The gates to Milford Jai-Alai didn’t open for another hour, but instead of driving to some diner to kill time, I figured I’d just hang out in my car, reading the Racing Form.
I had just started going over the daily double at Aqueduct when I heard someone knocking on my passenger-side window. I looked up and saw a short fat guy smiling at me. At first, I had no idea who he was, then he started to look familiar. He had dark eyebrows and a big mole on his chin. His eyes were bloodshot, like he was drunk, but maybe it was because he was squinting against the cold wind. He was wearing one of those black wool winter hats that can make anyone look like a mental patient.
I turned on the ignition and opened the window a few inches. A blast of cold air came into the car.
"How’s it goin’?" the guy asked.
I still couldn’t place him. He looked forty-five, maybe fifty—at least ten years older than me.
"Not bad," I said.
"You don’t remember me, do you?"
"Your face looks kind of familiar but—"
"Your name’s Danny, right?"
"Tommy," I said.
"I knew it was something with a Y at the end of it. Remember me? You know, Pete. Pete from Yonkers." Now I remembered. A few years ago, I used to go to Yonkers Raceway a few nights a week to bet on the trotters. Pete was one of the regulars.
"I remember," I said. "It just took me a couple seconds to place your face. How’s it going?"
"Could be better," he said. "Just came back from Vegas last night. Hit a few things, nothing too big. Shoulda gone to the Cayman Islands. Hear about those racebooks they got down there?"
"With the eight-percent payback."
"Un-fuckin’-believable. They give you eight percent back on all your action. If you’re a big player you can’t afford not to go there. I mean it might be a good idea to bring a gun with you into some of those joints, you know what I mean? But when you’re playing horses what do you want, a classy time or eight percent back on your action?"
"I’d take the eight percent," I said.
"Damn fucking right you would," Pete said, "any serious player would." He turned away and spat. It was getting cold in the car with the window open.
"Ever been to Vegas?" Pete asked.
I shook my head.
"You’re kiddin’ me? You gotta go to Vegas, man. But casino gambling is a whole different ball game. When you’re gambling in a casino you want class. You go to Vegas, whatever you do, don’t go to Bally’s. You want Bally’s go down to Atlantic City and play at those Mickey Mouse tables they got there. You want a classy joint to spend a weekend, go to Caesar’s Palace. Now that’s a place they’ll treat you like a fucking king. And I’m talkin’ about service, not shows. You want shows you can turn on the fuckin’ TV. You go to A.C.?"
"Once in a while," I said.
"I’m in A.C. almost every fucking weekend," Pete said. "Where do you hang out?"
"All over," I said.
"It’s tough to go to A.C. after you’ve been to Vegas," Pete said. "That’s like going back to a Chevy after you’ve driven a Porsche." He coughed. "Hey, you mind if I sit down in the car with you? I’m fuckin’ freezing my balls off out here."
I was going to say no, make up some excuse, but I couldn’t think of a good one. Besides, I had some time to kill and I had nothing better to do. Leaning across the seat, I lifted the door handle and said, "You gotta pull." Pete used all his might, but the door still wouldn’t open. My car was such a piece of shit it was a miracle it had gotten me all the way to Connecticut. It was an eighty-nine Taurus, but there were so many dents in it you had to be Mike Tyson to get in and out of the fucker.
"Harder," I said.
Pete tried a couple more times then, finally, the door swung open. He sat down next to me and I almost passed out. I had B.O. once in a while, especially after I worked out in the gym in a tank top, but Pete reeked. I opened my window a crack, to let in some fresh, cold air, but it didn’t help. "What was I just saying?" Pete said. "That’s right—A.C. I usually stay by the Sands. A guy I know runs the junkets from Brooklyn—gets me a deal on the rooms. If we’re ever going down on the same weekend, maybe I can get you into my room. They got two beds in those rooms and the other one just goes to waste. My bed goes to waste too. When you’re in Vegas or A.C. who the fuck uses their bed? I mean unless you’re getting laid, but nobody sleeps in their bed. The room’s just a place to store your luggage for two nights."
"I don’t mean to be rude or anything," I said, "but I was trying to just go over the card at Aqueduct here..."
"Yeah?" Pete said, not getting the hint. "You like anything?"
"Not really," I said, "but I was just hoping I could concentrate a little bit, you know?"
"No problema," Pete said. "I won’t bother you anymore."
He leaned back and took a handkerchief out of his jeans’ pocket. He coughed some more into it, then put it away. The smell in the car was getting worse.
For a little while, Pete stared out the window on his side of the car, taking deep breaths, then he turned back toward me and said, "So what do you do for a living?"
"I’m an actor," I said.
"Really?" He sounded surprised or impressed, I couldn’t tell which. "In anything I’ve heard of?"
"Doubt it," I said.
"Come on. Try me."
"Just a few things here and there," I said. "Nothing too big."
"I imagine acting must be a tough biz," Pete said, "tough to make a living anyway. So what else you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I assume you don’t make a living as an actor."
"Why do you assume that?"
"No offense—I mean I’m not trying to knock you. I’m sure you’re great and everything. You look the part, that’s for sure. Big, good-looking guy. But do you have—what do they call it—’a survival job?’ "
"I work in a bar," I said.
"Really? Anyplace I know?"
"O’Reilley’s." Then I said, "It’s on First Avenue."
"The city," he said, like he thought I was trying to be a snob about it. "So what do you do up there?"
"I’m a bouncer," I said.
"No kiddin’?" He stared at me for a second or two. "So you live in the city?"
"I got a little place near the bar."
"Yeah? You must make a few dollars at this job, huh?"
Now I was starting to get pissed off. Who the hell did this guy think he was, asking about my salary?
"I hold my own," I said.
"What do you work, five, six nights a week?"
I worked six nights a week like a fucking dog.
"Why are you asking all these questions?"
"I’m just curious," he said. "Believe me, I don’t mean any offense by it."
"My salary is my own business."
"Believe me, I realize that. I don’t really care how much money you make. The only reason I asked is I’m a businessman, and my friends are businessmen, and I just thought if you had any extra cash lying around your apartment—"
"I don’t lend money," I said.
He started to laugh. The laugh turned into a deep cough.
"Please," he said, catching his breath. "Do I really look like I need your money?"
Yeah, I thought.
"I just wanted to find out what kind of income you had because an investment opportunity came my way recently and I figured a guy like you might be interested."
"I told you, I don’t lend."
"This isn’t lending, it’s investing. Lemme explain." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then said, "See, I know this guy—Alan Schwartz. You know, Jewish guy. Anyway, Schwartz works down on Wall Street and he’s starting up this syndicate. Not one of those big-time syndicates that own Derby horses—this is just a bunch of guys putting some money together to buy a horse, or a couple of horses. The idea was to put five guys together—guys who love horse racing—and they’ll go down to the track and buy a claimer. At first, I didn’t trust the guy—I mean I’m not stupid. But then I checked it out and it was all legit. They have a trainer lined up and everything. You heard of Bill Tucker?"
"I met Bill a couple of weeks ago," Pete said. "Nice Southern, grits-and-collard-greens type of guy. Anyway, he’s gonna advise us on what horse to claim and we’ll see what happens. Who knows? We might wind up with another John Henry."
I knew the John Henry story—how he was claimed for twenty grand and went on to win millions—but I just sat there, staring.
"Anyway," Pete went on, "that’s why I asked you how much money you were making. Not because I was being nosey, but because we have four guys lined up right now and we’re looking for a fifth. Each guy is putting up ten grand. I don’t know if that’s in your ballpark or not, or if you even want to own part of a horse, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask."
The whole thing sounded like a big scam to me. Asking a stranger in a parking lot to join a horse syndicate? Obviously, Pete was just a con man, trying to sucker me out of some money, and I wasn’t the type of guy who got suckered.
"Sorry," I said. "Not interested."
"Just thought I’d ask," Pete said. "Figured a racing fan like yourself would love to get in on the ground floor of something like this, but I’m sure we’ll find somebody else. Hey, if you’re ever in Brooklyn make sure you stop by one of my stores. I’ll give you an actor’s discount."
"Didn’t I tell you? I own a couple of shoe stores out in Brooklyn. You know Kings Highway?"
"I grew up in Brooklyn."
"No shit? I heard an accent, but I thought it might be Staten Island or Jersey. Where you from?"
"You’re shitting me? I grew up in Coney Island, by Neptune Avenue. Now I live in Manhattan Beach. Got a big house, right by the water. Anyway, I got two stores in Brooklyn. The main one’s on Kings Highway. It’s called Logan’s after me—Pete Logan."
I’d bought a pair of shoes at Logan’s when I was in high school, and now I remembered Pete. I could picture him, twenty years ago, standing behind the register, or he might’ve been the guy who sold me the shoes.
"Anyway," he said, "just drop by one of my stores next time you’re in the neighborhood. If I’m not there just mention my name and you’ll get the discount. It was nice running into you again."
I watched Pete walk across the parking lot and get into a shiny black Mercedes. So the guy owned some shoe stores and he drove a Merc, that didn’t mean he wasn’t a scammer.
I tried to get back to reading my Racing Form, but I couldn’t concentrate. It was that odor. My damn car smelled like somebody had died in it.
Copyright © 2000 by Jason Starr.