Día de los Muertos: Chapter 15

Fifteen

Caliente Racetrack / 2:30 P.M.

The Winners’ Circle at Caliente race track is as far away from God and Decency as you can get. There were bars downtown that were more frightening, but the Winners’ Circle was the soft, wet pulp of greed, the hub of every human vice in the city. If the bars downtown were about unspeakable acts, then the Winners’ Circle was about unspeakable obsession with fast money.It was the kind of bar gamblers love because it sat right on top of the action. The action started at noon and went all night. Gamblers loved it; it was flashy and tawdry and reeked of cologne and cigarettes. The Circle, as it was called by the cognoscenti, had a great view of the Caliente dog track, windows everywhere, like a control tower. When the greyhounds went to their starting box, the hard core, the heavy money people, stood up and went to the windows with binoculars. “Girlfriends” in spandex giggled, bracelets tinkled (Why was it that gamblers liked girls with big tits? One of the seven mysteries), and men in Polo shirts did that little hopping thing while they yelled at their favorite fido running his guts out. There were a lot of fifties-style touches – wire sculptures of greyhounds on the walls and drinks that came in glasses decorated with black-and-gold diamonds. In Mexico, the fifties had never died. Marilyn Monroe had never died. Machismo had never died. There was always the slight smell of overexcited people, like walking into a room where somebody had just had sex.

Calhoun felt one of his chills come on. He took a drink and surveyed the once elegant barroom. It was filled with professional gamblers and a few tourists, voices bouncing off the hot pink walls. He felt the chill pass over his big body, smiled into it, took another drink. He ordered another G and T and waited for the next chill. They had started coming in waves. I’m not really sick, he said to himself, raising the glass. Not sick. After I leave here I’ll get the tickets for us. He allowed a brief, first-time fantasy to invade him. Celeste and him on the bus on their way to Mexico City in the dark, just the sound of the bus engines, and her against him, and a new life. A clean life, they would both change, maybe even have a kid.

“How’d you come out yesterday?” Calhoun said. Calhoun didn’t usually talk at the bar, but he felt so good now, so alive. Part of it was the fever he was running, and part of it was because he knew he was going to win that afternoon and that he was in love. The bartender turned and looked at Calhoun. He was the kind of guy Calhoun liked having out on point when he was in the Marine Corps. The kind that can’t wait to nail a bad guy. Fucking Okies. Ninety pounds of freckled fight, Calhoun thought. The less you fed them the better they liked it.

“I caught a show and place yesterday,” the bartender said.

“So what!” There was a voice behind them; both Calhoun and the bartender turned around. The voice had come from one of the upholstered booths at the back.

“You can’t beat the system – the odds. The odds are against you. You’re bound to lose everything,” the man said in a loud voice. The bartender gave Calhoun a murderous look. He took a book of matches out of his shirt pocket, pushed the top of the matchbook cover back and slipped a single match under his thumb and struck it one-handed. The young American who had interrupted them got up from his booth, picked up a briefcase and walked up to the bar with his drink.

“Everybody is going to lose,” the man said. “Professor Herbert C. Jones, pleased to meet you.” Jones put his hand out toward the bartender, who ignored it. The bartender pulled a cigarette from the pack behind him on the CD player, put it in the corner of his mouth and lit the end, then looked at Calhoun like one more drunk. The bartender went back to looking at the racing film on the closed circuit TV like he’d never seen the guy’s outstretched hand.

The young professor took the stool next to Calhoun. He put his plastic briefcase on the bar. His gray tweed sport coat was greasy-looking. His khaki pants were stained at the knees, like he’d knelt in an oil slick playing craps in the street. He looked haggard despite his youth.

“I can’t go home,” the professor told Calhoun matter-of-factly. He didn’t seem drunk. Crazy, Calhoun figured. “What about you?” Jones asked. Calhoun didn’t know what to say.

“Is that so,” Calhoun said. He felt trapped. Jones sat down right next to him. He didn’t feel like moving and his good mood was being suddenly tested. He would have bet even money the bartender was going to pop the guy if he said another word to him. Well, a pop in the face might do him good, Calhoun thought. Who could say?

“I had it. The system breaker. I did,” the professor said. He was younger than Calhoun, maybe thirty. Like scores of men Calhoun had seen around the track, the professor had the telltale signs of the chronic losing gambler: that day’s racing program from Díario de la Sierra shoved in the front pocket of his tweed coat, the blank look, the eyes that shoot from face to face looking for a way out of it.

“I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics…I do,” the professor said. “I have a good job at the college in Lone Pine. I have a wife, Carol.”

“Yeah? Good for you,” Calhoun said.

The bartender poured himself a beer from the tap. He’d already sucked the unfiltered Camel an inch down. He made a point of knocking the ash off into that black plastic tray where the spilled beer went. It was obvious he didn’t like the professor on principle, because he was an amateur.

Calhoun glanced at the television which was playing recordings of yesterday’s races. The track looked almost pretty, like a park, the red dirt perfectly groomed, thick track fluff, just what the bowsers loved.

“I had it wired. I wrote a program.” Jones fished out his laptop from the briefcase, flipped it open on the bar. “Now think of it this way: Chance reduced to a few variables, gentlemen. Variables you can foresee. Mathematics. Zeros and ones.”

“Yeah?” I don’t need any professors because I got the fix in, baby, Calhoun thought. He’d been having a run of real bad luck, it was true. He owed Slaughter and now El Cojo, thousands of dollars, but that would all end in about twenty minutes, Calhoun told himself. The professor’s computer wouldn’t turn on.

“Batteries,” Jones said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore. I know now I was wrong. There is no way to get your arms around the problem… Three days ago I thought I had the answer. I took my mutual funds, everything we had. The house. That will be hard to explain to my wife. Carol… She doesn’t know what I did… I did it for us.” The young professor looked down at the keyboard, touched a few of the dead keys with his long, girlish fingers. “Just three days ago. It was all in order. Organized chance. It worked in the lab—”

“Sure, buddy. You need a shower and you’ll feel better,” Calhoun said. He gave the guy some barroom sympathy. They were alone now. The bartender was setting up someone down at the other end of the bar.

“You don’t understand! I’ve lost what we’d saved, everything, and I was so sure. About winning, I mean. People like you, they believe… You get a hunch, or whatever, about a dog, or a horse, or the jockey. But I had a Cray mainframe at the college! Science, do you understand?! Three billion calculations a second for two years. Quantification of chance. Do you understand that?” The professor’s face moved closer. He smelt like piss. “What you are doing, and he is doing, is…is idiocy.” Jones pointed to the bartender. “There are no winners. It’s impossible. You see, it’s impossible.” The professor started to laugh. A sick, broken laugh. “Do you see, Mister? That’s what I’ve proved. Don’t you see it? There are no solutions. That’s what I proved, after all those billions of calculations, and I finally got the answer.” The professor started laughing again like a crazy man, spilling his drink. His young face was grotesque in the fluorescent light.

“Hey, pencil dick…give it a fucking rest.” The bartender came back down the bar. “People come in here to have a nice quiet drink and think about their bets. They don’t come in here for free advice from pencil necks. Okay?”

“You have a hunch about today’s races, don’t you?” Jones asked Calhoun. He’d been laughing so hard he’d started to cry. He had no idea the bartender hated him, the way all gamblers hate losers.

“Yeah,” Calhoun said, humoring him.

“And then what?” the professor said.

“What do you mean… ‘And then what?'”

“I mean, your system. What is it? I want to know. I collect them. I had one, too.” The professor touched Calhoun’s elbow.

“You want to know my system, pencil neck?” the bartender butted in. Calhoun was sure the Okie was going to punch him now. He’d seen it happen a thousand times. He was just looking for the excuse he needed. Then wham! The professor would get another dose of chance.

“Okay. Yeah. I want to know your system,” the professor said, turning to the bartender, suddenly angry. The bartender slipped out his matchbook. Calhoun saw the tattoo on his wrist. Semper Fi in faded blue. He’d been right, a fellow Marine, Calhoun thought. He knew there was a reason he liked the guy.

“All right. I’ll tell you, professor. I know something about dogs. Understand? I watch ’em. I study ’em,” the bartender said. He took out a fresh cigarette and reached over the bar and stuck his index finger in the professor’s chest. “I won seven hundred bucks yesterday. How about you, asshole?”

“And what is it, exactly, you know about them?” Jones asked.

“I know a good one when I see one.”

“But I’m not talking about dogs,” the professor said. As if that was the basis of the misunderstanding between the two men.

“Well, we’re talking about dog racing, ain’t we? That’s a fucking dog track down there, ain’t it?” the bartender shot an incredulous look at Calhoun.

“Yes. But I’m not talking about the dogs. I’m talking about odds,” the professor said again.

“You’re crazy.” The bartender looked over at Calhoun for confirmation of the obvious. But he’d already gone.

Dia Spacer

The men were standing in the track’s crowded shape-up area. The track’s loud speakers crackled on a pole above them. The shape-up area smelled of greyhounds and hay. It was covered by a huge aluminum roof that amplified the loud speakers. The track announcer’s voice was calling a race. There was yelling from the crowd… “We got the Torres dog in the Winners’ Circle.”

They’d passed a bottle around before they did it. A pint bottle of Southern Comfort went to the trainer, then the vet, then the Mexican handlers, then Calhoun. Calhoun took a swig and held the bottle. He watched the veterinarian open his bag and get down to it. The vet, a Texan with dirty fingernails, had come from El Paso. He had one of those black string bolo ties with a big piece of Indían turquoise jewelry for the clasp. The doctor ordered the dog pinned. The trainer and his men grabbed 99, his racing number that day, and pinned the greyhound against the vet’s old white station wagon. Calhoun bent down and put his knees into the dog’s ribs.

“Would you fucking pussies press for Christ sakes!” The veterinarian had the syringe pointed up in the air. He looked at them angrily. Six sets of knees smashed down harder on the slender, whimpering greyhound, driving him into the doctor’s car door. Calhoun could feel the animal’s shaking fear through his own knees, saw the look in the dog’s black eyes – confusion, almost human. Calhoun wanted to stop it but couldn’t. He needed the win, nothing else was important now. Win, then get the fuck out of Tijuana forever.

The vet reached inside his bag, got out the vial, his big white hand holding the illegal drug, shaking it, taking a look around, syringe ready. He poked the needle through the rubber top, trying to hide the works with his body. Calhoun could hear the squeaky sound of the syringe against the rubber seal. The greyhound, sensing something bad was about to happen to his skinny ass, started to move with desperate, hopping shoves. One of the Mexican handlers clamped a beefy hand down on the dog’s mottled rear. Someone else got him by his leather collar.

Judging from the men’s faces you could have fit all the sympathy for the animal onto the head of a pin. The vet sunk the needle in the greyhound’s ass, dirty fingernails toward Calhoun. He watched the syringe’s clear contents empty, the vet’s big white fingers and wrist, the way they held the works. Then it was over. The vet threw the syringe back in the old-style doctor bag. The dog looked behind him and then at the conspirators as the knees stopped hurting him. In a moment the men were standing up straight, looking down at the greyhound. The medical bag disappeared into the back of the vet’s car with a slam. The vet got hurriedly behind the wheel. Calhoun looked up just in time to see Cienfuegos, the trainer, pass a wad of bills through the car’s window. The doctor grabbed the money and started his car at the same time. The station wagon started up, tires popping gravel underneath, throwing hay-filled dirt. Calhoun watched the vet’s car wind its way around the myriad of shiny dog trailers and drive off the curb onto a side street that followed the back of the dog track and disappear into Tijuana’s evening traffic.

The trainer gave some orders to the Mexicans, then hustled the dog toward the check in, where he would be weighed and where his blood test would, for another payoff, be “confused.”

“Hey, Miguel,” Calhoun yelled over the sound of the track’s loud speaker that was announcing the winners of the last race. “Hey, thanks!” The man raised his right arm, keeping the greyhound close to him, not bothering to turn around. Calhoun watched them disappear into the crowd of owners and handlers checking their dogs in. Then he trotted off toward the track entrance.

 

Caliente’s betting windows were crowded. Calhoun went to the hundred-dollar- and-up window. The line was considerably shorter. There was a Mexican dowager in front of him in a white pants suit that was thirty years too young for her big, fat, cracker- barrel ass. He watched the old broad put down forty thousand pesos on three different dogs, take her tickets, then turn around and give him the eye. He got around her with some trouble.

Calhoun pulled out his envelope. This was all the money he’d gotten from El Cojo. Even if it was a sure thing, it wasn’t easy to part with it. The dark-skinned man behind the cage looked at him blankly. Calhoun opened the big manila envelope. It was wet with sweat. He counted out a hundred thousand pesos.

“Put it all on ninety-nine,” Calhoun told the man. The guy inside the cage looked at him like it was the stupidest bet he’d ever heard. Calhoun watched him count the dirty bills a second time.

He finally stamped Calhoun’s ticket and handed it to him. Calhoun checked the odds board as soon as he got out of line. His dog was paying six to one.

When 99 went into the starting box, Calhoun felt a chill run up his back. This was it. Luck, the lady he’d been waiting for all day, would start smiling at him. Things were going to smooth out, come up roses. Good-bye to Tijuana. Everybody had to have their luck change sometime. Even a fucked-up no good son of a bitch low-life like me, he thought. He raced up the stairs to the gallery.

The buzzer sounded and the dogs broke from the starting boxes, all chests and throats and long snouts. The mechanical rabbit they were chasing was just in front of them, running down the rail at thirty-five miles an hour. They were taking it on. Calhoun looked for 99 and saw that his dog was in front…99 in front. He grabbed the big iron bar that kept the top tier of spectators from falling off the stand and gave a big cowboy whoop.

Another greyhound, thinner and white, like a cloud, was digging in, edging 99, trying to wedge in from the outside, almost even, its back legs pumping for all it was worth. Then his dog got some drugged-up, crazy, buggy surge that just wasted all competition and 99 was about to come down on that mechanical rabbit that Calhoun and 99 had been chasing their whole lives. Then it happened, quick and complete and terrible: kidneys burst, stumbling front legs, trying to keep going. Head down. Gut-broke, 99 caved in, 99 yapped kidney-exploded-hell and the other dogs passed him, passed him, passed him. The white dog latched onto the mechanical rabbit, prancing, never looking back at his brother animal, 99 halfway in the stretch, crying like dogs cry, dragging his useless back legs in the thick dirt of the track.

For a long time Calhoun just watched: first, the crippled, dying dog, then the proud white dog running with that bit of tail they tie on the mechanical rabbit between his teeth. Calhoun watched the white dog prancing down the rest of the straightaway. Happy owners rushed onto the track. Calhoun’s mind emptied, got so empty that he could hear the yapping of the dying dog in his ears as if he were standing right next to him, watching him die confused and betrayed, pissing blood.

 

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