CBC Short Story Prize: "Longshot" by Annie Reid
A couple at the race track must decide if their relationship is worth betting on in Annie Reid's "Longshot," shortlisted for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize.
A man in the seats behind us swore under his breath, calm and regular as a prayer. Paper ripped. Again, like an embarrassed cough. Scraps of his ticket drifted around our feet.
We were at the track, my girl and I. A nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but you had to watch it. Beer was six dollars and the form was three. Predictions from the local experts, typed up on a crisp green sheet only a single dollar, still more they wanted. But admission was free, every day of the year.
I was down. We didn't bet much, I never did, maybe five on a sure thing, two bucks was my usual, but still I was down. I don’t get too lucky with the horses, I never have. Still, I try to learn from my mistakes, I study the form, balance out the facts; see what the horse has done, and the rider—that’s all you need to know.
It was the last race of the day. The ground was littered with popcorn, empty plastic beer cups rolling in the wind, like the damp husks of some winged thing just taken to the air. Old men were shrugging into their sweaters, kids were starting to cry, dads hustling them up to their shoulders, heading for the gates. There was a trumpet; the horses came dancing, all in a line.
My girl gasped. People looked over.
My girl gasped. People looked over.
“It’s the horse from my dream,” she said. “The dream I told you about where I won. It was a grey, just like that horse. She’s a filly, too. The same silks, green like that.” She wrapped her hands around my arm, and leaned in. “How much money you got?”
“That’s no reason to bet,” I said. “With money we don’t have. It’s a longshot. This horse hasn't won all year.”
I showed her the forms, the long column of loss, the late fades, the failure to menace. The stats were all over it, clear as day.
“That’s what makes it a longshot,” I said.
“You can’t know a thing until it happens,” she said.
It was autumn now, the trees gold on the hills against a grey smudge of sky, mornings dripping with cold dew that gave me chills. Sometimes, your breath in the morning came out of you in a cloud that drifted up and away.
“So pretty,” she said. The grey horse—neck quivering, teeth exposed—was paraded down the track. The others followed. They all looked the same to me - tense, flecked with spittle, ready to explode in a blur.
“Look at her, she wants to run,” she said.
“They all want to run,” I said. “It’s their nature. Even the one who’ll be last, even he wants to run, can’t help it. Doesn't even know why, only knows he has to catch up.”
The jockey held on, clenched his legs around the horse, gave it a little prod in the flank, whispered into its ear. It was the only filly in the race, smallest of the lot, a trainer I’d never heard of.
“Last race of the day,” the announcer said. “Five minutes to post.”
I looked over at the crowd of women by the fence, huddling in the eastern winds, holding their hats on, hems blown thigh-wise, wine glasses empty and stained. They pointed at the grey. Sure, it was a pretty horse.
“I don’t see a winner there,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
“You don’t know it,” I said. “You had a dream.”
She leaned forward, touched my knee.
I waited. I shook my head, even before she began speaking, I was shaking my head.
“Bet a thousand,” she said, her voice getting low, husky, her hand edged up along my inseam, picking at threads.
“That’s a crazy amount.”
“I would, but you got it in the bank. They have machines here. It’s easy to get.”
I looked up at the boards in front of us, the numbers going up and up. Everyone getting in one last bet for the day, that last one that was going to change their luck.
“No,” I said. “That’s everything I got.”
“You get paid again in a week. We’d get by. Right now, this moment, you could do it.”
“Let’s just enjoy the rest of the day,” I said.
She pointed at the board. The odds were fifty to one on that filly, and for good reason.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” she said. “Just like that. We could go anywhere.”
“I've got ten bucks. Do you want another beer? That’s what I got.”
“Amazing,” she said, not even to me anymore.
“And what if I lost,” I said. “Not amazing.”
“Not the money,” she said. “I don’t mean the money.”
Just then, I was sure she had forgotten. Could well be she didn't remember. It wasn't too clear for me either. I had asked her to marry me, just the night before. At a party, where we were too drunk to drive, hardly even to move. She just laughed when I said it, pulled me up off my one knee I was down on. She told me to ask her again when I was sober, to make sure it wasn't only because I was drunk or because I’d felt bad about having that fight earlier, a stupid fight, I don’t even remember what about. Maybe she’d forgotten that too. I couldn't bring myself to ask.
“Three minutes to post,” said the announcer. The horses were heading towards the starting gate, getting ready to load. The filly fighting her jockey, prancing sideways.
The beer was turning in my hands, the few bottom ounces in the cup, going warm and sour. I wanted another one, nice and cold. I was thirsty, and that would hit the spot.
A gust of wind rose up. The smell of dirt rose off the track. Earth and manure, sweat and stale beer. Perfume. Cigarettes.
“It was just a dream,” I said.
She shifted in her seat; put the racing form on the bench between us. Someone behind us was laughing, couldn't get their breath back, they laughed so hard.
“At the party last night,” she said, and I closed my eyes against it, but she kept on. “When you asked me. Remember when you asked me,” she said, so softly.
I sighed. I didn't mean to, but we were having a nice day. And she had to bring it up. I braced myself for her to go on. We sat a moment, each of us waiting.
But then she didn't say a thing, and when I opened my eyes, she had her purse out. Like she had forgotten something all along and only then just remembered to look for it. Opened her purse instead of going on, pushed things in there out of the way—lipstick, her empty wallet. She was after something in there, and I was grateful for it.
“I’ll get some beers,” I said. I smiled. I had enough for two, without the tip.
“Two minutes to post,” said the announcer.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
The beer line still had a few people in it, and the bar man was pouring slow. I heard the gun for the race, and that quiet moment when the crowd sucks in their breath to start yelling. Heard the thunder of the horses as they turned the bend, saw the crowd rise to their feet, hands in the air, the screaming at the end, all the names and what they wanted from those names all blurred together in one great roar.
When I came back to her, she was standing there, arms clutched to her chest. She was smiling, ticket in her hand. Five dollars, that’s all the change she’d found in the bottom of her purse in that second before the windows closed, when she’d charged up, out of breath, hands full of bright coins. Now that ticket was worth two hundred and fifty dollars. Just like that.
She took me to dinner, and we ordered things we liked the name of, things that looked beautiful on a plate we never touched.
I ask after her sometimes. One friend said he’d heard she moved out west. Someone else said Paris. The girl at the corner store said she had moved up north, where the sun bakes you dry in the summertime, and winter nights make you feel like you’re a brittle piece of ice about to shatter. I ask when she’ll be back; I ask if someone has her number. I ask them all the same questions, I ask them every time. Still I’m waiting, but no one can tell me what I need to know.
Photo credit: iStock