When I was five years old I watched him pull an angle worm from the ground and eat it like a string of spaghetti. I thought to myself, “Here is someone interesting.”
Decades later, Jackson no longer snacks on underground fish-bait, but he remains a fascinating if challenging individual. He carries an opinion on everything—predictably contrary to yours. Even when not asked—especially when not asked—Jackson will insist on telling you scores of baseball games in which the participants are no longer living. He knows what George Picket carried in his breast pocket just before launching his infamous charge at Gettysburg (four cigars wrapped in high quality manila paper), what a quahog is, and the value of pi to the eighth decimal.
Of morality, propriety, common sense, and how-to-make-an-honest-living he is somewhat less informed.
Jackson passes dissipated days in the back booth of what was once a caboose belonging to the Union Pacific Railroad. Decades ago it was moved one block (with the assistance of horses in harness according to legend) and transformed into a coffee and pastry shop called Herkys. Inside it smells of axle grease and cigarette smoke, for smoking is not only permitted, it’s required. The place also carries the aroma of the bacon and eggs that long-deceased conductors and brakemen fried on a coal-burning potbellied stove during long runs between Chicago and Sacramento, California.
Ownership of Herkys changes often, sometimes from month to month, but the name stays the same. The other constant of the shop is the presence of Sal, an ageless, tired, gear-grinding-voiced woman who acts as the server, bookkeeper, and dishwasher, the last being, apparently, the slightest of her duties.
Sal serves Jackson and the occasion oblivious patron of Herkys gallons of coffee one large cup at a time with donuts so hard and dry that if dunked break into pieces that sink to the bottom of the cup. Jackson appears not to notice this just as he tends to show no awareness when not a drop of liquid remains in his cup as he lifts it to his mouth. In fact when not concentrating on his latest project, Jackson has taken on the catatonic gaze of someone listening to music—though no headset is visible.
The focus of his deep attention lies on the table before him where a number of used lottery tickets are arranged like cards in a game of Texas Hold‘em. These apparently useless pieces of cheap paper which Jackson gathers in wads from the trash containers behind Hy-Vee (some carrying the aroma of pickle juice) are the mass in Jackson’s version of e = mc2. His own ever-evolving formula holds that the numbers or sequences of them that are selected most frequently are the least likely to appear again. According the him suckers or dilettantes as Jackson calls them, overwhelmingly play the numbers that win most repeatedly. To explain his belief, he likens numbers to the pieces in a box of Russell Stover candy. The tastiest—the caramels and almonds—are eaten first leaving the unwanted dark chocolate-coated marshmallows (the equivalent of unpopular numbers) for the opaque, whimsical, and Machiavellian deities who ultimately determine who is worthy of their variety of dubious prosperity. That is, if I have this right.
I agree with Jackson that his system shows promise of reducing his odds of winning the lottery. I don’t tell him that the reduction is likely to be in the order shortening the odds from one in a number equivalent to the distance to Mars in inches to one in the number equivalent to the distance to the moon using the same standard.
Nevertheless, Jackson seems always to carry cash at least enough for his needs, the origin of such being something I prefer not to think about. At the end of a day he pays for his coffee and leaves a tip which I’ve heard Sal describe as “generous.” Then again, on occasion he does deplete his resources. I know this because he will call me from Sal’s cell we get together. I purposely suggest a location several blocks way thereby forcing to get in touch with oxygen at least briefly. At the end of our visit, burdened with a few pounds more of his verbal minutiae, I slip him a twenty and remind him to take care of himself.