“Carol, what did I do with my keys?” her mother asked.
Carol immediately summoned the mental picture of her mother coming in the door loaded down with purse, bags of groceries and wet umbrella. It was as vivid to her as if it was happening at that moment.
“You shake out the umbrella and put it in the stand, dump the groceries on the counter, take off your coat, drop your purse and the keys slip under the chair,” Carol said, reporting in present tense what she was seeing in her mind. She could have added the cat sits on the window sill looking out at the bird feeder, Mother wears a red sweater and brown skirt and has that little furrow between her eyes that means a headache, but she’d learned long ago to edit. Nobody wanted to hear all that.
Her mother thought her extraordinary recall came from God. Her father believed Carol was a genius and got it from his side of the family. She was strongly encouraged not to show off, so few people outside the immediate family knew that Carol had eidetic – often called photographic – memory.
Carol’s ability to visualize the pages in her textbooks made for great test scores. Only a couple of her more thoughtful teachers worried that regurgitating facts was not the same as critical thinking. Carol’s easy A’s made her lazy. The summer after high school felt like free fall. Without structure, she floundered. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, just something that wasn’t too much work.
Then she discovered blackjack.
It was her dangerous older cousin, Sean, who introduced her to the game. He was a dealer at a casino, which deeply impressed her. When he offered to take her to see him work, she was thrilled. At eighteen, she wasn’t old enough to gamble, but because she was with Sean, nobody checked. Besides, she was just watching.
The game was bewildering: hits and stands and double-downs and splits, and a huge number of cards in the shoe. But as she watched, she realized it was merely a matter of visualizing the cards that had been played and the cards that were left. When she got home she shuffled together six decks of cards, pulled up blackjack rules on the internet, and began dealing to an imaginary table of players.
The next night she walked into the casino by herself with $150 tucked in her purse. The security guard remembered her and waved her though. Seated at another blackjack table, not Sean’s, she placed her first bet and began winning. Watching the pile of chips beside her grow was the most fun she’d ever had. This was an easy way to make money and it suited her just fine. Who needed college?
“Pick up your chips, Ma’am. You’re through here.”
The voice was accompanied by a steely grip on her elbow. She looked around in surprise at the large man who stood behind her.
“But I’m not ready to leave yet,” she protested.
“Yeah, you are. You’re too good for this game.”
Carol tried to catch Sean’s eye, but he suddenly didn’t know her. Clutching her stack of chips, she allowed herself to be led on a humiliating walk to the cage, where a stone-faced cashier shoved a stack of bills through the bars. The large man never loosened his grip on her elbow.
“But why are you doing this to me?” she asked through tears when they reached the casino door.
“You think we wouldn’t notice you countin’ cards? No casino’ll put up with that,” her escort said.
Carol was bewildered. “I didn’t cheat, I wouldn’t even know how. If I can keep track of the cards, why is that wrong?”
“The house don’t like to lose. Don’t come back, you won’t get in the door.”
Driving home, Carol felt sick with embarrassment. She’d been having fun playing a game, that’s all; she’d meant no harm. She knew she’d never forget this evening. It would remain in her memory, no matter how much she wished she could erase it.
By morning, her shame had curdled into anger. It wasn’t fair! She’d been ill-treated and penalized just because she had a good memory. Card-counting wasn’t even illegal; the casinos just didn’t like it. While she wasn’t old enough to get past an I.D. check yet, that day would come. Carol formulated the first long-range plan of her life.
While she was waiting for her twenty-first birthday, she’d study education for gifted kids. Carol knew how easy it was for people like herself to skate by, but that wouldn’t happen in her future classroom. Her students would learn to think, not just remember.
Then, as soon as she was legal, she’d hit every casino within four hundred miles. She’d map out a blitz, zipping in and out fast before her picture was circulated and she got turned away at the door. Her last stop would be Sean’s table.
“I’ll play once in each place and never go back,” she told herself. “Once will be enough.”
The money wasn’t important, except that it would buy sweet vengeance. Something to remember for the rest of her life.