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Shell Game

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He must have boarded the el at Lawrence. Maybe Berwyn. I can't remember, it was only my third day in Chicago and only the third time I'd ridden the train.

My attention was caught by his deep and resonant voice. I couldn't make out his words, but the pulse of his speech was quick and rarely broken. Maybe a street person, I thought.

The train was crowded, and though I twisted in my seat I couldn't see him. Near the back doors, where I assumed he must be, I saw a few faces whose eyes were all fixed on something near the floor.

A couple of stops later, maybe more, a tall black man made his way toward the front of the car. He must have been well over six feet, his whole length lean but muscular. His skin was dark, and his hair was cut close. He wore blue jeans and a denim jacket. Crouching a few seats away from where I sat, he set the front section of the Tribune on his knees and began rapidly sliding three gold plastic caps around on the paper, now and then lifting one to reveal a little brown ball.

He began talking in the voice I had noticed earlier, but now his speech was a rush of words, quick questions and smooth assurances.

"Do you see the ball, Mama?" he asked the heavy black woman who was sitting facing him.

"Can you follow it? Do you think you know where it is?" His eyes swept up and down between her face and his hands.

"It's right here." His long fingers lifted the cap to show the ball then started moving again.

"I'll give you two dollars if you know where the ball is when I stop."

The woman smiled, then ducked her head shyly, covering her mouth with her hand. She shook her head hard from shoulder to shoulder.

"Two dollars. Two dollars, Mama," he said.

Again, he lifted the cap that covered the ball, then swiftly slid it back and forth among the others.

"If you know where it is, I'll pay," he said. "I play fair. You win, and I'll give you two dollars."

Though her head was still bent, her eyes watched sidelong. She wore brown polyester slacks and a white blouse that stretched tight across her back. Above her round face, a neat part cut through the tangle of her straightened hair. Beside her, her son, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight, stood on one leg and kneeled on the seat with the other. One hand grasped the back of his seat, the other, the seat in front of him. His back was against the window, but his head pushed forward, his eyes following the caps.

"No, no," laughed the woman, shaking her head again. This time she covered her mouth with both hands.

The man pulled himself a little closer to her.

"Now Mama, this man--" he gestured over his shoulder at a small plump man, "just won 20 dollars from me."

The plump man nodded, with an awkward half smile.

"I don't cheat," said the man. "If somebody wins, I pay."

He lifted, the cap with the ball under it so she could see it again.

"Once. Just once. No bets," he said. "You just tell me where it is when I stop."

His fingers whisked the caps around and stopped.

There was a long pause, and then she lifted her hand and slowly pointed.

He lifted the cap. The ball was under it.

A laugh burst from the woman, and she dropped her head into her hands.

"See, Mama! You did it once," he said. "Now try it again and I'll give you two dollars if you know where it is."

Around her, most eyes, like mine, were following every movement. Some faces seemed puzzled, some half-amused.

"Don't do it," said one voice.

"Go ahead," said another. "It's only two bucks."

The man's fingers slid the caps and stopped. The woman's hands lay together in her lap. Hesitating, she pointed. Again, to the right cap.

She giggled as he carefully drew two dollar bills from his pocket, unfolded them, and extended them to her. But she had twisted her hands back together, and now kept them in her lap.

"No," she said. "I can't take your money."

"You won. You won fair," he said. "I told you I play fair. This is your two dollars, and you have to take it. It's not mine anymore."

He shoved the bills into her hands.

"Take it, lady. Take it," said the plump man.

Her fingers closed around the bills.

Somewhere on the train the conductor announced another stop. The doors clattered open, and people pushed in front of me, blocking my view for a moment. The next thing I knew, the man was holding up a fan of four $20 bills.

"Eighty dollars," he said. "This is your 80 dollars if you know where it is. But you've got to put up 80 dollars in case you don't."

The woman sat very still. Her son now held her arm.

There is no way she can have 80 dollars, I thought. Then I watched, horrified, as she carefully pulled several bills out of her purse and handed them to her son. Her son's hand hadn't even closed on the money when the man's hand snatched it away. The woman gave a little cry, but he drowned it in his words.

"All of this is yours, Mama, if you know where it is," he said. "Now, you said you knew where it was."

The loudspeaker crackled again. "Howard. End of the line. Howard. Change for the Evanston Express."

Her face now frightened, the woman pointed.

He lifted the cap. There was no ball there. He stood up quickly, pocketed the money, and began backing away.

With a howl, she heaved herself out of her seat and lunged at him. She caught his collar in both hands and hung against him.

"Please, mister! Please! Give me back my money!" she cried.

There was the screaming of steel on steel as we braked into the Howard Street station.

"There's no use cryin', Mama," he told her, backing toward the rear of the car where no one was sitting. "I won fair. You lost."

She was still clinging to him, sobbing hysterically. He pulled her along with him, one hand pressing her head into his chest, partially stifling her. He didn't look at her as he moved, nor did he when he stopped with his back against the wall of the car. Instead, his eyes flashed over the rest of us.

The doors snapped open, and silently, their heads bent, the remaining passengers hurried out the front exit. Stunned, angry, and already ashamed that I could think of nothing to do to help, I stepped onto the platform.

Outside, a woman was gesturing quickly to a conductor and pointing at the car. But the man was already gone.

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