The Rush of Losing

by Daniel Larkins

Featured image: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. At the Moulin Rouge, 1892–1895. The Art Institute of Chicago.

10. The race is over before it ends.

7. Tim leans forward. His blue dress shirt is untucked, unbuttoned, and his stomach shoves the undershirt out of his pants. When he loses it’s like a win, because when he wins he doesn’t want to keep on betting. Losing answers the question, Why continue? When he loses, he likes to think he can parlay that into a victory, persevere to make up for the loss.

All the TVs are muted. In his shoes he can feel the rumble of Holland Tunnel traffic from a couple blocks away. His twin boys are twelve and his fingertips are black. His nails are short and dull. His wife Meg used to have monthly manicures and the designer kitchen she wanted, but no more would she get a stupid room for hanging pots and pans and whatever else she liked to hang from racks and nails.

Tim leans forward. He has a hangnail, and it bleeds and stings, and his left hand balls into a fist on his thigh and his other wraps around a rolled-up Racing Form. It’s a tool, a bat, a weapon.

6. The wait service ain’t bad, Tim thinks, and sits back down. An ugly named Dolly on the ready for refills. He asks her, When’s the OTB close? Little over a half hour. Midnight, hon. Tim’s fourth coffee burns his stomach and paints his eyes red. Ten TVs line the high parts of the wall, and a drop of blood smudges brightly near the crook of his elbow. The cashier’s gray head looks like Tim’s childhood Hell’s Kitchen. Ninth Avenue and newspapers. He doesn’t want the waitress to take his card, he wants to place the bet with the cashier himself.

He drops fifty on Juvenile Piñata without bothering to study the Form. She didn’t have a chance to win, hadn’t even placed all year. Now Tim has a reason to continue. When he stands to make a bet, his shoe sticks a little, and he remembers how walking into Derosa’s office he felt gum on his shoe. The least of his problems, but he couldn’t move. He didn’t want to move.

He looks down at his new shoes. He’s been holding out on throwing away the old ones because they cost a whole damn lot, and now these new black ones would for at least a week have a sticky sound every step he took, and when he took the gum off with a razor he’d cut himself or have to touch the chewing gum some stranger had all in his spitty fucking mouth.

In the office Meg fought with their boys. You better clean your room, she told them. It is clean. No it’s not, I saw it this morning. We cleaned it after you saw it, Mom. Don’t make me check when we get home. Why do we always have to clean it before the cleaning lady comes, it’s her job isn’t it? Cleaning lady? Tim screamed. Still? You don’t work and you have a cleaning lady and you wonder what we’re doing at the accountant’s?

5. Through the bars Tim sees pumpkins on the cashier lady’s white sweater. They remind him what season it is. Her warm vest: the weather. There’s warmth in her. Women, he thinks.

With his back to the cage, Tim can hear the counting of money. He blows cigarette smoke at the wall, picks a shred of tobacco off his tongue, rips a few hairs off his arm. What am I forgetting? he’s been wondering. A thought, an idea, a responsibility; something is eating at him. This drops from his mind as he glares at the gate where the 8-to-5 odds pony stumbles, and Voltaire’s Dolly is in fourth now, picking up, on the straight, picking up, head to head for a second, pulls ahead, keeps moving, keeps pushing, the jockey is cracking the whip, the mare’s ass is on fire, and when thoroughbred number five Voltaire’s Dolly does it for Tim he lets the hairs sprinkle out of his fingertips and brings his ticket to the cage.

The win’s no good, though. Tim doesn’t want to win. Winning means stopping, and he doesn’t want to. Video replay. His face points up at the TV, and he looks as if a drill bore two holes above his mouth and called it a nose, a nose with which he can smell the animals on the screen. Hot green and  pink colors adorn the silk flags and rub Tim’s nose. The indelible numbers are written on his eyes. Brown mares thoroughbreds mindless mindless mindless around and around the track.

A winner, though. A winner a victor a race. Tim could sit there forever, VIP. How could he stop now?

4. The five won’t do it, odds say nope nah-ah never no chance, 22-to-1 is a blind man’s chance. Voltaire’s Dolly, the number five horse, ran bad on the fast track last time. A sloppy mare. Father had a stomach ulcer, dropped dead at Churchill Downs.

The rush is in Tim’s wrists and his chest. He feels cold and hot and itchy. He can parlay his loss into something greater, turn it around, make it worse, parlay up or go down. Without losing, everything’s a win. Dig deeper, he thinks.

1. With 22-to-1 odds, Tim puts down one hundred on Voltaire’s Dolly to win, a $2,200 payoff. VIP club is five bucks, includes wait service and none of the downstairs riff- raff. Just five bucks. Tim exercises his option here, opts for the VIP access. At a table with a blue tablecloth, he packs his Camels like the smokes have two- timed him, done him wrong. He lights one up. Tim wears his good suit. Navy blue, pinstripes. Pants don’t exactly match, Meg happily or unhappily pointed out. He scratches at the two-inch gap between his shirt collar and suit jacket. He feels he’s the only individual, rather the only bettor, in the OTB, and he’s right. He gets a Chock Full O’ Nuts and the Daily Racing Form. Four bucks. Nine bucks altogether, and the “heavenly” coffee tastes like burnt nothing, chock full of . . .

The cops must be here, Tim figures. But the cops ain’t here, are they? Varick Street’s alive, though.

2. Tim’s hair looks like the wind got the best of him. What’s it say, what’s it say in the Form? What’s she telling Tim tonight, who won’t win? He scans the numbers. All the words imply numbers, even the word No.

The office of Christopher Derosa, CPA, was by Tim’s office by the airport. They heard the same planes, saw the same planes overhead. Same town PO box. Derosa told Tim and his family they should declare Chapter Seven.

3. 10:55 p.m. Are they changing shifts?, Tim wonders, seeing his waitress count her tips, take her bag, and go. A new waitress emerges from the back. Her face is a fat frown.

Meg should be a waitress, Tim thinks. Not here, though. Yeah here, why not, actually? Someplace.

They were going to mount it on the wall. That didn’t work out. They were going to get to use Tivo. Nope. The new LCD TV cost nearly a thousand bucks and was supposed to have Picture in Picture. While Tim set the 42-incher up, he figured he’d announce the name of the day—it’s Sunday, you know—and Meg should gather what that meant. Of course I need the big picture—how do you expect one hundred yards to fit in the little square in the corner? We can do half-half, she said. What, half-half? Half my screen the playoffs, the other half Diamonique, one-time special price of the day? No, I don’t think so. You’re unbelievable.

Yada yada bullshit is what Tim remembers, and when he set it up, the Picture in Picture was just a black square in the corner of the screen. It didn’t even work.

8. The new waitress brings him a race card and another cup of coffee. Text charts, horse charts, handicaps. Tim’s got the Form spread out on his table. This horse Gallant Sharon has run everything: fst, my, hd, and sly tracks in the past. She can do it. She can really finish for me.

Parent-teacher conference! Dammit, that’s what it was tonight. Perfect, Tim says to himself. He’s sure Meg hasn’t remembered, either.

One last time he scans the Form for last month’s stats: “15 Nov -8Lrl fst 7f 22 45 1:09 1:19. Gall Shar H-G2.” Tim stops reading, stands up and sits down, tries reaching in his pockets but can’t so stands up once more. He’s sweating. His hand is jittery. He needs ice water. Everything is shaking as he bites the hangnail on his pinky until it’s a crusty red-black gash.

9. She made him sell the stock in Apple Inc. That night they had the meanest sex they’d ever had. He squeezed her hips like he wanted to feel bones crush in his hands. He was trying to destroy her that night, one hundred sixty-two days before the introduction of the iPod—pay her back, teach her a lesson— but she just lay there and loved it, and the headboard would never sound the same afterwards.

Tim walks up to the cashier clutching the Form. Too much ice water, and now the need to urinate’s distracting him. It’s a few minutes before Gallant Sharon will run down in Kansas. The cashier’s hair is clipped and gray as a man’s hat in the rain. Tim puts down his account, clearing four grand for Gallant Sharon to show, come in at least third place; will lower the odds but still hit big. High chance, high odds he’s got, and the money leaves his hands like he expects his wife will soon. All the money in this gray lady’s box behind the cage, staring at Tim—he can smell it, old dough, threadbare cash; he can see it right there. He can reach it.

The race down in Kansas starts and his gaze stays glued to the money, then goes back to the gray head, to the money to the gray eyes and finally to the screen a few rows behind him. He squeezes the rolled-up Form, hearing money being counted. Past the halfway mark, Tim watches Gallant Sharon fall to seventh.

That’s who she looks like, he thinks, like the lady who sold candy on West 49th in the early 70s. A face he could remember. But the cashier isn’t her.

No chance, sixth seventh sixth seventh Gallant Sharon won’t make third, not even close. Four grand down the drain. Only chump change left. Grin and bear it. He looks around for somebody to make a joke to, but he’s the only one there. This story is not about Tim’s look, his appearance, nor about the senses, what they pick up isn’t what he’s feeling. Anguish, guilt despair loss, those are just letters, not even words; especially not feelings.

And when he looks at the cashier, suddenly he feels like he’s not wearing pants, like he forgot to button them up from when he was lying in bed early that morning, doing nothing but relaxing, and now his swelling stomach presses down on his crotch practically to the point of nakedness. His pants are on. They’re fine, he realizes. His pants are fine.

Tim rolls up the Form tight and thin as a pencil. He walks to the cashier; with his free hand, he takes out his wallet. You got five minutes, hon, another bet before close? No ma’am, Tim says, then stuffs the Form through the cage and into her eye. His arms dive through the cage, he tries to reach her but she falls back and bangs herself on the edge of a desk. He’s got the plastic cash register in his hand, piles of fifties and twenties and hundred dollar bills, and he tries to squeeze it through the bars but it won’t fit. He’s losing, right? He’s in the salt. Isn’t he satisfied? No, he doesn’t really like losing. He’s lost too much, has nothing left to lose.

As the alarm goes off, he kicks the white brick wall at his feet in frustration and keeps tugging at the register. The thing won’t fit through the cage. The cashier has run to the back office and put the phone to her gray head; half her face is pink and wet. Tim stuffs cash into his pockets, reaches across and grabs more handfuls of dough. She’s gushing tears and blood. He’s happy, he thinks, he’s got his losses back, but he reaches for more and the alarm is blaring now and the races on the TVs continue behind him and the gray lady is crying, holding her eye, and his pockets are full, he wants to shove some more into his pants but it’ll fall out, so he uses his coat pockets and some twenties spill on the floor.

Outside, Tim wonders what he looks like. He remembers driving on the highway with Meg one night when they saw a man sprinting down the street in oversized black sweats that seemed to be filled with hot objects. It was a black man, and Meg asked what should they do, should they call the cops?

Nobody seems to see him now, he thinks. Like nobody native sees the Empire State.

It’s eyeing him now, the answer he and Meg cheated with when they played Twenty Questions at parties.

They’d be a team, he said. Always pick the Empire State Building, always win.

His cold nose drips.

11. Tim doesn’t feel his face hit the sidewalk, he just sees it rush into him. A cop’s boot crunches his soft-box Camels. No idea what time it is, and when they wake him to tell him he has a visitor, he looks through the bars and gets called a fool and a pig. Did he really do it, she asks. I don’t believe you. When he sees she’s not armed with a bond to cover the bail, he imagines her mouth still moving. I can’t believe you, you never listen to me. No evidence to place it on me. I’m scot free. I knew I couldn’t count on you.

But all that’d be too film noir, he realizes. Too dreamy.

Something reaches out to him. When he sees his wife’s hand, he focuses on her fingers: sad, slender. A little hang-nail gnaws at him. He can’t say or think about anything else.

Daniel Larkins is a writer from New Jersey, currently working on a novel. His work has been in The Adirondack Review, New Politics, The Rumpus, Bodega, Bombay Gin, and other places.

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