"Horserace" by Michael Ward

“Horserace” by Michael Ward

I’m putting a grand on Lickety-Split. Should pay about five-to-one. If I win, I’m still in to Ortiz for another two. But it’ll give me some more time. Lose? I win a trip to Mexico. Deep Mexico. The kind of place where the scent of sewage burns the cartilage in your nose and the roof-top roosters cackle through the night. The race is this evening. Come on, Lickety-Split.

Daryl’s got her arms wrapped around me, and she’s still asleep. It’s part suffocating, part arousing. Her body is a smooth, warm anchor that fits to mine in all the right places and pulls me down into the bed. I have a hard on, and I can’t breath. I know some people do this sort of thing for fun, but I just imagine sinking deeper and deeper, drowning in cotton and skin. It tastes like salt and my mouth feels like paper.

Time to get up.

Heavy morning light oozes through the blinds. Last night’s shrapnel litters the carpet. Beer cans and a liquor bottle. A Runners World torn to shreds. The hookah we got from our Lebanese friends lays on its side, its hose sprawled across the floor like Liston in ’65. Toast. Orange juice. Breakfast of champions. I gulp it down and get ready to run.

The neighborhood’s like forgotten swimming pool growing algae. It used to be a street with a bunch of cars meant middle class. A third of the cars on my street are on blocks. Everyone knows a mechanic, and nothing gets fixed. Half of them don’t even bother to weed eat around their trucks, so by September the F-150s look like they’re wearing grass skirts. Sometimes I wonder if I ran fast enough, could I escape the neighborhood’s gravity. We should move out of this place, move somewhere else. I think anywhere would be better at this point.

Must be eighty degrees out by now.

I make it to Juan’s by nine. Juan used to be my dealer when I was into that. Now he’s a friend. He’s still a source, too, in some respects.

“Ortiz is not happy,” he says. He sits on his orange pleather couch in his driveway. He pulls the couch out on weekends and chills out like that. He’s got water waiting for me.

“I know.”

“Oh, you know? It’s good that you know, you know? Because when Ortiz isn’t happy, I hear about that shit.” He looks up, raises his eyebrows and says, “Sabes?”

I told him I’d have five grand by this weekend. This is assuming my horse comes through, but he doesn’t know that.

“Two grand short,” he says.

“Oh, so you did finish high school?” I say.

An armada of Spanish hurtles toward me. El’s and la’s whip my ears. He does that when he gets angry. The words have a weight to them and stick to me in this heat, cling to my shirt and my head. I don’t need any more weight.

“What’s the problem?” I say. “The juice is running. If anything, he should thank me. The longer I take to pay, the more he makes off me.”

“If you pay.”

Now I wish I could mutter something in Spanish. I know enough of the language to get me in trouble but not enough to get me out. In my mind I go through the conjugation of the verb “to live” and make it all the way to nosotros before I realize I’m conjugating “to see.” For a second, I imagine a life south of the border. A life that, even with my money on a five-to-one favorite, has become suddenly more real.

I wipe some sweat off my face and look around. Two girls on red and blue bikes zoom past us. No cars on blocks as far as I can see. A lawnmower drones in the distance, and the whiff of cut grass flits by. I think about moving in next to Juan, being neighbors. Then where would I run?

When I get back to the apartment, Daryl’s still asleep. Her legs slip out from under the sheets and her auburn hair is a tangled mess spilling over the pillow. I glimpse the Maori tattoo that wraps around her ankle. That’s when we had money to travel. That’s before things went bad and then worse.

I finish in the shower and find Daryl sitting at the kitchen table. An old shirt of mine drapes her creme-colored skin. I can’t see her face, but I smell the coffee. A cigarette is burning somewhere. I start to say something, but her hand floats up. No talking. I get it.

I squint because the ringing in my ears is back. Daryl pulls some of her hair off her face. Darkness swoops down under her jade eyes, and she looks like she might puke. She doesn’t look at me. Nothing has happened between us. That’s the problem. I think she may be seeing someone else. Things change and you don’t even notice it. Your past is like a fuzzy collection of stills that make no sense alone and together appear inevitable.

* * *

My dad takes me to my first horserace when I’m twelve. We put down fifty dollars on Jackson Five. A trumpet screams out the Call to the Post. Jackson Five struts out with a jockey clad in purple diamonds on light blue silks. His coat is the color of ancient ink. The starting gate closes, and Jackson Five bucks against the metal. He whinnies and tries to jump, thrashes the gate. They close the door behind him, and he calms down.


The gate flies open and the horses spring out. Thunder across the dirt. I watch as their muscular bodies become smaller and the crowd grows louder. Jackson Five is four lengths behind the chestnut Three Pair coming into the final turn. He’s closing in. Two lengths now. The rumbling shakes my stomach. They’re getting closer and closer. One length. Jackson Five and Three Pair are so close, I can’t tell who crosses first. My dad jumps up and yells. Cold beer slops onto my jeans. The announcer howls that Jackson Five wins by a nose. My dad grabs me and gives me a shake. I’ve never seen him so happy. We walk out of the track with ice cream on our minds and a few hundred dollars in my dad’s pocket.

We roll over to Mel’s. Mel’s owned this place for years, my dad tells me. The place reeks of salt and wetness—an indoor beach. Animal carcasses hang on hooks on the other side of a plate of glass as big as a wall. Mel’s belly hovers over his waste like a beach ball. My dad gives him a brown envelope as thick as a wallet. Mel takes it and looks over at me.

“So what y’all been up today?” He favors his left leg as he hobbles over to his desk.

Mel, my dad told me later, took part of a shell at Khe Sanh and lost a few toes, gangrene nearly took the whole leg. My dad missed that lottery.

I tell him we were at the races. I feel like a man because I can say that. I’m excited.

Mel unlocks his desk drawer and takes out a white envelope about half as thick as the one my dad had.

“Your horse win?” he says.

His glass eye wanders to the right. I follow it, ending up for a second back at the floating carcasses. I nod.

“Well, this is where they end up,” he says, handing the envelope to my dad, “when they lose.”

I don’t want to lose. Ever.

Now my dad drinks rat poison to save his life. It’s a drug his doctor gave him, but I looked it up once. In low doses it prevents blood clots; in high doses it kills rats. My mom died a few years ago.

* * *

“Fore!” Ben yells out to a group of retirees on the fairway. He’s hit into them. On purpose. Because they’re slow. My ball was too short.

Golf’s a gambling man’s game. Sometimes we play skins, other times we pay per stroke. Ben’s a doctor without a medical license. That makes us friends. His chiropractor boss thinks he dropped out of med school. Now he takes seventy-five an hour to crack backs.

Must be ninety out now, the air is still and spongy as bread. The ringing is back. Ben told me once it’s tinnitus. To me it just sounds like a distant emergency alert tone, the kind you’d hear over the radio if a storm were coming. I took a hearing test once when I was ten. They made me listen to sounds at different frequencies. I had to raise my hand when I heard one. It sounds like that. Just like that. Sometimes I see things too. But I haven’t told him that.

“You heading up to the track tonight?” he asks me. “I hear Ortiz is getting into racing too.”

I don’t want to see Ortiz until I have some cash for him. I definitely don’t want him seeing me at the track. That’s sends the wrong message, like maybe I’m not serious about paying him, like maybe I’m not good for it. But my mind turns back to Lickety-Split. Never will I have put down so much on a horse. My stomach tightens. I’m Richard III without a limp. Although given the wrong circumstances, I might be hobbling the next time Ben and I play.

“Look at ‘em,” Ben says pointing to the same group. “Jesus, you got an extra ball on ya?” he asks me. “Just ‘cause the course is public doesn’t make it a park.”

He grabs another ball from the cart, tees it up, and lets the driver rip. The ball flies through the air, a perfect fade around the slight dogleg right. Smacks into the ground about ten yards from the group and rolls right between their carts. One of the men gets out and raises his arms up. Forty years younger, this man would’ve charged us. I can see it from here. He wears his bitterness like a pair of shades. Now the old bull roams a different pasture.

“Sit down old man,” Ben seethes and stares them down.

The man is yelling something. Ben is as cold as marble, hand resting on the grip of his driver like the Sun King.

“Get me another,” he says without moving. There’s a callousness in his voice that makes me wonder why I still play this game with him. We’ve been friends for years, but it’s starting to take its toll.

“You can’t hit into them again,” I say.

“The fuck I can’t. Look at him. Standing there like he owns the course. Let’s see what he thinks about owning this.”

Another ball. Another tee. Clink.

Ben missed his calling. He could’ve been a pro. At least a pro-shop pro. He’s too edgy to tour, too erratic. The ball slams into the fairway to the right of the group, burns up the grass as it rolls another twenty yards. The old man grabs a club and shakes it in the air. He’s yelling something.

Ben swings around and laughs. “You see this shit?”

He heads back to the cart and smashes his club into the bottom of the bag. He slips off his glove and reaches around for his beer sweating in the afternoon heat.


He jerks his head into roof of the cart. Beer splashes over the seat. Down the fairway the old man is flipping us off as the group wheels their way down to the green.

Ben swaggers over to the ball that settled a few yards away from the cart.

“You playing a Titleist four?” he asks me, peering over the ball resting on the shaggy slope of the tee box.

I nod.

“That sucks, man. Looks like you’re playing from here,” he says. “Bad lie, too.”

When we finish the round, I cough up a wrinkled twenty in the parking lot.

* * *

The afternoon heats breaks, snaps in two and falls down all around us. In the distance I see a mushroom cloud and feel the surge of irradiated winds blowing away everything around me, melting parts of the racetrack before me and setting the world on fire. The weather says there’s a forty percent chance of storms this evening. It smells like eighty percent.

Madison winks at me. At first it was embarrassing that she began to recognize me. Like I had a problem or something. But then I started to believe maybe there was something about me worth remembering. Tiny canyons that radiate from her eyes betray her age. Too old for me. I’ve thought long and hard about that. Twice. Her eyelashes droop under the burden of mascara, but her smile. God, her smile. Passion and sex dance in those corners, and I’m looking for a partner.

I lean in to the betting window and tell her I want a grand on my horse. She looks shocked at first. She knows it’s a bet I shouldn’t be making, a bet I can’t afford, but she doesn’t know I’m running out of options. If I can’t come up with some serious cash soon, my number’s up. She types in some information but it seems to take her longer than usual.

Again, Mexico, flashes in my mind. It’s a refuge for the criminal and the lost. I’ve don’t break the law, but I lost my map years ago. I’ve decided for the coast. Pacific side. I’ll find a village where the novelty of my whiteness will fade as they realize I’m trying to put my own shit together just like them.

From my seat at the track, clouds amble up from the distance puffy as microwaved marshmallows. The breeze from the west carries on its back the scent of roasted cashews, arid earth, and oily pomade. I know this pomade. It’s Ortiz, the last person I want to see this evening. The last person who needs to see me.

I head to the only place at the track I know where I can lie low.

There’s a guy pissing in one of the urinals as I sneak toward the stalls. Three of them. I glance under to check for feet, then I pick the one furthest from the door. Outside I hear Call to the Post. The guy at the urinal flushes, zips up, and walks out.

I’ve never seen Lickety-Split, but I imagine the three-year-old’s glossy coat’s the color of caramelized sugar. The silks, red triangles against a blue field. He’s neither massive nor slight—

The door to the bathroom creaks just as the gates burst open. I can make out the hoofbeats rumble on the ground. Two people have walked in, judging from the footsteps. The lock on the bathroom door clicks. I slowly pull my legs up on the toilet seat, perched like an owl. And listen. My ears begin to ring.

Lips smack, soft moans, the dull rustle of a belt buckle. The stall door next to me flings open and the couple slides in. Lickety-Split is near the middle of the pack. There’s still time left.

Pants drop to the floor. Sweaty hands squeak across the stall looking for a grip. The moans grow louder, reverberating off the tile. Grunts come in quick succession. My eyes dart to the space between our stalls. At first I don’t see it, but then it comes into focus. A Maori tattoo wrapped around a creme-colored ankle. My throat narrows. I hear Lickety-Split has fallen behind.

The ringing is awful. I can’t hear a thing. I want to yell out, scream from the pain. I feel like I’m ten feet at the bottom of a pool and its sides are closing in. I see my little space begin to swirl, elongate. My ears are on fire, and I’m drowning in one high-pitched tone. If I can only get out of this, I think.

The toilet flushes next to me.The bathroom door unlocks, and again I’m alone. Outside, I can tell the race has ended.

I stretch my legs out and get up. I look at the betting slip, rub my fingers across its text, then rip it up, and flush it down.

I hear a few people talk about the race. Their chatter mixes with the patter of rain against the track’s roof over the gallery. A rumble of thunder. A coolness in the air.

I pass by the betting booth and hear a woman call out. “Hey!”

I turn and find Madison smiling at me. She says, “Looks like your horse came in after all.”

Above her an LED ticker displays the results. Lickety-Split, five-to-one favorite, wins. It takes me a minute to realize that I’m not upset. In fact, I’m happy. I start to walk off and Madison calls me back. My hand lifts up as my walk turns into a trot out to my car. Mexico doesn’t sound half bad. I can hear the roosters calling me now.

Michael’s work has appeared in BULL, Punchnel’s,GoMad Nomad, and Marco Polo, among other places. He grew up in Texas and lives (most of the year) near Cologne, Germany, where fall has nearly ended, Karneval season has begun, and the Glühwein is hot.