Readers Report: The Gamble

By

A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “The Gamble.”

Edited by Susan Clements.

* * *

I put my money down on Princess. She had light-up kicks and a hot pink scrunchie that tugged her hair into a high ponytail. Her boyfriend just broke up with her (he liked Sally more . . . way better seat in the cafeteria) and she was obviously angry. She’d totally run faster. Kick dirt into Matt’s face who’d be running as Peanuts. From what I heard, she dances, too. Ballet Thursday and Friday, Jazz on the weekends. On Monday nights she practices cheerleading with the Jumping Frogs, the B-squad for younger middle-schoolers; and on Sundays, she meets with her scout troop to discuss cookie sale methodology and practice. I flipped through the highlighted pages of the Track & Field of Dreams pamphlet and flagged other competitors:

Little John—not really little. Avid eater. Glasses.

Trapper-Keeper—lanky with elbows like knives. Math-lover.

Miss Perfect—A-squad cheerleader. Developed early.

Android—strange kid. Trademark move at parties: The Robot.

There were a few others. Higher odds for Miss Perfect and another guy they call Sneakers.

I put $100 down. 0.6 probability. I usually do an Alphabet, but I believe too much in Princess. The boyfriend news is new, which raises those odds at least 20 percent. No spread—this isn’t the high school league. 3 o’ clock start time with the chance for a follow-up race in the case of a tie. We’ll watch from under the stands—parents get a little sensitive about adults standing around the field. Two more races next week; then the week after: team basketball and the start of glee club finals.

— Alexa Lash

* * *

I met Ray From The Bay at an off-track wagering site in downtown Newark. He was Filipino and told me that horse racing was huge there and he seemed to be an old hand—hitting winners race after race. He declared me his good luck charm even though I was down thirty bucks. I’d been picking the first and third horses on exactas, cursing my methods of favoring heavier horses on fast tracks, demanding wins when I could’ve nailed a place.

Ray From The Bay cashed in another ticket and asked me if I knew where to get any weed. He said he moved east from San Fran recently.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, now you know another place,” he said, laughing and nodding.

“All right,” I said.

“I got pounds I’m looking to get rid of.” He took my pen that I’d been marking scratches off with and wrote down his phone number in the margins of Race 5 at Penn National in the Daily Racing Form. “It’s good shit,” he said. “From The Bay.” He put two fingers to his lips.

I read the Daily Racing Form, which Ray From The Bay said he never used. I looked at practice splits—4 furlongs in 40 seconds, 5 furlongs in 51. Ray picked a thirty-to-one horse squeezed in between two favorites. He’ll run good there, watch. He made fourteen-something off a show. I looked at how well the horses ran when they started slow, when they started inside, when they got out in front. Ray From The Bay bet on races from all different parks. I stuck to one, plodding through to post time.

As I lost my last few bucks, Ray was again cashing out. When he came back to our table, I told him I was leaving. He said to call him soon.

I picked up the Daily Racing Form and stood and pushed in my chair. I looked over at the teller who I hadn’t had to visit once for a cash out. I stuck out my hand for Ray From The Bay to shake. He pressed a ten in it and said, “My lucky charm. You better call me.”

In the parking lot, I dumped the Daily Racing Form in a trash bin and I drove home slow through the city with the windows down.

— Sam Price

 * * *

She looks good tonight. She knows it, feels it like she did before she needed anyone to tell her, before she became invisible.

When he says hello and looks her in the eyes, she knows. The bar is dark, and smells comforting. There are few people here. Some kind of jazz is playing softly. She has spoken to no one, has not looked around. She has simply ordered a drink and is sitting there, waiting.

But this one looks at her, really looks at her. They talk, order another drink. Her laugh is low in her throat. She is aware of the way her eyes crease in the corners in a not unappealing way. Her bare shoulders invite touch.

This reminds her of something, a long time ago, when another looked at her in the same way. Crossed the room and took her in his arms and kissed her as she had not been kissed in her memory. With intent. Focus. She had finally understood why people said their knees got weak.

The dance from quiet drinking to the decision to leave is a delicate one, but there is no question. She listens to the clink of ice in her glass, places it on the bar, and turns to him. She communicates her need with a tilt of her head. He nods.

She wastes no time looking around at his place; they could be anywhere. Instead, as soon as the door closes, she kisses him. For once she does not think of the loose skin on her stomach, about the few extra pounds on her frame since her children were born. She does not think of the underwear she is wearing or the smell of her breath or whether her breasts are perky enough. She thinks instead, “Touch me.” She wants him to admire her, to tell her she is beautiful, but she does not need that.

She is luminous in her desire. She knows she may be disappointed by what comes next. For that matter, so might he. There is nothing to do but reach.

— Heather Calder

* * *

The uncertainty grips your heart so tightly, you feel as though your pulse has slowed. The anxiety keeps you awake at night and locks every muscle in a paralysis of fear by day. You grow delirious and begin to feel as though you’re teetering on the edge of some cliff, afraid to move a muscle and upset the balance that would send you plummeting into a ravine. You lash out at each other for the stupidest things, never naming this silent torture as the real cause for your quarrels. No, you really are angry to the point of screaming because the dishes didn’t get done. You cannot acknowledge that you’ve let this choice you’ve made become some monster lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on you with failure or hardship or worse yet, the fact that you might have been wrong to even try. Your head rests under the guillotine throughout the entire trial. You wince and close your eyes and wait to hear the verdict. And it takes days. Sometimes weeks. And you’re never given any time to get away from that shining blade above you. Waiting. You’re sure it’s wrong. You’re sure it’s going to end badly. You’re sure there’s no way you could come out of this without paying a horrific price. You drink. You smoke. You self-medicate to the point that you’re numb. But it’s still there. The anxiety, the fear, the paralysis. And then you get the call. Finally. And the deal has fallen through. And you’re asked what your next move is. And you say nothing and hang up and gingerly walk away. Tip your hat to the executioner. You’ll see him another day.

— M.L. Hamilton

* * *

“So first off, Teddy, we’re gonna be straight with you—Margot and I have some baggage that might make us seem mildly undesirable as roommates. First, we used to date each other. Secondly, Margot currently dates our landlord, which is why any complaint the third roommate registers against us will be promptly and thoroughly dismissed. And third, we run a joint letterpress/custom stamp/wedding invitation origami business that requires a lot of ink, manic rolling of the old-school letterpress in the basement, and the requisite screaming and crying that comes along with having two artistic temperaments and a tumultuous sexual history.

“If you take the time to ask around this neighborhood, you might get the impression that the two of us are known as notorious liars and thieves. Also, that I’ve dabbled in arson one or five times. That’s all false—our neighbors are shadow artists intent on sucking the success out of our souls with their inane concerns like ‘gardening’ and ‘engaged community.’ If you want to live a real, genuine life, Mr. Teddy, you’ve come to the right place. Look past the vinyl siding façade—this house is authenticity central.

“Rent? Well, despite Margot’s brave arrangement with the landlord (Tim, she prefers I call him), we do still have to pay a nominal amount of monthly fees on the house as well as our pretty astronomical gas and electric bills (due to the all-night work sessions with every light in the house blazing). So that’s where you come in, Teddy. It’s $600 for the top floor studio, you’ll have access to the second floor bathroom for eight minutes every six hours, and you’ll get the pleasure of our company whenever we feel like visiting your room to clip ‘rosemary’ from your window boxes.

“First and last month’s deposit due in cash right now, and you’re on the hook for a case of rice wine tonight.

“You in?”

— Caitlin Kunkel

* * *

I was thinking of asking out this coworker of mine. This takes a lot of guts, and is very stupid. A bad idea. But, like I said, I was just thinking about it, and, anyway, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

She was nice to me, and I liked looking at her when she wasn’t noticing me look. Sometimes it was like I was staring. But I was good at playing it so as she didn’t notice. Averting my eyes with pretty deft precision is one thing I can do well. It’s an art, maybe. Life’s a crapshoot. You’ve got to make your own luck. That’s what I say, maybe.

Well, you see, I can do something. That’s the key. I make an effort. I’m a real doer.

A point came, of course, when an opportunity presented itself, and I had to take it or be left wondering what might have been. It was an eventful moment in time for me, something that I didn’t want to miss.

‘Here you go.’ I told myself. ‘Fat pickings.’

So, we’re both in the break room together, and she’s quietly nibbling a plain bagel, reading People, and sipping on can of Slice. It was a good chance, and, apace, I talked myself into taking it.

“Hello, darling.”

This was my opening.

She just looked at me with a rather irked regard.

I was unfazed, and looked directly into her eyes, calm and steady, and asked, “Bagel time?”

“Um, yeah.” There was something startled about her, but not too scared, not timid.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

I don’t know why I said that. It was a gaff. I didn’t have anything to eat or drink. I thought about filling a cup with water, but thought better of it. She feigned a yawn and scratched at her cheek. Her face was a tad roseate.

“Yes. I mind, thank you. Please leave me alone. Thank you.” She took a quick, wary sip of Slice and went back to reading her magazine. I was getting the sense that she was mildly frightened.

I left the break room without saying another word or looking at her.

— Davy Carren

* * *

I let the proposition sit in the air, a physical presence that has settled between him and me. It’s squishy and easily frightened. I try not to look at it too closely. Instead I fiddle with the volume knob, letting the techno beats of another pop song surge and fade.

He’s looking ahead, saved by the need to concentrate on the road from glancing at me. I can see his hands clenching the steering wheel a little too tightly.

Maybe not the best idea for me to suggest this halfway into our road trip. We still have four hours to go.

The silence extends into the distance, reaching the horizon.

“Well?” I prompt, not helping and knowing it.

“Um . . . okay,” he says, but I can’t hear him over the relentless litany of thoughts racing through my head. Why are you so stupid? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Everything was going great and you had to ruin it. Why can’t you just be content? Why do you have to force? Just leave him alone. God, even my thoughts are cliché.

“What?” I say when the sound waves bouncing off my eardrums penetrate my internal scolding.

“Let’s do it,” he says, looking over at me, a small smile on his face.

“Really?” I ask, needing to hear him say it again.

“Yeah,” he says, eyes back on the road. “Let’s get married.”

— Jess Thomas

* * *

Consider newborns in a hospital nursery. Knit cap, knit cap, knit cap, swaddle, swaddle, swaddle, pink squish, caramel squish, pink squish. Rows of tiny sighs and feet lining a glass case like warm frosted doughnuts.

How did they get here?

Someone took a chance on a condom. Someone took a chance on herself. Someone took a chance on another. Many did nothing deliberate, but fluids and biology and magic did, as they’ve done and will do over and over again despite mathematics.

Drunk, love drunk, calculated, selfish, selfless, brainless, grateful, regretful.

For some it was a slow painful process, one of ups and downs and more downs and monthly margaritas ordered in bittersweet pause. For others the concept was hard, the execution easy. Some navigated science. Others navigated courtrooms. Faith in a stranger, faith in a god, faith in fucking up frequently but hopefully not in any permanent way. Some will fail. Some won’t even show up. All, whether they realize it or not, bet on the world, that it will be a good place, or at least not terrible.

But the babies. The babies don’t even know how to know they don’t know what they’re in for. No faith. No chance-taking. Just tiny sighs and whatever good and terrible things lie ahead.

— Leslie Shaffer

* * *

They were four. She stood next to the sedan, palms on the twin rubber strips of the rolled down window.

The black sand running to the sea at end of the road wasn’t obsidian, it was coal refuse.

Facing the windshield, he said to her, over the idling engine thrum, you bitch. She leaned in to dampen his volume. The parked car metal singed. His words ballooned. You are amazing. You bitch.

The other two inside leapt forward to the dash and the drivers window. Please Mommy: In.

You are impossible, he shouted.

Just for lunch, she said. We’re hungry. We wanted to stop here the last time. Remember?

You are so fucking controlling, he said. We’ll never get where we’re going. There’ll be trouble in the dark.

Inside, their tiny faces torqued smaller, eyes squinched, spraying salt tears into their road hair. The inside of the car, less a traveling breeze, baked.

They were many borders from home, from mismatched chairs, pictures taped on walls, flowers in a square of dirt. A mother she’d never met lit the flame on the only stove her children knew.

Around the car, on broken sidewalks, and in the empty heat-slick street, men and women and children slowed, and watched, eating paletas, carrying oranges and yellow bags of coffee and ten foot two-by-fours.

We named him after this town, she said. Remember? I want him to see it.

We’re parked, right? A shout. We’re seeing. And I didn’t name him for this town.

You didn’t?

Please. Mommy.

Look. There’s a place with umbrellas. And beer.

We have nuts in baggies. Get in.

A bus ran north one day or another. She could find a stranger’s home and wait, she could return home to friends, her mother, her father. Her fraying laundry line.

Please. Mommy.

Standing beneath the bitter sun, she was the woman who stole the baby holding her breath in front of Solomon.

If she walked around the bumper, stepped inside, displaced the weeping child standing on the bucket seat, they’d drive further. They’d pass around the nuts and drive four days to reach a phone with a fax where they could write: Made it! There were no long distance telephones. Nor ATMS.

Church bells rang, from the top of a tiny metal church that came across the ocean in pieces, on barges, from France.

You fucking bitch, he said.

— Heather Baird

* * *

97, 98, 99 and a 100.

That was how many times you said I was risking it.

“Recall your first period,” you say. “How proud and sacred you were, feeling almost like a woman in the girl.”

What? What are you talking about?

I waited for you to finish although I didn’t want to know how you felt when you got yours. I never got them. Waiting, I floundered, wanting very much to have the curves you hid behind those jeans. They wonderfully floated in your frame, shaming waves of the ocean in a child’s drawing book. Do you know how envious I’m about it? I’ve had none that of a woman’s body. Consumed by a lot of hair and loose shirts is misadventure. And don’t tell me, I’ve tried shaving.

Your wide eyes never grew to cease. Leaning towards me, you tilt your neck to my right in search of a piercing. Not just yet. I’d thought to tell you before I was going to get it done. A little relieved, you tell me I’m worth a hundred women. I blush like one at that instead. They’ll jingle like car keys and it’s only a matter of starting. They’ll do the drift and the drive—you wink, heading to the fridge.

After you’ve taken a sip of the mango drink, you lug a stool behind and come to where I’m seated. You touch my cheek and tried smiling. “Don’t spend your nights that way.”

I stepped back. Are you flirting with me? Well that’s nice but I don’t need it. I thought there was nothing wrong in being open about this. What I didn’t know was why you talked sense into me. Liking men was my choice. Taking them to some bed was a good reason why.

We chose to laze in the wind that was visiting us. The city dripped of an afternoon rain with a slow dismantling of shadows chewed and spat on the pavement. You promised to stay on till dusk but looks like you won’t. You picked up your bag, opened the door and squeezed my hand. Your smile is last week. “I hope you get lucky on this. I really hope you do.” After a few steps turning, you allowed yourself a moment to look at me. And the tears flowed—like a deck of cards. This is what happens when I confess to you; I linger like everything in the middle quietly spent.

Rushda Rafeek

***

Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.