And who calls now, knowing I sleep most normal sleeping hours? I have a few close friends who work graveyards at a collection agency. Most other nights, I would rather not discuss my financial obligations to their employer, but I have a feeling that I am compelled to share, so I decide to answer the phone this time.
"I hope things are coming along, Peter," says a delinquent-accounts representative with feigned concern.
I can paint a picture with his voice. Twenty something, fresh out of school, given a headset and the self-assuring confines of a cubicle where he can outgrow his other aspirations, he is hungry and maybe a little bitter at the world. We all must eat. Sometimes, we must chew on our own conceits.
"I will have the money by the end of the week. I feel sure of it this time."
I must confess - not that I will not have the money in a few days (that is yet to be determined, of course) - rather that my assurance to him is not the first of this sort. But how could I explain the strange new fancy that recently overtook me, that resolved my notion to go to Vegas, and that may or may not be provoking my bruxism?
I am a simple and practical man. God, such a controversial entity these days, was never a prominent factor in my life, but now I wonder about things like divine intervention. A sense of purpose was unveiled to me, a sure reason for living, though I cannot trace the source of my inspiration or say when exactly it came about. I do know that my financial predicament is burying me - the final shovel of dirt nears, and at last some conclusion is impending, while a magnetic force is pulling me toward this culmination in the desert.
As a boy, in the company of my father, but less so as an adult, I have witnessed innumerable thoroughbred races. Over time, some individuals exposed to and familiarized with all the intricacies of horseracing develop an ability to judge these marvelous creatures. I believe it is an aptitude much dependent upon being mathematical. Unfortunately, I am not endowed with any such ability, though I do believe a man named Lewis Smith is.
When in my childhood, my father took me along to the track, Lewis, a year younger than myself, was always present with his father. We lived in the same neighborhood, though I only remember Lewis from the track. Recalling him now, he seemed over-sensible then, not restless, imaginative, and sociable like the other kids.
Between each post on race day, there are minutes to be passed - approximately twenty tortuously boring minutes for a child. During these, I wandered away from my father and searched the tarmac and stands for other excitement. But Lewis, he kept watch of every horse before and after every post. He seemed to take the sport very seriously, more so than many of the adult horseplayers. And Lewis' father, though in my father's words only a "lucky bastard," always seemed to walk away smiling at the end of the day with Lewis, who was treated to a soda. In my case, I often heard tirades on racetrack corruption in the car the entire way home.
I met Lewis today for the first time in many years. I found him sitting in a Las Vegas sportsbook. A racing form, some other papers, a few betting tickets, an ashtray, and a coffee decorated the table in front of him. I was surprised that he recognized me before inviting me to sit down. We exchanged all the usual questions two guys from the old neighborhood usually do, and last, of course, asked each other, "What are you doing in Vegas?"
What am I doing in Vegas? I am being moved upon impulse, and I am surrendering myself to a greater force. Some call it degenerate gambling. I had no good reason to gamble where I was, though I did so excessively. So I came to Vegas for here that very thing is my prerogative. I have spent countless hours in front of the one-armed bandits not even aware of the very hours fleeting, and this trip may be the final nail in the coffin. I am about to hit rock bottom it seems - and I assure you there is such a place because calls invite me there in the night while I am busy grinding my teeth. I have at last squandered every cent of savings and resource I had from a lifetime of work, but for a few thousand dollars to risk while here.
Of course, I only told Lewis that it was a holiday and that I was not interested in gambling much, but was here instead for the shows. But all presumptions aside, I am really here because I must be, and Lewis was glad to discover my apparent disinterest in lady luck.
"I live in Vegas, well, most of the time," he said.
"Ah, then you're no gambler, either," I replied jokingly.
"Pete, Pete, Pete. I live off the horses, you know."
I laughed at the idea, then recalled the not-so-common childhood moments at the track. He pointed to a screen on the wall in front of us where horses were being led to the starting gate at Santa Anita. The field broke, and he began dissecting the race. An outside horse he had picked got off to a slow start, but he was unconcerned, given the length of the race. That horse, and another he had boxed in an exotic, quickly fell behind by the quarter pole, but he promised me that these same two, at ten-to-one and five-to-one odds and trailing, would duel for the win, like they did three months ago in a race of the same length but different class.
He was right and cashed a $300 ticket when the win was made official. For the last forty years, the racetrack was his office. It was a risk of sorts, he admitted, but such like an investor makes. He bet heavy when he was certain, and little or not at all when he had any doubts. A great deal of time went into evaluating each race. He told me how a room in his house was reserved for filing old racing forms, thoroughbred genealogies, video replays of races, and the like. He said that what little real work he did in his life was in racing stables, exercising horses, feeding them, running bets, and talking to trainers and jockeys. And he told me how he misses watching the real thing everyday on account of his failing health.
"When they bring the horses out for the parade, a lot is said right there - maybe everything. It is hard to tell if a horse is sweating through a television. But even if you can see the sweat, do you know why it might be there?"
He would know why, because he claimed to think like a horse. Maybe he did; after all, he just raked in several hundred dollars right before my eyes. And whether or not it was just charitable friendliness toward an old acquaintance, I do not know, but Lewis offered me a tip - that is, if I was interested in betting. He turned to his papers and picked one up. There was a maiden race at Santa Anita tomorrow. A horse entered with twenty-to-one morning odds was running his first start. Lewis remembered watching the sire of this horse break his maiden in his first start. Seeing that the workout times were decent, Lewis had called a friend in California to see what he knew about this maiden. The horse was looking in excellent shape, had a competitive disposition, and was being mounted by a jockey with a history of breaking maidens for this trainer. Lewis said that if there was one race he was sure about this week, it was this one. I thanked him and told him I would be back the next day, and I left the sportsbook for a walk.
There are some foolish people who say that a person can visit this city without gambling a cent. I suppose it is possible, though you can barely walk a step in this place without the Sirens calling out to you. Each one with turning reels, like a miniature cosmos, predestined to leave you richer or poorer in an instant, but when favorably-judged, clattering with the sound of change and victory that fills and lingers long in your ears.
I can remember my first pull on a slot. It wasn't in Vegas. Perhaps if I had not been so victorious then, I would be in far better shape now. My brother had taken me to the local Indian casino, which at that time was new, and a thing of contention among some townsfolk. The whole idea seemed ridiculous to me then - that is, throwing money away, or rather into an inanimate object that did not look the least bit entertaining from a distance. However, I was talked into trying it once. I hit three sevens on my first pull and won $1500. My heart was pounding at the realization that such a simple gesture could be awarded so. I waited, impatient amid the incessant noise and colored lights around me, for an attendant to reach my machine and hand me bills for a payoff too big for even the biggest of coin buckets to hold.
The next casino trip, only a day later, was my idea. I had the hottest fingers. By the time we left, I had made about $800. Imagine, as I did, in those two days I had made more money than I ever had sweating at work for a month. The entire time I felt more full of life than ever before, always aware that I was ahead and on a free ride either to more riches or back to the level ground I had departed from.
There is an old saying - a law of physics - that states: "What goes up, must come down." I was on top of the world those few days. There was no convincing me otherwise. However, as suddenly as my luck had manifested itself, it left me like a thief in the night, and there was nothing below to stop my fall.
We are all endowed with some will power, but when a man actually feels he has been given everything, only to have it taken away, yet left dangling before him, there is no limit to what he might do. This is how it was for me. By small measures, I spun after each jackpot, convinced that at any moment I would be saved from the increasing depths. I found ways to finance this chase - and make it more urgent. There were a few frivolous objects I parted with, like my Lincoln, which the free casino shuttle bus rendered useless, and a Bulova watch that served no purpose in a place that never closed. Finally, I had exhausted my savings and re-mortgaged my home, and all this in a vain attempt to get it all back - the entire time treated to complimentary coffee.
This was a pursuit I willingly abandoned myself to at some point, I suppose, as precarious as it may seem. Did I expect it to happen this way? Of course not. As I mentioned, for some individuals in this predicament, there is no limit to their desperation, until at last they have only themselves left. And the naked self in this world can be a very lonely and miserable thing. Few people truly see this coming. I suppose if I was half my age that I might have been inclined to stop, but even then, it is a strange and powerful thing of itself that can command a person to act against their better judgement.
Now I am walking through a Las Vegas casino with only $1200 to my name and the hope that I was brought here for salvation. All around me are machines of every sort waiting to finish me off or perchance be my saving grace. I ignore them long enough to reflect on the peculiarity of meeting Lewis only a few moments ago.
Chance. It is meeting someone again after thirty years in a sportsbook without any intention. It is the sustenance of this city in the Great Basin. It has cost me everything. It is Barbaro, a favorite, who at even money brokedown in the Preakness. And what chance does this horse, this Sad Loser, have to win, who has never even run a race, who was merely the subject of a brief but protracted and otherwise meaningless reunion between two people?
I hurry back to the sportsbook, passing the rows of slots with difficult restraint. The opening odds for Sad Loser are thirty-six-to-one; he is the long shot in a field of nine. Need I question the sanity of wagering $1000 on a horse given the insanity of what I have lost through the slots? I stand to make $36000 at those odds. I make my bet, leaving the rest to fate, then begin the daylong wait until post time with a mere $200 remaining to entertain myself.
Walking leisurely along the Strip, I reflect on my situation. There is no use in worrying, I tell myself. What is done is done. And when I get to the end of the line, I can bring nothing with me to the other side anyway.
With my last $200 and a half-hour till post, I stop at a machine. The progressive is up to half a million, but I am not the fortunate one. I stand up. An eager lady wearing lucky beads takes the vacated chair, and I walk toward the sportsbook. Lewis is sitting in the same spot, as if he had never moved. I turn to the screen where the horses are being led to the gate.
Sad Loser gets a good start and sets the pace. He takes the lead by three lengths at the half-mile pole. I feel faint and sit down without taking my eyes off the screen. But the favorite, from the back, is making a gain from the outside. They come down the stretch with Sad Loser and the favorite dueling ahead of the pack; it is clear from the photo finish that Sad Loser missed the win by a head.
Achilles cannot catch the tortoise; Sad Loser cannot lose when at first given the lead. The distance between him and the others was infinitely divisible, yet still he was beat. The clerk at the mutuel looks puzzled when I offer this adaptation of Zeno's paradox, but I know it is as reasonable as any other explanation. I must remember this if I have the opportunity to speak with that young collection agent again.
I glance in the direction of where Lewis was sitting, but his seat is empty. I walk away. And then, as if God thought it fitting to test his new little Job, I venture past the last machine I had played. There, in the seat I surrendered only moments ago, sat the lady who took my place ecstatic, kissing her beads, for she had hit the $500,000 jackpot.
Chance. A sight like this makes your skin tingle. It is enough to make a person grind their teeth at times. It is the insatiable appetite of the illusive gambling gods and their unpredictable generosity. It is a hopeful force that vanishes without notice after pulling you deep into the desert.
I fought in a war once; someone back then said I had lucky fingers. But that was then. I wonder if this war will ever be over, if it was merely chance that got me out before, and if it was any use fighting for freedom if fate just takes it away in the end. I am ruined, but what of it was my fault? My lucky fingers have touched more quarters than a coin press, but what can they change now? Ruin it is.
I think about how far I am from home. It is always an insurmountable distance, like that between two horses, or between Achilles and the tortoise. Alone, I stand, missing again what I wanted by a head, and all around the sound of the reels still spinning.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew Sorge. All rights reserved.
Dentists refer to it as bruxism. And sometimes,
when the phone rings while I sleep, I confuse
the sound with the grinding of teeth, as if the two
were somehow harmonious. I do feel fortunate
that at my age this is the only malady from which
I suffer; furthermore, I am grateful that I still have