You are only starting on your path to success. –Chinese Fortune Cookie
“You playing that race?”
“Jack asked because Jarvis’s eyes were fixed on the screen showing races from the Charlestown Track.
“Yeah. I have better luck with races under five furlongs. Less room for error.”
Jack smiled. He was on his third beer. He came in everyday at three when Happy Hour started, drank four beers, and then went home. He worked all over the valley as an industrial painter; but somehow, Jack managed to hardly ever bee late for his stool at the bar.
“Nah,” Jarvis answered. “But it’s important to be optimistic.”
That made Jack chuckle. He sipped at his beer. When Jarvis first met him, he thought the old guy was retired. He certainly looked to Jarvis like somebody who ought to BE retired; Jack reminded him a little of those broken up old men he worked with at a warehouse gig in Lexington. It had been so goddamn depressing, going into work everyday and seeing a bunch of worn out grandfathers shuffling through the day just to be able to earn Social Security. That was why they did it; he’d asked one of them over lunch break. The one he asked (he didn’t remember the guy’s name) had one of those faces – all wrinkles and bags of skin, sunken red eyes. It was impossible to see anything in the old guy but a broken piece of machinery. He never talked about a family, never talked about what he did in his spare time. He worked. He went home. He got older and older, waiting to be told he put in enough time to earn the pittance that was Social Security and wearing himself into dirt. Talking to the old guy made him wonder if that was what would happen to him someday. If he’d be one more piece of manufacturing machinery just waiting to break down. Jarvis quit the warehouse that day and never went back.
Jack was different too, though. He didn’t look broken down or tired. He just came in for his few beers and then went home to his wife. He talked about his kids, his grandkids. He was vital. He was alive. The work wasn’t a weight; on the contrary, it seemed to help keep him going. It made Jarvis think of his grandfather the carpenter who worked right up until he died of lung cancer. There were people who worked their entire lives and it never seemed to bother them. Jack was one of them. His face was a road map to some unknown country. His hair, still thick, was bushy and white and stuck out from under his ball cap. When he walked into the bar, his steps were solid and deliberate. His feet weren’t weighed down with worry about where the next step would lead him.
“Which horse?” Jack asked.
“What are the odds?”
“12 to 1.”
Jack looked up at the TV, but only casually. He didn’t gamble. Jarvis didn’t think he ever heard the old guy spit out a curse word.
“Does he look good?”
“Sure,” Jarvis answered. “But if I don’t win this one, I’m done.”
Jack chuckled under his white mustache.
“What about you?” Jarvis asked.
Jack answered by shaking his head. “Nah. Not me.”
“Probably smart. Save your money.”
A couple of the older guys at the bar chuckled. The professional gambles were all there; they’d sit at the bar, order well drinks like rum and coke or gin and tonic, buy the race program, and spend a large part of the day placing bets. Jarvis bought a program once, but it didn’t help him; it was more complicated than the financial pages in the newspaper. Jarvis watched them gamble sometimes and listened for tips. They considered all the crucial angles. The rider. The owner. The trainer. Track conditions and the weather. The genealogy of the horse. The length of the tale. The color of the coat. The size of the horse’s ass or whether it was a tall or short horse. Some wouldn’t bet unless they saw the horse first. Some didn’t want to see them until they came out of the gate. The daily players mentioned all the riders by name and talked as if they knew each on personally.
Jarvis understood how important the rider was. And he understood the other factors played some role in which one crossed the finish line first. But it was too much to keep up with. There were different categories of people who played the horses. Most fall into the occasional category. They’ll play, lose, and then probably not play again unless they happen to be somewhere and they’re in a good mood. Sometimes, though, the occasional bettor ends up winning; and if THAT happens, they become mood or situational players. That kind watch, and if a horse strikes their fancy, they’ll lay a bet – usually something simple, like a $2 show or maybe even an across the board. Nothing that requires too much thinking or number juggling. Moving beyond this category wasn’t really a question or wining or losing; it had more to do with temperament. Gambling took a lot of patience or a lot of desperation, or both. Most of the time, the nag in question didn’t come in. Even if all the elementals looked good and the planets were aligned – the whole system was set up for people to lose more over time than they would ever win, even on a good day.
He considered himself a situational player. He’d sit through the races until he saw a horse he liked, or he’d go to the bar and lay some bets just to pass time. He’d managed to win a few times – but never more than ten bucks and never enough to cover what he’d already put in. But there was something about the ritual of it all that he enjoyed.
On the current race, for example, Jarvis walked in and the next race was ten minutes away. The five was running at 12 to 1. Two minus one, you get one. 12 minus five, you get seven, which was only divisible by one. The pony in question was a beautiful dark brown – so dark it could’ve passed for black. It looked like the kind of horse you’d expect to see thundering out of the sky in some movie about Armageddon, all full of fury. He even liked the name: Twoforthemoney.
I probably shouldn’t be playing at all. Jarvis was starting to run low on money and so it probably wasn’t wise, even though it was only a six dollar bet. But he also figured he nothing to lose, either. And he still had his two grand in relief money – if he got to the point that he absolutely HAD to use it. He didn’t want to use it. He didn’t feel like somebody who needed to be on relief. Sure, he’d been pushed out of New Orleans by the worst natural disaster to hit North America in fifty years – but he hadn’t really lost anything. There were people who lost a whole lot more and who, he thought, deserved it more.
He shook his head and wondered for a second how his dad had felt about horse racing. Except for the occasional lottery ticket, he never saw his parents gamble. On anything. On the contrary, they were, if anything, especially cautious people. Vice free people. No booze in the house growing up. Neither of them smoked. No drugs except for all the prescriptions his dad took towards the end of his life – all the multi-colored pills with specific functions that meant nothing in the end. High blood pressure. Depression. Arthritis. Bronchitis. Antibiotics. Vitamins.
The sound of the horses leaving gate shook Jarvis from his thoughts. The five pulled ahead early; that could be a good thing, since it was a short race. But there was another horse – the six – a cool speckled gray – that was keeping pace. “Fury is stronger than Death.” he muttered to himself, thinking for no particular reason of a sci-fi fantasy book he’d read as a kid called He Rides a Pale Horse.
“Looks like you’re going to win,” Jack said.
“Let’s hope so.”
Jack smiled. “Why? You need the money?”
“No. Just the luck.”
Good point. Jarvis turned his attention back to the screen. Twoforthemoney came in first. Once the results were official, Jarvis would be able to collect his winnings.
Jack finished up his last beer. Looking around, Jarvis saw by the looks on everyone’s faces that his horse was the only one that came in.
“Maybe you’re on a lucky streak,” Jack said, standing up. “You gonna take advantage of it?”
Jarvis shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe. Can’t trust luck to last too long.”
“True enough. Take care.”
“See you, Jack.”
His six dollar bet got him $31.10. He tipped $1.10 to the guy working the window and went back to the bar. The evening crowd was starting to wander in. They were more talkative – the social drinkers who didn’t really play the horses. They came into watch sports, eat chicken wings, and complain about their bosses. There was probably a baseball game on; and even though the Diamondbacks had no chance in hell of making it to the post season, people came and watched anyway. Baseball fans were like that. The real ones, anyway. As much as he didn’t like Phoenix, there was something comforting about baseball fans. They were as nuts there as they were anywhere else. Jarvis ordered another beer and looked back up at the races. He saw a horse he liked. He considered his luck and decided to go ahead and make a small bet. When he got back from the window, the odds jumped up, and then down. That always made him a little nervous; made him feel like the powers-that-be were just fucking around with him for sick entertainment. Isn’t there enough risk in gambling, he thought, without the odds jumping up and down?
Maybe dad never went to the track because the odds are kind of like the weather. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it’s windy. Sometimes the rain took out an entire city.
When the race started, it looked like his horse was a bad pick. But just as he was about to give up hope, the horse rounded the bend. Then he broke free from the pack and took a substantial lead. The favorite was falling back and the other horses were struggling to keep up. The horse crossed the finish line. Another first place finish. When Jarvis collected his winning, he noticed that the odds had jumped high in his favor before the race. He had turned his initial six dollar bet into $200. Not a bad day.