ben vandgrift · on living the dream

at the races

Matthew laughed, the forced mirth echoing around the inside of his head, kicking around his shaggy brown hair. He dodged his date's gaze, glancing around at the fences, the turf, and the finely primped socialites. Her hand in his left, and the betting slip in his right, he led her toward the nearest rail. He looked down at the ticket, then at the girl. Two cool Benjamins on the aptly named 'Long Shot', and the shapely Mediterranean beauty called Antigone. 50:1 on the horse; he didn't want to think about the odds on the girl.

Smiling and bouncing, she leaned against the rail. Dark hair and eyes danced, full of the warmth of the day. She beamed at Matt before turning her face back to the track, tipsy on sunlight and wine. The middle-aged woman next to her laughed at her remark, though Matt didn't hear. He heard little, save the chatter of the crowd, and the conch shell thrumming of blood in his ears.

The bell sounded, the gates opened, and the horses were off—Long Shot just behind the leader. Matt's stub felt like a blushing cheek, hot and ashamed. It crumpled a little in his grip. As he looked back at the horses, the thunder on the turf and in his ears nearly occluded the enthusiasm of his fellows as the riders screamed past. Long Shot had fallen back a length.

His face was a mask, but his eyes couldn't lie—he could never make his eyes lie like so many of his friends could. They could be whatever a girl wanted, like water from a faucet: tender, sympathetic, brave, confident, humorous. Talents Matt hadn't practiced, and wasn't sure he wanted to—but longing makes one stupid, and the ticket in his hand was proof. He watched the race, jumping and laughing with this girl, clearly beyond him, all the while hoping that she couldn't see the fear in his brow, couldn't see the red ink reflected in his glasses, and didn't notice his puerile and ham-fisted attempt to impress her by throwing away his much-needed cash on a fool's bet.

Long Shot had fallen past the pack, the last five lengths of the track devoured in the blink of an eye. Cameras flashed. The winners began to head off to claim their prize. Matt wasn't among them, and his ticket joined so many others already littering the stands.

Antigone turned around to him and made a sympathetic face, a teasing moue. He knew his face was ashes, that his eyes were spilling everything. He was almost shaking, a victim of indecision and bad planning. He didn't want to hide anything, but screwed up his face into what he hoped would be an untranslatable expression.

"You're an idiot, you know," Antigone said it matter-of-factly, her accent thrilling him in some indescribable way.

"Yeah, I know."

"So long as you know."

She kissed him on the cheek, giggled, and began walking away.

"I hope you saved enough for dinner, idiot."

[ I wanted to write a scene about a gamble, literal and metaphorical. Part of the challenge was capturing the fleeting scenery of one race at a track. I'm still not sure how he did. ]

written: Feb 5 2004