighty, King of Kings.
“I read these two Laws then, by the dim light we used to make sure that the writings did not bleach out into illegibility, and committed them to my memory.”
Carl paused and heavily sighed. He picked up his snifter, sloshed the amber liquid, breathed its aroma, gently tilted the glass and wet the very edges of his lips, his eyes closed, his mind transported.
And me? All I could say, after a few seconds, aghast at the magnitude of the moment, all I could say was “Then what?”
Carl smiled. “I will tell you what. And you must not judge me ill. I adhered to the admonition of Moses. The Lord had omitted the last two Laws on purpose of course; there is never anything accidental in the word of God. God did not want these Laws revealed. I did what I had to do.” Carl closed his eyes, and his head fell backwards onto his shoulders, limp and rolling.
“I burned the scroll,” he whispered.
“Oh my God,” I blurted, without focusing on the irony of my words.
“Yes. I secretly burned it. I told the team nothing of it. It was just one of many scrolls, when we did the final inventory I kept silent and it was just recorded as unfortunately misplaced, but there were so many other unique writings in the other scrolls that no one spent much time worrying about it. The missing scroll was again lost to history and to mankind.”
We sat in silence then, for a few minutes, the silence of heavy portent. But of course I could not contain myself, I had to ask, even though Carl had not offered, even though I was risking the destruction of our incredible bond, our unique trust, I had to ask.
“Carl,” I started, but he held up his hand.
“You need not worry. I will tell. You don’t have to ask. I would never have told you this much unless I was intending to tell you. I have your oath. I trust your oath.
“The eleventh law was, ‘In a hard world to come, thou canst not find the power to scratch every itch.’”
We sat. I thought. “You are of course joking with me, Carl.”
“Would you like to hear the last Law, the last of the twelve Laws of the tablet,” he asked.
I was speechless. I was not prepared. I did not know what to think.
“Yes, I would,” I replied.
Carl leaned forward and almost hissed these words: “The four horse in the sixth race at Hialeah.”