“C’mon, go to the track with me. It’ll be good for you,” Geraldine said. “You’ve been cooped up in the house since Bill passed.”
Geraldine had a point, Bertha thought. Maybe she did need to get out more. But she’d never been to a race track. She’d never gambled on anything. The idea of losing even a dollar was frightening. Her husband had worked hard to earn that dollar, so she’d have something to live on after he was gone. However, Geraldine said Bertha didn’t have to bet; she could just watch. So she went.
The minute the horses took the track, she was mesmerized. They were so beautiful, their long, skinny legs kicking up puffs of dust as they streamed effortlessly around the oval, warming up. There was one she especially liked, a black mare named Jinx.
“But she looks lucky to me,” she said daringly to Geraldine.
“Well, go on, have a little flutter,” Geraldine said. “It makes it more fun. And who knows? This might be your lucky day.”
Bertha felt a jolt of temptation that short-circuited her usual common sense. “You know, I think I will bet just a little on that Jinx horse.”
She approached the window and held out a ten dollar bill to the bored man behind the bars. “On Jinx, to win.” It’s only ten dollars, she counseled her pounding heart.
There wasn’t time to rejoin Geraldine, so Bertha stood at the nearest vantage point. The gates swung open and the horses were off. Jinx had a good position on the inside and exploded like a rocket, taking the early lead. Bertha pounded the rail and screamed. Just when it looked like Jinx would disprove her name, she stumbled, dropping back as the pack surged around her.
Bertha’s mouth was set in a straight line as she tore up her ticket and, uncharacteristically, let the pieces flutter to the ground. I’m an idiot. Might as well be a litter-bug, too.
“So your horse didn’t win, either,” a well-dressed gentleman said, taking her arm as if they were old friends. “Come, let’s drown our sorrows at the bar.”
“I’m not accustomed to drowning anything,” Bertha said, pulling her arm away. “Besides, I need to get back to Geraldine.”
“Of course, your friend is welcome to join us,” the man said, and as if she’d heard her name, Geraldine appeared.
“Oh, I’d love a little drinkie,” she said, ignoring Bertha’s frown and tiny head-shakes.
The ladies were propelled firmly into the bar and settled at a table. Without asking, their new companion – she didn’t catch his name – ordered martinis all around. Bertha had never tasted a martini, but she was hot and thirsty and there wasn’t anything else to drink. She downed it in three gulps, wrinkling her nose at the taste. Immediately, another drink appeared. She sipped this one more slowly.
Bertha drifted into a fuzzy, pleasant place where nothing seemed to matter much. Mr. – what did he say his name was? – talked about odds and handicapping and what the trainers and jockeys told him in confidence. Inside information, sincere brown eyes, and alcohol in the middle of the day conspired to make his offer of help with their bets seem like an opportunity not to be missed.
“So, ladies, how much would you like me to wager for you on the next race? Simpatico is the favorite, but I think it’ll be Danny Boy by a length. He’s a long shot, but he’ll pay ten to one if he wins. Just think: for a mere fifty dollars, you go home with five hundred.”
Dreamily, Bertha rummaged through her pocketbook and handed over two wrinkled twenties and a ten. It was next week’s grocery money, but what the heck. Mr. Whoever bowed slightly at the waist, and disappeared in the direction of the betting windows.
Somehow, Bertha was back at the rail. She’d lost Geraldine, but what mattered now was the race. When Danny Boy won – by a length – she would have jumped up and down had she not felt so light-headed. Partly it was the drinks and partly the idea of pocketing five hundred dollars.
Now where’s that Mr. What’s His Name with my winnings? Wait, is that him heading toward the exit? He must be looking for me. Weaving slightly, she hurried after him, catching up when he stopped to talk to another man. She waited politely behind him.
“Easy pickings today. I’m leaving with a cool thou,” Mr. Whosit said, laughing. “Pretty good for an hour’s work. The old dears loved the attention, and I think they got their money’s worth. It’s a day they’ll remember.”
He turned to leave, slinging his sports coat over his shoulder. A fat white envelope slipped unnoticed from the inside pocket, landing with a plop at Bertha’s feet. Quickly, she covered it with her sensible shoe.
This just might be a memorable day for Mr. Whosit, too.