A cross-country travelogue featuring an old Audi and Nina Simone.
A 13-year-old girl runs an illegal gambling club overlooking the track.
I’m talking kids, the girl in charge, Judy, was 13. Her mother was a compulsive gambler and Judy grew up fast in pool halls and at racetracks and dressed up like a midget to get into casinos. Her father finally got wind of it when Judy was 12 and was awarded custody. It was an easy sell really because Judy’s mom didn’t need the child support as much as the time away to gamble.
“Take her, you bastard, the kid slows me down anyway!”
Judy’s father, Jim, was no bastard. He knew his father, Sheldon, and both were nice guys.
Jim was a busy guy. He worked grueling hours, for years, to keep his dad in a top-notch assisted living facility. Sheldon’d been in the Second World War and came back with enough injuries to make sure his old age would be a torturous amusement park ride if he didn’t have the best care. Jim spent boatloads, and Sheldon had as pleasant an existence as possible.
After learning the complexities of an adult underworld, school was a snap. She excelled at most everything, but also had no interest in any of it. She loved to read, could devour a book in a day, but as far as being an overachiever went, she wasn’t having it. Math club? No thanks. Advanced-track projects to place out of classes most of her peers couldn’t? Nah. To her teachers Judy was an inspiring waste of potential, but she could ignore anyone. She had plans of her own.
She loved horses. The ponies. Jim lived near a track and although she was too young to get inside without an unscrupulous mother, there was a rolling hill above it all where she made camp. She set up a few collapsible stations with high-powered binoculars and stopwatches. She started bringing kids up, for “fun.”
Ages ranged from high school seniors all the way down to first graders. Within a month she had steady customers and steadier income. She bankrupt many of the working high schoolers and turned the younger kids into thieves, employees, or both. By the third month she’d invented a boss, Larry Henry, and claimed to answer to him. If anyone brought a beef to her she said,
“You’ll have to take it up with Mr. Henry.”
A regular at the track. Judy had watched him for weeks before naming him the imaginary boss. He sat in the same spot everyday and attracted the worst kind of people. He wasn’t connected, but he did well. Well enough that people asked him for advice and shadowed him. Tony was obviously obsessed and blind to everything else but the races. He won, frequently, but wore the same 2 suits repeatedly and flew into rages when his pick didn’t come in. And even at times when it did come in.
“I can’t pay you this week Judy.”
“It’s not me you owe money.”
She never bullied her customers, just handed them a pair of binoculars and pointed out Tony, called him Mr. Henry.
Tony didn’t have to throw a punch to scare most kids. Even for races he won he was on his feet and in a lather. He screamed and kicked and sweat through his suits and chomped on a ratty cigar. He had furry hands, a wide and strong back, and was balding in a way that made it seem like the hair on his head was getting pushed out regularly by his boisterous personality.
“He’s a totally reasonable guy. I can call him up here to chat if you like.”
They never did. They always found the money. Or Judy got another family heirloom.
Jim never expected a thing. Judy brought home perfect report cards and the timid teachers who knew she was capable of, “so much more,” never pushed the matter. By the time she’d been a bookie a year she had close to 30 thousand in cash hidden in her closet.
Greg was a high school senior, a football jock, and too stupid to stand down from a fight. He was mild-mannered enough under normal circumstances, but the kind of player on the field who even at 18 had a reputation for introducing young players to concussions. He was passionate about football. That was all he’d been passionate about until he discovered gambling.
He had a lot of beginners luck. Too much. The first hundred bucks he turned into 850 gave him the false impression that gambling was easy and required no skill. He didn’t handle losing more than twice that much well.
“I ain’t paying you 2 grand!”
“It’s $1,850 Greg. And you don’t owe it to me. You owe it to Mr. Henry.”
The binocular trick had the opposite effect on Greg.
“I ain’t afraid of that guy! Call him up here!”
Judy let him go double or nothing, twice, hoping that he’d win his money back and that would be that. But he lost. And lost. And lost. She was willing to lose the money, but had to cut him off. Nothing doing. Greg demanded to see Larry again.
“This whole thing is a set up!”
While Judy was trying to decide what to do next Greg had already made up his mind. She watched it unfold in slow-motion. Looking at her fake boss through binoculars she saw Greg coming out of the shadows of the canopy leading to the seats. He was making a show of himself, storming towards Tony. People took notice. People took so much notice that well before Greg’s Arrival Tony was on his feet and facing him.
Greg threw one punch. Tony blocked it easily and threw one back. Greg had never been in a fight with anyone willing or knowledgeable enough to defend themselves. The fight was over quickly. Judy watched as Tony dragged Greg back up cement steps and threw him down into a chair.
Greg didn’t wind up in the hospital. He gave it up easily. Tony asked him what the hell he wanted, and sobbing, Greg told him he couldn’t pay him.
“Pay me what? I don’t know you from Adam you crazy kid!”
“I’m sorry Mr. Henry, I don’t have a dime. I know I owe you, but-”
“Kid, stop for a second and start from the beginning.”
Greg told him the whole story. Judy could tell because first Greg pointed to the hill, and then Tony raised his own set of binoculars to Judy’s set up. He found her looking back and the two of them stared for awhile. She held up a finger to Tony and put down her binoculars. She wrote the following on a legal pad with a sharpie:
Tony jerked his binoculars down and looked back to the sniveling Greg.
“How much are you into me for kid?”
Greg told him, between sobs, $9,170. Judy watched as Tony turned away from Greg to smile, then quietly laugh. He made the universal facial expression of mouth puckering, head shaking, not bad. He pulled his binoculars back up to find Judy. She was looking back at him. He waved at her, then raised 5 fingers. Judy put her binoculars down and tore a new sheet off the legal pad, wrote with the sharpie:
She raised her binoculars again and Tony was still smiling. He gave her the thumbs up, turned to Greg with mock terror, hiding his smile, and said,
“I’ll give you to the end of the month. Now scram!”
A cross-country travelogue featuring an old Audi and Nina Simone.
A florist in a small town obsesses over a married couple who are regular customers.
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