Saturday, March 17, 2012

The George Bush Bet - Part Four

The fourth and final part of "The George Bush Bet" picks up with Sandy and I at the St. James Library in London.  We are there to resolve a bet concerning the first George Bush's early political career (To find out how that happened, you really need to start here).  We located the reference section, and an enormous book called Who's Who in Politics.  At stake is 100 pounds, and potential embarrassment on a multinational scale... 

It was a big book, and I doubted it would only include British politicians, unless it went back to Roman times.  I quickly jumped to the ‘B’s’ and scanned through the pages until I reached the ‘Bu’s.’   And then I saw the name ‘Bush, George Herbert Walker,’ and the entry that followed:

Like his father, Prescott Bush, who was elected a Senator from Connecticut in 1952, George became interested in public service and politics. He served two terms as a Representative to Congress from Texas. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. Then he was appointed to a series of high-level positions: Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U. S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

“I don’t believe it,” I said, sagging against the bookcase, instantly deflated.
“What?” Sandy said, trying to read over my shoulder.  I handed the book over to him with a finger pointing to the spot of defeat.  “Well,” he said, grinning broadly, but not smugly, “It looks like you were wrong, doesn’t it?  How can that be?  You said you were sure.”

“I don’t know,” I said vacantly.  My mind spun madly but in vain, as I tried to remember anyone ever saying anything about George Bush Sr. serving in the House of Representatives.

Sandy began to chuckle.  “I really thought you would win the bet,” he said, handing the book back to me.  I reread the brief passage again.  My stomach sank lower and lower.  Now I was going to have to explain a two hundred dollar expense with nothing to show for it to my wife.  I was suddenly unsure if she would even believe the story I was going to tell her.  I thought about the things, or rather the only thing I could think of,  that you could spend two-hundred dollars on in London without having at least a T-shirt or at least something to show for it.  My stomach crawled into a spider-hole.  I wished the rest of me could join it.
 “But, seriously, how did you not know that?” he asked again, genuinely interested in my glaring mental lapse.  “I don’t understand it.  You know so much about politics.  I really want to know.  How could you not know that?”  I looked at him, trying to tell if he was gloating, but his attitude was so apparently sincere that I still couldn’t convict him of conning me.  If it was a scam, he had his act down pat, and he was now the Vermeer of conmen, every detail perfectly represented.  He wouldn’t let the question go.  “I really want to understand, Kevin.  How did you not know that?”  It was irritating to have to analyze my failure, but I knew he would keep asking me until I answered.

“Well, he did serve in the sixties,” I responded a little testily.  “I wasn’t even born until sixty-eight.  It was before my time.  I cannot remember one instance where his service in Congress was mentioned in his Presidential race.  Besides, serving as a Representative isn’t like the other jobs, it just doesn’t carry the same weight . . .” I trailed off, knowing I lacked the ability to make him understand this particular political nuance.  “I thought I had it.”

Sandy was finally silent.

“Well, do you take credit cards?” I joked weakly, pushing the book back onto the shelf.

“Ah, let’s forget about it. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”  The master was back.

“No, we made a bet.  I have every intention of keeping my end.  Remember, I told you earlier that I’m out of money.”  He nodded.  “I just need to find an ATM.”

We stepped out of the library onto the busy street.  “Let’s see,” I said, “I think I saw one back that way a ways.”

“Wait,” Sandy said, “There’s one right here.”

Sure enough, next to the library were a pair of ATM’s, not more than twenty feet from the door.   

Oh, this is all too convenient, I thought.  “Okay, I’ll be right back.” As I headed for the machine, I couldn’t help but appreciate the conciseness and the perfectly fitted precision of the whole thing.  If it was a scam, I stood in awe of the degree of perfection to which I was a victim.  I felt vaguely honored to have been scammed by what must have been a great talent in his field, judging by the elegance and well-crafted fit of each and every piece.  If it somehow wasn’t a scam, well, then it was just a thing of beauty unto itself, because few things in life come together in every respect the way this brief encounter had.  Plus, when you get right down to it, if an Australian, or any foreigner, knew American political history better than I did, he deserved the money.  At least that’s how I chose to look at it.

As I waited for the money to be dispensed, I looked back at Sandy.  He had wandered off to the street corner, his back to me, looking up at the tall buildings.  I took the money, counted out a hundred pounds, put the rest in my wallet, and folded the payoff money in my hand.  I walked to the corner where he waited.  “Here you go, one hundred pounds.” 

He accepted the money with a smile, and said, “I purposely left you alone while you got the money.  I wanted to give you a chance to walk away, or to say the ATM or your card wasn’t working.  You are a man of your word.  Thanks,” and he shook my hand vigorously.  “Again I’ll tell you, don’t be surprised if you get a Christmas gift from me.”

“Okay, okay.”  It made me a little uncomfortable, the way he kept bringing that up.  I wanted to say ‘If you’re scamming me, then let’s just be done with it,’ but I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him.  I still thought there was a chance he was on the level.  Maybe I needed the uncertainty. 

“Well, we’ll see,” he said.  He pulled out a piece of paper, a blank envelope he had in his pocket.  I thought he was going to put the money into it, but instead he fished out a pen and asked, “Will you do me a favor?  Will you write down your home address for me?”  He indicated where he wanted me to write it.  I took the envelope and pen and stepped over to a cluster of newspaper boxes to write on.  “I’ll put my email address on here too,” I volunteered.

“That’s not necessary,” he said.  “I don’t use computers.”  I wrote it anyway.  He looked at the address before stowing the pen and envelope into his coat pocket.  “I want you to do me a favor,” he said, a bit conspiratorially.  Here it comes, I thought.  This is where he tells me that he is, in fact, a conman, and just wanted me to know so I would go home without any doubts, and with a full appreciation for his genius.  Either that or he was going to reveal that he’s actually part of some British game show where they generate big ratings and laughs embarrassing foreigners by showing how little they know about their own countries.  I genuinely half-expected him to point to some garbage can or mirrored window or someone’s hat and tell me to “Smile!  You’re on English Candid Camera,” or whatever the equivalent.  Instead, he said, “Don’t tell your wife yet about what happened.”

“What?” This was, once again, not what I expected to hear.

“Yeah, it’ll be great fun, won’t it?  Don’t tell her anything until you hear from me.  Promise?”

“I don’t think I can do that, Sandy,” The last time I told a third party that I wouldn’t tell Elizabeth something was approximately seventeen years ago.  It happened shortly after we began dating.  We both worked at Montgomery Wards; she in Cosmetics, I in Lawn and Garden.  One night when Elizabeth wasn’t working, another girl from the cosmetics counter and I took a break together.  Her name was Denise.  Denise told me about the trouble she was having with her current boyfriend, Anthony, except she called him ‘Ant’ny’ with her nasal Jersey accent, and made me promise not to tell anyone, “even Elizabeth.”  Somehow, Elizabeth found out and demanded that I tell her what this girl had said.  I refused, solemnly informing her that “I gave Denise my word,” fully expecting her to respect the sanctity of my pledge.   Yes, I was young and stupid.  It never occurred to me that Denise had probably spilled her guts to everyone else in the store, including complete strangers who happened to wander too close to her counter, and I was probably the only one dumb enough to abide by her invocation to eternal silence. 

After the immediate, bitter, and bewilderingly irrational fight which followed, I found myself in an inescapable maze of cold shoulders and telephone hang-ups.  Try as I might, for the week or so, I could not get Elizabeth to say a word to me.  Reaching a point of sheer desperation, I grabbed my bicycle (I didn’t have a car), and pedaled like a madman for fifteen or sixteen miles, crossing town from our apartment near ASU to the northwest side in just under an hour.   Upon arriving at her parents’ house, I went up to her door, rang the bell with absolute determination not to leave until she spoke to me, and promptly collapsed.  Looking out her bedroom window, Elizabeth could see my bike, tires still smoking, but nothing else, and so she came to the door, opening it just enough to notice some sweaty garments - with me in them - piled on the doorstep.  Apparently, I had violated some medical rule that says you should eat something within twenty four hours of major physical exertion. 

Thirty minutes, two Snickers bars and a can of Coke later, I lay recovering on their living room sofa, listening with satisfaction as Elizabeth’s mother and father both lectured her on her stubbornness and cruel treatment of “that poor boy in there.”  Anyway, even though it had been seventeen years, I still didn’t have the stomach to try it again. 

“Just promise me that if she doesn’t say anything, you won’t mention what happened until you hear from me.  It won’t be more than a week or two.  Okay?”  Maybe in some way Sandy anticipated the trouble I might have in explaining what happened to our money and was trying to help me out by providing some evidence to support my claims.  That was my most optimistic guess, anyway.

“I’ll try,” I replied with an undisguised lack of conviction.    

“Okay, great.”  He smiled and shook my hand again.

“Well, I guess I better be going,” I said, uncertain of how to end what was one of the more bizarre and unexpected situations I had ever found myself in.  Sandy, of course, knew exactly how it should end. 

“Wait.  Before you go, I have one more question for you.” 


“Okay,” he said.  “Give me three recent presidents and where they served before becoming president.”

“I’m not going to bet you again, Sandy,” I said firmly.

“No, no not as a bet.  Just for my own curiosity.  Give me three.  If you get two out of the three right, you win -”

“I don’t have time for any more.  I have to go.”  This man clearly did not know when to stop.

“It’s really important to me.  Just give me three.  I’ll find the answers myself.  I want to prove something.  What was Reagan before he was president?”

Sandy, I –”

“It’ll only take a minute.  What was he, a senator?  A governor?”  He was practically pleading.

“Reagan was the governor of California before becoming president,” I responded flatly.
“Okay, that’s one.  Give me two more.”

“I know Reagan was a governor, Sandy.  There’s no chance I’m wrong about that.”

“All right, then you pick three,” he persisted.

“Okay, Sandy.  But then I have to go.”  I combined the words with my best serious parent look in the hopes he would grasp my sincerity, but even in doing it I had no faith it would work.  “Ah, okay.  One:  John Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts.  Two:  Richard Nixon was a senator from California.  And three:  Gerald Ford was a representative from Michigan.  Or Indiana.  I think.  There you go; those are my picks.”
He repeated them back as he made notes.  “Okay, Kevin, I’ll take these and get the answers,” he said waving the slip of paper enthusiastically.  He advanced towards me, his hand out.  “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you.”  We shook vigorously and amiably.  “Have a safe trip home with your family.”
“Thanks, Sandy.  Good luck.” I paused.  “Wait, I take that back.  You don’t need it.” 

He laughed.  “Okay.  Goodbye.”  He turned and began walking briskly away.  I turned back towards Big Ben, only to hear him call after me, “I’ll get back to you with the answers.  I’ll let you know if you were right.”  Looking back, I nodded silently. A few moments later, I heard his distant voice again.  “Don’t forget about Christmas.”  As I walked back alone, I realized he left me where I had been all along with him – up in the air.  I felt a sudden panic and reflexively reached around to my back pocket, felt for my wallet, and patted it reassuringly.

At home on March 17th, less than a week after we returned, my wife and I were sitting in the living room when my father-in-law brought the mail in.  Elizabeth went through it, handing me a small, crinkled envelope.  I started laughing immediately.  “What is it?” she asked.  I checked the front to be sure.  There was my awkward handwriting, written hastily on a newspaper box on a sidewalk in front of a London library. 

“I don’t believe it; he’s sent it already.  To be honest, I half-thought he wasn’t going to send it at all.”   She hadn’t asked me about the money, and I had been dying to tell her the story.  The envelope made me giddy.

“Who?  What are you talking about?  Why are you laughing like that?”

Without opening the envelope, I told her the entire story of my encounter with Sandy.  By the end, she was understandably incredulous.  “You know he played you for a sucker, right?” 

“That’s the thing; I still don’t know,” I replied, wiping small tears from my eyes.  “It’s entirely possible.  I’ve been going over it and over it ever since it happened, and I still don’t know how I feel about it.  But one thing’s for sure.  He sent something.”  I held up the envelope and waved it.

“Well, what do you think is in there?” She was definitely intrigued now.

“I have no idea,” I’ve never said anything with as much heartfelt honesty.

“Well, are you going to open it?”  Our mutual anticipation seemed to be growing exponentially.

I carefully tore the top seam of the envelope with a pen.  At first, the envelope appeared to be empty.  “I’ll be --,” I started to say, but then I saw a small scrap of paper nestled in a corner.  I reached in and pinched it with two fingers.  Withdrawing the small scrap, I read to Elizabeth the message Sandy wrote: 

Hope you enjoy your Christmas present.  – Sandy

I started laughing again.  “You have no idea how perfect that is.”  I sat there, laughing and shaking my head at the envelope.  “That is so Sandy.”

“But what does it mean?” Elizabeth asked plaintively.  “Does that mean something?”

“Yeah,” I said, “It means come Christmas time, we may or may not receive something from some guy named Sandy.  It means that even if we don’t, there will always be room for a shadow of a doubt.  The issue will probably never really be resolved either way.”  I laughed again.  For some inexplicable reason, I was really enjoying this. 
“Doesn’t he know that Christmas is in December and this is only March?”  She was perturbed by the apparent irrationality of his mode of thinking, which had long since ceased to be a problem for me.

Australia’s in the southern hemisphere. Maybe they celebrate Christmas in July.”

She snorted her disapproval.  “Very funny.  He played you for a sucker, my good man,” she said, leaving the room indignantly.

So, did we hear any more from Sandy after that?  Did he come through at Christmas that year, or some time later?

Well, those are both excellent questions.  I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to say.  The Old Testament in me kind of likes the idea of leaving you hanging the same way I was left hanging.  There’s also something about the idea of not permanently laying this whole episode to rest that I find almost irresistibly appealing.  I guess I’ve grown fond of the uncertainty. 

If it helps settle things in your own mind, I will tell you that we haven’t heard anything more from Sandy since the day the envelope arrived containing his cryptic message, and it’s been almost ten years now.   Elizabeth is sure she was right all along, and she probably is.  But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still wonder a little about it every now and then, and wonder if there’s any chance that what happened that day was real, or whether it was all just a virtuosic performance. 

But, just in case, if anyone happens to see a man matching Sandy’s description in the vicinity of the Cenotaph in London, please do the courtesy of passing this simple message on along with my regards:

Sandy, you may have gotten the money, but I got the story.

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