David Fisher chose the longest route to the church. He walked along the backstreets and one-ways above the Rosehill canal.
He entered the church through a side door, descended a dark stairway into the dank basement and took the aisle seat in the back row. The whirring noise of the ceiling fan throwing shadow shots across the faces of twelve or so repentants sounded like a hungry cheering crowd. A skinny nervous kid, twenty something at most, was standing.
“My name is Rick, and I'm a compulsive gambler.”
“Hi, Rick,” replied the dirty dozen.
“I got fired again and I had to, you know, move back in with my parents, and my mom's pissed royal 'cause last time, you know, to get a bet in, I had to steal the diamonds and stuff out of her rings and stuff and replace them with phony... you know, fake...”
It'll be a cold day in hell before I tell them anything, thought Fisher clenching a copy of the Daily Racing Form . If you couldn't take the consequences, don't bet. Don't go around crying, giving the game a bad name. You do that, then you allow people to put a box around you, to label you. No way, he thought, he wasn't telling them a thing. What, that he'd been a good student, but cheated his ass off anytime it was necessary? How he got caught in eighth grade by Mr. Spengler, who told him a thing like that would go down on his record and follow him around like a disease, how he would never get into college. How he stayed up at night thinking of ways to kill Spengler; put a can of Right Guard in the gas tank of his teacher's car, and watch him start the engine and explode into pieces. Be a fitting end. Spengler had B.O. that would drop a moose. Forget it, thought Fisher. I'm not telling them a thing.
“Ehn?” Fisher looked up and saw the long auburn hair that fell across the woman's shoulders. His fist opened and he dropped the racing form to the floor.
“Oh!” Realizing she needed for him to turn his legs so she could get by, Fisher stood up. She was small, pretty, and smelled like fresh flowers as she brushed past him. When she sat down, Fisher noticed her breasts move beneath her shirt. She caught him looking, and held his eyes almost saying “something you want to do about it?”
Fisher flashed back to Spengler time, a girl with hair like hers behind the backstop in the woods, the wind lifting her skirt in the air, his hand working under her shirt. “Trust me. Do you trust me?"
Fisher was in full flight up the stairs from the station at Windward Race Track. The station was only two stops from the church but the train had been delayed, and now every second lost needed to be regained double time.
He could hear the bugle playing “first call”. How many minutes until post? Not enough unless these fucking people cleared out of his fucking way. He hated being late, he hated not building in the time to account for chaos rearing its snake's head and wrapping itself around his attempts to beat precision into an imprecise world.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.” Sweat collected in his armpits and crotch as he pushed past people, cutting in and out between them like a scatback. That kick-returner, tiny waterbug, zip-zoot-zip, number what? One? Kansas City? Noland? No time to dig into that memory bank, the number now was three. “King's Chaos” He had three hundred dollars in his sweaty pocket. He could see the board. The horse was going off at eight-to-one, the third choice behind “Sweet Cat” and “Brother Red”. He hurdled over a man bending to tie his shoe. Edwin Moses. That one came up easy, no points. But the kick-returner...? Never mind. He saw a mutual window with a short line. Window number three. Two people, Fisher would be three. Three minutes to post. Stars were aligning. Gonna be fine.
A woman, first in line, had placed her bet. She tried to cross, accidentally bumping Fisher. “Excuse me.” She looked up. A moment of recognition. Well what do you know? Sister rat. The woman with the beautiful hair smelling of flowers from the G.A. meeting.
But before Fisher could open his mouth, she was gone, disappearing into the crowd. No time for that anyway, only one bettor left between Fisher and his sure thing. Big guy. Pants stretched across his wide ass two stitches from splitting. C'mon, Tiny, make your bet and get the fuck out. But now the snake was back. Large butt was betting in slow world.
“Ten dollar exacta, number three and number one. Ten dollar exacta, number two and number four. Ten dollar exacta, uh, ten dollar exacta, number two and number three. Uh, uh, ten dollar exacta, number five and number four...”
“One minute to post” boomed over the P.A.
Fisher felt his body clenching, his toes, stomach, ass, fists, neck...he felt his brain in a vice. “Today. Let's move it for Christ's sake.” Large butt turned, looked at Fisher as if he were a child, then went back to his time- sucking play.
“Ten dollar exacta, number six and number five, ten dollar exacta, number two and number six. Ten dollar exacta, number two and number five, and ten dollar exacta number three and number five.”
“Eighty dollars,” said the cashier.
With exaggerated deliberation, the man counted off five tens and six fives. The same moment the fatso finished and Fisher shoved past, the bell rang. The track announcer called “And they're off!” .
“Number three, three hundred, to win,” said Fisher.
“I'm sorry,” said the cashier. “They're off.
“But it... two seconds. Please.”
“I'm sorry. Those are the rules. No bets after the bell.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
Fisher kicked the nearest metal pole.
If it hurt, he didn't feel it. If he were Sampson, he would pull it right out of the ground. He would tear this temple down. And then the large man was in his grill.
His cheeks were chunky, Orson Wells in “A Touch of Evil”
“You got a problem, buddy?”
“Yeah, I got a problem, buddy. Didn't get my bet in.”
A smile of satisfaction spread across the man's face, a fat grinning jack-o-lantern with breath perfumed by semi-digested sausage and onions. “Life is tough.”
“Tell me about it. Jerks like you making their kindergarten bets.”
A small crowd had gathered, rubber-neckers sensing a fight, hoping for a free show, even as the race played on the monitors above their heads.
“Got a right to bet anyway I want.”
“Fine. Do it early. Don't wait until two minutes to post to bet every horse in the race. Every horse in the fucking race. You up all night figuring out that one, Einstein?”
The giant pumpkin head grinned again, coming in close enough to eclipse Fisher's entire view. “Tough shit, asshole.” And with a Gleason-like side step, he danced away.
“Come back here, you lousy fuck! I'll fuck you all over the track you piece of shit!” But it was too late. There would be no fight. The disappointed crowd collectively mumbled and turned its attention back to the track. “Every horse in the race. Brilliant.” Fisher looked at the monitor and picked up the call from the announcer.
“Sweet Cat, followed by Lady In Charge. Brother Red on the outside.” The monitor showed the horses racing into the clubhouse turn. A roar rose from the crowd.
“Please don't win,” Fisher prayed.
“Sweet Cat, Brother Red, King's Chaos on the outside.”
“Here he comes.”
The pack beneath the monitor was yelling, calling for their various charges, shouting “One time”, “Do it”, “Come on Cat, come on...” But Fisher was out, no stake in it at all except to root against the hope he'd carried all week. For days he'd ridden this hope, this masterful pick, this horse he'd seen coming, the horse that was going to end this holy mother of a month's losing streak. He was going to pay off his electric bill, get his car back out of hock, better still, roll the winnings into a spectacular day at the track. He'd done it before. One bet, one coolly chosen winner and suddenly the game was easy. Two, three winners, in a row. Cash to play with, hedge bets to lay on favorites while he took a flier on a long shot. But now his only hope was that he'd been dead wrong. Be wrong. Be wrong, baby. He was rooting against his horse, rooting against being right. The one salvage left was to be wrong as wrong could be. But the track announcer's call told otherwise.
“King's Chaos to the lead. Now by two lengths. King's Chaos pulling away. Four back to Brother Red. Sweet Cat holding third. And it's King's Chaos going away!” Sure. Sure. Fisher stared down at the ground at a crumpled handicap sheet guaranteeing 75 per-cent winners. A drunk weaved past him calling to unseen angels “Number three. Number three.” Fisher didn't even want to look at the results. But he did. King's Chaos paid $18.75 to win on a two dollar bet. Fisher's three-hundred would've made him over twenty-eight hundred dollars. Nah, that didn't hurt at all. Let him find a pencil and shove it right between his eyes.
Was it luck, serendipity, or the subtle slide down into hell's gate that found Fisher watching his tormentor walking through the twilight towards his car? He hadn't tracked him, he knew that. He'd been wandering around, not lost, never lost on such familiar turf. He'd been coming to Windward since he was a kid. His father used to lie to his mother and bring him here instead of the beach. They'd spend the afternoon sitting in the grandstand, their faces reddening in the sun, his dad letting him sneak a sip of beer from his cup. But now he was just waiting on a man. And, at the far end of the lot, there he was. Whistling. A two-hundred and sixty pound song bird twittering Janis Joplin's “Take another piece of my heart.” Fisher stepped up beside him.
The large man turned, surprised for only a second before he realized. “Oh,” he said with a smile, “Mr. Johnny-Bet-Lately.”
Fisher swung from his hips with both hands cupped. He caught the man dead center on the jaw, lifting him up off his feet before he tumbled to the pavement.
That wasn't enough, not nearly. Fisher reared back and kicked him in the side, kicked him so hard bile shot out of the man's mouth.
Fisher kicked him again and the man curled into a large whimpering ball. Fisher was breathing in and out like a bellows. He kicked the tub once more for luck before opening his hands, revealing the beer can he'd clocked him with.
He opened the beer can and emptied it on the man's bleeding face.
“Tough shit, asshole.” Fisher walked away into the gloaming, never aware for a second that he was being watched.
Riding the train back to Rosehill, his left hand throbbing in pain, Fisher stared out at the half-torn bunting snapping in the wind over a used car lot celebrating its weekly sales. Sitting across from Fisher an old bald man was circling his tongue in the mouth of a teen-age girl.
A blind man worked the car with his cup out.
“Spare change? Spare change?” The blind man seem to stare at Fisher before moving on.
Alone in his basement studio apartment, Fisher soaked his aching left hand in a bucket of ice. The room was candlelit, the power had been turned off weeks ago. Not a problem. He did little more than sleep here. The white noise hummed from a cheap battery powered fan. He pulled his hand from the bucket and looked at it. It'll be a cold day in hell before I tell them anything, he thought. I'm not telling them a thing.