Art by Bob Dornborg
My father used to take me to the races every Saturday. These days, with casinos spreading like algae and state lotteries screaming millions from the sides of every city bus, a horse track sounds quaint. Back when we went to Laurel, though, it was wild adventure. It was his only luxury, my father said. Five nights a week he parked the red Schmitt's van ("Pipefitters since 1947") in the alley behind our house, and came in the back door. Maybe he was ashamed of the van or he knew my mother hated it. I guess he might have parked back there for security reasons too, it not being his truck.
On Sundays he went along with my mother to church and supper with Mother's family in Bowie. Sometimes she brought a roast, sometimes she and Grandma made supper together. On sweltering summer afternoons, my father and grandfather would sit on the porch while the women cooked. My grandfather, an old life insurance salesman, was a hail-fellow guy and seemed to prefer guys who could bluster like him. That wasn't my dad. He sat there on the porch, stiff, leaning slightly forward, waiting for the women to call us. It was unbearable. I still get antsy on porches.
Saturdays were different. "This one day is for me and Sheldon," my father told my mother. "It's father-son day at Laurel." I can still hear him and see his silhouette against the kitchen screen door, the frames of his glasses as he turned to look outside.
My father would suffer almost any situation without complaining, and he could make you feel weak if you couldn't do the same. It wasn't anything he said, it was how he didn't say it. He was a post-hippie union guy, with his Weavers records and his Kahlil Gibran. His silences could drive me crazy with confusion and anger at myself and the things I wanted: a decent stereo, a good calculator, X-Men comics. But at the races, his nature was like a magic carpet for enjoying the whole scene. With him, the racetrack was... I don't know... the way some people enjoy opera.
My mother's world of morning newspaper deliveries and dewy lawns always struck me as someone else's life. In my first clear memory of her, she was seated on the living room couch, looking out to the street. It was a sunny morning, definitely spring, and being four years old, I asked her about the fire hydrant on our lawn. It was a yellow, metal bulb I imagined implanted our lawn with underground tentacles. And she said, "It's for us, Shelly. It's our security blanket against fire, in case the worst happens."
When she said that, with the spring morning glowing behind her, the worst was unimaginable. I still don't know what she meant. Did she think that would come across to a four-year-old? Only an insurance agent's daughter would explain fire hydrants that way.
On Saturdays, my father and I would sail off in the white Impala and in twenty minutes be at Laurel, buying a program from the guy at the turnstile. While my dad soaked up the atmosphere, I'd look out over the oval to try to read the dirt, to see whether the track was fast or slow that day. I wanted the numbers and memorized all of them—the seven-furlong chute, the home stretch (one thousand, three hundred and forty-four heart-pounding feet long), as well as odd bits of history. Like the home-stretch duel in 1917 between Hourless, the Belmont winner, and Omar Khayyam, the Kentucky Derby champ. And the fact that Colonel Matt Winn, the guy who made the Derby famous, was Laurel general manager in 1914. Colonel Matt started with the horses when he was just 11, like me. Legend had it he watched the very first Derby as a kid inside the oval.
The shoeboard on the clubhouse wall was like that Hollywood restaurant with the impressions of movie stars in cement, except all U shaped. Banks of televisions ran tapes of yesterday's races at Saratoga and Monmouth.
"Post time in four minutes," the loudspeaker crackled.
My father pulled out a ten-dollar bill for each of us. "As far as your mother's concerned, it's five," he'd say. "Understand, Shelly?"
He'd pin crazy hopes on an Exacta or even a Trifecta, where you have to call the first, second, and third-place horses, in the order they finish. It never worked.
Even stranger, it never bothered him.
We'd get in line and prepare our bets. You had to say it in the right order, or you'd look like a novice: race number, amount of bet, type of bet, and the horse numbers.
My father: "Fourth race, ten-dollar superfecta, numbers eight, three, two and five."
Me: "Fourth race, five-dollar win, number nine."
I loved sitting next to my father in the orange plastic seats, passing the binocs back and forth. I'd gawp at all the seersuckers and tight jeans and polyester. Through the binocs even a guy in a tank top stretching his arm at track's edge looked interesting, or a jockey in white and green polka dots, or an ambulance waiting trackside. These things seemed to signal how the race would turn out.
Once the bets were set and the race started, the place erupted. That's when the world came alive, and everything that was set in concrete the rest of the time was up for grabs for a few minutes. The lazy guy in the tank top was yelling into his rolled-up program like a megaphone. An old socialite howled, "TriStar! Come on, baby!" And a guy at the upstairs bar pounded an iron pillar, wordless.
I felt safe beside my old man. He seemed inoculated against the fever and shakes flaring through everyone around us in the last stretch. They shook their fists and shouted. He calmly watched the horses round the turns, straight as a rod, head up, maybe lips moving slightly as he counted how many horses back his jockey trailed.
After each race, the handlers hosed down the winning horse till its torso gleamed.
"Another beautiful day," my father would say. He'd inhale big, shred the tickets and drop them into the barrel at the gate.
I only asked him about winning once, after an upset screwed my perfectly wagered win-show. As I threw my stub into the barrel, I said, "Once, just once I'd like a winner. Wouldn't you?"
"Don't worry, old man," he said. "Someday."
"We've been coming to this lousy track for how long?" I said.
He nodded. "But we have fun, eh, you and me?" Which pissed me off even worse. I couldn't say why, but I was furious with him the whole way home.
At the dinner table, we told my mother about the race. "Shelly, still no bracelet for me?" she teased. "I had my heart set."
"You wouldn't believe how bad it was," I said. "I have never seen such a pathetic jockey. It wasn't the horse's fault."
My father laughed. "Our whole section of the stands was taken in by Slapdash," he said. "The odds just looked too good. They were too good, all right."
"Shelly," my mother pouted, "I'm crushed."
"One woman attacked that jockey afterward. She was wearing this long gown, and she just ran out there and pounded him with her fists." My father waved his fists as he reached for the succotash. He told these stories as if people's anger and loss were beyond comprehension, childish tantrums.
"Oh my," my mother said. She looked alarmed, his hands flying so close to the porcelain serving dishes.
I rarely noticed the details my father recalled—what someone wore, or their facial tics before they screamed at the t.v. screen. For me it was more important to analyze a person's loss, the risks they took.
"It didn't seem crazy," I'd say. "Four-to-one on a simple ticket. That's reasonable. But to put a hundred dollars on it, that's where you go wrong."
My father always seemed to consider what I said. "Three-to-one a good pay-off, Shelly? You think so?" he might say. Or if I said I avoided any horse with certain medication symbols by its name, he'd say, "So you mean lasix equals a doped horse with no chance? No hope? That's harsh."
My analyses wouldn't bother my mother, though. She understood.
"Next week, I promise," I told her. I loved Saturday dinners.
The summer I turned 12, something happened that ended all of it.
In June of 1971 my mother watched her father fall on his sword in an industry scandal involving a Ponzi scheme. His partner was caught swapping some clients' premiums for others' dividends, and when that guy fled, my grandfather had to take the heat. It was humiliating, and it made her cling that much more to ideas of security and the future. Her future, my father's future at Schmitt's, my future, college. The steamfitting business was relatively steady, but against looming dread, it didn't hold much promise, and my father wasn't worrying enough. And my prospects for the college scholarship she always talked about were uncertain. I heard no muffled voices arguing behind their bedroom door, just the clatter of silverware at the dinner table some nights. I'd hear them talking in the kitchen, just even voices. I knew my mother was worried about her father. I didn't know what that meant between my parents though. And things became more tense on Saturday afternoons when my dad and I left for Laurel.
That particular Saturday marked a break in a stretch of 100-degree days, and my father had been out of sorts. He came in from the shed clutching his back, his shirt gray and damp. He collapsed into his armchair and rubbed his hand over his eyes.
"Would you be crushed if we didn't make it to the track this week, Shelly?" he said. He looked awful.
"Not if you're feeling bad," I said. We'd missed it only twice before, once because of tornadoes.
"Well," he said, "we'll see."
I changed back into my jeans, and resigned myself to walking to the Seven Eleven on Route 1 and checking the comic racks. But then my father came out of the bathroom with his hair wet and combed back.
"You're going to wear that to the track, son?" he said.
I ran back to my room and changed. We liked to look good at the track. I came back downstairs, where my father rested his hand on the newel post.
"Shelly, old man, I'm feeling lucky today," he said.
It was a strange thing for him to say. We never talked about luck; it was always about the process. I can still see him leaning back to say it, the collar of his pale sport shirt at his tan neck, the smile creeping across his face, stealthy and new. It confused me. I thought he had heard something. We got into the Impala, and he backed down the twin cement strips of driveway to the street. I waved to Mother. She turned back inside.
At the track, my father said a drink might help his back, which was even worse after sitting in the car. The second-floor bar had a view of the hazy trees to the east. My father ordered a whiskey sour. I had never seen him drink alcohol in public before. I concentrated on the program: blinkers on or off (a blinkered horse meant skittishness, poor focus, bad news), the medications list, and their past races. "Sellers. Wasn't he the one who fell off Easy Boy last year?" I asked.
We were sitting at a small, black, round table, three rows from the bank of windows overlooking the track.
"Shelly, how does number eight look?" my father said.
"Pelagro? Lousy," I said. He had a look that said he had already decided. "Seven to one." I made a face. "Hasn't placed in eight races. Lasix. Blinkers."
He sipped his drink. "You sure you don't want a coke?" he said. "Sprite?"
"Eight races, Dad. Zilch."
"That's okay, son," he said. "Neither have I." He said it offhand, nothing in his voice. But it struck me he was answering somebody else.
"I'm looking at Four," I said. "Ghost Dancer. Four to one. Ten hands high."
"I like Pelagro," he said. "Just think how he'll pay."
I remember the bartender looking over then, meeting my eye, and behind him on the other side of the bar someone moaning, "Catapult, no!"
It's curious, the link between your body and, for lack of a better word, your destiny. Pelagro's Lasix and blinkers—these said he was headed toward an obscure pasture, and my father must've seen that, too. Back pain, an inability to get comfortable no matter how you sit, self-medication. These are warning signs.
"Put a slice of orange in that, mister." My father nodded to the bartender, then turned to me. "I see a Trifecta." He put his hands up to make a frame, like a movie director. "Eight, four, eleven."
"Trifecta? No way," I sputtered. "Ghost Dancer, okay. But Pelagro's nowhere. And eleven? You haven't even read about Katie's Flag." I slapped the program.
"I've got a feeling," he said. He looked dopey right then, his collar turned up on one side, his thinning hair rumpled. "Humor me," he said. "If I win, we'll get something nice for your mother."
If she had seen my father as I was seeing him now, dreamy on an impossible Trifecta... well, the two of them didn't belong to the same planet.
Our chairs scraped the mottled red-and-white tile floor. We made our way to the windows to place our bets ("Am I straight up?" he asked, still hunched). We got in line behind an old woman who made a simple win-place bet. It included Ghost Dancer. I took that as a good sign.
My father reached the teller and said, "Sixth race, 40 dollar trifecta, numbers eight, four and eleven."
I pretended not to hear. I looked at the expressionless face behind the glass and said, "Sixth race, ten-dollar place, on number four. Ghost Dancer."
We headed toward the track, me clutching my white paper square so tight the red ink on one edge smeared like blood. I couldn't believe he'd bet so much. We sat in the plastic chairs behind the reserved boxes. He looked like a stranger to me, staring at the little TV sets in the boxes.
Finally I said, "Forty dollars?"
"I've got a feeling, Shelly," he said. "Don't worry, old man." He clapped a hand on my knee. "This'll be different."
The announcer called five minutes to post time. In the late sunlight, everyone near us looked weird. A guy in a feather-fronted stetson with a cane stood in the aisle to my right. A girl packed into white shorts and white platforms walked beside a guy who looked like her dad, his arm around her waist.
"Change in equipment," the announcer said. "Number 11, blinkers on."
Katie's Flag. I didn't say anything about money riding on two blinkered dope fiends. The tractor pulled the starting gate along the straightaway, then came the gunshot. Then everything was possible, like always.
"All right, Pelagro!" my father growled. As they rounded the first bend, the green and white jockey on number eight moved ahead.
My stomach shifted, and suddenly I had to go to the bathroom, really badly.
"Shelly, what's wrong?" I heard my father say behind me.
I nearly ran to the men's room, a grim fluorescent place, and sat in one of the stalls. A speaker on the wall barked Pelagro was still strong. Ghost Dancer trailed by two lengths. Katie's Flag in third. My insides were coming out.
The guy in the next stall—an old man, it sounded like—was moaning. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he said. "Jesus, Mary." When the speaker said number 13, Pimpernel Joe, was overtaking Katie's Flag, the sounds from the next stall changed to a low hiss. "C'mon Joe. C'mon Joey. For Papa. Goddammit!"
Under the stall I saw the rumpled bottoms of gray trousers.
I ran water over my hands and got out of there, reached the stands for the last turn. My father was on his feet with the others. He laughed when he saw me. "Shelly, you see what's happening?"
Craning, I saw the green helmet of Katie's Flag's jockey over the rail at the turn, then it disappeared behind the orange of Pimpernel Joe.
"C'mon, Katie's Flag!" my father yelled.
The man in the stetson shook his cane and whooped.
"Come on, Pelagro!" my father yelled.
"Ghost Dancer!" I cried.
Katie's Flag fell one, then two lengths behind Pimpernel Joe. But I was jumping up and down because flowing into the finish line Ghost Dancer's black streak was overtaking the streaming mane of Pelagro.
"Winner!" I screamed. "Winner!" My father barely moved, his shoulders stayed hunched. He just looked at me.
I ran to the winner's claim box. As if it might disappear! Or as if all these loser adults—the ones who couldn't crack the code—would cover it with their grease-filled bodies and hide it from a winner like me. And as I got to the head of the line and showed my ticket, I got scared the woman would ask for proof of purchase.
She just laid out the bills.
I sat down nearby, and I admit, I kissed each of Andrew Jackson's twin scowling green faces. My redeemer.
My father was standing over me then, his glasses glinting with the overhead lights. His face looked drawn. The whiskey must've worn off. He looked stiff as a mannequin.
"Ready to go, Moneybags?" He tried to make it jokey, but his grin was clenched.
It startled me. I jammed the money in my pocket. We barely said a word as we passed the turnstile where he shreded his tickets into the barrel, like always. The silence in the car was like some weird, shared guilt.
But at the dinner table, the joy came back over me as I told my mother about the odds on Ghost Dancer, the speaker in the men's room, running to the winner's box. She got excited too.
"Can you believe it?" I said. "It just goes to show, you go long enough and look things over, something's bound to stick."
"Shelly, you're my hero," she said.
My father raised his glass of iced tea. "To the first of many," he said. He and my mother clinked their glasses with mine.
"A bracelet," I promised. "Tomorrow." My mother gave my father a look I couldn't make out.
Then he told his version: how the track was damp and dangerously fast, how the woman to our left barked at the jockeys, and the Stetson man waving his cane, and a horse that fell (I had missed that in my race to the winner's box), the horse hamstrung in the last seconds, that my father said would be "destroyed." Pelagro.
"They have a specially sized ambulance for the horses," he said, taking off his glasses to wipe the lenses. His bare eyes looked weak. "Did you know that?"
My mother's eyes were moist. "Jim, stop," she said. "Don't."
"It's all right, Shelly," he said, seeing my shock. "It's only natural."
The day of the week I loved him most, it turned out, was just another chance for him to lose.
The next week I said I didn't feel so good, and didn't want to go to Laurel. We went to a movie instead. I forget what we saw. After that, we hardly ever mentioned horses.