Friday, March 3, 2017


This is a short story I wrote. I like it.
       At the 2016 NOIR CON, Lou Boxer's biennial celebration of Noir in Philadelphia,  Barry Gifford -- a Maestro of NOIR, (Wild At Heart), race tracker (Day at the Races) and all round good guy was honored. Lou puts out an anthology along with the Con so I wrote this story for Barry. Jim Nisbet, a fabulous bard and master of English language prose and poetry, also wrote a short for Barry in the anthology--a classic race track story. heh. 

I hope you enjoy this one.


          Gina woke up on the floor, uncurled, groaned. She discovered she had a purple sock on her left foot. It was unfamiliar. Her right foot was bare, surprisingly clean. She wiggled her toes--it hurt all the way up to her hairline. She ran a self-check: Black cargo pants, keys in left pocket, passport in right side cargo pocket, sixteen dollars in the right pocket—all right! She didn’t know where that came from but hey.  A flattened pack of cigarettes in left cargo pocket. Lighter under her hip on the floor. She was wearing an orange sweatshirt with PUERTO RICO in tall lavender letters across the front. That was unexpected. She didn't own an orange sweatshirt.  
The floor was black and white lino-squares. She patted it, delicate probes, hand splayed out, a starfish questing for food across the vast ocean bottom. Her head boomed with ocean surf slamming against the steep cliffs of her brain.
Bleary, her eyes pinged black white black errgh. Her teeth were fuzzy. Holding herself up by sheer determination—the wall tended to collapse downward like sliding jello—she plunged forward into the unknown depths of where ever the hell she was.
She swayed back and forth in the middle of a kitchen. She had a vague recollection, something about puking. Food generally hid in kitchens. She wouldn’t miss eating. Where were her fuckin shoes, how could she leave without shoes and where would she go? Turning slowly toward the window—hey it’s still dark out—or was it dark again? Gina discovered a coffee mug, a small puddle of goop in the bottom. It sloshed as she picked it up. Ah, good.  
She slurped. The noise slammed her against the wallpaper, horrid yellow sunflowers seemed to give slightly as she made contact. Creepy asylum-bouncy walls. Placing the hand without the cup on her head she bolstered herself against wobbling reality.
Animal parts and rice and squishy beans congealed in a pan on the stove. Her stomach roiled with dismay. Vestiges of some savage rite. Had she flung these bits of false sustenance into that pan? Gah. She’d never seen that pan. Like the purple sock. The orange sweatshirt. Strange. She’d never been to Puerto Rico. She hoped like hell she wasn’t in Puerto Rico.
          Grief. That’s what this was. Sorrow unending, a huge sucking maw of sad.
How easy it was to get lost in momentary disconnection, lose the ability to perform on command. What was perhaps a temporary state becomes habitual? Instant pariah.
Gina thought maybe she should stop smoking. Someone told her that would make her a better person. She hadn't thought so, but hey she woke up not knowing where she was. Perhaps the root of the problem was cigarettes.
She fumbled a cigarette out of her pocket, lit it. Fuck better person. She liked to smoke. Maybe she would just not eat any processed food, in the sainthood game that should be as effective as not smoking. No white flour, no corn syrup. Whatever. Okay. She wouldn't eat. Because puking. Instead she'd drink copious amounts of booze. Smoke lots of cigarettes. Pot. And dope. Yeah. Bang all the drugs she could get her grubby hands on. Better person comin right up.
That probably entailed leaving the house.
If she found herself roaming the streets, one purple sock, somewhere in Puerto Rico—no tellin what might happen. First person smokin weed, she’d follow them, tracking the spliff, maybe try a snatch and grab. Well, she could ask first maybe. Did she speak enough Spanish? Of course she did. Anyone can ask for weed in any language. Chinese? Get her killed most likely. Chinese opium was good. That get her killed for sure. Skip China. Her lips pulled tight, head tipped to the side. Was she that far out there? Thinkin about a good score in China which would get her killed. Suicide might be an answer to a lot of questions but probably not to all of them.
Considering the angles morphed the whole into something glittering, geometrical in its complexity. Algebra demands finesse, elegance. All she was coming up with was climb out the window. See what Puerto Rico looked like from the fire escape. Scarper off. Into the wild. First she needed some painkillers.
She staggered down the hallway looking for a bathroom with a medicine cabinet maybe. The hall was lined with empty bookshelves on one side, on the other side, a greasy plaster wall had holes punched in it. Homey.
The first door on the left opened into a tiny room with a toilet. Sink. Empty cabinet. That was what happened when people removed themselves from all the common pleasures. Not even an aspirin. She pee'ed, wondering if there was a bed somewhere in the building. After kitchen-fail and bathroom-fail it seemed unlikely.
“Hey Gina! You up, chula?”
Frowning, Gina stepped into the bleak hallway. “Where the fuck am I?”
Rhea handed her a joint. She said, “Garcia's house. He back in jail, gave me the keys. Good place outta the storm.”
Gina took a long slow drag. Coughed. “Garcia? Su primo?” Her gaze was hooded, suspicious. “How I get here?” She gestured at the orange shirt. “Puerto Rico?”
Rhea smiled. “Pinche primo.” Shrugging, “You got thrownup on. You don remember? Creep was tryin ta feel me up, you tol im ta back da fuck off?”
“So he threw up on me?”
Rhea twirled her fingers in the air, “Well. Yeeeah.” She mimed a left-jab-anda-right-cross. “A little of that.”
Gina said, “Me? Or you? You the one likesa boxeo. I only do it when I. Well. When I think it's the only answer.” She put one arm around Rhea's shoulder, leaning a little. They trudged back to the kitchen, battle comrades. “Maybe. I remember being seriously pissed.”
“You been that a lot.”
“Ah crap, Ree. I'm just diggin through shit lately.” She shook her head. “I've gone mental. Nothin seem to matter much. Except, yunno, I gotta thank you for savin my ass.”
“Savin was mutual. Pendejo took me by surprise.”
“Hm. Okay. I'm glad I'm not in Puerto Rico. I only speak jailhouse Spanish and I suppose it'd be tough there.”
“You safe wit me. Hey, wanta come wit me to the gym?”
Rhea worked out several hours, every day. Every day. Gonna be somebody.
Gina said, “You fucking weirdo. No, I don't wanta go to no stinky gym. I don't intend any real insult to you, but it's too violent for my gentle soul.”
Rhea nodded. “Gentle soul. Right. Who you tryna kid?”
“Me. Me, I guess.” Gina said, “I got existential angst. How you say that in Spanish, eh?”
“Ca-bro-naaaa. Maybe tha's how?” Rhea tossed the frying pan into the sink. “I dunno. What's it mean?”
“Ennyway. I was thinkin I'm not doin nothin. So why I keep goin forward?”
“Goin back's no good, Gina.” Rhea went over to the window, stared out at the dreary dawn sky. “I got a idea.”
“Oh now I'm afraid.”
“No no. You like this. You just killin time, diggin through shit, right? There gotta be a pony in there somewhere, right?”
Gina put her finger in her ear, wiggled it a little. “Say what?”
Rhea found Gina's shoes, tossed them to her. “Le's go. I got Garcia's car.”
          “Where we go? I tol you I don't wanta go to your gym.”
“Get the shoes on, chica. Place is jus a little ways over in the East Bay.”

Gina's eyes were wide open as the horses went thundering around the curve. Six furlongs. Claiming race. Three year olds. Her world shook, narrowing to hooves snapping too fast to see, dirt flying, huge horse bodies flying. Tiny in the distance, the jockeys were bright daubs of paint careening together with their mounts, one gray horse pulling ahead. And ahead.
Gina was standing up on tip toe, gripping the railing in front of her, shifting her shoulders left and right, pushing forward, “Go! Go! Go you mutha fucka! Gooooooo!”
The corners of Rhea's mouth were tucked in, pleased. Her dimples flashed. “That your horse, Gina?”
Gina panted, “How the hell I know? It was just such a magnificent thing!” She turned to Rhea, flaming with desire. “These horses for sale? Claimers? Like anyone could simply up and claim one?” She waved her arm recklessly at the finish line. “For their own?”
Rhea rolled her eyes. “Noooo. Gotta have a license.”
“I bet I could get someone make me uppa license,” Gina tipped her head, “you know. Like my ID card. It's not real but it works fine.”
“You got a coupla acres? All smooth so the stupid horse don't catch his foot inna hole? You ever ridden a horse? What the hell, Gina.”
“Oh. Well. I don't have none a that.” Gina thought how she might put all of it together. “I rode a pony once. At a fair or somethin. Was nice.”
“Le's get another beer. Be a while before the next race.”
“Them horses all for sale too?”
“Yeah. It’s another claiming race. You gotta have cash. And a horse trailer pick em up after the race. I didn't bring my trailer.” Rhea was intent on the beers. “Beer here is piss but that’s what we got. Don't get a hot dog. Kill ya quicker'n speed.”
“You gotta trailer?”
“No. Lissen, ya dingbat. I don hava trailer. I don have no land. I don know how ta keep em or clean em or feed em or ride em. I jus like to watch em run. Jeez.”
“I'm thinkin. I'm thinkin.” Gina took a slug of beer. “The seventh race, Golden Nugget Stakes? Got a girl horse with a girl jockey.”
Rhea said, “You gonna buy a horse you needa know some lingo. Girl horse is a filly. Girl jockey is a jockey same as the men ones. Golden Nugget Stakes is the main race today. Stakes race is big money. Algenon's the favorite.”
“I'm gonna bet my wad on the filly. Code Warrior.”
“Win, place or show?”
“To win. Is Code Warrior for sale?”
“Nope. They maybe thought about sellin her but the girl jockey ridin her is the one picked her out at auction last year. Won't let em sell her.”
“Oh yeah? That's kinda sweet.”
“No sentiment in horse racin. It's about money. Horse lookin good right now. They sell her inna hot minute if she falters.”
Gina looked vaguely horrified. “These wonderful creatures are just cash cows?”
Rhea shrugged, walked back to the rail. “A rich man's game to own one.” She watched the end of the race, checked her ticket, dimples appeared. “Poor girl wins with the rich bastid’s horse.”  She hiked up the steps to the pay out. “Forty dollars. Holy cash cow. Yes! I rock.”
           Gina walked with her. “I wanta see how this is done. I expectin to collect on the—um, lemme see. Right. Six horse in the seventh.”
Rhea said, “Don’t be sayin that out loud. People hear you not bettin on the favorite, they bet with you, odds change.” She quirked a shoulder at the people standing around. “Your take is less.”
“That’s my life. That right there. I make a play for something and instantly the odds slide into the toilet.” Gina scowled at everyone, whispered, “Look like alotta these folks is crim’nals.” She cut her eyes to a man in a ball cap, black turtle neck, big silver cross and khakis. She didn’t like the way he looked at Rhea.
Rhea lifted her chin, saying, “Yeah. We're somehow different?”
Gina didn't answer.
The air smelled spicy, of horses and aftershave. Of thundering dreams and smashed hearts. The bugle guy did his thing, the snazzy preamble to the next race. The horses danced toward the gates. Gina breathed slow, floating somewhere above her body, observing the man hunched over the racing form ticking numbers off, making notes with stubby pencil. Looking at Rhea.
Some of the men wore sport coats, pricey rings on their little fingers, smoked cigars. Had curvetting ladies by their sides. Professional women so sleek and well kept, but skittish, same as the horses.
Proud heads tilted, rushing reaching graceful grabbing, shy glancing: LOOK AT ME. Fabulous. Women. Horses. Full time job to keep a woman like that.
“Maybe horses are easier than whores?”
“I suspect they bout the same. At least these ones. Finicky. Yunno.”
“Mm.” Gina stood as tall as she could, glaring around, watching the pretty women move. Watching the man watch Rhea.
Rhea collected her money, shoved it into the pocket of her too tight jeans. She said, “The things I do for fashion.” Her butt wiggled left and right.
“Hey now hey now pretty lady.” The voice was a whisper on the breeze. “The tamale won beeg. I show her a good time.” The ball cap man slipped between them, his broad back a wall in front of Gina, his arms reaching to hug Rhea.
“Muthafucka.” Gina slammed her shoulder into his kidney. “Get the fuck away!”
Apparently the man hadn’t expected the stubby little woman to hit him, he turned, mouth gaping. He stumbled, clutching at Rhea. Her fist jabbed sharply at his eye. Connecting with a satisfying bop.
He growled, “She hit me! The fuckin spic hit me!”
Gina crouched down behind his knees, covering her head. Rhea lifted her open hands, shuffled her feet—an Ali shuffle! The man looked down just like he was supposed to do. Rhea palmed his forehead flipping him back. It was a delicate precise gesture.
The man tumbled over Gina, smacked his head as he fish flopped onto the cement.
Gina stood up. “Fuckin creepy bastid.”
The two of them quick-stepped into the crowd, two streaks disappearing into the distance. Gina muttered out the side of her mouth, “Can’t take you anywhere.”
When they got to the car Gina said, “Maybe you should wear a bag over your head in public? No wait. A big garbage sack over all of you.”
Rhea waved her hand down the length of her body. “Hide this? Not happenin.”
“Uh.” Gina was grinning. “You know what? Today started out crap then it went all pageantry with cigars and fancy women. Movin slow slow slow and elegant. Horses high step prancing …. The gates open! Everything tilts.” Gina stared up at the sky, “Nothin as important as that moment. Can’t breathe. Then it’s over.” She did a four step Michael Jackson moon walk. “You ain’t the only one can dance.” Slipping sideways, fists pumping, Gina performed a tiny spin.
Rhea nodded, her dimples came and went. “Not gonna buy no horse, okay?”
“Not right now.”  Side eye. “Ain’t got no fuckin money.”
“Well, yeah. But we work good together, huh?”
Gina gave her the long stare, up and down. “I don’t want to be the one getting puked on or crouchin behind some asshole every time. Maybe I wanta get some shots in. I just don’t wanta spend hours at your stupid gym in order to do it.”
“I can deal wit that.” Rhea lit a joint, handed  it to her with a flourish. “Here ya go.”
“Right.” She took a hit, held it in. Pointing at the race course entrance, keeping the smoke in her lungs, she sort of squeaked around the smoke, “Here I go.” She frowned. “Rhea? Where am I goin? Tell me again?”
“How about right now I treat ya to a fancy dinner with my vast winnins?”
Gina exhaled. “Been a long time since I hadda fancy dinner.”  Shrugging, still frowning, she got in Garcia’s car.

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