The pawn shop clerk offers me $25 for my son’s gaming system. I’ve never been much of a negotiator or much of anything that requires verbalization. I accept the deal knowing he’s judging me, mocking me internally. No matter, pride is just a word, a notion that falters at the altar of desperation.
My newfound wealth knows the route to Columbus Raceway, I'm there in fifteen minutes. I’m home. Same table, same cigarettes, same hope percolating. A chestnut thoroughbred, a longshot named Alamo Joe, has the right odds for a big payoff and he's a natural frontrunner on a sloppy track. If only he can outrun his breeding, the genetics of his underwhelming sire. But he stumbles out of the gate and never recovers, finishing eighteen lengths behind the heavily-bet chalk, a regal stallion called Mi Cielo. My betting slip floats to the carpet like a degenerate feather. I’m bathed in blue-collar, euphoric noise. Gamblers are silent, tungsten husks unless they win, then they must scream their handicapping prowess to the masses. I bolt, my entire existence dissolving.
The mexican store on Barrett Avenue offers fifty cents on the dollar for your food stamp card, a fair offer for the morally bankrupt. The lady behind the counter has eyes like mahogany snow globes and straight hair as black as a pressed cup of café noir. I want to ask her if she can fold me up and place me in her purse next to the tissues and wintergreen breath mints. Take me with you, mi cielo.
At the track, it’s the same tired song. Three races and twelve Camels later, I’m busted. A photo finish. A head bob. Laser Boy couldn’t stick his neck in front at the wire. He lacked fortitude and grit. Perseverance. Thoughts of buying the ex a sparkling gift have evaporated.
The plasma center is teeming with poverty, addiction and lowered heads. We are not here to help our fellow man. We are here for the $30 they pay to drain us of some vital substance we know nothing about. I clench and unclench my fist like a pugilistic tweaker during the procedure then collect my bounty.
The jockey falls off. It's beyond laughable but expected. Silver Bird was cruising toward victory, a lost cause with the heart of an icebreaker cutting a groove in the dirt; equine smoke devouring the colorful silks of his rivals. Until Miguel Blanco bounced off of the horse as if he were a bag of mulch. I drove away, my eyes fixed on the gas needle the entire way home.
I add a squeeze of maple syrup to my coffee and call my boy, tell him I can't see him this weekend. A bout of the flu. He says he understands, tells me we can hunt velociraptors in the basement jungle next time. He still believes.
On the porch, I watch Lance mow his lawn. We used to work together at the steel plant. His wife and daughter volunteer at the local food pantry. I owe him $500 but he doesn’t badger me for it: Anything for a friend in need. I want to ask him to baptize me in his sea of goodness. Make me whole again. Let me borrow some sugar until the first of the month.
In the basement of a stone church, they pass around a copper bowl. Seems odd to me to pressure gamblers to toss in a few dollars, since gamblers usually have selfish, decaying billfolds. I focus on the powdered donut in front of me, letting the donation bowl slide past like a melancholic beggar. Hi, I'm Josh, a gambling addict. They welcome me with pale arms and polyurethane smiles. They tell me I came to the right place, the right meeting. I absorb their tales of depravity, nodding along in the affirmative as tragedy upon tragedy is vomited from their minds. I choose not to speak, unwilling to reveal myself, unwilling to illuminate my frailty and nothingness. I consume weak coffee, gas station sweets, and paralyzing shame before taking off.
First of the month
Catalina smiles at me. My mouth doesn't curl upwards often, but her flash of white is like a radiant screwdriver loosening my fortified, red armor. I return her volley with a slippery grin. Make me feel again, bonita. Por favor. She hands me the cash and I drift out of her atmosphere and head off to chase the dime. I'm feeling lucky. Today will be my redemption, my ascension from a pauper's stool to the throne of vindication. In the sport of kings, we all seek the crisp, green crown and an escape from everything and everyone. We are drifters and malcontents who still believe in fairy tales.
About the Author: Chris Milam lives in solitude in Hamilton, Ohio. He's a voracious reader, baseball junkie, and a consumer of too-sweet coffee. His stories have appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Maudlin House, Firewords Quarterly, Dogzplot and elsewhere. Find him @Blukris.
Story Song: "Sour and Vicious Man" by Compulsive Gamblers
Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith