Too Darn Smart

Will the kid ever learn?

A boy in a baseball cap hiding in the bushes.

The darn kid never listened to anything I said. The truth is, my son was a lot smarter than I was, and you could see that coming before he started to walk or talk. I don’t think it was too many years later that Mike could see it himself, and that might be why he had such a hard time taking advice from me. I kept tellin’ him, “Smart ain’t everything, son. Experience counts for something, you know.”

Mike was so darn smart it was scary. I figured he must have gotten it from his mother, not that she would ever let on. There wasn’t an Irish Catholic woman in those days who would have done anything to show up her husband. Me, I was a doer, not a thinker, and I pretty much did whatever my own father and the priests and nuns told me to do, which was basically work hard and be a good boy. My father told me that a civil service job was the way to go. He said you could make a living without getting burned out early, and, more importantly, you had time to be with your family. He got me a job right out of high school as an apprentice to a plumber who went to our church. I went to work with him for the state building maintenance department and never looked back. I was never gonna be rich, but we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and two weeks of vacation down the shore every year.

Most of our kids pretty much went along with the program, but not Mike. Mike always wanted to know how or why or who says so. I didn’t always have the time, the knowledge, or even the desire to explain it to him. He was often left to figure things out for himself and was plenty capable of that because unlike me Mike was a thinker.

An encyclopedia salesman came to the house one Saturday when Mike was 8. The family gathered around in the dining room, and the sales guy threw out some questions to the kids, trying to prove why we needed a set of his World Books.

“Do you know why a baseball curves?” he asks. The two older boys, who both play ball, shake their heads and shrug.

Little Mikey, who’s never played any sports, chimes right in. “Sure,” he tells him, then goes into a whole long thing about how air pressure builds up on the side of the ball that the stitches are spinning toward, which causes the ball to move back toward the lower pressure. Well, the sales guy, who was opening one of his books to show the answer to his question, is now clearly off his game. He closes that book and reaches for another.

“I’ll bet you don’t know,” he says right to Michael, “what the chair you are sitting on is made of — and I’m not talking about wood.”

Mike looks over to see the guy opening up the A volume and right away launches into something about molecules of wood, which are actually made up of atoms, which are again made up of electrons and protons and such. The guy closes the book, but Mike ain’t done yet. He tells the sales guy that a few years back somebody discovered something called quarks, which are even smaller. At this point the guy shakes his head and switches his pitch to try to convince the wife and me that we need the World Book just to keep up with the kid. I about fell of the chair when I heard the price. Michael, God bless him, takes us off the hook by telling the guy that the library has a set that they update every couple of years, so there is no point in us paying good money to get stuck with a set that will be behind the times in short order. I felt a little sorry for the guy until I found out that he sold sets of his books to just about everybody else in the neighborhood.

Michael learned to play chess at school in the third grade. We bought him a set of his own for Christmas that year. I had to be honest with him: “I’d love to help you, son, but I can hardly keep up with your younger sisters at Chutes and Ladders.” One of the priests that teaches at the school coached him for a while, but by the fifth grade Mike could beat him every time. In high school my son became president of the chess club. He won the state chess championship and went away to college on a chess scholarship.

Of course, Mike’s problems started way before he went to college, but I’m telling you all this because chess was part of the reason Michael believed he was smarter than everybody else. And that was what got him into trouble.

When Mike was younger, I took him to little league tryouts, hoping he might get on a team. I thought that might give him some idea of how God balances things out by giving people different kinds of talents. We’re waiting for his group to be called, and the darn kid has his head down looking at his chessboard, which, yes, he actually brought with him to baseball tryouts. Somebody hits a foul ball, and people are yelling “Duck!” “Watch out!” But my brilliant son can’t tear himself away from his chess problem long enough to keep from getting beaned in the head. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting him stitched up at the emergency room.

In junior high school, a lot of kids earned spending money delivering newspapers, cutting lawns, and shoveling snow. Michael made more than any of them without lifting a finger, except to push chess pieces around the board. Afternoons and Saturdays, he was down at Salvatore’s barbershop beating the customers at chess for a buck or more a game. One day I see him paying for a newspaper from a folded-over wad of dollar bills that could choke a Saint Bernard. I sit him down and try to talk to him about opening an account at United Savings. As usual, I get the idea that suggesting something to him is not likely to increase the probability that it will happen. I don’t know many kids who would pay to read a newspaper. I figure that’s something good, at least, so I let it go for the time being.

A drawing of Mike sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and some encyclopedias.

Mike starts burying his nose in the Trentonian at breakfast every morning. He spends most of his time at the back of the paper in the extensive sports section the tabloid is well known for. I’m thinking, great, maybe Mike is going to go out for track or basketball like his older brothers. Later, I find out what is going on is something else altogether. Mike is boning up on sports teams of all kinds, from the local college basketball team to every major league baseball club in both leagues. What he is actually doing with this massive body of knowledge would have had his mother saying novenas and me paddling his behind with a hairbrush, had we only known. Little Michael is spending his chess winnings placing sports bets with the bookies at the barbershop.

It isn’t long before words like “bad beat,” “point spread,” and “parlay” start showing up in his vocabulary. Ten-year-old Michael fancies himself a “handicapper” who knows when to “lay a price.” Like all the horse players and sports gamblers before him who died broke, he has a certain amount of initial success putting two bucks or a fin on some team he has mined data on. Again, his brain is making money for him without engaging in anything that resembles manual labor.

The kids at school are bowled over by the bankroll Michael is flashing, and of course they want in on the action. Michael decides to act as a “beard” for them, placing their bets and taking some “juice,” or a commission for doing so. This has an unexpected benefit, or consequence, depending on your point of view. Instead of putting down two bucks here and there, Michael is now placing what the barbershop bookies call half-dollar and dollar bets, which in English is 50 or 100 George Washingtons. This causes them to raise the limit on how much Michael is allowed to open a line for. It doesn’t take Mike long to see that instead of taking 10 percent of the action, he can use the newly approved credit limit to place larger bets for himself. After Mike takes down a couple of decent-sized wins the bookies raise his limit again. They know that sooner or later the rain must fall, at which time they will get their money back quickly rather than a little at a time.

Well, it wasn’t rain but snow that ended up falling and unexpectedly changing the outcome of an NFL playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas. The Cowboys were unprepared for the eight inches of white stuff that began falling 90 minutes before kickoff. All the data mining Mike had done in the sports section did not predict the correct odds for the game as well as a weather report might have. For the first time, Mike was in deep on the wrong side of the action. Rather than walk away with a loss and a lesson in life, my son dove deeper into the sports pages looking for a sure thing that he could double down on. He settled on Syracuse in the college basketball championship, and it looked like they had a lock until the center broke his ankle at the start of the second half.

Now it’s baseball season, and Mike is convinced the Yankees are worth the spread. He starts nickel and diming his way out of the hole game by game. When the Yanks take the pennant, Mike takes them in a huge future line on the World Series outcome. New York does not make it to game six that year, and now my son, who has just turned 12, owes the gavones at the barbershop nine dimes, as they like to call it, or $9,000 here in this workingman’s reality.

Mike ducks the barbershop for a couple of weeks until two bruisers catch him on the way home from school one afternoon. They push him into a car and drive him out to the cemetery at the edge of town, where they hurt him just enough to really scare him. They tell him it’s OK if he can’t come up with the whole nine dimes, but he’d better start paying the vig each week, or it’s going to get a whole lot worse for him. The vigorish, it turns out, is 3 percent or $270 a week, which is more than I myself made at the time, before taxes. Michael starts leaving early for school and coming home late. He travels through people’s backyards, never showing his face on the street.

I probably should have noticed that he was using only the backdoor of the house for coming and going, but the first time I had any notion that something was wrong was when the two bruisers showed up at the front door one afternoon and pushed their way into my living room. A half-hour later my son sneaks in the backdoor. He comes in from the dining room to find the two lowlifes sitting on the sofa like they are invited guests, one of them stinking up our home with smoke from his stogie. The other one looks up, “How ya doin’, Mikey?” he smiles.

Michael’s face turns whiter than the alabaster statue of the Madonna on the mantle. I ask my son a simple, three-word question. “Is it true?”

Michael’s face turns whiter than the alabaster statue of the Madonna on the mantle. I ask my son a simple, three-word question. “Is it true?”

Mike looks down at the floor and starts stuttering. “Well, well … uh ...”

I repeat my question with enough force to make it clear I am not going to ask a third time. “Is it true?”

It takes him a moment, but he finds the strength to look me in the eye. “Yes,” he says simply.

“You’ll get your money,” I tell the leg-breakers as I walk directly to the front door and hold it open for them to leave, which they do without another word between us.

It took me more than a month to get a second mortgage on the house approved. I took Michael with me to the diner on Parkway Avenue and pushed an envelope with the cash across the table to the two nameless goons. One of them started to pocket it.

“Count it,” I said.

“Ah, we don’t need to count it.”

“Count it!” I insisted.

On the way home in the car, Michael finally broke the silence. “Dad, I … uh … I am … I will …” he stammered.

“I just hope you learned something,” I told him as I fought to keep my own voice from shaking.

About a month later the two of us were in the living room when a basketball game comes on the television. Mike, eyes glued to the tube, absentmindedly blurts out, “Hey, Dad, wanna bet a buck on the game?”

When I don’t respond, he glances over to see me giving him a look that says I am about to hit him with something more than a hairbrush, and he lights out the backdoor and doesn’t come home until long after bedtime.

The subject never came up between us again. Years later, Mike has finished both college and a graduate degree when I get a call from the bank. The banker tells me that my son has paid off the mortgage. Not just that, but my smart kid has also deposited an amount in my account that he has calculated to equal every penny of principal and interest I have paid on the mortgage to date.

Now, I know Mike is doing OK, but I am sure he does not have that kind of money. Although I can’t get the banker to admit it, I am certain my son has taken out a loan of his own to do this. The only other way he could have that much money is if he is gambling again. But I know the kid’s too darn smart for that … right?

Tom Bixby headshotA Vietnam veteran, Tom is the author of Crazy Me… How I Lost Reality and Found Myself, about his recovery from war-related PTSD and schizophrenia. He wrote the award-winning stories Charlie’s Time and Deli Delivery as well as best screenplay prize winner Club Bong Son. He holds a BFA from NYU and studied psychology at UCLA and Vanderbilt. He directs commercials and medical films, is an M-Rider, and coaches a school chess club.
Savannah Area Mensa of Georgia | Joined 1977