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Total Loss Weekend
Don DeLillo
November 27, 1972
Action is his passion. It is Saturday noon and his bets are down on contests coast to coast. With the blinds drawn, two televisions tuned and a radio fitfully broadcasting game scores, the tense vigil begins
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November 27, 1972

Total Loss Weekend

Action is his passion. It is Saturday noon and his bets are down on contests coast to coast. With the blinds drawn, two televisions tuned and a radio fitfully broadcasting game scores, the tense vigil begins

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"I'm dead," CJ says.

He is dead because with 41 seconds left the Fighting Irish have reached the six-yard line. They lose two on a sweep and it is fourth and goal at the eight, and if there are any lingering doubts about whether or not betting on college football is a form of Armenian water torture, they are quickly dispelled when Notre Dame calls time out. Ahead by nine points. Seconds left in the game. They call time out. Who is aiming this sorrowful arrow at CJ's heart? Who is behind this wanton event? Whims are supposed to be things flitting suddenly to mind, but this one has been engineered by a deterministic intelligence. The fourth-down play now unfolding represents the concentrated essence of betting on sports. Of course they go for the touchdown. Of course they score. Of course they kick the all-important extra point. Unless you believe in truth, beauty and sportsmanship, the interior game is the only one that matters.

Baseball takes over on the color set. On the auxiliary set we watch cars smashing into each other. What does this mean? An announcer uses the phrase "demolition derby." Then we see a fat cowboy running toward a herd of cows. It seems to make no sense. The announcer calls this "wild cow milking."

CJ is dead in East Lansing. He is dead and buried in Pittsburgh. He is long dead in New York. He is dying a slow death in Oakland. Before the night is over he will have died in Kentucky, in Mississippi and in Oklahoma. Through the radio he breathes the air of our mysterious and lonely continent.

What did CJ discover 10 years ago?

Ten years ago: CJ discovers a way to prolong the glorious agony of checking results in the newspaper.

With a matchbook, paper napkin or the human hand, he covers the results in question and then slowly moves the shielding device across the page, oh so gradually disclosing the outcome. For football or basketball he moves the matchbook across the line score from quarter to quarter until there is nothing left but victory or defeat. Baseball takes longer, inning to inning, nine panning movements to the final score. Race results are best because as you move vertically up the list of finishers without exposing the name of your own selection, the odds that you've got a winner begin to grow increasingly favorable. Once you get to the show horse, the sense of action is almost dizzying.

Some of CJ's greatest moments in gambling have occurred as he sipped his morning coffee and oh so slowly moved a matchbook across an inch of small print. At times he has stopped just short of the final result in order to savor this moment of action, to draw it out of real time into some secret hourglass of gambler's sand. He walks around the room; he stands at the window for a while; he returns to the table and drinks all but one swallow of his coffee; he sits for a few more minutes and then, slowly and lovingly and with a feeling of total happiness and despair, he moves the matchbook one more notch and brings this splendid scrap of action to its end. After this there is nothing to do but finish off the coffee and go to work.

On Saturday evening CJ calls in his bets for the next day. To the bookmaker's multiple answering service he says: "I want Pickwick Realty." Since he is calling from home, he merely leaves his first name. If he had been phoning from another number, he would give the last three digits of that number in reverse. While we wait for the bookie to return the call, CJ tells me that one day a few years ago he phoned, confirmed the point spreads, placed his bets and then said: "So long, Bernie."

"Don't call me Bernie anymore," the bookie said. "From now on call me Sherm."

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