The Luck Drug
by Spencer Dew
Semiotic Shock in the third, with ten-to-one odds, put $220 back in Slim's clip. Then there was Sublime Montage followed by Blue Light, Black Hair, and Slim heard himself saying that he never bet an exacta, but there is was, and with too much money to fit back in his clip, he had to stand in line at the window again, though he would have been standing in line, anyway. He went through that line like shit in an intestine, or like a bullet from a gun. Like Some Kind of Cliché, which brought in another $100, even, all of which went out again. Assembly Line Lover.
No longer able to predict his own impulses, lost in the velocity of the moment, Slim heard himself speaking as if he, too, were on the bank of television screens. Words came out, and numbers, a transfer of funds, an exchange of paper. None of them had meaning for him, as such. Not significance, but something else. A certain frequency, resonance. Slim heard a ringing like rubbed glass. He heard it all the time, and often that was all he could hear. So he bet, as if the act of betting were somehow photographic, an attempt at freeze-frame. Slim came to know himself by tracing the patterns of his winnings. He studied his tickets to know his history, or, better, to diagnose, to name to disease. Undeniably, there was a pattern. A network. A web. The past fed into the future, but not only that. Redux Again. Backwards Seven. 20/20 Hindsight. "Sixth race, fifty to win on the nine." Numbers, and counting, the temporal, how one second fell after the next and Slim was only Slim if he could remember them, some of them at least, if he told a simple story, coherent, that a man named Slim had come to be and come to be hereÉ But what the off-track betting facility proved was that something other than narrative defined reality. In the beginning was the pattern, and the pattern was with Slim, and the pattern was Slim.
Third Person Past Tense. An Economy of Need. Bourbon and water. There was at least that release. Slim folded his cocktail napkin into quarters, then eighths, then unfolded it in an lotus, something that, as he told the waitress, was entirely unexpected but not exactly surprising. She gave Slim that look you give to a cancerous patch of your own body. Not entirely uncompassionate, but not exactly unafraid.
Behind the bar, the buzz of the real came through a small back and white television propped by the grill. National guard troops standing on top of trucks. Inoculation Stations. There was high-level discussion of widening the quarantine lines. The horror passed him by. Wind speed, direction, even the details of the metamorphosis, this interested him, but only as an exemplification of the larger issue: the mathematics of it, put into the verbal.
Slim bought a hot pretzel and opened a packet of mustard with his teeth. Ruby's Roulette to place. Alien Incisors to show. He felt a conservative pulse, leaned into it, waited out till the next track opened and the next wave built up and hit a crest. He was putting money on ponies in California now: Pissing Teeth, Sixth Grade Rape, Yellow Journalism, Bottle Blonde. He felt the fabric closing in, and knew from his narrative of memory that there were periods of Slim centrality, where the fabric was wrapped in Slim, not the other way around. The Obvious Analogy. She Left Me Weeping. The ringing grew louder, fluctuating in tone, like a dog whistle or a songbird trapped in a speeding semi's tires. Slim chewed his swizzle stick till he tasted blood.
The men's room reeked of artichokes. Slim leaned his forehead against the wall. Spontaneous Ejaculation. Presented in Surround Sound. Autodidactic Theorizing. He might have dozed off for a while. He remembered feeling that Frenchmen were shadowing him, a dreamlike déjà vu, a word puzzleÉ Vertical Desert. The Step Beyond.
Pages past. He felt less real than a narrator, watching Australia. This was his position: so off-track as to be half a world away, and yet the heart of the action. Here it was raining, a black flow down the tinted windows. There was an amputee in a wheelchair propped against the glass. Having lost the last race from Hollywood, he tried to jump in a particularly impotent way. Slim stood behind him, and the man asked for a tip, wiping snot from his nose. "It doesn't work like that," Slim said, and the man said something rude, which was also a name for it, a modality of the full articulation.
Outside, there were theater goers, couples in coats under black umbrellas. Slim studied their trajectories across the pavement, the pacing of the cabs, the interval at the curb. In a moment of paranoia he suspected that even the money was false. He ate a piece, or chewed it for a while, at least. It was real. He shared some with the amputee.
Bourbon and water. Interruption of Being. Code-Runner. How he had come to this place he would have depended on the author to say, to tell, to show through flashbacks or a paper trail, credit card bills, a phone call, or the various manifestations of disease. Flowers of the Flesh. He was here as a moment in narrative, a means of suspension. He picked up his winnings and he laid them down again. Spellbound Slave. Unbroken Circle. Bourbon and water, again, because he felt that what could be tasted was still real. He took another visceral piss, hands shaking. He dry heaved, but nothing more. Tried to jack off in the stall, but there was a shuffle of feet on tiles, foreign coughing.
What It Was He Couldn't Say. Bullshit Gamble. Outpaced by the texture of reality, the fabric of it, woven from names and numbers, the fallacy of chance, the illusion of timeÉ
At the close, he would follow the same system out into the streets, into the intersecting crossword of their names, the grid of numbers, the rare diagonal fit. He would ride the bus lines, or be ridden, pushed along by this certainty beyond all hunch. The 114 to the 56, the 89X to the suburban 12. Once you knew the numbers, the numbers didn't matter. In this way Slim transcended himself for the few hours till eleven, shuffling and numb, transfer to transfer, his pockets full of coins and the clip safe in his jacket pocket. At opening, he would pay his dollar of county entertainment tax and lean in to the drag of the escalator, entering like a scholar about to break an ancient script. He took his breakfast from the vending machines and savored that sweet, fleeting half hour before the window opens, before the first race flickered to life.
Those thirty minutes were all that was his, a freedom from the depths of field, from the weave and the warp of it, the throb behind his ears, the numbers and names on his fingers and tongue. A respite from luck.
About the author:
Spencer Dew lives in Chicago, where he studies rabbinic conceptions of language, text, and identity. He also works at the writing and assemblingof novels. Short pieces by him have been published in Cautionary Tale, Sightings, Spleen, and are up-coming in Word Riot.