Fat Kelley's Teeth
They say in gambling you are either up or down. But a real gambler, a real hardcore fucking gambler, knows that you’re only up when you have a bet in play, and you’re only down when you can’t scrape together the change to lay another one down. The winning, the losing, the money gained and lost, its all meaningless in the shadow of the real draw to the tables – the uncertainty and chaos of the play.
So when I got hard up for scratch one day I had a choice to make. I could either step down from the post and go home with nothing in my pockets but my hands, or I could hit up one of my old loan shark buddies for some bread. Of course if you know me (and I know you don’t, but if you did) you would know that this was no choice at all. I pulled out my phone – the one item I couldn’t hock because I needed it to place stakes and contact my bookies – and began hitting numbers.
Hey, Johnny Communion, it’s Tommy, how’s it going? I got a hot tip on a… yea, no, I understand, but listen, this pony, she’s hit her last… a fucking trifecta, what do you think I am?
Carbone, it’s Tommy. Look, I need about five bills to get myself out of a pit, you think you can float me that? Three days, tops, you know me, I am good for it. Of course I’m gonna hit, are you kidding me?
No, listen, baby, I need like maybe six bills to get myself clean from this hole I’m in. When am I coming home? I’m coming home when I can afford fucking cab fare, that’s when I’m coming home. So look, just put the money in my account and…
Five minutes is a long time when the horses are on their way to post and time is ticking down. Now I have a system – and I know, I know everyone has a system, but look – I have a system that can’t fail when the track is half wet like it was that day. There’d been a fifteen, twenty minute shower that just kissed the surface of the track, and after two races the mix was good enough for me to put the system into work, and I could clear my debts easy with enough left over to get Jenny and I a pretty nice hunk for ourselves if I just had four hundred bucks.
Yea, yea, I know I was asking for five or six, but look, when you’re hot you gotta strike hard, you know?
Anyway, so some thug in the corner must have been watching me because before long a guy comes over and taps me on the shoulder and asks if I need a loan floated in my direction. Now, I’m no sucker, don’t go thinking that. I never make a dumb bet, take a crazy risk. I like to weigh all my options, but this guy had a suit pressed like a new dollar bill and hair like wet obsidian, and he seemed stand-up, so I nodded and followed him to the back of the bar and through a door to a small room.
Now you should know that everyone in my neighborhood knew who Fat Kelley was. Fat Kelley would walk down Liberty Avenue on Saturday mornings buying produce, bread, handing out bills and coins to the neighborhood kids. Everyone knew Kelley, and they knew to offer the best prices, the best quality, and to stay the hell out of the way. Criminals have the power to make people do things they would otherwise stray from; some use fear, others respect. The best, and Fat Kelley was one of the best, make you do things without you even realizing you’re acting differently. You do things instinctively because you want them to like you, like a child striving for approval from its parent, or a dog from its master.
So when the lug behind me told me to take the seat across from Fat Kelley I was understandably a little bit nervous. But you don’t spit in the eye of the devil and you don’t make Kelley wait for you to think about whether you feel like doing what you are told. So I sat down across from her and kept my mouth shut until she decided to speak to me.
“So,” she looked up at me from the desk where a ledger lay open and covered in scrawl, “Tommy Mullins. I hear you’re looking to place a bet in my bar but you don’t have the capital to cover.”
The way she spoke made you listen, made your eyes lock on her and your ears start kicking out other sounds. Like a girl you have a crush on in math class suddenly offering up an answer – fuck knows what the question was, but that answer makes all the sense in the world to you. Her knockout looks didn’t hurt her case either.
See Fat Kelley got her name because of the size of her wallet. She used to say she liked the name because it gave people the wrong idea about her, and when she walked in like sex wrapped in a red dress it knocked them back on their heels, made it easier to play them. Makes sense to me. Worked on me.
“Yea,” I said, before correcting myself, “Yes, ma’am. I’d like to place a bet on the horses.”
“I see,” she said, hand running through her blond hair, taking up a pencil and marking something in the ledger. “And what do you have for collateral?”
“Collateral?” I asked, shifting in my chair.
The more she spoke the more the spell began to dissipate, and the more I began to realize what was happening. Three men stood around me, hands in their pockets, suit coats buttoned. Kelley reached below the desk and pulled out two small leather pouches, reached into one and pulled out a rolling paper and a pinch of tobacco.
“Collateral,” she repeated, rolling up a cigarette and striking it to life. “Something pledged as security for repayment of a loan.” Like quoting a damn dictionary.
“Uh, no ma’am, not really.”
“Hm,” she mumbled, picking up the other pouch and tossing it up and down lightly in her hand. “Well ok, let me explain a situation to you, and you tell me if that situation is a situation you would like to be in. Alright?”
I glanced at the men around me, my stomach turning over a few times until both sides were burned and smoking. “Ok, that sounds good to me.” It did not sound good to me.
Fat Kelley sat forward, crossing her arms on the table over the ledger, leaning forward so her breasts touched her forearms. “Alright. So usually I’d give you a loan, give you a period of repayment, interest rates, vig, all that nonsense that makes people’s heads spin. I don’t want to do that. Fuck those guys outside, the bookies, the number takers. Fuck them. At best I get my money back, maybe a little more. At worst you never pay me and I have to kill you. So…” She pulled on her cigarette and then inspected the cherry to make sure it was burning proper. “Let’s say that you make a personal wager, with me. I’ll even give you a ten percent markup to what you’d make out there. You make the wager with me you’d make with them, I pay you minus what you would have taken from me. How does that sound? That sound like something you’d like to do?”
I put my mind to it for a minute. Every second she talked she was losing her former grace, slowly evolving into something else. Up in one corner of the room was a TV with a live feed of the coming race. I had two minutes til post, all bets on the table, start of the race. I let my foot tap for a moment before saying, “Yes, that sounds like a good deal to me.”
“I thought so,” she said. “Now of course, I never give you my money, so you can’t really repay me my money, can you?”
I could feel the logical gears turning in her head, and I let another five seconds go by before saying, “That sounds right to me, yes.”
“See, I’m not saying you get such-and-such odds with a such-and-such return, I am saying you will get,” Kelley looked down at her ledger. “You will get twelve thousand dollars if you are right about your horse. So what will I get in return? Well, let me tell you…”
I waited, swallowed, looking her over, trying to find that pretty, enchanting woman who I had sat down across from. Now, though, all I could see was an accountant, slowly telling me how much sense it made for me to sign my life away.
“Do you know what I wanted to be when I was a little kid, Tommy?”
The sudden tonal shift made me blink, put me off my guard. I didn’t have time for a history lesson on local criminals, I had a bet to lay. “Super model?”
She laughed, the flash of her smile illuminating for just a moment the beauty her cold, detached demeanor had hidden. “No. No, Tommy, I wanted to be a dentist. You know why?” I shrugged. She continued. “I wanted to help people. See, a surgeon, a doctor, they fix people, sure. They help people. But only people who need them first. A dentist… well, everyone goes to a dentist. A dentist ensures the continuation of health, but can also repair bad health. I studied the whole anatomy of the human mouth, bones, gums, tongue, teeth… teeth, Tommy. Do you know how rare teeth are, really? You lose enamel and it is gone. You lose a tooth… well, we aren’t sharks, Tommy. We don’t make new teeth. And losing teeth affects a person’s whole life in a way so specifically terrible. So, you see, I want your teeth, Tommy. One tooth for every one hundred dollars you would have wanted to bet in the first place.” I guess she saw the look on my face, the incredulity, because she smiled and looked at my mouth with an insane hunger in her eyes. “See, teeth are like good luck charms to me. And I want yours if you lose.”
Six teeth. It was six teeth versus my fortune, or the fortune that there was to be won if I was right. I looked back up at the post clock, chewing the inside of my mouth before nodding. I don’t know why I did. I mean, I never really thought that hard about anything in my life, so why should this have been any different. It didn’t cross my mind how she would get the teeth from my mouth, or when, or even which ones. I just knew that I was on a hot streak, and I needed to lay down six to get my score.
Like spiders catch flies, Fat Kelley catches suckers. I almost didn’t believe her that she would actually take my teeth. I mean, who does that? What I thought it was was that she would just use that as a way to weed out people who weren’t serious, so only the players stuck around. And I was a player.
So when she pulled out a set of old-timey pliers, you know, the kind that look all round and walnut cracker-esque, I sorta got scared. They sat on the ledger like a fucking down payment on future pain. They were rusty, too. I mean, this was some cliched shit, but it fucking worked on me. I could feel my damn heart pounding in my chest.
“What’s your bet, then, sugar?”
“Trifecta. Big Band, Foxy Jazz, and Failure’s Fortnight.”
The smile she flashed me gave me another shot of uncertainty.
When post came and the horses stepped up to the gate I was already sweating bullets. I mean, I knew I was gonna win, but those pliers were a pretty strong motivator toward doubt. Fat Kelley, though, she smiled and turned around in her chair, leaning back and looking up at the screen.
To hit a trifecta, all three horses have to finish first, second, and third place in the order dictated. I saw a guy write something down on a sheet of paper and then walk over to me with a pen in hand. He’d drafted out my picks and a line for my to sign on. I did my scrawl and handed him back the pen, trying to ignore his smug smile.
The bell rang and the horses stormed out of the gate like they were the ones with teeth on the line. The dirt flew from their hooves, the jockeys worked their crops and drove their mounts with all the fury a tiny little man can manage against a massive horse. You’d think I would have looked down at the pliers, but no, no way. Those horses were the center of my world.
Big Band took and early lead, but Foxy Jazz overcame him – which I knew he would – and Failure of course was in the back of the pack, barely keeping pace. Everything was moving just as it was supposed to, and even the middle of the pack was working brilliantly into my plan. Once, mid race, Fat Kelley turned back and looked at me, raising her eyebrows because Big Band fell into third. But in the final stretch Failure came up hard on the outside, running at a pace that could have set it into first place if not for Foxy Jazz and Big Band suddenly making a final run toward the finish. The other horses were coming up fast on the three, nipping at Failure’s tail.
Big Band won by a head, visibly beating Foxy Jazz to the finish. Foxy of course got second, and a second later Failure crossed the line. The trifecta was in.
Now I know you won’t believe me, but I didn’t even fucking cheer or jump up or nothing. I just smiled, and when Fat Kelley turned around she was smiling too, her eyebrows raised in a show of admiration and disbelief. We both nodded our heads, and Fat Kelley lifted the pliers with what looked a whole lot like regret or disappointment and put them back in the desk drawer. Then she pointed at one of the gorillas and motioned him over, whispering in his ear before sending him off.
“Not bad, Mr. Mullins,” Kelley said to me, reaching into that first little pouch and rolling up another cigarette. “I’m impressed, though slightly disappointed. I can always use more good luck charms.”
The gorilla came back and handed me a recycled Safeway bag filled with bills bound by rubber bands. This was not a classy establishment, but I took the time to count it out (vaguely) and stood up, satisfied. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Fat Kelley.” And turned for the door. I wanted out of that dusty back room.
“Wait,” Kelley said, standing up from the desk quickly. “wait, come here. Look,” she stood in front of me, a few inches shorter than me, “Look, you didn’t really think I was going to take your teeth, did you?” She smiled, her amusement at my obvious discomfort shining like a candle.
I let myself laugh. I had, I really fucking had, but I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of gullible loser, so I gave a smirk and said, “No, come on, are you serious? Those pliers were a bit much, you know?”
“Yea, they really are,” she said, smiling and laughing with me for a minute before adding, “But you know, you have to cultivate an air of terror, you know? Here, wait, hold on, let me give you something.” I watch her reach back, grabbing the second pouch and reaching into it. “Here, I want you to take this. It’s a good luck charm. And this way, people will believe you when you tell ’em about this.”
I looked down at her closed hand, nails painted blood red, perfectly manicured. Then she opened it up, and there, sitting in the palm of her hand like a bird’s egg in a nest, with pieces of dried blood and gum still clinging to the root, was a whole human molar.
(Title by Threechordme, originally published July 6, 2011)