Daily Double

by Ralph Uttaro

Tom Nolan turned up the volume on the radio and everyone in the room grew quiet.  His assistant Annie put the phone lines on hold. The two of them sat at adjoining desks behind a half-wall partition.  We sat across the room on a bench by the door waiting for our assignments.

The murmur of a crowd came through a light blanket of static and hung in the air for a moment before a nasal, staccato voice abruptly broke in:  "The horses are in the gate and the crowd has gathered around the rail which can mean only one thing…It is now post time."  A local station cut into its programming throughout the afternoon to broadcast the races live from Aqueduct. Nolan balled up his fists and hunched over the radio.  He barked encouragement to a horse named Tennessee Belle, staring at the backlit dial as if he could see her kicking up dirt as she rounded the turn.  "And as they cross the finish line it's Tennessee Belle by a length and a half."

"Atta girl," Nolan crowed in his thick brogue, a smile creasing his gaunt face.  He was a severe looking man, thin and brittle like a cracker.  His black hair was lacquered tight against his skull but a small unruly curl dangled over his forehead.  He wore a white short-sleeved shirt, a thin black tie, high-water grey slacks and scuffed Hush Puppies. 

Annie switched the phones off hold and quickly picked up one of the two lines that began to ring.  "Swift Messenger Service, Annie speaking.  How can I help you?" 

"Swift. Nolan here."  His cigarette dangled from his lips as he picked up the other line, cradling the receiver between his neck and his shoulder as he leaned back in his swivel chair.

Hector was sitting next to me at the end of the bench. He lifted his eyes slowly, stared at Nolan without any expression, then went back to picking at his long, yellow fingernails.  Hector was the elder statesmen among the messengers, unless you counted the old retired guys who pretty much ignored us anyway.  The rest of us were mostly high school kids and Hector enjoyed giving us the benefit of his vast life experience.  He was probably in his mid-twenties although it was hard to tell for sure because he carried himself with the time-worn resignation of a much older man.  He was about five-foot-eight, a couple of inches shorter than me, stocky in a muscular way that didn't quite seem athletic.  He wore his hair in long intricate dreadlocks and his stony expression could suddenly, magically explode into a wide smile, a row of blocky grey teeth framing one gleaming gold crown at the front of his mouth.

I met Hector my first day on the job, a Thursday afternoon the previous October.  An announcement had come over the p.a. system during home room.  "Anyone interested in a job report to the principal's office after school."  The school secretary wrote a West 44th Street address on a small scrap of paper and handed it to me.  "And don't forget to bring your working papers." 

The address she gave me was a narrow, dreary building about mid-block.    The directory in the small lobby listed Swift Messenger Service as one of the tenants on the third floor.  Nolan glanced briefly at my papers then handed them back to me and nodded toward the bench.  Hector was sitting there, his head resting on his chest. He rolled his heavy-lidded eyes toward me but said nothing.  Nolan soon sent him out to make a delivery and I sat on the bench alone.

"Anthony. Pick up at Marshall Advertising, 237 East 53rd.  It comes back here."  I walked over to the desk and Nolan handed me a white work slip.  No orientation, no instructions, no words of encouragement. When I got down to the lobby I saw Hector standing outside the door smoking a cigarette.

"How's it goin' Slick?"  Hector called everyone Slick.  It saved him from having to remember anyone's name.

"He sent me to pick up something on 53rd Street. What do I do?"

Hector explained to me how the system worked. This was 1974, before messengers rode bicycles, dodging in and out of traffic with backpacks slung over their shoulders.  Back then we walked or, if it was more than three avenues or ten cross streets, took the subway.  "And if you're real nice to the secretaries, sometimes they tip you. Especially the old ones." 

I thanked him and moved toward the curb where a black limousine was double parked, the uniformed driver leaning against the front quarter panel joking with a police officer.   Hector held his arm out to block me and shook his head.

"Don't go so fast.  You'll make the rest of us look bad."  That's when I first saw the dazzling smile.


 With the first race over and the radio turned down, Nolan was all business.  He leafed through a thick stack of work orders, punching numbers into an adding machine. Annie undid her long brown ponytail then retied it with a rubber band. She had a moon-shaped face and the slow languid movements of a cat. She was serious and quiet.  She wasn't exactly pretty, her nose a bit too long and her complexion a shade too pale, but she exuded a muted wave of sexual energy that rippled like a slow tremor through the office. 

"Hector, 39 West 49th.  Going to 807 Broadway."  With his accent, Nolan  pronounced it "Brode-way".  Hector stood up slowly and shuffled over to the desk, his eyes fixed on Annie as he held his hand out and took the slip from Nolan.

Soon it was time for the second race.  Annie tucked a pencil behind her ear and put the phones on hold again.  Nolan was back on his feet, looming over the radio. When the race ended he lifted his hands above his head.  "Hah! Hit the daily double!"  It came out more like "dilly double". He lit another cigarette and nodded in my direction.

"Anthony, go to the OTB for me, would ya'?" Nolan pulled the winning ticket out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me.  "Be careful.  That'll be a lot of cash."

When I got downstairs, Hector was still in the doorway, squeezing the last puff out of one of his Kools, the embers shimmering dangerously close to the end of the filter.

"Where you goin' Slick?"

"OTB.  He hit the double."

"No fuckin' way.  He got a tip, man. Both them horses was longshots.  Big longshots.  Nobody that lucky.  Especially not Nolan."  He laughed.

"So how come you know what horses he played?" 

Hector's smile faded slowly like a television screen going dark.  He hesitated.

"He told me.  He always tells me about his horses. Always sends his white boys out to cash in his tickets though."  Hector shook his head bitterly.  "Don't trust his money to no fuckin' Rastafarian."

"Can you blame him?"

Hector nodded and smiled.  "That's good Slick.  That's real good.  You hang around Hector long enough you almost gonna be hip."


I had apparently earned Nolan's trust.  I had worked three afternoons every week during the school year and now that it was summer he had put me on full time. He usually sent the retired guys to place his bets and pick up his winnings, so I was surprised a few weeks earlier when he asked me to go to OTB for the first time.

"Here's two dollars.  Put it on the six horse in the third race.  Bring the ticket back to me."  There was an uncommon softness in his voice.

I had walked passed OTB parlors hundreds of times but I had never gone inside. I scanned the row of clerks behind the counter looking for a sympathetic face and settled on an older black man at the last station on the left. The brown laminated name plate in front of him read: "Mr. Carter."  He had big, watery, bloodshot eyes and dark, close-cropped hair with a round patch of white just above his left temple.  He stared at me over the top of the reading glasses that were attached to a cord around the neck of his white shirt.

"Two dollars on the six horse in the third race," I said carefully, making sure I had the numbers in the right order.  I slid the two dollars onto the counter. Mr. Carter picked up the two bills without taking his eyes off me.  "It's for my father.  He's busy so he sent me down from the office."  Mr. Carter twisted his lips sourly and rung up the transaction, handing the ticket back to me without comment.

Nolan gradually sent me with larger bets, ten dollars, twenty, as much as fifty.  He bet every day.  I placed my bets with Mr. Carter whenever he was there, even if his line was longer. "Tell your father 'good luck'," he would say, always with that same sour twist of his lips.  Last week Nolan sent me down to cash in one of his winning tickets.  Today it was the daily double.  I was flattered but a little nervous as well.


Hector was still standing in the doorway when I got back from the OTB.  Two men were standing beside him.  I had seen the men in the office before.  Every time they came in, Annie would get up and go downstairs for a smoke.  Nolan would stand up and lead the two men to a back corner of the office out of our view.  After a minute or so the two men would leave.

One day they stopped by when Nolan was off. Annie was running the office, struggling to keep up with the phones by herself, calling out our assignments in a small, hesitant voice.  She was wearing a thin white cotton blouse without a bra, showing a lot of cleavage. Annie froze when they walked in the door.

"Where's Nolan?"  The short one did all the talking. He had dark hair, a rutty face, thick chest, muscular arms.  The taller one just followed along.  They stood over Annie's chair.

"He's off.  Funeral."  Annie acted like she was absorbed with the paperwork on her desk.

"Too bad."  The two of them stared down at Annie, giving her a good look up and down. The short one moved a step closer. He reached his hand down and brushed her hair behind her left ear, then he ran his index finger slowly down her cheek. He nodded his head and pursed his lips. "Ya' lookin' pretty foxy today, hon. Tell Nolan I stopped by to see him." 

"Who are those guys anyway?"  I whispered to Hector as the door closed behind them.

"Work for Nolan's bookie.  Collection guys. Nolan got a big problem."

"But I thought he bet at OTB."

"He does.  That's just the ponies.  He bets on everything else too.  Fights, football, everything.  He's in a big fuckin' hole."


The line at the OTB had been slow. Mr. Carter said nothing to me as he counted out a stack of bills and placed them on the counter. I kept my hand jammed in my pocket as I walked down Sixth Avenue, my fingers closed around the cash.  The sidewalk was clogged with people.  The men wore business suits; the women clattered along in high heels, avoiding the grates over the subway where stale metallic-smelling air rose every time a train passed.     

I had been gone almost half an hour, so I was surprised to see Hector still standing in the doorway.  Even he didn't normally hang around that long.  I was even more surprised to see the two collection guys standing next to him. 

"Back already Slick?" Hector asked,

 "I hear your boss hit the double today," the short one said, sliding over to block the door.  I squeezed the bills tighter in my hand. "Whattid' it pay?  Three? Three-fifty?"

"Give up the money kid," Hector said softly. "They won't do nothin' to you."  The tall one moved in close beside me. His breath reeked of garlic and cigarettes. He held out his hand.  I was already sweating but now my pulse started beating rapidly, pounding in my eardrums.  I turned to Hector for help but he was looking away down the street.

"Don't worry about Nolan," the short one said. "We already had a talk with him. He won't say shit to you.  We made sure of that." An image flashed through my mind of Nolan lying on the office floor, clutching his ribs and coughing, grimacing as blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth.  The tall one inched even closer.  I took the money out of my pocket and put it in his outstretched hand. He snatched it from me and passed it to the short one who counted it out.

"Three fifty-eight," he said when he was done. "And Hector gets ten percent for being such a good canary."  He peeled off a twenty and three fives and held them out in his left hand.  When Hector reached to take the bills, he pulled them back. "How's about I just take it off your tab."  Hector nodded. 

Hector waited until they were half way down the block before turning his eyes slowly toward me.  "Don't ever say nothin' to nobody or I'll fuck you up real good." Then he flashed me his widest gold-toothed smile.

BIO: Ralph Uttaro is a past contributor to Bartleby Snopes. His work has also appeared in Toasted Cheese, Blue Fifth Review and the on-line edition of Stone Canoe. He lives in Fairport, New York with his wife Pamela.

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