A friend of mine once won big money betting on a horse named after a geographical anomaly near the town where he grew up, but I’ve never experienced an off-track betting center. Luckily, Ray Gun and Slouch were their to guide me through my first trip to the OTB.
Ray Gun won’t tell me which horse to bet on or how he’s going to bet. He won’t tell me his real name either, just that he’s called Ray Gun because he’s missing all but the pointer and thumb on his right hand. Across from him, his friend Slouch1 tells me to “pick a horse that speaks to you, find a name that resonates.”
A friend of mine once won big money betting on a horse named after a geographical anomaly near the town where he grew up, and everyone knows the Simpsons got their dog, Santa’s Little Helper, by betting on him late one Christmas Eve, so I take Slouch’s advice as sound. If you’ve never seen a racing form at an off-track betting center, imagine John Doe’s notebook from Seven if the movie took place in the year 2099 and John Doe was a robot. Streams of numbers and letters curve across the page in unlikely combinations, the names of the horses are in a column to the far left.
Ray Gun and Slouch place their bets, too. Ray Gun won’t let me see his betting slip, and Slouch lets me look at his but it’s too complicated to follow. At the table next to ours a man clutches his head and moans, “I forgot to back up the three with a seven-three-six.” Ray Gun laughs and mumbles–everyone at the OTB mumbles everything, like enunciating would give away a great secret–”You got to back up the three, baby.” I get the same feeling I used to get when I was in sixth grade and I’d hang out with my cousin and his friends who were juniors in high school. Not only did I not understand anything they said, I couldn’t fathom how they came to know any of the things they knew in the first place.
Ray Gun keeps loose French fries in the pocket of his shirt, he pinches some out and passes them to Slouch. They eat, and when Slouch is done he wipes his face with a napkin and drops it on the ground. The OTB is the last place in America where you can litter with impunity. I ask them why they don’t order something from the lunch counter in the corner and Slouch says, “You order over there, they look at you like they never even heard of food before. You’re lucky if you don’t get food poisoning.”
“This is what I’m talking about,” Ray Gun says. “You know the food is nasty so you decided not to try it. That’s called having a system.”
“This one always has a system,” Slouch says. “A system, you need that. But you need a little luck, too, to back it up. That’s why I carry these.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of loose bolts. “Head bolts from my first car,” he says. “I got lucky for the first time in that car, and they haven’t let me down since.”
Slouch scowls and checks the clock; it’s almost post time. “Let’s go,” he says. “Got to smoke while the race is running.”
I follow them. The OTB is divided down the middle into smoking and non-smoking areas. The non-smoking section features cute old couples who cuddle at reserved tables while frittering away their savings and intense dudes wearing sunglasses with laptops who labor over tip sheets and perform hardcore mathematics between each race. In the smoking section, the chairs are knocked over. Men and women dump sweat and pick at their knuckles. Ray Gun and Slouch smoke and flick ash on the floor, there’s an ashtray about a foot to their left but neither of them can see anything that isn’t directly between them and the television over the bar. Everyone in the smoking section acts like their life is on the line, not just because of the thick clouds of poison in the air, but because they’re waiting to find out if this is either the last stop on a downward spiral or the jumping off point for a meteoric rise. I feel like an intruder, like I’ve snuck into an AA meeting just to gawk at people.
I catch a glimpse of Porch Cat as they lead him to the starting gate. “Looks like a strong one,” I say.
Ray Gun shrugs and says, “That’s horses for you.”
Slouch offers me one of his bolts. “Here,” he says, “see if this helps.”
Ray Gun laughs and says, “You wanted to help the boy, you’d have told him not to pick a horse with 40-1 odds.”
“You wanted to help him you would have given him a glimpse of your system,” Slouch says.
“Look,” Ray Gun says, perching an elbow on my shoulder. “When things go bad we say ‘luck’ so we don’t have to kick ourselves for messing up. When things go good we say ‘luck’ so it feels like God’s got our back. That’s all. You just need to rely on yourself, because there’s never anyone else to blame.”
“By that logic,” Slouch says, “it was your own damn fault you lost your damn fingers. Which means you owe me the seventy-five bucks I spent putting Elmer to sleep.”
Slouch and Ray Gun glare at each other like somehow they’ve come to the climax of a decade long conversation. The gate goes up, and the race begins.
— ∮∮∮ —
- Slouch isn’t his real name, he asked me to call him Slouch in this article, but also said I should make a point of mentioning that he actually has good posture. ↩