MONDAY: This Is Not a Love Story I Wanted to Tell, Part One

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

Copyright is held by the author. This is Part One of a Five Part story that will be posted over the course of this week. Check back tomorrow for Part Two.

Part One: The Fortunate One
AMY STUDIED her tote tickets. She held more than $450 worth of losing wagers, including a $3 trifecta key on the four dog, Suzy’s Best Boy, placing the 88-pound, black-haired greyhound first with the complete field behind her, a $126 investment. She also held a $50 win and place ticket on the beast. Of course, just to be safe, she covered her bets with a slew of tickets where the dog only had to finish third with almost any combination of dogs in first or second.

None of this mattered.

Suzy’s Best Boy ran last.

Suzy’s Best Boy ran as if it held a personal vendetta against Amy. The dog started last, breaking out of the box as if it had just gorged itself on a Thanksgiving turkey dinner complete with trimmings. It loped around the 550-yard course with an air of indifference that defied its genetic imperatives. It finished last by 80 yards, which is practically impossible in a greyhound race unless the dog had either fallen or had succumbed to injury. Neither was the case. Suzy’s Best Boy simply didn’t care that Amy Jo Mallach had wasted a significant portion of her gambling funds on it. Suzy’s Best Boy ran last and looked quite happy doing so; its tail wagged the whole way.

Amy leaned back against her chair and watched the replay of the race on the 60-inch, high definition television bolted and chained to its stand beneath a bank of smaller screens on the business end of The Hole—a third-floor cave occupied by the most desperate and addicted gamblers. She exhaled a lonely sigh and thought, not for the first time during her current losing streak, My luck will turn. After all, I am “the fortunate one. A true miracle.” Mercy, they should see me now.

She turned and studied the room. Half the lights in The Hole were either broken or missing, keeping everything and everyone in shadow. Despite being one of only a handful of gamblers in the room, the room stank of sweat and perspiration. Ceiling fans did little to move the warm, stale air. At the opposite end of the room a snack grill dispensed hamburgers, fries, soft drinks, and a dull array of domestic beers. Televisions lined three of the room’s four walls; they displayed thoroughbred, harness and greyhound races from around the country — a “degenerate’s wet dream,” an old timer, a lifelong gambler, had once said, and he wasn’t far off in his assessment.

She returned her attention to her racing program, squinting to see the lines of data. A quick review of the previous race failed to suggest why the animal had run so poorly. The dog was in good form, contending in each of its past six races. Unknown variables, perhaps, Amy thought, and she turned the page to the next race.

Before resuming her studies, she checked her cash availability. Her wallet held $1,200. Twenty minutes and two races ago she had $4,500. She did the math: She was losing $1,650 every 10 minutes. For Dairyland Greyhound Park, she thought, that had to be a record.

Better days await, she told herself. There were 13 more races that night, and each race offered new possibilities. The right bet on the right beast could not only end her losing streak but put her on a path of redemption. Redemption at the track meant money, and money meant she wouldn’t have to go out and get a real job.

A tap on the back of her chair drew her attention. She looked to her right. Slander, a.k.a. The Hobbit, Wilkins dumped his squat, four-foot-eight, 210-pound of block of compact flesh next to her. He tossed his program onto the table, scattering piles of dead tote tickets onto the floor.

“Trouble in the Shire?” Amy asked.

The Hobbit groaned.

“Is it your back?”

“No, my sciatica is fine, tolerable, but there is trouble in the Shire,” The Hobbit said. “Apparently we’re learning new ways to screw ourselves, including taking advice from a woman who has lost, what is it, 66 races in a row?”

“Something like that, maybe closer to 70,” Amy said, leaning over and giving Slander a soft, lingering kiss on the lips. She broke away first, opening her eyes first. She laughed. “You never close your eyes.”

“I like watching you,” he said, and leaned in for a second kiss.

“Well, it’s a bit creepy,” she said and playfully pushed him away. Despite her affection, The Hobbit could not hide the longing he felt in their relationship. He wanted more, a commitment outside the confines of the track.  She tapped his program. “Focus, Slander. Take a look at the next race.”

The Hobbit groaned. The little man rarely tallied a winning night. At least he had never asked her for a loan; unlike half the other patrons who believed she possessed unlimited funds since news of her settlement reached the degenerate grapevine.

“Come on,” Amy said. “You have to admit, Slander, the mutt looked good on paper.”

“On paper, great,” The Hobbit grumbled. “I look good on paper. Educated. Literate. Published. Hell, you look fantastic. Yet, here we are immersed in one hellacious streak of crap-tacular racing luck; we belong in a short story by Tolstoy.”

“He wrote short stories about dog racing?”

“No, no. He didn’t write about racing, but he did write some of the best short fiction, ever.” The Hobbit brushed the losing tickets onto the floor. “Crap, look at this mess. That race killed me. Goddamned first-degree murder. Premeditated. Planned. What the hell was I thinking? No offense, but you’re cold. Ice cold. Absolute zero cold.”

“Jesus, show a little mercy, love. I’m right here with you,” Amy said. “If my wallet gets any lighter, I’m going to attach it to a ball of string and call it a kite. If you have a better plan, I’m listening.”

The Hobbit slowly turned toward Amy, his face a mask of stern indignation.

“Yeah, what?” Amy asked, thinking that Slander might sink into one of his foul fits of barely contained rage. “By the way, I know Tolstoy didn’t write about dog racing. Give me more credit.”

Slander held his pose for a moment before flashing a mischievous smile. He nudged his chair closer to Amy’s. “Well, my lady, I do have a better plan.” He opened his program to the third race. “Look at the five dog. That’s our hero, a sleeper, waiting for the right moment to rise up to commit mayhem. Look at her lines. Yes, I know, just awful. She’s done nothing lately — zero wins in her last 13 starts, two month’s worth of futility. However, you may recall she ran in last year’s Futurity and finished third, and I also think she ran in the $20,000 Puppy Stakes.

“I see possibilities,” Amy said and snuggled in closer.

“This dog has talent,” The Hobbit said, “and talent doesn’t go away. She just needs to be shaken loose. I believe she awakes from her slumber tonight.”

Amy nodded. “Not bad, not bad. I’ve heard worse ideas. Much worse, and most of them mine.” Without further examination of the racer’s prospects, she reached into her wallet and slipped out five 100-dollar bills and laid them on the table in a neat fan. “Match this and I’m in.”

The Hobbit shuddered, staring at the five bills as if they were tarot cards forecasting his death. “I don’t know…”

“Come on, you just went all Winston Churchill on me, and now you’re slipping out to sea? Jesus, Slander, show some verve. We’ve discussed this.”

“Yes, but there’s a difference between betting without fear and betting without brains. I believe this falls into the latter.”

Amy exhaled a sigh of exasperation. She grabbed The Hobbit’s shirt by the collar and drew him close. He appeared even smaller than usual as he cowered under her displeasure. “If you’re trying to capture my heart, Slander, you’re failing miserably.”

“You’re not an easy woman to please,” he whispered, “or to understand. You push and pull. Your expectations are… fluid.”

“Yes, I know,” she admitted, and in a voice that carried a hint of the dreams she knew he carried, she added: “I expect nothing less than what you’re capable of giving. It’s a good play, Slander. I like it. It shows creativity. I agree; it’s risky. Yet, it’s the kind of play that 99 percent of the degenerates in this building would neither have the intelligence to conceive nor the courage to play.”

The Hobbit blinked. Sweat tainted his cheeks. “It’s just that I don’t have your resources. It we lose, it’s going to hurt badly. I brought $1,000 with me. That’s two, sometimes three weeks’ pay, if tips are good.”

Amy pressed her cheek against his, letting her breath linger in the air, an aphrodisiac she knew he couldn’t resist. “Which is why you must make it. Besides, 50 years from now, who will give a shit? Hell, by this time tomorrow, we won’t care. We’ll be back in these chairs crying and laughing about our latest misfortunes. If you think about it, it is here, in this timeless place, we can shut out the world. It doesn’t matter what we do for a living, or whom we have loved or lost or left behind. All that matters is…”

“The bet. The play. I know. Your single-mindedness is well-known, and tiring.” The Hobbit stiffened. “There are times I wonder if you care about anything, or anyone, else.”

“Of course I care about us, Slander. Please trust me.”

“Sure,” The Hobbit replied. “I know you care, in your own way.”

“Good, now take a minute and decide. Trust your instincts. I do. I’ll be back soon. I have an important decision to make.”

“And that is?”

“Pepperoni or sausage, I’m starving.” Amy released The Hobbit. She took her red marker and circled the five dog in her program. “It’s official.” She rubbed his shoulders and left.

Five minutes later, Slander fished out a stack of 20-dollar bills he kept hidden in the inside pocket of his khakis and handed it over to Amy. Amy finished off the last bite of her pepperoni slice and took their $1,000 to the betting machines. For the next few minutes, as she entered their wagers into the machine, her world narrowed. Focusing only on her immediate task, pushing aside all negative questions regarding her choices and behavior, she rapidly entered the combinations. Track etiquette, especially in The Hole, frowned on lingering and indecision.

To Amy, this was the most cathartic part of the process, much more enjoyable than the race. Each tap on the screen, each wager, each decision felt like a reprieve, a temporary pardon from the memories she carried, the life she had led before she found a home at the track. She tried not to think about the money she had lost. If her father knew the extent of her addiction, he would intervene; he would force her to seek help. I don’t want help, she thought. Everything I need is here. My mind is occupied. I have friends. I have companionship. She wanted to turn and grant Slander a smile, an acknowledgement for all he had given her during their time together.

She didn’t.

The tote machine dispensed the tickets. Amy checked the wagers for accuracy. Satisfied, she resumed her position next to Slander and waited the interminable remaining few minutes to post time, and then the inevitable delay as track officials scraped the last possible dollars out of patrons.  Then came the race, the 30-odd seconds of entrenched drama. A complete story would unravel—beginning, middle, conclusion and denouement. Glory or despair? Win or lose? It doesn’t matter, Amy thought. Only the drama counted. The endorphin rush. The detour from the outside world.

She draped her arm around The Hobbit, her hand gently stroking his red stubble. She felt warmth flood his cheeks. “You worry too much, sweetie,” she said. “It’s only money.”

The Hobbit meshed their fingers together. He tugged gently, pulling her slightly forward. Amy felt his back muscles tighten, and then fall back into her comfort. He sighed, a complete surrender. He was so predictable; and, outside these grounds, so alone. It’s cruel, she thought, that I have complete control of this man. He’s a good man, but incomplete and damaged, buried in anger and mired in career disappointment. It is only here, among all those who have lost so much, that I can offer my love to him. If I were a better person…

Through crackling speakers, the track announcer declared, “The lure is in motion.”

Amy kissed The Hobbit’s cheek. With a collected sigh, they lifted their eyes to the television screen and waited…

The Tower: Part One
As they entered the elevator, Amy decided her father looked as handsome as he had in his wedding pictures, perhaps even more. Sure, his hair had gone almost completely gray, but this only made his eyes appear bluer. She didn’t mind his thick, old-world mustache; facial hair gave him a classic storybook look. He wasn’t tall. Amy knew she received her height from her mother, who stood five-foot-nine. Still, her father didn’t seem short. He was lean and carried himself with quiet confidence. He moved as if he were ex-military. He drove a delivery truck.

A surge of businessmen and women followed them into the elevator. They were mostly young; few were older than 35. They wore dark suits and heavy leather shoes, polished to a shine. Their heavy footfalls echoed off the marble floor. Almost all wore dark glasses. Amy wondered if it was for fashion or to hide their intentions. Perhaps the light streaming into the tower caused long-term damage; ceiling to floor windows rimmed all four sides of the 1,200-foot glass monolith.

Amy smiled at each as they entered, but none responded, not even a nod of acknowledgement. Arrogant. They considered themselves chosen, Amy decided, the elite. They weren’t wrong. The city attracted those from the most elite universities, from the most powerful families, those with special skills, such as Amy’s—the ability to analyze computer data quickly and to see the truth, the ghosts, hidden and lurking within the data.

Amy stayed close to her father. She didn’t resist the urge to hold his hand. Her father wouldn’t mind. He wouldn’t think her weak. He would welcome the familiarity. He had raised her to be a strong and independent woman. She had done her best not to disappoint him. She pushed away the failures in her mind. His hand felt warm and rough. She felt as if she were 10 years old again, but she wasn’t sure whether this pleased her.

The last man entered, and her father pressed the button: the 77th floor — the observation deck and the end of the line for elevator one. The second elevator rose to the top floors, where the country’s top accounting firms, stock brokerages and trading companies resided. All the floors above the observation deck were affectionately referred to as “The Nest” by its occupants or “The Lair” to its distractors — the envious. Only those without scruples, without morals, without souls occupied the tower’s loftiest floors, those intoxicated with power and pleasure.

The elevator began its climb, rising easily without any perceived motion, as if gravity didn’t apply. The elevator rode along the inner edge of the east wall. Curved glass windows offered a breathtaking, and sometimes stomach-dropping, panoramic of the city.

Amy embraced the view. It’s like floating in a bubble, she thought. She eagerly explored the sights. The great National Arboretum lay below her, only a half mile from the glass tower. Earlier that morning, she and her father had toured the arboretum’s famous rose gardens — foursquare acres of ethereal beauty: floribunda, climbers, hybrids and more. The richness of the colors, the intoxicating range of scents, had overwhelmed and enthralled her. Her father bought her a bouquet of blisses — six long-stemmed white roses with tints of orange on the petals. “I believe these match your dress and your hair,” he said. Amy had her mother’s fair complexion and thick, red hair.

Amy lifted the roses and drew in their sweet scent. “I should have left them at the hotel in a vase. They may die before we get home tomorrow.”

“They will survive as long as they are loved.”

Amy laughed. Her father had first told her this fable when she was a child. At the time she thought this was true of all living things.

One of the businesswomen snickered at her father’s naive romanticism. Amy didn’t care. She squeezed her father’s hand and then wrapped both of her hands around the stems. At 22, she felt the full flower of her youth.

The elevator stopped. Amy’s father held the door open and the workers marched out. Determined and without humour, the workers silently entered the second elevator. When their door closed, Amy walked toward the opposite end of the observation platform, where the sun had risen above the building tops and cast everything in warm morning light. Her father followed.

She stopped in the middle of the observation deck. Tiny tremors shook the floor. She held out her arms for balance. “Do you feel it, the tower swaying? It’s like we’re one with the sky,” she said. “It is exhilarating, and a bit disconcerting.” A wave of warmth swept up through her. The horizon slowly began to tilt. She gasped. “I don’t understand. I feel a tad dizzy, as if I am afraid of heights, which I am not.”

“It’s okay,” her father said. “Take a breath and close your eyes.”

She closed her eyes.

“Tell me what you see,” said her father.

“Blackness, what else?”

“Wait,” her father said.

“For what? Yes. I see it. Blue sky. Endless sky above and beneath me, and a star in the distance…” She felt lightheaded. Her voice quavered. “Am I falling?”

“You’re not. You’re okay. It’s only fear, maybe a memory,” her father said. His voice also trembled. “It won’t last. Believe me.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said and immediately regretted her sharp tone. She waited a few more seconds for her equilibrium to return. When it did, she opened her eyes. She saw that her father stood off to the right and would not meet her gaze. “Dad, what the hell just happened? What is it that won’t last?”

Her father faced the window. He latched on to the handrail. “Nothing. I meant nothing. It’s the effect of altitude.”

You are lying, she thought. She drew in a long breath and approached the windows. She didn’t want to admit it but her father was right; it was fear, and it had passed. She looked out over the city. “It’s more beautiful than I had imagined,” she said. “Back home, looking at the pictures, I thought the expanse of the city would scare me, the seemingly endless field of buildings. It doesn’t. It’s peaceful. I can see why someone might want to work up here. Imagine looking out from your office every day with this as your view. It’d be inspiring.”

Her father nodded. “I feel the same way when I’m driving and there’s nothing but a highway extending to the horizon, surrounded by flat fields of green in all directions. The open, spare land brings me comfort. I like the Midwest, the Northern Plains. I don’t belong in the city, at least not this one.”

Amy scanned the sky. Past the stark pattern of buildings, backlit in the glow of the sun, the sky and sea merged into a blue backdrop.

Her father pointed south, near the centre of the city. Look near the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What do you see?”

Amy followed the line of sight given by her father. “What am I looking for?”

“Look closely,” he said, “It looks like Venus, the morning star.”

“I know the morning star. I haven’t forgotten your lessons.” Amy cupped her hands above her eyes as if she were holding binoculars and concentrated on the object. “I see it now. That’s no star. It’s moving much too quickly. What is it? No. Is it?”

“Yes,” he said.

Amy jumped and clapped. She skipped along the wall until she found a better angle and a clearer view. “Amazing. It’s beautiful,” she said. “How did you know?”

Her father didn’t answer.

“Dad?”

Her father’s face had turned ashen, drained of all colour. With the back of his hand, he wiped away tears. He looked small and fearful. She had only seen her father this way once — 11 years ago, just days after her mother had left them. Since that moment of weakness, her father had always been steadfast. If he was worried or fearful, he kept it buried inside, contained, the way men should behave.

“Dad, what is going on? What is bothering you? You’re making me nervous.”

“Watch the eagle,” he said. “Please. I will be fine.”

“You’re not fine. I wish you wouldn’t lie to me,” she said, returning her gaze outward. She focused on the great eagle; it soared magnificently, slowly gliding around the twin spires of the cathedral. “You knew it would be here. How?”

“I didn’t know, but I had hoped,” said her father, “for your sake.”

Amy had dreamed of seeing the great eagle, as all children dreamed when myth mattered more than truth. She watched the bird thrust its powerful wings; even at more than 20 feet long they possessed an uncompromising grace. “I wonder why it’s here, in this city. “

“It has its reasons,” he said as he backed toward the elevator. He emitted a pungent odour of fear.

Disgusting. She wished her father would just leave. She loathed weakness. “Dad, what is it? What’s come over you?”

“Just an old man’s sentimentality, nothing more. I’m going down now. I’ll let you explore on your own.”

“More lies,” said Amy. His fear pervaded the room, expanding like a cruel, stealth gas. She felt its grip. She hated him for it. He had soiled the moment. “What are you hiding?”

“Nothing,” he said, and selected the lobby button. “Watch its eyes. Make contact.”

Amy returned her attention to the eagle. Running around the observation desk, sliding her hands along the glass rail, she followed its path. Her heart pounded as she watched it soar between the buildings, diving and rising as if it was exhibiting its power or perhaps simply playing. At this moment, Amy decided firmly that she would move to the city after graduation. Her father wouldn’t be pleased. He wanted her to stay home. He had brought her out here as a gift, a reward for her good work in school. He had also brought her out here to discourage her ambitions, hoping she would find the city beyond her capabilities. No. She knew now, despite her moment of panic, she wouldn’t be content living near home after college, surrounded by the familiar — the same faces, the same horizons. She wanted to live among the powerful, the rulers and aristocrats, amid the towers and all the frightening unknowns the city offered. She wanted to live within the fear that had almost dropped her father to his knees.

The eagle turned toward the tower. Its wings were spread wide, its claws extended. With each thrust of its wings, it grew larger, rising high and filling Amy’s field of view. It was both enthralling and terrifying. The eagle’s eyes were blood red, and the moment before it appeared it might slam into the observation deck, it broke off to Amy’s right and circled the tower, then ascended north.

When the eagle had disappeared out of view, Amy slipped to the floor and exhaled. She remembered she had dropped her flowers. Behind her she had left a trail of petals. Exhilarated, she looked to where she had left her father, but he wasn’t standing by the elevator doors. He had left the observation deck.

She gathered the remains of her flowers and pressed the button for the elevator. She considered taking the second elevator to the top, to visit The Nest, but only briefly. It was time now to take care of her father, to bring him home.

So she could leave him and return to the tower.

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