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American Contemporary

Hank Sampson’s Wager—George Davis

  Hank Sampson has been going to the racetrack two or three nights a week for the last seven years and, as he says, ‘I break even’

  Hank can ill-afford to spend the money on the ponies. He goes, he says, ‘to make extra money to buy a house. He’s rented from Olive Pearson for the last forty-one years. Hank has never missed paying his rent on time until now.

  “I’m sorry, Olive. I’ll get the money to you by…the end of the week.” 

  “Hank, you need to stop your gambling. Don’t you know? Gambling is a vice, and very few people make a living betting their paychecks.” 

  “I know, Olive, but I’m due for the big one. Tonight the daily double is a cinch. I’ve got inside info. Kelly's Dream and Tulsa Tess are going to win. Do you know what that means, Olive?” 

  “Yeah, come tomorrow morning you’ll be poorer than you are right now.” She closed the door in Hank’s face. Poor sap. I feel sorry for him. 

  Hank sat, head in hands, thinking what a fool he’d been. It wasn’t the luck that let him down. It was the strategy. He’d have to devise another plan. 

  The next morning, Hank picked up the newspaper and went immediately to the sports page. The list of runners was posted for tonight. Looking over the equine list, he saw a likely winner. But, what was her track record? She had only won once, and that was in the mud. Okay, Lucky Star, tonight you are going to win big. 

  “Fifty dollars on Lucky Star to win,” Hank told the green-visored man behind the barred window. “I feel lucky tonight.” 

  As many times before, Hank lost his money. Flat broke and desperate, Hank left the track, fifty dollars lighter than when he entered an hour ago. 

  How could I miss it? I’ve got a system going here. Not so, Hank Sampson. What you’ve got is a gambling habit. 

  “Olive, I’ll bring by the rent on Friday. Okay?” 

  “The trouble with that, Hank, is Friday never comes. If you don’t pay me by then, I’m going to have to evict you. I’m sorry, Hank, but your rent is supposed to be my retirement fund, but you’ve made it a dry gulch.”

  “Please, Olive. I need some time. I will pay you. I promise I will.”

  “How many times have I heard that one, Hank. You are a loser. I wish I could afford to carry you longer. However, you are now three months in the rears, and if you don’t come across by Friday. I will have the sheriff serve you with an eviction notice. Sorry, Hank.”

  What can I do? Hank felt that old feeling again. His luck was going to change. He was going to win big tonight. Enough to pay his rent for three months, and put some in the bank, something he hasn’t done in years.

  “Put five on Hank’s Mare to win.” I know this is a message from God because my name is Hank. Hank has to win tonight or else. 

  Well, Hank’s luck didn’t change tonight. He lost his last five-dollar bill. The racetrack was the winner again. What would he tell Olive? Maybe she won’t go through with calling the sheriff. Nah, Olive is a good person. She’ll carry me until I win the big one. 

The big one, Hank thought, was the daily double. Those two fillies were bound to win. Greg’s Lady and Sonny’s Manner were both track picks. How could they not win this race? 

Payday, Thursday night at the track Hank was placing his bet for the daily double. “Give me five on the nose.” He turned, a wide smile on his face. “Tonight’s the big one,” he said to no one. 

If I don’t win this one…stop worrying. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, Hank. Tonight when your horses come in. You will be six hundred dollars richer. As before, one of his horses came in, Greg’s Lady. Sonny’s Manner trailed the field. Instead of going home richer. He’s going home dirt poor, again. 

  Olive knocked on Hank’s door. He slowly opened it. “Well, Hank, it’s Friday. What do you have to say?”

  “I was so close, Olive. I only lost by one horse. But, tonight the feature race is paying off big money.”

  “That’s it, Hank. I’m calling the sheriff.” She turned and went downstairs to her apartment. Through the open door, he could hear Olive talking to the sheriff. “Okay, Leonard, serve that paper on Hank today. I’ve carried him long enough.” 

  She can’t do this to me; he thought. I’ve been her tenant for years. It would be like throwing away your favorite pair of slippers. 

  “Afternoon, Hank,” Sheriff Wyndham said. “I’m sorry, Hank. I have to deliver this notice to you. Mind you, I didn’t want to do it, but under the law. I am obligated to perform my duties.”

  “I understand, Dexter. It’s okay. I’ll get by somehow.”

  “I can loan you a couple of dollars, Hank if that’ll help,” Wyndham said. 

  “No, that all right, Dexter. I’ll move out.”

  “Olive has been good to you, Hank. She held off for three months.”

  “I know it. I’m sure gonna miss this place, and Olive too.”

  “Maybe now you’ll seek some help, Hank. You can join Gambler’s Anonymous.” 

  “Yeah, it’s okay. I’ll get by. I can always live on the streets, Dexter.” 

  “A homeless person, Hank. I should hope you put your money to good use, get yourself a nice apartment, quit gambling, and maybe get yourself, I nice lady friend.” 

  “I’ll try, Dexter. I don’t like being broke all the time. Nevertheless, I know if I study the race sheet with the eyes of a winner instead of the eyes of a loser. I can win.” 

  “Forget the racetrack, Hank. That’s what got you into this mess in the first place.” 

  “I know it, Dexter, but the big one is waiting for me. Tonight is the night. If only I can hit the daily double, just once.” 

  Saturday morning, Hank put all his furnishings in the driveway. He was going to sell all he had. What good would a coffee table, and a bed do him living on the streets? 

  Hank held the sale. It seems like all the cheapskates came to buy all he’d toiled to buy over the last forty years. His furniture wasn’t exactly modern, but neither was it archaic. 

  “How much are you askin’ for the sofa, Hank?” Jim Cherry asked. 

  “Fifty dollars. It is practically new. I haven’t sat on that couch in the last five years.” 

  “Come on, Hank. You can do better than that. How about twenty bucks?” 

  “Forty-five.” 

  “Thirty.”

  “Forty.”

  “Thirty, and that’s my last offer.”

  “Sold.” Cherry handed Hank the thirty-one singles. “Can you help me load this onto my truck, Hank?” Hank lifted one end of the long sofa, and the two put it in the bed of Jim’s Ford F100. 

  “How much will you take for this vase?” A heavy-set woman with blue hair asked. “I’ve got two dollars.” 

  “Sorry, Ma’am that’s an antique vase. It is at least ninety years old. I’m asking thirty dollars.” 

  “I’d sure like to have it, but I can’t afford it. It looks like the one my poor mother had when I was growing up. She’d be so happy if I could buy this vase.” She hung her head, wiped her cheeks dry, and slowly walked away. 

 “Wait a minute, ma’am. I’ll sell that to you for two dollars.” She smiled. “God bless you, sir. I thank you so much.” Hank watched her drive off in her new Cadillac Escalade. A cardboard sign in the rear window: Hattie's Antiques Main Street Cumberland Falls Maine. 

  Hank put her hoodwink down as people can put one over on me one time, but never twice. The next person who tries to cheat me will not succeed. I promise myself. 

  “Sir,” Hank looked around. “Who said that?” He then looked down at a small boy holding his Roy Rogers pearl-handled cap pistols with the leather holsters. “What is it, son?” 

  “How much you want for these. I sure would like to have ‘em, mister. I like guns.” 

  “Well, son. I’m asking thirty dollars for them. They are seventy years old. They’re antiques.” 

  “I only got a quarter, mister, but I sure would like to have these. Will you take a quarter, please mister?” Nothing softens a man’s heart more than young ones pleading. How could I not sell them for a quarter if it makes this little tyke happy? 

  I did it again. I backed down. That young kid was one of those ‘little people', you know, a midget. He walked off, lit up a cigar, and walked down Main street holding his prize, my prize Roy Rogers’ pearl-handled cap pistols. Will I never learn? 

  At the end of the day, Hank counted his money from the sale. He had one-hundred-fifty-nine dollars and twenty-five cents. He was disgusted. He continually fell for a myriad of sob stories today. First, that woman who cheated him out of his antique vase, the make-believe kid with the cigar who robbed me of my past, stealing, yes stealing my cap pistols. 

  “Olive, I can pay you a month’s rent. I made a little money from my yard sale, one-hundred, and ten dollars.” 

  “Your rent, Hank is six hundred dollars a month. That money wouldn’t pay for a quarter of a month. No, Hank, you have to move.” 

  “Okay, Olive, I will be out of here by Friday.”

  “I hope this Friday comes. Not like other Friday promises.”

  “I will be out, Olive. I know when I’m licked.”

  “Don’t make it so hard on yourself, Hank. You will rise above all this someday if you quit gambling.”

  Hank didn’t take her advice. In fact, he spent most of his pay at the track, hoping against hope he’d hit the big one. Hank’s problem didn’t wane. It grew into a major issue. 

  After moving from Olive’s home, he talked his best friend, Sidney Wentworth into letting him sleep at his apartment. He told Wentworth it would only be for a couple of weeks. A month later, Wentworth told Hank he’d have to leave. He was getting married, and there wouldn’t be any room for him.

  “Okay, Sid, I’ll be out by Friday.” 

  “I’m sorry, Hank. I can’t have you here when I get married. Sylvia wouldn’t like it, and you know; one has to please their wives.” 

  It was a hot July when Hank began living on the street. He slept on the park bench until the sheriff told him he had to move on. “I’m sorry, Hank, but the town council said, you’re sleeping in public on that bench didn’t look good to tourists, and after all, they do keep our economy flush, Hank.” 

  From that day, Hank has slept down in the alley between Jack’s Bar and Newcomb’s Hardware store. 

  “Hank, I want to see you in my office,” his boss, Norman Foote, at Sherman’s Super Market said. “Hank, you have to get help. You can’t go on living in that alley. You stink, and your clothes are wrinkled. People are beginning to complain. I’ve been fair with you. I haven’t said anything to you until now. However, I can’t have our customers complaining about your appearance. You have to either get help or…I will have to let you go.” He opened his desk drawer and took out an envelope. “Here, Hank, a hundred dollars. Get yourself cleaned up, and a new set of clothes before you come to work Monday. And, Hank, call someone, and get some help.” 

  Hank looked at the hundred-dollar bill. Ben seemed to be smiling at him. And wasn’t Ben Hur running in the fifth tonight? 

  “One hundred on Ben Hur to win,” Hank said. “Come on, Ben, show ‘em how it’s done.” 

Well, Ben Hur might have been a good movie with Charlton Heston, but his namesake finished last. 

  “I’m sorry, Hank,” Foote said. “I’ve got to let you go. What happened to the hundred-dollar bill I gave you yesterday?” 

  “Bill Newcomb’s dog ate it. Honest, Norman, I swear it. I didn’t even have time to buy any clothes. He grabbed it before I could stop him.” 

  “Hank, Bill’s dog died last week. He has no dog. You spent it at the racetrack didn’t you?” 

  “No, it musta been someone else’s dog…looked like Champ, Bill’s dog, same markings.” 

  “I’m sorry, Hank. Get yourself some help.” 

  Hank lived behind the hardware store until mid-October when the air began to chill. He had no overcoat, only a thin tattered spring jacket with no lining. 

  “If only I had a second chance, Norman. I will take my first week's pay and buy myself a new suit of clothes, and rent a room. Stan Thompson has a room above his store. I can live there until I get on my feet.” 

 “I’m sorry, Hank.” His voice cracked. Not only was he Hank’s boss, but also his friend. He hated what had happened to Hank. All through high school, everyone predicted he would be a successful businessman. 

  It was a Monday afternoon in late October. Jack Flint, owner of Jack’s Bar told his chef to make sure Hank got one good meal a day. The chef opened the door, passed Hank a ham sandwich, Cole slaw, and some French fries on a paper plate. “Here you go, loser,” he said. 

  Hank bowed his head as he took the plate. He was mortified to death. He had always been a good man. His mother would say, “Hank, you are my pride and joy. You are going to go places, son.” 

  Yeah, Ma, I’m going to go places alright, the alley behind the hardware store. 

  As Hank walked down Main Street, he saw a wad of paper lying on top of the sewer cover outside Blanche Sayer’s Beauty Shop. He bent down and picked it up. It was a one-hundred-dollar bill wrapped around six twenty-dollar bills, and four tens. Two hundred and sixty dollars. 

  He thought for a moment. Should I turn this into Blanche’s shop? Could it be one of her customers dropped it? No, he remembered a time when he was working at the A&P store as a kid. He found a twenty-dollar bill on the floor. He turned it into the manager who told him if someone didn’t claim it in thirty days, it was his. That night, the manager told him a customer came in and claimed it. He found out later the manager bragged about finding a twenty on the floor and putting it in his pocket. 

  Hank bought a newspaper and opened it to the sports page. Lucky Star was running in the fifth again. She is due. Tonight has to be her night, the track will be wet. She’s a mudder, he thought. 

  You know Hank lost the money to the owners of the track. He was back in the alley again that night and being fed by that arrogant chef who always looks down on him. “Here’s your supper, you has-been.” 

  Try as he may, Hank Sampson was truly a loser in the sight of his friends. He has lived two years on the streets of Bickford, Maine. He's begged, borrowed, or stole anything he’s needed to stay alive. Every cent he gets goes to the Roosevelt Raceway hoping to, someday, hit the big one.  

  I wish I could say, Hank Sampson got a break, went to Gambler’s Anonymous. However, the truth is, Hank had no way to pay for a barber or money for a bath. His long white beard hung down to his waist, his face now a black wrinkled mass of loose skin. On a cold, wet Sunday morning, Hank was found lying on his back in the alley between the bar and the hardware store.  Doc Miller said, “he’s been dead at least forty-eight hours.”

  Not one soul, except for Norman Foote and Olive Pearson attended the funeral at Peabody’s Funeral Home. The casket was not opened. Probably, Norman thought because the Peabody family didn’t want to take the time or spend any money on cleaning up his body, and shaving him. 

  For the last thirty-five years of Hank Sampson’s life, he spent chasing a dream. The dream of a lavish lifestyle that never came to him. 

If there is a moral to this story, it’s, don’t spend your time chasing rainbows, waiting for the big one to come along. Success is never left to chance. It is gained by blood, sweat, and tears.  

June 15, 2021 10:39

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1 comment

Ciara Schipper
08:29 Jun 24, 2021

I like the message your story brings across. It's so sad, to see his life waisted like that. What makes it more heart-wrenching is the fact that many people's lives turn out this way. The last paragraph was a nice touch. Finishing it off like that supported the whole embodiment of the story!

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