Better than OK
The last few guests had been sloppy about their hand-washing and so had dribbled a not-insignificant amount of water on the counter by the sink, and in each of these stagnant little puddles Sam could see evidence of his own failings. It was not the sort of shame that he had bargained for, when he’d taken the job. But the bathroom was his responsibility now, just as it had been since 7 A.M., when he’d clocked in. Sam sighed and grabbed one of the rags that he’d stashed behind his stool, earlier that morning. He was making his way over to the sink when the restroom’s heavy, wooden door burst open. A fat man in a white linen suit – so large that you could have furnished half a hotel with sheets sewn from its fabric – filled the newly-opened aperture. He was, as far as Sam could tell, already drunk.
“Good morning to you!” the man half-shouted. He spoke with a slightly-slurred accent of unplaceable origin. “I’m Tom. Tom Lark. Lark, like the bird.” He winked, and Sam felt a small, sudden pull.
“I’m Sam, sir. Good you meet you.”
“Sam! A good name. A fortuitous name! Yes, Sam’ll do. Certainly.” Tom stuck out a pink, fleshy hand. Sam took it.
“Oh!” the big man continued. “Oh, how good it is to meet an industrious young man such as yourself. And so early, too! Yes, yes. Good indeed. Especially on a day as lucky as this one.”
“I’m sure it will be, sir,” Sam returned. The skin on the man’s palm was rougher than he had expected. “Lucky, I mean.”
“Oh yes, no doubt about that,” the fat man said, over his shoulder. He had started off towards the urinals. He undid his button and zipper with a deftness that Sam would not have thought possible in a man of his size. Sam looked away.
“But it might be a whole hell of a lot luckier,” Tom paused for the flush, when he was finished, then started to zip himself back up, “if you’ve got any tips. For a novice gambler, I mean. Because, me? I don’t know the first thing about picking horses. Though I do know that everyone always says to ask the staff at places like this. You all are the experts, after all. So I figured maybe you could help me out.”
“I suppose I could,” Sam said, turning back towards his guest. He did his best to sound conspiratorial, like he really did have some inside information. “I’ve got a few ideas.” He pulled a program out from underneath his stool and looked at the little circles that he’d drawn on the pages for the first few races.
“It don’t matter if you don’t know anything, or if all your picks lose,” the day-manager had said, when he’d handed Sam the program and pen, right before the first guests had arrived. “Just pretend to know what you’re talking about. That’s all they really want. To be able to tell people that they asked the help for tips. Makes them feel like they’ve got the inside track. Like they know something other people don’t.”
Sam made a big show out of looking over the program. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Tom washing his hands, fastidiously and with the same daintiness that he’d displayed when undoing his trousers. When the he was finished, he took an extra hand towel and ran it across the counter, sopping up all the little wet spots that had formed over the course of the morning. He didn’t do it quite right – Sam would have to go back over the surface with the rag, just to make sure that it was perfect – but he appreciated the gesture, all the same. He held the program up so that Tom could see.
“I like number four, here. Good record on the turf. Plus he’s got Velasquez on board.” Sam pointed with the tip of his pen towards the jockey’s name, while Tom furrowed his brow, nodding slowly. “He’s riding the favorite in The Stakes, later today. He’ll be up for it. Bet four to show, maybe. Start off simple.”
Tom broke into a smile, looking like he’d gotten exactly what he’d come in for. He ran his hand through his oiled-back hair and, for the first time, Sam noticed an uncommon brightness in the man’s eyes, which did not appear to have been diluted at all by whatever alcohol he’d already consumed. The eyes darted, quickly, towards Sam’s tip jar, which was on a little table next to the stool. Tom’s smile grew by about half an inch, on each side.
“Not yet, son,” he said, turning towards the door. “Not yet. But later. Definitely later.” Then he swung the door open, oriented himself back towards the party, and left the bathroom.
Things were quiet for a few minutes and then they were very busy, as they always were in the last five minutes before a race, and then they were empty and then busy again, once the fanfare had died down. Somewhere, in the post-race throng, Sam heard a man complaining.
“Goddamned four horse. Faltered late. Thought he had it. Lost a grand on the bastard.”
“Ah, well. Shit. You ain’t gonna win ‘em all,” said another voice. It sounded disinterested, and Sam guessed that it’s owner didn’t really care one way or the other about the unlucky man’s travails.
“I suppose you’re right,” returned the first voice. “Besides. It’s early, still. Plenty of winning left to do.”
Plenty of losing, too, Sam thought, though neither of the men seemed concerned about that particular prospect. For them, the rest of the day would be split only between winning and not winning. Losing would not so much as factor in. After another couple of minutes, the crowd filed back out. The counter by the sink was wet, again, so Sam went over and dried it off with his rag. The next few races passed in a similar fashion. Men, often drunk and always sweaty, would file in, after the horses had run, and complain about their failed bets. Then they would splash some water on their face and onto the counter, decide that they’d get ‘em next time, and carry on with their afternoon. On the few occasions where a guest had actually won some real money, they would brag about it during their turn at the sink with the aim of eliciting a measure of envy or admiration in their friends and comrades. Then they would tip Sam an often-outrageous amount, fix him with a you’re-welcome grin, and leave. After the seventh race, Tom Lark returned. He had timed his entry for the little lull that always came just after the post-race rush, when Sam typically had the bathroom more or less to himself. He was refolding the hand towels when he heard the big man’s voice.
“Oh, my boy!” Tom said. “How’s the day been treating you? Long hours, I’d imagine. Long hours indeed.” He winked at Sam, just like he’d done the first time around. If he’d gotten any drunker, over the course of the day, Sam couldn’t tell.
“Oh, it’s been treating me just fine. Sorry about that four horse pick, though.”
“No problem at all, son, no problem at all. In fact,” Tom punched Sam, soft and good-naturedly, on the shoulder, “it was luckier than you know.”
He left Sam to puzzle over that and walked over to the urinals. As he was washing his hands he called, casually, over to Sam. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a pick for this next one, would you?”
Sam pulled out his race program, which by that point had become wrinkled and damp and smeared with dark blue ink. “And don’t worry about the pomp and circumstance with the program, this time around,” Tom continued. “At least not on my account.”
Sam turned red, embarrassed to have been found out so easily. Tom, when he saw his young attendant’s face, looked strangely chastened. He finished wiping down the counter and hurried over to Sam. “Oh no, son, you mustn’t worry. You’ve been more of a help to me than you know.” He put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “And trust me, I know how hard you’ve been working. And I know how hard your colleagues have been working, too. And, God knows, I know how much y’all’ve been helping me out. Besides, all I need,” he fixed Sam with another of his big, friendly smiles, “all I need is for you and I to be on the same page. Just in case.”
Sam had no clue what the man was talking about, and he was in no hurry to find out. He was just relieved that Tom wasn’t upset with him for the clumsy ruse with the program.
“Alright. Seven horse, then. Velasquez again,” Sam said. Tom nodded and gave Sam’s shoulder a little pat.
“Velasquez again,” he said. “Not just a hard worker, but a loyal one, too. You’re a good man, Sam. A good man.”
For a brief moment, Sam felt that he would do just about anything for the large, linen-clad fellow standing before him. “Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, don’t mention it, son, don’t mention it.”
Sam felt the sudden urge to thank his guest again, though for what, exactly, he could not say. But Tom had already turned for the door. In a single, smooth movement, he pulled it open, gave one last little wave over his shoulder, and disappeared into the outer hall. The seven horse won the next race and when Sam heard the news over the PA speaker he felt proud in a way that he hadn’t in quite some time. He hoped that Lark had bet and bet big on his tip. In the stream of men that followed the race’s conclusion Sam searched for the man or for news of his success but he did not find either. Instead, he was confronted by some other gambler, who was tall and well-built and tanned almost to the point of redness. He had a gold necklace hanging around his throat and his shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest and his sweat smelled of bourbon or cocaine or perhaps of both.
“Oughta’ve listened to you, young feller,” boomed the man, in an affected accent that Sam found off-putting. He clapped a large hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam could feel the strength in the fingers and forearms and he wondered if there’d be bruises on the spot, in the shape of five fingerprints, when he woke up the next morning.
“Excuse me?” Sam asked. The man carried with him an air of extraordinary self-assurance, which made Sam nervous. He was relieved when the guest broke into a grin.
“Big guy out there, told me you gave him a tip on a horse. Said he was thinking of betting big, wondered if he could go in with me. Offered the tip in exchange for a quarter of whatever I won. Which interested me, of course. Because I’m the type of man who’s always looking for an edge, you know?”
Sam nodded warily, surprised at how eager the man was to boast about a losing bet. It almost seemed as if, somewhere between the grandstand and the bathroom, he’d managed to convince himself that he hadn’t actually lost at all. “I’m the type who’s always looking for a deal. It’s how I got where I am.” The man gestured, distastefully, towards his clothing, which was surely more expensive than anything Sam had ever owned. “So I told him I’d take him up on it, and he told me that he got a tip on the seven horse from the bathroom attendant.”
At that, Sam broke out into a big, involuntary smile. He was proud beyond measure that Tom had been shopping his tip around the clubhouse.
“But I lost my nerve, up there at the window. Went with the favorite. Thought it was a safe bet. My mistake. Shouldn’t’a bet against an inside man like you.”
Sam wondered what the man wanted from him. An apology? A better luck next time? Both seemed inadequate.
“Oh well,” the guest kept on, uninterested in Sam’s wonderings. “Still more racing to go.”
Sam found his voice. “Of course, sir. A lot more.” But the man did not hear. He had already left for the toilets, having said all that he’d desired to say.
As The Stakes approached Sam kept an eye out for the door, expecting Tom to burst through it at any moment, seeking advice on the biggest race of the afternoon. But he never came, and when the race began Sam was surprised by how disappointed he was in Tom’s failure to show and when the race was over and Velasquez’s horse had finished an unimpressive sixth Sam found himself sinking into a very real and unexpected despair. He was despondent when the first of the post-race guests flooded into the bathroom and he was fearful that Tom would be among them, eager to berate him for his misguided faith in the jockey Velasquez. But Tom again failed to materialize and again Sam was forced to make do with the almost-red man.
“Listened to the big guy this time,” the man said, happily. “Though he said he got the tip from a bartender, not you. Still though. Inside line.” He tapped his temple. Sam found the gesture ridiculous. Could the man really believe that the bartenders and bathroom attendants – flex staff, all of them, hired on just for the big weekend – possessed a horse-racing wisdom that he did not? Nevertheless, Sam played along.
“Yeah, that’s a good one to ask,” Sam said, of a bartender he’d never once laid eyes on.
“A quarter ain’t even gonna make a dent,” the man continued. “Just the price of doing business. And you and me both know all about that, don’t we?” He punched Sam on the shoulder, a little harder than necessary.
Sam suppressed a wince and said “I’m happy for you, sir, congratulations,” and when the man stuck a sweaty twenty in his tip jar, just before going off towards one of the stalls, Sam eyed it gratefully and wondered just how much Tom had made off the poor guy. Then he marveled at how happy a man could be about his own swindling. After another few minutes, the crowd petered out again and the final race of the day passed without incident. When it was over, Sam endured one last rush, just before all the guests headed home. The tips were healthy enough during this final stretch, and Sam was folding the last of these into his pockets when the door opened and Tom Lark strolled, for the third time, into Sam’s bathroom.
“Great, great work today, son,” Tom said, beaming. He reached out and clasped Sam’s hand in his and then laid his free palm atop their union. “You’ve been such a help to me, you don’t even know.”
Sam was stunned. “Th-thank you, sir,” he stammered. For the second time that day, he found himself relieved that the man Lark was not angry with him. Once the relief had subsided, though, Sam became powerfully confused. “Thank you, thank you. But I don’t really understand, sir. Velasquez lost, right? And the other man said you got a different tip from a bartender, who probably doesn’t know any more than me about horse racing. So how did I help? How did any of us help? Why didn’t you just make up the tips and say you got them from us?”
Tom feigned offense at the question, though he could not keep a little smile from forming in the corners of his mouth. “Why, Sam,” the big man said, putting a hand to his heart, “I would never make up anything. I simply share what I hear. I’m a distributor, really. Nothing more. And the more tips I get, and the more people I get them from, the more chances there are for me to win. And if those tips should come from those who can corroborate them when asked, just like you did, back those few races ago, well, then, that’s all the better. Because I like to keep everything on the up-and-up, you know.”
Sam blushed. “O-of course sir. Of course.”
Tom reached into one of his massive jacket pockets and pulled out a pair of fifty-dollar bills and pressed them into Sam’s hands with a warm, proud smile. “So yes, my boy. You’ve been quite the help to me. And, I suppose, to the folks out there who backed any of my winners. In the end, I think, we all made out ok.”
“Yes sir, of course,” Sam said. “Better than ok, I’d say.”
Tom hooted. “Couldn’t have said it better, son. Couldn’t have said it better.”
Then the big man turned to leave, and once he’d made his exit Sam found himself alone, for the last time, in the bathroom. He looked down at the two bills in his hands and he looked into President Grant’s two pairs of eyes and for a moment he imagined himself as a soldier in the great general’s army. He could see himself, clear as day, marching along, somewhere in Virginia or perhaps Tennessee, all decked out in his blues and with his rifle slung across his shoulders and with his tin of government-issue coffee beans rattling around in his pack. Sam smiled at the thought and then pocketed the two fifties, wondering how many bartenders and waiters and custodians had gotten the same pair of bills from the same pair of rough, friendly hands. Probably quite a few, he imagined. For Tom Lark had seemed the generous type, and he’d seemed keener than most to reward a hard day’s work.
Lincoln Hirn is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, though he now lives in New England, where he is a Ph.D. student in United States history at the University of Connecticut. He writes fiction in his spare time, and likes to think that there's a symbiotic relationship between his academic and creative writing.