The color orange. As I stare intently at the flat-screen, my defeated eyes are searching for the only thing that matters, something that could turn lead into gold, or more modestly, stave off that sinking feeling of failure for the briefest of moments. I needed that flash of color. I try to tune out the catcalls of the other patrons, their vulgar language and table-pounding giving away their allegiance. Hurtling salty words at the screen, not born of anger or genetics, no, this was birthed where the beggars went to light votive candles at its altar, a lovely place known as desperation. As the other people screamed and gesticulated, I sat there motionless, my eyes transfixed on the screen, my heart tap-dancing against my ribcage, anxiety leaking out of my pores and intent on puddling. I needed to see that orange color.
Ten minutes ago, I went out to my truck to scavenge for change. Rifle through the glove box, check under the seats, run my hand down the wedge in the seat, lift up floor mats, check the trunk, look beneath the temporary tire, all in search of money for one more wager. If I had a functioning bank account, I’d kite a check without an ounce of regret. I’d lift the wallet of an unobservant handicapped teen if it came down to it, just to make another bet. Any noble notion of “Do the right thing” or propping myself up on a now-defunct moral code that my parents built my childhood around wasn’t feasible anymore. I knew right from wrong but I lived and breathed on the wrong side, I was only a trespasser on the rare occasions when I stumbled into the good people’s neighborhood. I was a degenerate gambler now, a subhuman that only cared about chasing the dime. That cloak of superiority that I had once so proudly worn was hanging in the closet of my former self. I was reduced to frantically tearing my truck apart in pursuit of one last bet or if successful, another bet and maybe another.
The white saddle cloth of the frontrunner, leading the horde with an unsustainable pace. The yellow saddle cloth of the 4 horse as he creeps up to the 2 horse, stalking, measuring, plotting his next move. The 7 horse appears, midpack, resplendent in the color of hope and salvation, my shining and well-muscled chestnut thoroughbred barreling down the track, chasing immortality, bearing the burden of a fools gambit. Here comes the orange.
When a race was in progress, I viewed the horse in mythical terms, a beast with golden hooves and a mane of fire. The jockey was an artist, guiding his steed through the wall of horses with the precision of a sniper. Coaxing the horse to run with grace and fortitude, knowing the exact time to ask the animal to summon every ounce of breeding and training and unleash that last piece of thunder as he blazes down the stretch. I only entertained those thoughts when my money was on the line, when all was not yet lost. As the pile of losing betting slips grew, the horse became nothing more than a lumbering cow with a pea-sized heart, the jockey morphed into a bulimic midget vomiting into a bucket, prerace, just to make-weight.
My eyes were locked on the orange, looking for signs of fatigue or possibly some inner-strength announcing itself in the equines bobbing head. Was the jockey sitting on top, feather-like, biding his time, knowing he had a horse full of run underneath him? Were the other horses toying with the orange before they eventually kicked dirt in his face? There was only one sign I wanted to avoid, one singular action that needed to go unseen by my catatonic glare.
The jockey unfurled his whip, raised it high in the air and with a quick slice, he snapped that horseflesh emphatically, sending a violent message, imploring the horse to do what he was born to do, run. The orange had no run left in him. If a jockey goes to the whip before the horses has even hit the stretch, it’s always the end game. My beast was gassed before the most important part of the race began in earnest, the final dash to the wire, when bloodlines separated champion from chump. My last bet chose to ignore the whip, he spit the bit. The other horses inhaled him, the orange was done.
I sat there in silence, hoping for a different outcome but expecting this one. I had no options left. My truck had been raided, my wallet looted. I was hoping I had enough gas to get home. I knew dinner would be taco bell mild sauce packets without the taco. Maybe I had enough pancake batter left to squeeze out a small syrup-less meal.
I took a last look at my final bet slip and then tossed it into my Styrofoam cup and watched as the white fragment of another lost opportunity slowly drowned in the cold, black liquid.
[First published in For Your Eyes, 2014]
Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, FlashBack Fiction, formercactus, Train Lit, Molotov Cocktail, Ghost Parachute, JMWW, and elsewhere. He was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2018. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.