A horse race can be many things, though it almost always falls short of fair. Onlookers are amused by the spectacle beginning with a unified ambling gait, clobbering a sand track. The horses’ fury of rolling and shifting joints shimmer in the sunlight beneath their taut hide. Equine heads bob, their formations noble and expressions fixated. Some break away from the group, spreading out ahead and behind. Jockeys hover over the galloping beasts like pilots without jump seats, remaining mostly still in contrast to the stretching and rocking bodies of the horses propelled by the four-beat footfall. Horses thrust themselves forward while jockeys fight for the inside of the track. Sometimes riders in the lead remain close, other times they appear separated by track lengths.
Before the race, men are tasked with analyzing a cache of data and the racing secretary deter- mines how many lead weights the horse will carry within the pads worn at its sides. These are handicapped horse races. The goal is to eliminate the chance of consistently wide margins so that the race at least appears tight. Thus, to some extent, the race becomes fixed.
But races aren’t always close, and the man who bet that his horse would place had observed myriad outcomes at the horse track. In the past, he felt that he understood the outcome on the day of the race—as if he was tuned in intuitively. But after a couple of substantial losses, he was bucked from his winning stride. His confidence wavered and then he couldn’t recover, but he still tried. Yes, he had seen losers win and winners lose. The bones of horses fractured and joints separated. Horses tumbled, plowing men head- and shoulder-first into a spray of sand, followed by a dust cloud that, when it cleared, revealed a pained horse and a lifeless rider. After an earlier race in which his horse placed, he saw the helmet of a jockey split in half like an apple. A horse race is an orchestrated rodeo for self-defined men of rank with money to lose. But in the case of the man that Uriella had come to observe, the money wasn’t always his to lose. Return was hardly guaranteed, but the enthralling display of equine submission was certain.
The boorish returned to the track even after losing, yearning to feel their blood simmer again. The gate dropped down in the sand with a heavy thud and a thousand clomping hooves shot past the stands. Uriella saw the man begin to seat himself once the horses had passed. Around the turn, his horse, Parlor Trick, gained on the beast nearest him, and then overtook it. With his hand on the bleacher, the man froze in a half-seated stance. He immediately noticed the discrepancy in his compulsive routine. On all previous occasions, the race would start and he would sit, it was that simple.
In the beginning, when the money was his own, he was awed at how quickly it could disappear. Money he’d earned from contorting his body, grunting as he pulled, pushed, twisted, and wrenched, while sweating through a shirt slick with motor oil, could all be bet and lost in a moment. The handicapped horserace was rigged by definition—but that didn’t stop anyone from betting on it.
The horses were already rounding the corner toward the side opposite him. Unsure what to do, fearing his break in his routine had already doomed him, and unsure what motion or positioning of his body would rectify the error, the man panicked and seated himself. People near him cheered, standing. Two horses moved past Parlor Trick on the straightaway. Then a third, too. Doomed.
In the box seats behind him, a sharply-dressed man with a calmer demeanor, named Arthur, walked through the crowd sure-footedly to fetch a drink for Uriella, the woman he had just met and was hoping to sleep with. She, aware of the effect she had on men at the racetrack, stood alone, watching the back of the large head of the seated man as he leaned in either direction anxiously, looking on at the track intently. The race wasn’t looking encouraging for him.
The clean and proper man who craved the presence of Uriella returned eagerly with a clear plastic cup of champagne. He attempted to hand it to her, but her arms remained at her side.
“What are we celebrating?” Uriella asked before raising a hand to accept the drink. The man began to speak but ceased when she grabbed the glass and downed the champagne, deciding that it didn’t matter. “Isn’t it bad luck to buy it before the race ends?” she wondered aloud, enjoying the sweetness but detesting the way her teeth felt suddenly sticky.
“How about a hot dog, Art?” Uriella asked. It was an absurdly casual question asked in an intoxicating way. Blood now flooded his cheeks. “Don’t they have those at the counter?” she wondered aloud, hoping to send him away again.
Arthur returned to the concession stand once more with his confidence slightly reduced. Again, Uriella was left to her business, watching the anxious man seated several rows in front of her.
Uriella heard the scattered sounds of astonishment from the crowd and focused her attention on the track. Prince, one of the horses racing, had taken the lead unexpectedly. The man watching the horses remained seated. Arthur returned bemused, with a orangish frankfurter in a paper tray and a fist full of napkins. Ordinarily, she would not have bothered with such rubbish, but the evening’s errands had left her with very little time to eat.
More cheering ensued and she took her first bite. Prince widened his lead and Parlor Trick continued to disappear into the back of the herd. The horses rocked and the jockeys bounced in a chaotic scene. At once, Prince dashed across the finish line, drawing an array of exclamations from the crowd, a few heavy howls followed by a collective murmur. Uriella finished eating and carefully blotted her lips with a napkin. The trash was handed off to Arthur domineeringly. His puzzled look reminded Uriella to play nice, so she smiled widely in an effort at reconciliation. The time had come for her to leave. After all, the race was finished and the man seated in front of her had obviously been defeated. Again.
After the race, the winners and impartial spectators who chose not to bet remained in the stands, gripping their beverages. The man whose distressed demeanor had been carefully observed stood and exited with the rest of the defeated.
Before Uriella’s companion could even ask where she was going, she drifted into the crowd, following the man who had bet again on a losing horse. At the pavilion, she watched him fling his ticket into the trash. She saw him stuff his hands deep into the comfort of his trouser pockets, his bulky troubled head hanging low. Uriella removed the slip from the wastebasket as she watched the crowd engulf the conquered man at the exit gate. She looked down and read the filthy ticket.
Single Selection: To Place - Parlor Trick - Total Bet - $500
Uriella slipped the paper into her purse and carried on. As she made her way to her car, the man who was hoping for at least a kiss caught up to her, hollering, “Hey, wait! Did I say something? Do something? What, did your horse lose?” Uriella ducked into her esteemed coupe, the body of it unblemished glossy metal. She cranked down the window and her face emerged.
She took a deep breath, and then replied quickly, “I didn’t even place a bet.” She cranked the motor on. “I must be going. Thanks for every- thing, Art.” Uriella zipped past the other cars in the lot and sped onto the freeway, leaving Arthur standing solitary in the parking lot.
On the edge of the community sat its abandoned oddities and outcasts. Industries that exist for pleasure or for profiting off one’s vices are located some distance from residential areas and require travel to visit.
Uriella could see the heat shimmering from the city lights through the open passenger window. They looked like tiny eyes, twinkling from afar. Behind her was the casino and the track. Looking back from her silvery coupe she watched the back of the track bleachers, now a shrinking edifice that reflected the glowing orange of dusk.
She muttered to herself, “I could give a damn about some horses.” Then, with one hand she pulled the knob to switch on the headlights, and with the other, she removed her bulky sunglasses. Meanwhile, her knee did the steering.
The coupe disappeared down the road toward the interstate with the windows down, introducing whiffs of dried sagebrush, hot pavement and arid desert. Later she smelled the sour decay of road- kill as she rolled along. The windows stayed down. Uriella had nearly arrived to report her findings to the financier at his office.
Up ahead, a wide canopy fanned fluorescent light onto a fuel station and travelers crossed in and out beneath. Next to the station sat a minigolf attraction. It was a brief distraction for the children of weary drivers. The floodlights over the course were intense enough to compete with the light from the canopy next door. Uriella’s approaching coupe held a different more acute energy that outshone the electric desert oasis in every way possible. It followed her everywhere, but few really saw it. Arthur might have missed it. But, the financier knew of it.
Ureilla’s coupe came in fast then idled slowly when it reached the first fencepost of the minigolf course. With the car’s windows down, the jazz saxophone on the radio reverberated softly—the primary marker of her presence now, aside from the car’s low chugging motor. She killed the engine and stepped past the course and into the office of the financier.
The minigolf landscape demonstrated the outer fringe of oddities in its own maniacal way. The park sat flooded in light with its miniature freakish figures begging to retreat into darkness. There was a resting lion with a great mane and sharp teeth disproportionate to its gaping mouth. A strip of green carpet ran between the teeth and out through the back of his head. Tiny fairways flanked by painted boards were mitered perfectly, turning and twisting in unison. One hole sat at the center of an emerald island surrounded by stagnant water. A narrow gangplank stretched over the moat. Sitting tall beside one hole stood a miniature Ferris wheel. On one of the gondolas of the spinning wheel was a lifelike figurine of a frightened mother with her arms wrapped around her screaming children, each of her hands covering their eyes.
Tumbleweed rolled past a rule board carved with terse golf guidelines. Uriella’s boss, the financier, could read them from where he sat inside the office, waiting. She entered and said, “He lost.” Uriella set the losing track ticket on the desk and threw herself into a seat, crossing her legs.
“He lost,” the financier repeated in feigned dis- belief, still looking at the rule board outside the window. He mostly ignored the ticket, expecting no different really. Some part of him was mildly dismayed after all, even in the wake of repeated disappointment. It kept him sharp, his unwilling- ness for complacency in his dealings.
“You said it, when he first owed us. Didn’t you?” he said to Uriella. The financier was reading one of the rules through the window. Don’t lean on the clubs. Uriella shrugged. Respect the course. The financier didn’t mind the language on the sign. He had someone write and post the rules when he took ownership of the roadside attraction as a result of what he considered someone else’s bad debt. There was a modest stream of revenue and a quiet office for him to use.
When he began “dealing in intimidation,” as he called it, those outside of his network knew him as “the Toaster.” The nickname came about because it was said that, regardless of the situation, he determined the level of darkness. Those within his own circle didn’t acknowledge the nickname. Others, especially the newer associates, never knew of it in the first place.
But Uriella was aware of the nickname, and the financier had known for some time that she knew. The financier and Uriella began working together in a sort of “partnership,” as he called it. But he was the only one who referred to it in this manner. She went on with her illicit business as normal, quickly realizing the potential of their arrangement. But if her past desire for independence was any indicator, they both knew their partnership would eventually run its course. After which, she might be back when a situation called for it. The financier would let her, too. That’s what he loved about her. If anyone could appreciate her radiance, it was him.
“Why does this high roller insist on losing all of his own money, so that he has to borrow—so that he can lose that too?” he asked inertly. Again, Uriella shrugged. The financier kept reading the sign. Have fun and start golfing. A period, no exclamation mark—his idea. Another tumbleweed rolled past.
“And we’re the fools who let him owe,” Uriella said, carefully picking dust from her lap.
The financier shifted his focus to the inside of the office, and then to her. “You’ll visit him again, at work,” he said, looking into her eyes.
“Maybe you can have an office like mine soon,” he said. He was referring to the fiasco that led him to seize the minigolf business.
“I like mine,” she said, tilting her head toward the coupe outside.
This made the financier grin unexpectedly. “We’ll be in touch,” he said and dismissed her.