The day after Marie left, I had to put my dog down. Poor thing could barely walk anymore. That damn mutt was ugly as sin — a Beagle mixed with a Pit mixed with God knows what else — but she was sweet. She would sleep in the bed with us and never make a noise the whole night through.
A few nights after that, I decided to go to the track to watch the greyhounds run. Drove out around twilight, and on the way to Monticello, a thunderstorm spun across the panhandle. The rain pounded on the hood in short, sweeping bursts. Like someone up on high was un-cinching bags of nails and flinging them down on the truck. But by the time I pulled into the parking lot, the sky was quiet and black, and save for a few wispy clouds over the highway, it was like the storm had never happened.
I didn’t bet on the hounds, just sat and watched them tear around the track. A fat red-haired woman sold me flat keg beer in tall styrofoam cups, and I must’ve been on about my seventh one of those when I looked over and saw Rusty Malone. He was leaning on the rail next to the starting gate, chomping on the butt of his pen, circling dog times on the stat sheet.
Me and Rusty had worked on a landscaping crew together. We used to be friends, but a few months back I sold him a whole mess of copper wire that turned out to be stolen. He of course didn’t like that, and I didn’t like how he accused me. But I’d seen him and his old lady in the supermarket a couple of times since then, and we were mostly civil to each other. I walked over. “Rusty Malone,” I said. “You ain’t gonna win a dime.”
He turned and took me in, then shook his head. “You’re all kinds of wrong, amigo. I’ve got Six to win. Been watching Bread N’ Butter there for weeks, and he’s due. There.” He pointed his pen at a starved-looking dog by the rail. I looked. The damn thing had a ribcage the size of a tin can. “Look,” Rusty said. “He just took a leak. That’s a good sign.”
I snorted and gulped at my beer, watching Rusty out of the corner of my eye. He had quit drinking about a year back because his woman had forced him to. “Say,” I said. “You want a beer?”
“You sure? Beer’s tasting good tonight, let me tell you.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Jee-sus. Booze-free and proud, eh?” I took another swig. “That woman of yours has got you wrapped round her little finger. What’s her name again?” I asked, even though I knew what her name was.
“That’s right,” I said, remembering a time from forever ago when the four of us had gone out to see Marie’s son’s band play out in Bradfordville. Beth was up to her eyes in cocaine and skinny back then and Marie had caught me staring at her more than once that night. “How much you bet for ol’ Beth anyway?”
Rusty spat. “Bet the farm. Last twenty bucks of this week’s check. I’m telling you, Six to win. That dog is due.”
Then there was a crack as the gate shot up and the mechanical rabbit buzzed past us on the rail. The dogs were off. Their paws drummed and flung the dirt, and I watched as dark splotches of mud formed on their flanks as if growing from somewhere deep inside their bodies.
Marie had wanted to let Sam live. “Let’s just see how long she lasts,” she used to say. Now that would have been the real cruelty, if you ask me. Not taking her out back and trying not to look at her big dumb eyes shining in the floodlight. Not having to shoot her a second time because she jerked and the first bullet split her ear off like a piece of putty but she didn’t die. Not listening to her whimpers fade for a full minute after the second shot went in above her right eye, too scared to shoot her again because the neighbors might’ve called the cops.
The pack was rounding the first bend. Number Six was at the rear. “There you go, Rusty,” I said. “Your pooch is getting his ass kicked.”
“Just you wait. He’ll come back.”
“Naw,” I said. “I don’t think so. He ain’t gonna come back. He’ll lose. And it’s because you bet on him. You’re a loser, Rusty, and you know it.” I suddenly wanted all the thunderstorms and all the loneliness — all the pain in the big black world — to come crashing down on Rusty Malone’s head.
Rusty didn’t look at me, just wrinkled his nose like he’d smelled a fart and kept his eyes on the dogs. When I finally followed his gaze out to the track, I saw why Rusty’s jaw was starting to slacken. Six was in second place coming around the last bend. And he was gaining. His muscles quivered as he flashed past one of the big light poles.
When his dog overtook the leader, Rusty jumped up on the lower part of the rail. His face glowed since he knew it for sure now: Number Six was going to win.
And he did. He beat the closest dog by three full lengths.
“Yeah, Bread N’ Butter!” Rusty yelled. He jumped down from the rail and did a funny dance, lifting his arms and hooting like a little kid. The other betters along the rail threw down their tickets and walked away. It was the last race of the night.
Rusty’s eyes were gleaming when he looked at me, but he didn’t say anything. He had just won almost a thousand dollars. His life was about to change forever.
In the split second after I lunged at Rusty, I saw him hitting the pavement underneath me, hard as a sack of quick-mix concrete. I saw myself wrenching the winning ticket from his hand, then taking the money and buying a proper dog with it, a purebred. Something pretty, something Marie would like even more than old Sam. Something that wouldn’t get sick.
But what ended up happening was Rusty stepped out of the way and I went head over heels over the rail and landed in the mud.
Rusty didn’t laugh at me as I lay there in the slop and tried not to be sick on myself. He just cocked his head and stared at me for a minute, kind of the way a dog looks at a person when it’s confused about whatever strange thing the person has just done. Then Rusty smiled, and walked off to claim his winnings.