The System Never Fails

Originally published at Akashic Books’ Mondays are Murder series.

South of Gandy, Tampa, FL

The dog track was never in our plans for the evening. Scott’s system was for jai alai, not dogs, and tuition for the fall semester was due tomorrow, so he needed to raise it tonight. It was his third attempt in a week.

“Sometimes it takes a couple tries to work,” he explained.

Shane said it sounded less like a system and more like the law of averages doing its thing, but Scott said no, it was all rigged, the players bet against themselves, and once you know how to read the odds, cleaning up was easy. He’d been working on his system for three years, he said, and it’d paid every dime the University of Tampa ever charged him. And that school’s never been cheap; they didn’t even give out scholarships back then, so he needed that money, ever since Daddy cut off the spigot when he and Shane got arrested for yanking stereos out of some Audis and Beemers one night up in Temple Terrace. Scott’s dad played golf with the right people so he skated on that one. Shane, whose father was far less influential, did nine months at Orient Road.

We spilled out of Scott’s shitbox VW Beetle and into the vast expanse of the mostly empty parking lot. The fronton swept along its eastern edge, looming over us, its teal paint sun-bleached and chipped, its windows translucent like phlegm. This husk had once been a palace, the hottest Friday night ticket in Tampa, but you’d never know to see it now.

We took our seats among the dregs, in their stained white wifebeaters and pro wrestling t-shirts. The loudspeakers squeaked out a tinny anthem and the players lined up in a row of apathy and middle-aged heft, hoisting their cestas in a listless salute at the end of it before waddling over to their positions. Through the smoke, I watched the crowd. Scott watched the court.

Shane watched Scott.

Scott’s system seemed to consist of yelling, Eusebio, you fat fuck! and Lucca Twoooooooooo! in between mouthfuls of styrofoam popcorn and gulps of flat beer from a paper cup. But it fucking worked, man. That pelotarocketed off the walls and around the court, those fat guys scooped it out of midair and snapped it back, and Scott just kept winning.

Three hours later, he had over nine grand in his pocket.

“Who’s up for pancakes?” he said in the parking lot. “I’m buying.”

“Let’s go see the dogs first,” Shane said.

“Why?” Scott said. “I got what I came for.”

“You’re on a roll, man. And maybe I got a system of my own.”

It was a stupid idea but Scott just looked at his shoes and nodded. We piled back into the VW and, not for the first time, I wondered if Scott had helped himself out that jam at Shane’s expense. I wondered if Shane ever wondered that too.

No one spoke as we drove across the Gandy. Out over the water, purple and white flashes of lightning silently stabbed downward and lit up the surface of the bay.

If anyone at the track had a system, it was the snow-bearded old dude wearing a Virginia is for Lovers t-shirt tucked into a billowing pair of cargo shorts, fighting to restrain his belly. Come on, Red Apple! the guy yelled while Scott lost another couple hundred on a dog Shane picked. Run, Northstar, run! Check out these odds on Sweet Release, Shane said, and Scott shuffled to the betting window, shoulders drooping. The old guy danced with each race. Scott just slumped.

“There’s always Daddy,” Shane said ninety minutes later, as we watched Scott’s hapless trifectas and quiniela boxes flutter to the floor like impotent confetti. Scott shook his head. He just lost everything, and Daddy wasn’t going to save him this time.

“The fuck am I gonna do now?” he said out in the parking lot. He jabbed a finger into Shane’s chest. “Your goddamn system,” he shouted.

“What the fuck was that?”

Shane’s palm shot out and cracked Scott in the sternum. He went stumbling backwards.

“Boo fucking hoo,” Shane snarled. “You lose a semester of your life. That’s, what, four months? Not even half what I lost because of you.” He pointed at Scott. “I still owe you, bitch.” Then he stalked off across the silent parking lot.

We watched him go. Neither of us spoke for two full minutes.

“Forget pancakes,” I finally said. “Let’s get some shots.”

***

Advertisements