So I’m walking out of Shelly’s Crab Shack around 2:00 am with a handful of bills from my tip jar, and the moon is like a freaking eyeball staring right down at me. I’m tired. Sometimes these gigs are more of a hardship than a blessing. But there never was a bluesman worth his salt that didn’t have to pay his dues. Me, I figure a few nights working shabby rooms like the lounge in Shelly’s is gonna be worth it once I hit. I have to hit. There’s no way I can’t. I got me a handful of surefire riffs born from the blues I carry in my bones, man. I was raised on a poor-as-hell Indian reservation smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, with twenty people sharing a three-bedroom house that had no glass on the windows and no electricity, and we had to haul the day’s water from the lake in a five-gallon lard pail. So I know the territory of the blues. I been down so long it looks like up to me. That’s how the old song goes, and I truly know how that feels. Trust me.
With a name like Cree Thunderboy, I’m a shoo-in. That’s as honest a blues name as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson. Getting folks to notice is the hard part. There’s really no blues scene in this town. It’s not really a working man’s town. Ever since the high-tech boom, there’s nothing but ISPs and systems-management joints or software-development places. And they mostly employ nerds and geeks who only listen to overproduced rock or pop or white-boy hip-hop. I busked for over a year on the sidewalk for nickels and dimes before Shel Lashofsky stopped to check me out on his lunch hour one day. He looked at me like I mattered. Like he cared what I was playing. So I vibed him out with some slick harmonica and some down-home thumping on the bass strings of my ratty old Gibson, before peeling out a five-note run that would curdle cheese, man. That’s how I got the gig at Shelly’s, which is what Shel calls his place.
Trouble is, there’s never anyone there. People come there to eat and head out to a shinier, more glamorous place. I wouldn’t call Shel’s a dump, but it’s close. He serves up some good food, but he doesn’t spend much on decor. Shel calls it realism. He says he’s keeping it as close to Louisiana Cajun as he can even though, as far as I know, he’s never been south of Ohio. So I plug in and play to six or seven people, maybe even a dozen on a good night. But a gig is a gig, and I don’t sweat the lack of big tips. In fact, I’ll take this handful of bills to the track tomorrow and turn it into a whole lot more. Fast.
When I first came here, I worked as an exercise groom for one of the big horse trainers. I’d have to be up at like four o’clock to get to the track before the sun was up, but I never minded. It was like going to school. I got a diploma in picking winning horses because I’d listen to the jockeys and the trainers talk about each day’s race card and whose horses were right and whose weren’t. I learned how to tell when a horse is ready just by looking at it. But you can’t bet when you work the back lot, so I quit after six months. After that I just bet.
The only trouble with that was that the track got successful. Pretty soon there were new and bigger trainers with whole stables of horses I didn’t know. There were a lot of new jockeys. So I was lost. I’d been winning for a while, but this new flood of activity left me high and dry. Even though I don’t win a lot, I hit often enough to keep me going back.
My dad would say it’s the lazy man’s way. He was church-raised, a real Biblethumper. And he didn’t look kindly on either gambling or playing music. But the big bluesmen, the ones who left their mark, were all about playing the blues until the wee hours of the morning. When you do that like I do now, you get up late. It’s hard to make an honest job when you don’t get up until noon. Besides, to be a great blues player you have to be authentic, and this life I live gives me enough grit and hard times to make my music real.
Moms Mahood doesn’t mind. Moms runs the rooming house where I live. It’s not much. I got the only room with a small balcony overlooking the backyard, and I sit out there and play on evenings I’m not booked. All Moms cares about is if I have the rent come the end of the week. I’ve been late a few times, but I’m always good for it.
I’m twenty-three years old. I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t own a car. But I can play a guitar that’ll shuck the husk right off a cob of corn from fifty feet away. I’m going to be a bluesman. They’re gonna say my name right along with John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s my dream.
I’m going to win big money at the track too. That’s my other dream. Because there’s always a sure thing hiding in the numbers on the racing form. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I just choose to believe it.
So there’s this filly running in the third race named Ocean’s Folly. I keep staring from my race form to the tote board. I can’t believe my luck. No one is putting any money on this horse, and her odds are sitting at thirty to one. That’s a sixty-dollar payout on a two-dollar bet. When I check the numbers, I get excited. She’s only run a few times, and from the looks of things, she’s what a casual fan would call a “flier and die-er.” In three of her four races she’s run at the front, then fallen off coming around the last turn. But she has great early speed.
Now she’s in a race with veteran horses, and not one of them is a nag. All of them have speed. The race is a mile long, and she’s placed in the fifth position coming out of the gate. It gives her lots of room to move. According to the tote board, everyone seems to be choosing the favorite, a big roan gelding called Majestic Image. He’s won three races over the last year at this same level of competition.
But what I see in the numbers is a young, fast horse trained for this distance. You could almost write off Ocean’s Folly’s first few races as training runs. She’s just run to build up her familiarity with the distance. No other horse can match her for pure blazing speed out of the gate. As I scan each of her races, I see that she’s been stretching that speed out. Now I see that the trainer and the jockey will let her have her head in the back stretch, and it’ll be up to the field to try and catch her.
I’m so excited that my legs are bouncing up and down. The tote board numbers don’t change on her. I have twelve dollars in tip money left after paying admission, buying a racing form and a program. Even if I only bet ten bucks, that’s over three hundred dollars if she wins. I can’t believe my luck.
“Got a hot one, do you?”
I look up, and there’s a big, beefy white guy looking at me and smiling. He’s got one leg crossed over the other and one arm across the back of the seat. The ring on his finger has to be worth a few grand. He’s dressed to kill in a white linen suit and designer shoes.
“Nah,” I say. “Not really. This one’s pretty set with Majestic Image.”
He nods. “Hard to go against his record. There’s no cabbage in the action though. Odds are too low. Who do you like?”
“No one really.”
“That’s not what your legs say.” He gives me a level look that I have to turn away from. His eyes are piercing. He stands and moves to sit beside me and offers his hand. “Win Hardy,” he says.
“Win?” I ask.
“Short for Winslow. Never took much to that. Win feels better.”
“Cree,” I say, shaking his hand. “Cree Thunderboy.”
He laughs. “Now that’s a handle and a half. So who do you like, Mr. Thunderboy?”
“Maybe the nine horse. The odds are long, but in this kinda race you have to go that way to make anything.”
“You always bet to win?”