Tomorrow is the Kentucky Derby. Back in 2011 I wrote a short story for a little contest called the Watery Graves Invitational that featured the Derby, and my story, “Run for the Roses,” won it. It was exciting; I remember waking up the morning it was announced to a bunch of congratulations from my writing friends, the reason for which I was ignorant of. You can read the story at the link I provided, but here it is as well, delivered with a very primitive multimedia approach that is the way I always thought about presenting it. I hope you take the time to read it. I’ve taken some liberties with how gambling actually works around here, but that’s what we writers tend to do sometimes, heh. Nor have I edited it at all, though I kind of want to. . . .
Now: Monday Morning
Steam swirled around Roger Moody as he stepped from the bathroom into the hallway. His face tingled from the razor and splash of aftershave; water trickled down the middle of his back and disappeared under the elastic band of his boxer shorts.
His feet stuck slightly to the scuffed hardwood floor, leaving damp, shapeless prints in his wake. He approached the closet door facing his bedroom, hesitated, his hand on the brass knob. He’d passed the door every day for almost four decades, but had not opened it in over a year.
The smell, which Gina had never been able to banish no matter how many extra-strength detergents she’d tried, shocked him with memories. Over the years of working the paper mill he’d gotten accustomed to it, absorbed it, made it a part of him. Now, fourteen months removed from the last time he’d exited the hulking gray building, crossed the road, and crunched over the gravel of the parking lot, the odor was as fresh to him as the first day he’d breathed its humid, rotten-egg scent.
“Oh, that will take some getting used to,” Gina had said when he came home that first day. And it had. For nearly forty years, one child raised, and lots of love – certainly their share of heartbreaks as well – Roger and Gina had built a life on what he’d brought home after toiling in the heat and steam of the mill for three different owners.
It had all ended. They knew sooner of later he’d quit working, but hoped it would be on his terms. When it shut down abruptly just before Christmas of ’09, they weren’t really prepared, but figured to make do. They had actually looked forward to a life of retirement together. Road trips. Camping.
Then Gina got sick. Her illness drained what savings they’d had. The last time she’d washed, folded, and hung his work clothes in this closet had indeed been the last.
Roger’s gaze moved from the hard hat on the top shelf, across the half-dozen work shirts on hangars, over the neat pile of jeans on the bench against the back wall, and stopped on the worn Redwings still flecked with dried spots of wood pulp and starch. He began to dress.
Three Days Ago: Friday
“Jesus, would you look at that.”
Roger looked away from the TV over the bar to where the man on the stool to his left, Henry, nodded. The bartender was several feet away opposite the bar, bent over, placing clean glasses into the cooler that would keep them icily chilled. Her faded Wranglers barely contained the swell of her behind, and a hot pink thong was visible to the point where it disappeared deep into her ass crack.
“Oh, the things I’d do to that,” Henry said, shaking his head, tipping a half-empty glass of beer to his lips.
“Like what?” the man to Henry’s left said. “Repeat stories over and over about the good old days?”
“Yeah, you’re old enough to be her goddamn grandfather,” Roger said.
“Fuck you, Roger,” Henry said. “And fuck you too, Perry. Just because you guys decided to get old and let everything dry up don’t mean the rest of us have.” He raised his voice, aiming it at the bartender’s backside. “I got needs,” he said.
The bartender stood up, thumping the small cooler door closed, and faced him. Drying her hands on a towel, she smirked. “Henry, please. You probably haven’t had a hard-on since 1985.”
Roger and Perry guffawed. “Shit, you heard about that,” Henry said, his eyes twinkling. “I didn’t even know my wife came into this dump.”
“Twice a week,” Cherie, the bartender, said. “Usually leaves with one of those college boys.” She nodded her head down to the far end of the bar. “Or two.”
The men all laughed. Henry raised his beer glass to her.
They returned to their beers.
“So I see in the paper the fuckin’ mayor says there might not be enough money in the budget to fix all the goddamn potholes this spring,” Perry said.
“That asshole,” Henry said. “He’s just playing for a little – ”
“The Derby’s tomorrow?” Roger said. He had resumed watching the television. He looked at his watch then back to the TV where a commentator was standing in front of a white barn. “Jesus, it is May already, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, the race is tomorrow,” Perry said. “Where’s your brain been all week? We just talked about it yesterday. Fuckin’ Sam Senior’s kid is meeting us here to take our bets.”
“That sonofabitch,” Roger said. “I remember now. He’s worse than his old man was. If I’m betting, I’d rather drive it up to the ‘rez myself.”
“You’re not gonna bet shit anyway,” Henry said. “You’re too fuckin’ tight.”
“Too fuckin’ broke,” Roger said. He polished off his beer, then stood up. “Which reminds me. I got a grand for selling that snowmobile trailer I need to go deposit so the mortgage don’t bounce.”
“I thought all you retirees where rich,” Cherie said, dropping three fresh beers on the bar in front of them. “You mean to tell me I’ve been wasting my time being nice to you in hopes of one of you wealthy guys dropping dead on our wedding night?”
“Sheeeit,” said Perry.
“Some of us are rich in other ways, darlin’,” Henry said, winking.
Roger sat back down. He picked up the fresh beer; condensation dripped off the bottom of the glass onto the bar’s surface. “Don’t get old, Cherie,” he said. “It doesn’t pay shit.”
The front door to the bar opened, spilling bright sunlight across the floor and over the rows of dusty old black and white portraits lining the walls. A thickly built man in a Montana tuxedo – jeans and a sport coat – took three steps into the room, blinking in the dim light, then approached the three men.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “We doing some business today?”
“Some of us are,” Henry said with a glance at Roger. “Those of us with the cajones anyway.”
“Hey, how’s your mom doing these days, Billy?” Perry asked the newcomer. “Still ornery as hell?”
“Oh, Christ,” Billy said. “That woman busts my balls. I can’t believe the old man lived as long as he did.”
The men chuckled. Billy called Cherie over and asked for a Budweiser. After he took a long drink, he said, “So, fellas, who are we talking about here?”
“Heard the favorite scratched this morning,” Perry said.
“Yep,” Billy said. “Could be anyone’s race; it’s a wide open field.”
“It’s a shit field,” Henry said.
“Like I said, wide open.”
“Well, I’m gonna make a bet,” Perry said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. “But it won’t be much more than a token gesture.”
“Yeah, same here,” Henry said.
Billy looked at Roger. “What about you, Moody. You in?”
Roger held his hands up. “Not this year, Billy, not me.”
“You don’t like the ‘Sport of Kings’ no more, eh?”
“Hey, you guys talking about the Derby?” A pair of young men were passing by on their way to the front door. The wobble in their steps proved they were well into their cups already in the middle afternoon.
Billy turned, scowled, then looked back at his companions and said, “Who are these guys?”
“Shouldn’t you boys be at work?” Perry said.
“We’re students,” one of them said.
“Of course,” Henry muttered into his beer glass, rolling his eyes.
“I’m a student of said ‘Sport of Kings’,” the other youth said. “And I’ve got a sure bet for you for the Derby tomorrow.”
“A sure bet,” Perry said.
“Sure as you get up to piss ten times a night.”
Roger and Henry laughed out loud. Even Billy cracked a smile. Perry’s face flushed. “Okay, wiseass, who’s this ‘sure bet’ of yours?”
The college guy was wearing tight black slacks, a rumpled white shirt, and a thin black tie. He adjusted the knot on the tie dramatically, then re-positioned the Panama hat perched rakishly on his head. “Animal. Kingdom.”
“Fuck off,” Perry said, waving the youth away.
“That plug?” Henry said. “Get out of here. Go spend your daddy’s money.”
The student laughed. “You’ll see!” he said. “Watch and see, gentlemen!”
Something stirred in Roger’s gut. The kid was halfway to the door when Roger called out, “What makes you so sure?”
The college kid turned around. “It’s his name.”
“Yeah. It’s the same as a great movie.”
“A movie?” Perry said. “Called Animal Kingdom?”
“Never fuckin’ heard of it,” Henry said.
“That’s probably because John Wayne isn’t in it, Gramps,” the kid said. “Animal Kingdom. Australian crime movie.” He pointed at Roger and winked. “A sure thing.”
Roger left the bar shortly after. He had grown tired of the bickering over horses; all the bullshit. He’d been getting more and more weary of the constant griping as the friends met in the same bar, sat on the same stools, and drank the same beer. Day in, day out.
Besides, he truly was down to his last funds. He’d call the ten crisp hundreds in his pocket the last of his savings except they wouldn’t be in his account long enough to even qualify. He hadn’t been kidding about the mortgage.
Still, when he reached the credit union he found himself driving past it. He was thinking about that college kid and his horse, Animal Kingdom. It was crazy, but he had half a mind to bet on it.
“Maybe one of these hundreds,” he said out loud. He drove a little farther, then suddenly flipped a u-turn. “Why the hell not.”
Now: Monday Morning
Roger, dressed for work and wearing his hard hat, stood over the small round table in the tiny kitchen. Its scarred wooden surface was bare except for a long, narrow pink box and a battered old plastic lunchbox. A white ribbon held the box lid closed; rather than undo the bow, Roger reached into his pocket and retrieved a small pocket knife. Prying the blade open with his thumb, he carefully cut the ribbon and pulled it free. He closed the knife with slow, deliberate movements, then removed the lid from the box.
A dozen red roses were nestled in a bed of pale yellow tissue. He leaned over the box and breathed deeply; the roses infused the room with their scent. A slight smile curled the edge of his mouth, and almost lovingly Roger removed two long, single stems from the box.
In the living room was a tall, stressed-wood pie safe. Roger carried the roses to it. Holding them in his left hand, he picked up a Bic barbecue lighter from the top of the pie safe and flicked a flame to life. He lit two tall candles flanking a pair of 8×10 photos in ornate metal frames. One was a woman; Gina, smiling and happy in middle age, her blue eyes bright, her blond hair retaining its original color. Next to Gina’s picture was that of a young man in the uniform of the US Marine Corps. Roger Moody, Jr. looked the pinnacle of health in the photo, his father thought, so much like his mother.
Roger stared at the two photos for several long moments, then let his eyes drift to the wall surrounding the safe. It was crowded with photographs of the family’s life together. Happy times. More than a lifetime’s worth it seemed, Roger often thought.
Carefully Roger arranged the two flowers in front of the pictures of his dead wife and son. He took the Bic lighter with him to the kitchen and put it on the table. He picked up the lunchbox, turned out the kitchen light. He went around the house turning out all the lights; the bathroom, the hallway.
In the living room he paused at the front door, then opened it. He stood in the doorway and looked back at the pie safe. The candles made shadows play across the photographs. When Roger flipped the switch to kill the overhead lamp, the shadows deepened, barely held at bay by the tiny flames.
He lingered only a moment longer, then Roger exited the house and pulled the door to behind him.
Three Days Ago: Friday Evening
When Roger returned to the bar, the others were gone. Cherie told him no one had said where they were going, though Henry had muttered something about “Lowe’s” and “a fucking lawnmower.” That was fine, Roger didn’t care where his friends had gone, and had a good idea where to find Sammy.
Fifteen minutes later Roger guided his pickup into the parking lot of Gary’s Auto. It was a combination repair shop/used car lot, established almost fifty years ago by Sam Gary, Sr. His son now ran the operation; Roger parked next to Sammy’s black Mustang, then went inside. It was after hours, but the door was open.
A small bell jingled as Roger stepped into the shop. “I’m in the office,” Sammy called from the back. Roger walked down a short hallway then rapped his knuckles on the open door frame. Sammy looked up from his computer screen, then his eyebrows raised as he recognized Roger. “Hey Roger, what brings you out here?”
“I decided maybe we can do some business after all.”
“You need a new ride or something? It can’t wait until tomorrow?”
“No, Sammy, I’m talking about the race.”
“The race?” Sammy sat back in his chair. “You know, I don’t like to do that kind of business out of the shop, Rog. I like to keep them separate.”
“Yeah, I know,” Roger said, taking the envelope containing the hundreds out of his back pocket. “But with the race tomorrow, I didn’t want to risk missing you. Your shop was on my way.”
“You can’t call?”
“Like I said,” Roger said. He had the money out, counting the hundreds. “You were on my way.”
Sammy’s eyes watched Roger’s hands, counting the bills along with him. “So what did you have in mind? I already made the bets from earlier.”
“Well, I want to bet too, if you can work it in.”
“The number eleven. Animal Kingdom.”
“You sure about that, Rog? That horse never ran on the dirt before.”
“I’m sure, Sammy. I’m sure.”
Sammy shrugged. “Okay, it’s your bet. What’s your play?”
“I want to bet him to win.” Roger peeled a single hundred off the sheaf of bills. “A hundred bucks.” He started to hand it to Sammy, then paused, thought a moment, and said, “No, fuck it. Make it a grand.” He handed all the money to Sammy.
“Wow, that’s a hell of a lot on a long shot!” Sammy laughed. “That’s ballsy. You sure you aren’t drunk?”
“Sober as a Catholic funeral.”
“Okay, Roger, I’ll make your bet. I’ll be in the bar with those other guys on Sunday if any of you win anything. But like I said, I don’t do business here so I don’t have any of my paperwork. We can meet somewhere later and I’ll get you a receipt, or you can trust me.”
“I trust you, Sammy,” Roger said, turning to leave. “Me and your dad went way back.”
Two Days Ago: Saturday Afternoon
Sammy sat on the edge of his bed, watching the small television on the top of his dresser. He held a High Life halfway to his open mouth, his hand shaking as the field of nineteen horses thundered into the final turn at the head of the stretch of storied Churchill Downs. . . .
Yesterday: Sunday Afternoon
“I sure wish that kid was here, I’d buy him a fuckin’ beer,” Roger said.
“Yeah, you’ve said that a couple times already,” Henry said.
“I still can’t believe you put a thousand bucks on that sonofabitch,” Perry said. “How much did you say you’ll get again?”
“Should be around twenty thousand bucks or so,” Roger said, his eyes red-rimmed and wide. He slapped Perry on the back, laughing. He was ecstatic and more than a little drunk. “Another round for my friends!” he called to Cherie.
“Here he comes now,” Henry said, gesturing to the back of the bar. “Sneaking in the back to make us rich.”
Sammy was approaching. He smiled. “You old fucks didn’t win that much.” He handed an envelope to Henry and one to Perry. “Show bets on about every horse isn’t going to get anyone rich, fellas.”
“What about me, Sam?” You’re making me rich, aren’t you?” Roger said, beaming, putting his hand on Sammy’s shoulder. “You got something for me?”
Sammy looked at Roger, a puzzled expression on his face. He shrugged out from under Roger’s hand. “What do you mean, Rog?” he said.
Roger’s enthusiasm dimmed. “Stop fucking with me, Sammy. You’re making me nervous. My grand. On Animal Kingdom. Remember?”
“Yeah, right,” Sammy said, and snorted. “You wish. You and me both.” He looked at Perry and Henry and laughed. Their faces were clouded with confusion, looking from Sammy to Roger.
Roger put his hand back on Sammy’s shoulder, this time more firmly. “You took my thousand dollars to win on Animal Kingdom,” he said.
Sammy pushed the hand away and stepped back. “You better watch it,” he said, pointing at Roger, then the other two. “You guys were here, did you see this senile old fuck place a bet?” When they just stared, nervous, he repeated, almost shouting, “Did you?”
When they shook their heads, Roger’s mouth fell open. “I went to your place later!” he said. “I swear,” he said, grabbing Perry’s forearm. “I went back to his place later!”
The room was quiet. Cherie edged closer, the bar’s cordless phone in her hand. Sammy was straightening his sport coat. “You got a receipt, Rog?” he asked. When Roger blinked, Sammy shrugged. “If there’s no receipt, then I guess there’s no bet.”
“You sonofabitch,” Roger said. He swung wildly at Sammy with a right, catching the younger, stockier man in the shoulder. Sammy took the blow and stepped in, driving a fist into Roger’s ample belly.
Roger’s breath whoofed from his lungs. He fell to the floor, his arms around his middle, wheezing for air. Shoes and boots scuffed the floor around him, voices shouted angrily. He grinded his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed. A single tear trickled out the corner of his right eye.
Roger sat in his truck across the street from Gary’s Auto waiting for Sammy to arrive. The sun was up, and other employees had gotten the shop running. When Sammy’s Mustang pulled into the lot, Roger waited ten minutes, then picked up the lunchbox and hard hat from the seat beside him and crossed the street.
None of the workers acknowledged him when he went through the front door. He moved purposefully down the hallway to Sammy’s office, kicking the door closed behind him. Sammy looked up and frowned. “Roger? The fuck you doing here?”
Roger set his lunch box on Sammy’s desk and undid the clasps on the front. “You’re a fuckin’ no good thief, Sammy. Just like your old man.”
Sammy leaned forward. “You got this one chance to get the fuck out of my shop, Moody,” he said. “Or this time you’ll get more than just a poke in your fat belly.”
“I know about guys like you. A few years ago, at the mill, there was this asshole who kept taking stuff from other people’s lunches. I used to eat a lot of jerky, and this sonofabitch kept taking it. So I had Gina buy some dog treats that looked like jerky. I put some of it in a baggy in my lunchbox and the rest of the package in my pocket. About halfway through the shift I checked, and sure as shit my jerky was gone.”
“So what’s your fuckin’ point?”
Roger held up a finger. “At the end of the shift we had a safety meeting. When everyone was gathered in the lunch room for it, I stood up and said, ‘I just want to know which a you’s been eating my goddamn jerky.’ I walked over to the guy – we all knew who was doing it – and took that open pack of dog treats out of my pocket. ‘Because,’ I said, ‘I thought you might like to have the rest of it.’ His faced turned all red and everyone laughed. Thing is, that asshole never stole from anyone again.”
“Phhft,” Sammy said. “I guess you showed him. Now get the fuck out of my shop.”
“I did show him, Sammy. And now I’m going to show you.” Roger opened his lunchbox, reached inside, drew out a .38 revolver and pointed it at Sammy. “Except this isn’t a dog treat.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Rog,” Sammy said. “You don’t want to do this over a thousand bucks, brother.”
“Actually, I do.”
“C’mon, man. I have your money. I admit, I fucked up. I didn’t think that horse would win, so I just kept it. I’ll give it back to you, no hard feelings. I’ll even tell your friends.”
Roger shook his head. “It isn’t really the money, Sammy. It’s just because you’re an asshole.” Roger fired the pistol point blank into Sammy’s face. The recoil made Roger flinch; he heard a loud thump that he realized was the sound of Sammy’s feet hitting the underside of the desk as he was thrown over backwards.
Stepping halfway around the desk, Roger fired two more shots into Sammy’s chest. He said, “And if my life is such that I got to deal with fucks like you, spending my days on a bar stool, then it just isn’t worth it. Gina wouldn’t like it, and my boy deserves better.”
Roger put the nose of the pistol up under his chin.
Thanks to anyone who’s stuck around this far. You know, even though the race had already happened before I wrote this story, obviously, I still get a little verklempt for old Roger whenever I watch it.