The sun has never felt as good as it does when I finally step out of that jailhouse and into a beautiful Friday morning, the air smelling a little like jasmine, a little like the ocean; happy weekend smiles on all the faces in the windows of a passing bus; and the mountains sitting right there, like they sometimes do, looking close enough to touch.
I’ve only been locked up forty-eight hours, but this bit was worse than any of the others, because it was so unexpected. The cops busted into the little casino Kong runs in the backroom of his bar, saw the slots and the craps setup, and, before you know it, I was being yanked out of my seat at the poker table and slammed against the wall, and when they ran my license, up popped a couple of speeding tickets that had gone to warrant. Two years I’d managed to fly under the radar, and, just like that, I’m back in the system.
But I’m not going to let it spin me sideways. I’m going to focus on all the things I have to be grateful for — like the fact that Larry’s waiting for me out front just like he promised he would, and that he passes me a big old cup of coffee as soon as I slide into his truck, and that he tracked down Domingo and collected the money D. owed me and used it to bail my sorry ass out, all on the back of a single frantic phone call. Unbelievable. You can count friends like that on one hand — hell, one finger.
“Larry, my motherfucking man,” I say. “Let me buy you breakfast.”
The Denny’s in the shadow of the freeway next to the jail is the first place a lot of guys go when they get out, to eat a decent meal and use a toilet with a door. I see a couple of dudes I was in with sitting at the counter — ID bands still on their wrists, property bags at their feet — digging into tall stacks of pancakes and double orders of ham and eggs.
“Tell me what I missed,” I say to Larry across the table.
He forks a sausage into his mouth and shrugs. Syrup glistens on his mustache. He’s a listener, not a talker.
“Anybody die? Anybody hit it big?” I ask.
“It was only two days,” he replies.
Yeah, but it sure seemed longer. Probably because I barely slept. The guy in the next bunk moaned and groaned all night, suffering through his dreams, and during the day I was too wound up to nap, surrounded as I was by bad men with bad intentions. I spent all my time guarding my personal space, displaying enough aggression to ward off the jackals but not so much that I riled the tigers. Hours later my hands are still shaking. When I lift my glass to drink, orange juice sloshes over the rim.
But let’s get back to the good stuff: I’m out, my only friend came through for me, and I’ve got a date this afternoon with Lupe, a beautiful girl I met last week at a pool hall where I shoot sometimes. We’re going to the track, me and her and her kid. She couldn’t get a sitter, so I told her to bring him along. “I see kids there all the time,” I told her. “They love it, all the yelling and everything.”
“How’s work?” I ask Larry.
He shakes his head. “Picked up a couple days drywalling, but it’s slow.”
“Let me talk to my cousin,” I say. “He’s looking for help on that house he’s building in Eagle Rock.”
“You were supposed to talk to him last week,” Larry says.
“Yeah, but then all this went down.”
I haven’t spoken to my cousin in months because I owe him five hundred bucks. Larry knows this but won’t call me on it. He’s cool like that, always has been. What’s crazy is that sometimes I wish he wasn’t. Sometimes I wish he’d haul off and punch me in my lying fucking face.
He slurps his coffee and watches the waitress joke with two cops in the next booth. I remember him contemplating joining the LAPD right after he got married, going on and on about the health insurance and the pension plan. He acted like I was some kind of asshole for pointing out that two DUIs and a burglary conviction might hold him back.
“You’ve got to move out before the first of next month,” he mumbles without looking at me. “Shauna put her foot down.”
Like I couldn’t see this coming. She’s been trying to find an excuse to boot me from their garage since the day I moved in.
“We need someone we can count on for regular rent,” Larry continues. “We’re behind on everything.”
The rent bit is bogus. I’ve only been late once, maybe twice, in almost a year. I haven’t paid for April yet, but it’s only the fifth, and, guess what, I’ve been locked down most of that time. Larry could tell Shauna to back off; he could say, This is my homeboy we’re talking about. But I’ve been married; I understand. And if me staying there is causing him problems, no sweat. I’ll find somewhere else to crash until I get on another roll.
“No worries,” I say. “Your wish is my command.” And that’s enough about that. “So this chick Lupe, the one from Hollywood Billiards —”
“By the first,” Larry says, not letting it go.
“Don’t you think I heard you?”
He’s given up on me. It’s right there in his eyes. My hands tighten into fists, and wrong thoughts blaze through my brain. But then I see all that food on my plate and the clear blue sky outside and remember that it’s only me who can bring me down, and everything is fine again; everything is great.
Lupe almost blew it for me last Saturday, the night we met. She kept smiling from the bar as I hustled some pigeon, and it was so distracting that, for a while, I thought they were a team. I let the guy take me twice for twenty a game, then came on as drunk and stupid and challenged him to another, this time for a hundred. He figured he had a fish on the line and said, “Whatever you want, bro.” I slow-played that one all the way to the eight before putting it away, and then it was him begging for a rematch. I agreed and held back in that game, too, making my win look like dumb luck. He left grumbling but unable to prove that he’d been had.
His money felt nice in my pocket — easy money always does — and I walked over and introduced myself to Lupe. “Girls as pretty as you shouldn’t be allowed near the pool table,” I said. “You make it hard to concentrate.”
“You still whipped his ass, didn’t you?” she said.
“No thanks to you.”
She was there with friends from the dentist’s office where she works as a receptionist: somebody’s birthday. I bought the group a round with my winnings, but Lupe was the only one I was interested in. The click of the balls faded, the music, everyone else’s dopey conversations. All I heard was her voice.
I like Mexican girls: thick black hair; brown skin; dark, dark eyes full of secrets. And Lupe had this haughtiness that made me smile, because it was so obviously a put-on. She tried to act like nothing meant anything to her, like the world was a joke, but I could see it was just a shield she was using to protect herself. You win a girl like that over, and you’re going to learn what love is all about.
“So what are you,” she asked at one point, stabbing her drink with her straw, “some kind of hustler, some kind of shark?”
“Because that’s not what you’re looking for, right?” I replied. “You’re a mom, got a son to think about. You don’t need another bad boy messing stuff up.”
“Well,” she said, “maybe a little bit bad.”
This was the party’s first stop. They were moving on to a club. When Lupe’s friends started pulling at her to leave, she took out her phone and asked for my number, then dialed it as I gave it to her.
My phone rang, and I put it to my ear and said, “Hello?” staring right at her.
“Hey, this is Lupe,” she said. “Call me sometime.” And then off she went, swept away by her scandalized amigas, one of them hissing, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe you, girl.”
It wasn’t going to get any better than that, so I hurried home to Larry’s garage, locked the door, and crawled into my sleeping bag before any randomness could ruin a perfect night.
I ’m due at Lupe’s at noon, which gives me enough time to pick up my Explorer from Kong’s bar, where it’s been sitting since I got popped, and then drive back to Larry’s and sneak a quick shower while Shauna’s at the store. The hundred dollars stashed in the toe of one of my good shoes isn’t much, but admission is free at Santa Anita today, and they’ve got dollar sodas and hot dogs, so I should be fine.
Lupe lives in North Hollywood with her sister. The two of them and their kids share a condo in a building with a pool and twenty-four-hour security. Lupe’s sister lived there with her husband, but then he ran off, and when Lupe got rid of her old man, the girls decided to throw in together. Lupe told me all this like she expected me to read between the lines, and that’s a good way to start out: she’s not crying for help, and neither am I.
I park in the loading zone in front of the building and give her a call. She’ll be down in a minute. I walk to the main entrance and look in through the lobby, with its dark wood and mirrors, to the pool in the courtyard. The water is perfectly still, and an old man is reading a newspaper at a table with an umbrella sprouting out of it. It’s nice, nicer than any place I’ve ever lived, but, see, that means cameras, like the one peering down at me from above the door, and I don’t know about that. Reminds me too much of jail. And the fat rent-a-cop stationed behind the desk in the lobby — the nod he gives me is nothing friendly. More like I’ve got my eye on you, shit bird.
Lupe and her son walk out of the elevator, and she looks as good as I remember in tight jeans and a white tank top. The kid is wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt and Spider-Man sunglasses. I try to get the front door of the building for them, jerk it twice before I realize that it’s locked. Lupe pushes it open from inside.
“They’re serious around here, huh?” I say.
“That’s right, you lowdown, dirty varmint,” the kid growls.
“Jesse!” Lupe snaps, then says to me, “He gets all this weird stuff from cartoons. Half the time I don’t even know what he’s talking about.”
“You like horses?” I ask him.
“Are we gonna ride some?” he says.
“We’re going to watch them race,” I say.
“Dag nab it,” he says.
I keep my Explorer immaculate: wash it every week, polish it once a month. That’s about the only decent habit I picked up from my dad. He couldn’t stand it when people paid good money for a vehicle, then let it go to pot. “Shows they don’t appreciate what they have,” he’d say. “It came to them too easy.”
Lupe straps Jesse into the back seat.
“Is there TV in here?” he asks.
“No TV,” I say.
“My uncle has TV.”
I ignore him. You have to do that to kids sometimes; otherwise they think every silly thing that comes out of their mouth deserves a response. He’s all wrapped up in his toy, anyway, some kind of ninja doll.
Lupe starts right in with a story about a girl she works with who misread the numbers on her lottery ticket and thought she’d won. She got on the phone at work and screamed to her husband and her mom and danced around the office and promised everyone a cruise.
“I felt so bad for her,” Lupe says, laughing and shaking her head. “Like she really had a chance. Like anybody does. She called in sick for two days afterward.”
I laugh and change lanes to get around a slow-moving semi with its hazards blinking.
“Hey, check it out,” Lupe says as we pass the truck.
The semi is hauling four huge palm trees, their roots encased in heavy wooden boxes, fronds tied to their trunks to keep them from blowing around. They look like prisoners on their way to execution. Lupe takes a photo with her phone. She’s excited about being out, about the day ahead of us, maybe even about me. I like that she can’t hide it. It would be nice if we could be this way forever.
By the time we park, it’s five minutes to post for the first race. A couple of decent horses are running, and I’d like to get a bet in if I can, but Jesse doesn’t know how to hurry yet. He stops to pick up a penny off the pavement, stops again to watch a ladybug crawl. Lupe kneels to tie his shoe right before we walk through the turnstile, and I grit my teeth as the announcer calls, “And away they go!”
“Would you have won?” Lupe asks when she sees me looking at a tote board.
“Couple of bucks,” I say. “Not enough to cry over.”
We pass through the echoey cavern beneath the grandstand, which is full of horseplayers staring up at TV monitors or hunched over copies of the Form, pens in hand. The same anxiousness that tightened my throat as soon as I drove into the place has these men squinting and licking their lips and slapping rolled-up programs against their palms. This hasn’t been fun for any of them for a long time.
Lines have already formed at the betting windows for the next race, and a crowd has gathered beneath one of the TVs to watch a simulcast from a track in San Francisco. “Come on, you motherfucker,” a guy in a Raiders jacket shouts at the screen as we walk by. I glance at Lupe and see that she’s about to say, Hey, there are kids here, or something — so I rush her outside.
We emerge into the sunlight beside the track, near the finish line. I lead Lupe and the kid up into the stands and snag three seats. It’s ten minutes to post.
“You guys want hot dogs?” I ask. “Cokes?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Jesse chants, bouncing up and down.
Lupe jerks his arm and hisses at him to stop. “Sure,” she says to me. “One plain and one with ketchup.”
“Ketchup, ketchup, ketchup,” Jesse whispers as I walk away.
I head straight for a window to put ten on Wilder Boy, the favorite, to win. Then, before I can stop myself, I also put ten on the second-favorite. The race goes off while I’m waiting in line at the snack bar, and I watch it on a monitor. My horses come in second and fifth. So I lost, but at least I know how my luck is running. It’ll be dollar exactas for the rest of the day, a ten-cent superfecta if the field is big enough.
Paul pops up behind me while I’m ordering the food.
“Get me a dog too,” he says, shoving a moist dollar bill into my hand.
“What the fuck?” I say.
Paul is the type of person I need to avoid. He has no goals, no impulse control, no life. In other words, we’re too much alike to be any good for each other. Last time I was with him at a card club, we wound up running from some drunk Iranians after one of them accused Paul of trying to lift his wallet. Paul swore up and down they were nuts but then got the crap beat out of him two weeks later for doing the same thing to someone else.
I hand him his hot dog and get no thank-you, nothing, just: “You seen Whammy?”
Another lunatic, another crackhead. “Nope,” I say. “Got to go.”
“What’s your hurry?”
“I’m on a date.”
“Paying by the hour, huh?”
The guy hasn’t showered in days. His teeth are yellow, and he looks like he dressed out of a dumpster. He follows me to the condiment counter and moves in close as I’m pumping mustard.
“You know somebody looking for something like this?” he asks, and lifts his T-shirt to flash the butt of a gun sticking out of his jeans. “I’ll let it go cheap.”
“Who are you?” I say. “I don’t even know you.”
I push past him, almost spilling the Cokes in my haste. See, I’m learning. That dude is surely going to die young, and I don’t want to go down with him.
“Soon as a bitch opens her mouth,” a buddy once said, “I stop listening.”
Four or five of us were drinking in a dive where failure hung as thick as the cigarette smoke in the air. When he said it, something contrary welled up in me — a sudden, intense disgust at the casual hatefulness we used for cover — and I pointed out that I’d seen him talking to women plenty of times.
He scowled like I’d disappointed him and said, “Talking, maybe, but never listening.”
I like listening to Lupe. We sit in the stands and eat our hot dogs, and she tells me about her ex, Jesse’s father. I asked for details because our conversation started dead-ending there, so it seemed like we should get it out of the way. We’re going to rip up the past like weeds and throw it away. The story is a sad one, but she makes it funny by spelling out the words she doesn’t want Jesse to hear and calling her ex “Dick” instead of his real name, so the kid won’t know who we’re discussing.
They’d been together since high school, and she married him when she got p-r-e-g-n-a-n-t even though she knew he was an a-s-s-hole. Which was stupid, it’s clear to her now, because of course the guy cracked under the pressure; of course he couldn’t hold up his end of anything. He quit every job he managed to get, f-u-c-k-e-d around on her constantly, and beat her when he was d-r-u-n-k. She finally had enough of it and got her brothers to come over and throw him out, and every day since then has been a good one.
“I’d like to meet him,” I say. “In a dark alley. With a baseball bat.”
“He ain’t even worth that,” she says.
“He was the wrong man for you,” I say. “You were fortunate to find out early on.”
“Wrong man, right man,” she says with a flirty smile. “You’re all the same.”
“Oh, no, we’re not,” I reply. “We come in all kinds of crazy.”
This gets a laugh out of her, and we sip our Cokes and watch the horses for the next race parade down the track. A big roan bucks, almost tossing his jockey, and the crowd laughs and applauds. I’m transfixed by a man standing half in the shadow of the grandstand and half in the sun, split right down the middle, dark and light. One step in either direction will change everything. Move, I think.
“I like number two,” Lupe says, wiping ketchup off Jesse’s chin with a napkin. “He’s pretty.”
Toe the Line is the horse’s name, three-to-one.
“You know how to pick them,” I tell her. “He’s one of the favorites.”
She reaches into her purse and pulls out two dollars. “I want to bet on him.”
I wave the money away. “My treat,” I say.
“Nope,” she says, thrusting the bills at me. “That’s bad luck.”
Her smile could stop a war. I take the two bucks and turn to leave. The man I was watching before is gone. If he went light, I’d planned to go with the four horse; dark, the nine. Now I’ll have to bet both.
When I get back from the window with our tickets and a box of popcorn for Jesse, Paul is sitting in the row behind us, leaning forward to talk to Lupe. Someone takes a handful of my guts and squeezes.
“Here he is,” Paul says as I approach. “The man himself.”
“Watch your purse around this one,” I say to Lupe.
She laughs. Paul looks hurt, then angry.
“She was asking how we met,” he says.
Danny Boy brought us together. Gave us the keys to the back door of his brother’s house and told us to trash the place, paid us each a hundred bucks. Those were not good times.
“It’s been so long, who can remember?” I say. A warning.
Paul picks up on it. “Yeah,” he says, “real long.”
I give Lupe her ticket, and the kid tries to grab it out of her hand. She tells him to sit still. We make small talk as the horses walk to the starting gate. All I can think of is that pistol in Paul’s waistband. It’s like there’s a snake coiled under Lupe’s seat where she can’t see it, and I’m ignoring it so as not to alarm her, all the while terrified that the damn thing is going to strike. Paul’s talking about Hawaii, telling Lupe how great it is there: Oh, the sand. Oh, the water. Oh, the food. He’s never been to Hawaii; he’s never even been to San Diego.
A stiff breeze sweeps up a bunch of losing tickets and whips them around the legs of the Mexicans lined up along the fence next to the track. The gates swing open, and the horses are off. I’m not normally a stander or a shouter, but Lupe and the kid, that’s part of the fun for them. So as the pack comes into the stretch, I’m on my feet with everybody else, even though my picks are already out of the money.
“I won!” Lupe yells as the horses cross the finish line.
“She won!” Jesse yells.
Lupe hugs him, hugs me, hugs Paul. When things settle down, Paul starts pumping her for info: where she lives, where she works, what she drives. I interrupt with “So, who do you like in the next race?”
“Paul said Kentucky Straight looks good,” Lupe replies.
I glance at my program. Thirty-five-to-one. That’s Paul right there: if he can’t win, he doesn’t want anyone else to. Bastard lives his whole life that way.
“It’s a long shot,” I say.
“What’s that mean?” Lupe asks.
“It means you bet a little to win a lot,” Paul says.
“Good, ’cause a little is all I got.”
I’m not going to argue. We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves. And, besides, what’s two bucks? Paul, though, has got to go.
“Come on,” I say to him. “I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Just bring it to me,” he says.
“Nah, come with me. I want to talk to you about something.”
He gets up reluctantly, knowing he won’t be back, and kisses Lupe’s hand, bumps fists with Jesse.
As soon as we’re out of their sight, I grab the back of his neck and give him a shove. He stumbles and almost goes down. The guy has a gun, and I push him. I’m a genius; I truly am.
“I don’t appreciate your jokes,” I say.
“So what?” he says. “She’s not that cute. In fact, her ass is gigantic.”
I move toward him, and he backs off.
“Get going,” I say, keeping an eye on his hands.
“You know what?” he says. “I’m done with you.” Then he turns and, thank God, walks away.
I decide to visit Willy and Leon in the clubhouse, see what horses they like. You’re supposed to have a stamp to get in from the grandstand, showing you paid extra. I don’t, but the woman guarding the entrance is too busy texting to look up when I wave my hand under the black light and hurry past her. I count that as a win. I’ll take them where I can get them.
Willy and Leon are legends, twin brothers who worked as parimutuel clerks, taking bets here and at Hollywood Park for thirty years before retiring. They still show up every day out of habit, know all the jockeys, all the owners, all the trainers, and are usually good for a tip.
I find them in their regular spot, a booth in a quiet corner of the clubhouse snack bar, beneath a bank of monitors showing races from all over the country. Five or six other regulars sit with them, and the table is covered with dope sheets, marked-up Forms, and styrofoam coffee cups. The men all wear clothes from twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. They never venture outside to watch a race live, and they communicate with one another mostly in grunts and whispers. Their days are spent scribbling arcane symbols on their programs or staring up at the screens overhead, tongues clenched between their teeth.
At my hello, Willy taps Leon, who takes off his reading glasses and glances around confused before spotting me. The brothers are both five feet tall and just about as wide, with big round heads and bulging eyes, and both comb their graying hair to the side. The only way anyone can tell them apart is that the lobe of Willy’s left ear is missing: sliced off in a bar fight when he was a kid.
“Hey, buddy boy,” Willy says. “Keeping out of trouble?”
“You know me,” I reply.
“That’s why he’s asking,” Leon says, and he and Willy dissolve into silent laughter. Rumor has it that they’ve won and lost millions over the years, that they once shared a woman who broke both their hearts, that they still sleep in their childhood bedroom at their mother’s house.
“Give me a winner,” I say.
“You think they know?” one of the other men at the table snorts. “They’re in so deep, they need Obama to bail them out.”
Everybody gets a kick out of this, one guy laughing so hard he goes into a coughing fit.
“Seriously,” Willy says. “It’s nothing but nags today.”
“Yeah, keep your money,” Leon adds.
“Come on,” I say. “You guys have something.”
They lock eyes for a few seconds; then Willy runs a fat finger down the chicken scratches he’s made on a memo pad.
“The five horse in the sixth might come alive,” he finally says.
“Might,” Leon emphasizes.
Willy announces that he needs to use the can. He’s sitting in the center of the booth, which means the guys to one side or the other will have to slide out and stand up, but neither group wants to move. I leave them bickering about it and go to a window, where I cash in Lupe’s ticket for eight dollars and put two back on Kentucky Straight.
For my bet, I figure it’s been three races now since a favorite has come in, so there’s a good chance of it happening this time. I mean to lay ten on the horse, but out of habit say twenty and decide not to correct it. I don’t want to get in the way of anything.
“Come on, baby, come on!” Lupe shouts, but it’s no use. Kentucky Straight runs last, and the favorite ends up third. So we’re a couple of losers.
“Made for each other,” I say to Lupe.
“I’m no loser,” she replies.
“I was joking,” I say.
We sit poring over the prospects for the next race when we should be getting to know each other better. This was a horrible place to take her on a first date. I see that now. People are under too much stress here. People like me. Now that I’m down, all I can think about is ways to get back up. And Lupe, look at her, jiggling her leg, twisting her hair, squinting at her program like someone taking a test. Bowling would have been better, or the movies. Or the zoo, something fun for the kid. He’s bored to death here, nothing to do but play with his doll, making it jump in the air and kick his mother’s arm.
“What’s your guy’s name?” I ask him.
“Black Dragon,” he replies.
“So, he’s like a ninja?”
Shadows are creeping up the foothills just beyond the track, and it’ll get chilly as soon as the sun sinks a bit lower. We should leave right now, while I still have enough cash to buy us a couple of Big Macs. I’m trying to figure out how to put this to Lupe without sounding as lousy as I feel when she jabs her program with a bright pink fingernail and says, “I want this one: Divalicious.”
Fifty-to-one. The girl is throwing her pennies away, but, hey, I don’t have room to talk. She roots around in her purse, hands me two dollars, and says, “What happened with you and your wife?”
It’s only fair. She told me about her marriage. Which story does she want to hear, though? How Christine and I met at a casino where she was a waitress and I was on a winning streak? That’s a good one. Christine thought it was always going to be like that, the high life, and that’s why she said yes when I asked her to marry me two weeks later. She’d never been with a gambler before, though, never ridden that roller coaster.
Or how about the one where we had to sell everything we owned to pay a loan shark, and we lived out of our car for a week until I could pilfer enough from the cash register at the liquor store where I was working to get a room at a motel?
Or how about how I promised again and again to quit gambling but didn’t, and the truth suddenly dawned on Christine, and she texted her final fuck-you while I was sitting at a poker table — Thx 4 ruining everything — before disappearing into outer space?
No, Lupe doesn’t want to hear any of those, and I don’t want to tell them. Not now, when I’m broke again, losing again, eating myself alive again.
“We made mistakes” is all I say. “There was love there, but not enough.”
Lupe frowns. “What does that mean? Did you leave her, or did she leave you?”
“Me,” I say. “She left me. And the man I was then, I don’t blame her.”
“But you’ve changed, huh?”
“I get a little better every day, I hope.”
“You’re full of s-h-i-t,” she says with a laugh.
“I know what that spells,” Jesse says.
They’ve both got to use the restroom, so I lead them back under the grandstand and thread them through the crowd. We avoid the old woman picking through the trash can, the drunk screaming in Spanish into his phone, the dude with crazy eyes who’s telling security he’ll smoke anywhere he fucking wants. A pigeon that’s found its way inside flies frantically from one end of the room to the other, just above everyone’s heads.
“Can you go with him?” Lupe asks, nodding at Jesse when we get to the door to the women’s room.
“Sure,” I say.
I take his hand and walk him to the men’s. He heads to the one urinal that’s lower than the others and unzips his pants.
“Need any help?” I ask.
“Nope,” he replies, like that’s a dumb question.
He can’t reach the sink, so I pick him up and hold him around the waist while he soaps his hands and rinses them thoroughly, the way someone somewhere has taught him.
“Do you like war?” he asks me while drying each finger separately.
“You mean like war war?”
“Like war movies.”
“Sure,” I say.
“Good man,” he replies.
We meet his mom at the snack bar, and the two of them wait there while I make our bets. It’s going to be the favorite this time: Blue Moon. The guy in front of me puts money on him, and so does the guy in front of him. What I should do is lay down ten of my last twenty on the horse and save ten for Willy and Leon’s pick in the next race. But of course the wheels start turning: Lose the ten, and you’ve got nothing — not enough to make a decent bet on the next race, not enough to buy Lupe and Jesse dinner. Bet the whole twenty, though, and if you lose, you’re still fucked, but if you win, at two-to-one, that’s forty bucks — enough to bet on Willy and Leon’s horse and get a pizza, thus tiptoeing out of trouble once again.
By now I’m at the window, and the clerk is waiting, and so is everybody in line behind me. There’s no time to double-check my logic, so I do what I always do in this situation: close my eyes and jump.
Lupe screams louder as the horses come into the stretch. Blue Moon has been in front all the way, but now Divalicious is moving up. I don’t want to root against Lupe, not even silently, but I do, fists clenching and unclenching at my sides. Run, run, run.
The crowd is in a frenzy as the horses approach the finish line. It’s strange to see people act like that, shouting and sweating and jumping up and down. They look more angry than anything else, and I’ve had dreams where they turned on me.
The madness continues until Blue Moon and Divalicious cross the line neck and neck at the front of the pack. At that point silence descends over the grandstand. Three seconds it holds, four, five, and then the word PHOTO flashes on the tote, and a collective groan rises. Everybody begins to speculate on what the officials will see in the pictures. It looked like Blue Moon to me, but I don’t want to jinx it by hoping.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” Lupe whispers. She closes her eyes and crosses herself, moves her lips in prayer.
A minute later the results come up.
“I won?” Lupe asks, her voice rising to a screech.
“You won,” I reply.
She throws her arms around my neck, but there’s something sour on her breath. The old man behind us rolls his eyes as she stamps her feet and waves the ticket over her head. She’s got a lot to learn, like how you shouldn’t gloat when you win; how you should think about all the losers around you, all those broken hearts.
But, hey, maybe she’ll pay for dinner now. I’m down to four bucks and change. I keep reaching into my pockets, hoping to find more, because Leon and Willy’s horse, Rocket Man, is starting to look really good. Top jockey, top trainer. He hasn’t done anything in his previous races, so that means he’s due. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: he’s gone from five-to-one this morning to three-to-one now. I smell a winner, really and truly.
Jesse drops his Spider-Man glasses under his seat, then bumps his chin trying to retrieve them. You’d think he was dying, the way he bawls. The littlest bit of a headache is throbbing at the base of my skull, and it feels like the kid is back there kicking it.
“What’s wrong?” Lupe asks Jesse, even though she saw what happened.
He cries even harder, snot and tears making a shiny slime on his face.
She grabs his arm, yanks him up onto his seat, and takes a quick look at his chin. “Stop showing off,” she says. “You keep it up, and I’m not buying you a present with this money. I’ll spend it all on myself.”
The sobs subside into sniffs and whimpers.
“He’s just tired,” Lupe says to me.
“Should we go?” I ask, hoping she’ll say yes.
“No, no, he’ll get a second wind,” she says. She starts to tell me another work story, something about a man crying while getting a molar pulled, but I’m barely listening. I’m too busy slapping myself for not being able to hold back any money for this race, the one where I actually have a decent tip. Seems like I can’t make the right move even with someone holding my hand.
“Hey,” Lupe says, distracted by something on her program. “Did you see? The Tooth Fairy. I have to bet on him.”
Seventy-to-one. What is this? One lucky pick and now she thinks she’s magic? I could use that as my excuse for what’s about to happen — claim she’s gotten too full of herself, showed her ugly side — but that would be unfair. She’s just a girl who hit a winner and likes how it felt. I’m the one who’s rotten through and through.
I step up to the window at two minutes to post. The clerk has a thin gray mustache and a mop of curly gray hair that might be a wig. A big ring shines on his pinky, and a diamond stud glints in his ear. With his black vest and white shirt, he puts me in mind of a riverboat card shark.
He runs Lupe’s ticket through his machine. The payout is $108.80. I have him apply two dollars of that to a win bet on The Tooth Fairy.
“That it?” he asks. “How do you want the rest? Twenties OK?”
The horses have reached the gate. Mine will be the clerk’s last wager for this race. I’ve waited until now so that whatever decision I make will be final, because the move I’m thinking of making, you could second-guess forever. It’s going to haunt me whichever way it goes. It’s going to change the things I say to myself when I can’t sleep.
“Sir?” the clerk says.
I barely get the words out: “Give me a hundred to win on five.”
The clerk repeats the bet as he types it in, then hands me $6.80 in change and closes his window. We’re gambling now, friends. I spin the cylinder and press the revolver to my temple. It’s all up to Rocket Man. If he wins, Lupe will never know I borrowed from her. If he loses — he can’t lose. I don’t even want to put that out there.
I feel like my skin is two sizes too small, like I’m going to rip if I move too fast. I make my way gingerly to the nearest bar, spend Lupe’s change on vodka. The race starts as I raise the plastic cup to my lips.
The announcer’s voice bounces wildly in the cavern beneath the grandstand. “Rocket Man,” I hear, but that’s all I can make out. I move closer to a blurry monitor and crane my neck with the other men standing there. Rocket Man is in front, he’s in front, and then he’s not. The favorite has finally come in, and Rocket Man is a distant third.
Pow! My brains are all over the table. I finish the vodka and hurry to the exit leading to the parking lot. Lupe, Lupe, Lupe. Forgive me, chica. You deserve so much better. And, really, what chance did we have? You’ve got Jesse, a job, a place in this world, and I’m still walking a tightrope, and every time I fall, it’s a mess. I hope that you forget me soon, and that I’m able to forget you.
I get all the way to the gate before my conscience catches up to me and takes me by the throat. Betting Lupe’s money was my mistake. All she did was walk in on a crime in progress, and what kind of dog would I be if I stranded her here because of that? I’ll lie to a liar, cheat a cheater, and rob a thief blind, but that’s that world, and this is this one. I’m going to do what I have to, pay her back double in a week, set things right, and then crawl away on my belly. She’ll never see me again.
I turn and head back to the grandstand, even though most of me wants to run the other way.
The first person I see when I get inside is Paul. He’s hiding in a corner, watching two drunks wave wads of money in each other’s faces. That gun has obviously given him big ideas, and suddenly I get an idea of my own.
I sneak up behind him and bark, “Hands up!”
He whips around, frightened.
“Better watch out,” he says when he sees that it’s me, then pats the bulge under his shirt. I knew that was where his mind was, where it’s been all day.
“Loan me twenty dollars,” I say.
“Go fuck yourself,” he replies.
“Security!” I yell, not quite loud enough to be heard over the din but loud enough to spook Paul.
“What the hell?” he whispers.
“Give me a twenty,” I say.
He hesitates, licking his lips while trying to decide if I’m bluffing. His hand is shaking when he finally passes me the money. He’s angry, humiliated.
“I’ll pay you back,” I say.
“I’ll pay you back,” he says.
It could very well end that way. I firmly believe that the evil you do will catch up to you. Right now, though, I’ve got a straw to clutch at. I hurry to the betting windows, stopping only long enough to consult a tote for the current odds.
My Hail Mary is this: I take the twenty from Paul and put it with the four dollars I have left in my pocket and box four horses — the two, four, five, and seven — in a superfecta. If these horses come in first through fourth in any order in the next race, I’ll win somewhere around a thousand bucks. It’s like throwing your last dollar into a slot machine — a sucker’s play — but it’s the only chance I’ve got.
My phone rings. It’s Lupe.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Down here. I ran into a couple buddies. I’ll be up soon.”
“But we’re all alone.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “A few more minutes.”
“You better have my money,” she snaps, then ends the call. My God, how many times has this girl been fucked over? I decide to hole up in the bathroom in case she comes looking for me. I find an empty stall and lock myself inside. At first I stand, facing the door, but that’s too weird, so I cover the seat with toilet paper and sit down. My day began in jail, and now I’m trapped in a racetrack shitter. Somebody’s made some bad choices. Again.
Talk to a shrink or a counselor or the folks at Gamblers Anonymous, and they’ll give you all kinds of explanations for why you do it. They’ll tell you that it’s chemical, that you have a death wish, that you secretly want to lose in order to be punished for the sins of your past, that you’re trying to return to a childlike state where miracles still happen.
It’s a lot simpler for me: I gamble because I want to win. I like to win. It makes me feel good. And you need something to make you feel good after ten hours of loading trucks for some prick who thinks you’re dirt; after sitting across the desk from a parole officer who’s waiting for you to fail; after listening to your mom put you down again, just like she has your whole life. When I take a dude for twenty bucks on a pool table or pick up a few pots in a card game, something opens up inside me, and I’m as good as everyone else thinks they are — no, better. For an hour or a day, however long my streak lasts, every move I make is the right one, and my smile can bring the world to its knees. The only problem is, it can’t last forever. You have to lose eventually so that someone else can win. Bitch and moan all you want, but that’s the first, and worst, rule of the universe.
It stinks in the stall. I hold my nose, breathe through my mouth. Lupe calls again, and I let it go to voice mail. A text comes in a few seconds later: Where the f r u?
I’m going to lay off the ponies after this, stick to what I know best, eight ball and Hold ’Em. I’m going to get serious about getting serious: practice more, enter some tournaments, start acting like the pro I want to be. The jail thing was a stumble, not a fall. I’m still standing, still in it, still the only one who can bring me down.
The announcer’s voice comes crackling over the PA. The race has started. I unlock the stall and run out to watch it on the nearest screen. The shouts of spectators fill the cavern beneath the grandstand so that I can’t hear the call, but three of my picks look to be in position coming out of the backstretch, and the final one is moving up.
My heart is pounding, and I set off at a run for the finish line. Skirting the crowds gathered under the monitors, I burst into the sunshine and fresh air and push my way to the front, where everybody is yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” as the horses cross the line, my horses: seven, two, five, four. I pump my fist once, just once, and those aren’t tears you see, you fucker. Those aren’t tears.
I wave Lupe’s money over my head as I approach her and Jesse in the stands. “Hey, hey, hey,” I say, grinning and doing a little dance. Lupe isn’t having any of it. Her eyes are icy cold. She snatches her winnings out of my hand and tells Jesse to get up. He looks like he’s been crying the whole time I’ve been gone.
“Take us home,” Lupe says.
“Whoa, now,” I say. “At least give me a chance to explain.” Old friends, I tell her, guys from way back. One of them had gotten married; another’s mom had died. I tried to get away, but you know how it is. Sometimes you have to hear a buddy out.
Lupe scoffs at me. “I don’t care if it was your long-lost brother and sister,” she says. “Nobody treats me like that.”
“I’m not treating you like anything,” I say.
“Yes, you are. You’re treating me like a dumb bitch.”
“Mom!” the kid wails, upset by the swearing.
“I’m sorry, mijo,” Lupe says. “I’m mad, is all.”
I thought she’d be happy to see me and her money, that the thrill of winning would do for her what it does for me: wipe away all the trouble it took to get there.
“Come on,” I say. “I hit it big, and I want you guys to celebrate with me.”
“Celebrate with yourself,” she says.
It’s a long, silent ride back to the valley. Jesse falls asleep in the back seat, and Lupe is busy texting, her hair hiding her face. I think about how excited I was this morning, looking forward to our date, and I wonder if there was ever any way it could have been what I wanted it to be.
By the time we get to the condo, the sun is sinking fast, dragging the day down with it. I say something that I hope will turn Lupe around and make her see the good in me, something that starts with “Please” and that I’d be ashamed for anybody else to hear, but she won’t listen, won’t even let me help her unload Jesse. I watch in the rearview mirror as she unbuckles the seat belt, slings the sleeping kid over her shoulder, and carries him to the lobby without looking back. The security guard opens the door for her, and I think, So, that race is run.
The streetlights come on as I’m driving to a bar with a hot backroom poker game. This normally gets my blood pumping, because I’m the kind of guy who does better at night than during the day. Night’s when my people are out and about. Night’s when the rules change in my favor. Right now, though, I just feel sick. Sick of the hustle and the juke and the mask. She jinxed me, that girl. I’ve got a pocketful of cash and luck running in my favor, and all I can think about is what I’ve lost. And if you sit down to play carrying that load, buddy, you’re dead from the shuffle and cut.