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The University of Southern Mississippi
Andrew Simpson Plattner
Abstract of a Dissertation
Submitted to the Graduate School
of the University of Southern Mississippi
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
May 2010
by Andrew Simpson.Plattner
Ten Short Stories is a collection of short stories composed during my studies at The
University of Southern Mississippi Center for Writers between the years 2008 and 2010.
The Universityof SouthernMississippi
Andrew SimpsonPlattner
A Dissertation
Submittedto the GraduateSchool
of The Universityof SouthernMississippi
in PartialFulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degreeof Doctorof Philosophy
of the GraduateSchool
May 2010
UMI Number: 3416299
All rights reserved
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In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
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a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 3416299
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ABSTRACT ........................................................................................................ ii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .................................................................................. iii
INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................... v
HIALEAH ............................................................................................................ 1
BEAUJOLAIS .....................................................................................................30
SO, IT’S CURSED? ............................................................................................37
WHY THE LONG FACE? ..................................................................................58
OPEN ON SUNDAY ..........................................................................................63
A BOOK OF MATCHES ...................................................................................73
RESORT LIFE ....................................................................................................95
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO TELL ME? ....................................................107
ONE THING NOT COVERED IN DUST .......................................................112
YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE ...................................................................118
Last November, my wife brought a purple folder back from a trip she had taken to
Northern Kentucky, which, for a year or so, was an area where we had once lived. The
year we had lived there had not been long after my older brother had committed suicide.
The house we lived in had once been his. My parents were scared of the house but I
wanted to be there, even if the whole experience would eventually teach me little about
everything I thought I ought to know. I did some writing up there, though not very much.
The house was on a hillside which overlooked the Ohio River and it is pretty country but
it is cold there in the winter and I do recall the occasional feeling that I was the only
person on earth. I suppose in a way I wanted to feel something of what my brother had
felt and in doing this I understood I never would and this was never going to change. I
wished he had left there while he had been alive and after spending a year or so there I
understood I would never be going back again.
The purple notebook had some real surprises in it: poems. There were pages and
pages of them and they did not seem to be about anything concrete. The contents were
mostly images--a newly homeless farm hand, a traveling salesman alone in a motel room,
a drunk man trying to do a handstand--and they had nothing to do with my family at all.
Many of the poems were set in West Virginia, a state where I’d spent some time during
my feverish gambling days. When my wife and I lived in Ocala, Florida, which was the
place we left for after Northern Kentucky, we used to go to flea markets all the time.
Once, I bought a binder that had laminated pages with pockets full of matchbooks from
motels across the United States. They must have been collected by a traveling salesman.
These poems of mine felt more or less the same way to me, just little things I picked up
and kept for whatever it is the reason keep things together. They certainly are not very
good poems. After reading them a few times, I felt certain that I could not write a decent
poem if you handed me a collection of Philip Levine’s works and a pile of tracing paper.
But in writing them, I suppose I had been driving at something.
Last fall, these poems were a welcome arrival to me in a practical sense. In
November, I was just turning into the stretch of studying for my comprehensive exams
and I did not have a lot of time to write. I did want to write, though. I just didn’t have the
time to develop a lot of new material. The result was that I took a few of these poems and
tried to make them into stories. Some of the poems were stripped down to a single image-sort of an inbred cousin to automatic writing, this exercise--and from this, a story was
constructed. Or, I combined poems, etc. I hardly know what to make of these stories at
the moment, but four of them are in the manuscript: “Why the Long Face?” “Open On
Sunday,” “What Are You Going to Tell Me?” and “One Thing Not Covered in Dust.”
I tried something like this before. A couple of years ago, I wrote a poem entitled
“Kraut,”which seemed to have a single good thing about it. I knew the one thing was
worth keeping and I finally made a story happen around it, which I titled “Welcome” and
then I sent it to some magazines and it was finally accepted by Shenandoah, the literary
magazine at Washington & Lee University. So, I don’t know if these latest poemsturned-into-stories will go anywhere--I don’t know that about anything I am offering in
this manuscript--but I have the sense that so far I have served them each pretty well. And,
in one way, I think this is all that really matters. The works mentioned above, I think they
are representational overall on an evolution in my own story writing. This evolution feels
necessary and important. When I first started out writing stories in graduate school, this
almost 20 years ago now, I had a lot of ideas about where a story ought to go and how
many pages it ought to have and so forth. Presently, I don’t think about these things at all.
I try not to. I think if you are just starting from scratch it is just enough to have a
character or two and they are in a place that is interesting and perhaps this place already
reflects a handsome defeat of sorts, though not always, and that one of them, the
protagonist or not the protagonist, ought to have a pretty good idea about how things
work. And then one of them will have a new or a different type of idea and they both will
be game enough to try it out. Hopefully, by the end of the story, the protagonist or not the
protagonist have a better idea about how things work. Anything else I get in the story is
largely the result of my own ability to write honestly and the well-timed arrival of luck.
I look at the story included here, “Hialeah,” as representational of this equation. The
High Museum of Art, which is not far from where my wife and I live now in Atlanta,
offered an exhibition called Eleanor a couple of years ago. This exhibit was set up in a
basement of the museum and it featured one beautiful black and white photograph after
another of Eleanor Callahan, the wife of noted American photographer, Harry Callahan.
Harry Callahan and his wife lived in Chicago for most of their lives and many of the
photographs were in Chicago, be it her sitting on a bench in Grant Park or swimming in
the shallows of Lake Michigan. She is not runway-model pretty, but she is striking and
handsome and Harry Callahan’s fascination with her is powerful. It did not take me long
to understand that I wanted an Eleanor in a story of my own and this is pretty much how
“Hialeah” starts. In the first real-time scene, the young narrator watches his parents
closely and he notices how his father is continually trying to hold his mother’s attention-perhaps in the way a photographer might. I have a book on the history of horse racing in
America here in our apartment and I also decided the narrator needs to love this book as
much as I do in real life. The copy of this book was purchased in a used book store--for
something like $4--because the cover of the book was put on backwards ... and upside
down. These details made it into the story. This is what I am referring to when I say luck.
I think the rest of the story unfolds as it needs to. Pieces of it were extracted from other
stories that weren’t working so well and so forth. Anyone who writes on a consistent
basis is bound to have a junkyard full of still usable parts, so my method here is hardly
There’s another story in here I guess you can say I found in a different type of art
exhibit. A few years ago now, my wife and I were planning to take a spring trip to Berlin,
but our money had crapped out in a sudden way and we had to take a busman’s holiday to
Miami for a few days instead. We made the best of it, rented a car and tried to go places
we had not been to before. We did not think there would be many; we had once lived in
Miami and good things had happened to us there only on an intermittent basis. I knew
where all the racetracks and bars were. On this trip, my wife decided she wanted to go to
the Fairchild Botanical Garden in Coral Gables and when we arrived there we were quite
thrilled to discover sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein, Fernando Botero and Dale Chilhuly
amongst the palm trees and other remarkable plants and trees. The Lichtenstein pieces
were enormous and bold and they seemed brilliant to me. One was entitled “Man
Thinking” and it must have been 50 feet tall. It featured a cobalt blue outline of a man’s
head but above the eye line there was nothing at all and if you stood there for a time you
could watch the clouds pass beyond it. It was a beautiful afternoon, I do recall that. In a
clearing beyond the little trolley tracks that ran through the park was a huge sculpture of a
torso--this was a Botero, and I late read there had been one like this on display right on
the Champs Elysees in Paris. The work seemed to possess an unbelievable power to me
and I will never forget the feeling I had seeing it for the first time. One day, I told myself,
I wanted to create something like this for a story of mine. So, this was the catalyst for the
artwork that is sometimes at the center of the story entitled, “So, It’s Cursed?” The story
needed dozens of rewrites; for whatever reason it took a long time to find the characters
that would illuminate all that the story might be about. I think that, at the end of the day,
the characters catch up to the object in the story.
The “paradise” setting in this story is one that can be seen in others here, like
“Hialeah,” “Beaujolais” and “Resort Life,” and I like this milieu so very much if for no
other reason than I grew up a horseplayer and if you are betting horses you want to have
an idea of where all of your good fortune might one day land you. The issue of gambling
is more on the periphery in both “Beaujolais” and “Resort Life” and, in both stories, the
protagonists cannot seem to decide have deeply their gambling experiences have marked
them. The protagonist of “Beaujolais” is a former salesman who tends to think in
fantastic exaggerations in order to stay excited about his own life. In “Resort Life,” the
opposite is the case. The protagonist has seen his father gamble away the family fortune
and has become overly cautious as a result. He is not interested in the complexities of
human frailty and human failure. In both of these stories, the protagonists understand
their outlooks are changing and that obvious realities await them.
I think it makes sense that the collection winds up with a story called “You Know
Where You Are” and that for the most part this story takes place in Atlantic City, an
intimidating town where the wealthy casinos are directly across Pacific Avenue from
impoverished neighborhoods and seedy motels. It seems to be a heartless place in this
way, but the characters do not view it in this light and I think such outlooks are the
distinctly powerful things being offered in the story itself. I feel that in one sense the
young narrator of “Hialeah” has grown up and then some by the time “You Know Where
You Are” opens. He has made some progress. He is consistently broke and the horses he
trains are worn down. But, of course, he wants to keep going. He has learned too much to
really understand anything else.
In addition to being a lifelong gambler, my father fancied himself as something of
a horse racing historian. He owned a number of books about racing history, and he
primarily studied them when we were on the road or when he was between jobs. He
occasionally interrupted my homework time if there was something he wanted me to see
and I did like the pictures of any race on a sloppy track, the way the powerful
photography held the mess of hard running horses in place. One Christmas, he bought me
a hardcover used book called A History of Horse Racing in America. It must have been
on sale because the binding was worn and the cover itself was put on backwards; when
you opened it, you were already at the end of the book. And, the pages were upside
down. You just had to flip the whole over and then all the pages would make sense. I
liked it, a lot better than my textbooks.
At one point in our lives, my parents and I lived in a little town outside Tampa
called Ibor City. Prior to that, we’d been in Birmingham, Alabama, which had been an
unlucky place. My father played the dog races there and once, after a night of losing, he
and my mother got into a terrific fight. My father punched her so hard he had knocked
her unconscious. Then, he’d just run out. When she came to, I was knelt down at her side.
I might have been sobbing. She kept blinking, watching me. She swallowed and there
must have been some blood in there. She said, Is he coming back? Where did he go?
My father did return a few days later and my mother must have known this
because except for her shiner and the welt on her lip, she and I looked like we were going
to church. My father was carrying a batch of daisies and right after he stepped inside the
apartment, he looked to the couch where we were sitting, all dressed up, and put his hand
to his eyes. He began to shake. I’d never seen anything like it. And, as things turned out, I
never would again. After this incident, my father turned into a quiet man, a murmuring
man. It was my mother’s idea that we try a new town and they decided on Tampa, which
had a horse track, something my father preferred to the dogs. What I mean by this is that
we knew he would never quit gambling. And I think that in the end this was what my
mother must have liked about him the most.
Anyway, after we moved to Tampa, things began to look up. My father found a
job as a parking valet at Rose’s Italian Restaurant. My mother got a job, too. She worked
inventory, counted boxes at a rubber band factory on the outskirts of Tampa. She took a
bus to work, they both did. Then, he had one of the biggest scores of his life. My father
bet $200 to win on some 17-1 shot named Bowl Game that came in for him at Tampa
Downs. A $200 bet was huge for us, so either my father had been either very confident or
very desperate. With part of the proceeds, he bought an old goat of a car, a maroon
Eldorado, from an ex-jockey named Sandy Paultz.
My parents, whose names were Lyle and Eleanor Moynahan, split up on any
number of occasions and not long after he bought the Eldo he would leave again. He
went to Jacksonville, wound up as a waiter at a little Italian restaurant. He did like those
jobs that involved tips. From Jacksonville, he called for us to join him, and, after a while,
we did. When I was 17, I flew the coop myself, decided to join a horse stable heading for
Chicago, which was where my own complications actually began. I didn’t see my parents
as much after that, though I guessed they did settle down some. For years, they would
stay together in a little apartment in St. Augustine, where each of them worked at jobs
waiting tables. There was a dog track just south of there, a simulcast parlor where he
could bet on races from all across the country.
One night, in Ibor City, about two weeks after he had driven the Eldo home for
the first time, my father arrived at our little apartment right after 11, which was usual. He
wore his red valet’s vest and my mother and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV,
David Letterman talking with Isabella Rossilini. I was almost 13 by this time and the
couch was a fold-out bed where I slept. My mother liked for him to see that we both
waited up, that we were waiting. Maybe for him to see that he was worth waiting for. He
did need to be reassured of so many things, though I have learned that this is not at
exceptional with gamblers.
My father had closed the door and he stood near the doorway for a time. “Go get
your book, Denny,” he said. “Your history . . .”
I was already on my feet, I knew what he meant. I did use their room for studying,
when I actually did that. The TV was too big a distraction, and when my mother got
home from work, she liked to have a drink and watch her shows. Usually, when I was in
their room, I just looked around, quietly opened drawers and and so on. Nothing seemed
extraordinary about their underwear or their medicine cabinet. No condoms, no Prozac,
no weed, no cash. My racing history book was in with my textbooks on his nightstand.
Sometimes they would be out of order from how I left them. I guessed he liked to look at
everything I was learning about.
When I returned, my parents were seating themselves at the small table near the
kitchenette. There were just two chairs and that was fine, when I placed the racing history
book in front of my father, I just stood there at his shoulder. My father’s mind must have
been buzzing because he forgot the way the cover of the book went; he opened it, and, for
a second, he did seem bewildered. I was about to say something when he turned it around
the readable way.
“What do the two of you know about Hialeah?” he said, in an absent manner. He
sounded like a TV detective and my mother’s eyes went to me for a second.
“Palm trees,” she said.
He watched her. “Those are all around,” he said. They held one another’s eyes in
this expectant way. My mother and my father were both tall, unique-looking people. Her
hair was thick and kinky and she had clay-colored skin. My mother had grown up in
Oklahoma and had learned how to drive a tractor at age 12. My father was a slender man
with a tall forehead that featured wavy, faint wrinkles. He had a long nose and a small
mouth and he rarely looked comfortable.
“It’s in Miami. Citation ran there,” I said. “Spectacular Bid won the Flamingo
Stakes by 12 lengths in 1979.”
He’d been turning pages and finally he had what he was looking for. “Look at
this,” he said, and he eased the book in her direction. “Joe Widener started this track up in
1932, right in the teeth of the Depression. Made all his money investing in the
Philadelphia Streetcar System. Mass transit. He built Hialeah because he wanted people
to be optimistic about the future.”
My mother now just watched him with her ready-to-boil look. But the thing was,
she rarely lost her temper. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?” she said. She
kept her arms folded on the table, wouldn’t touch the book.
I could not see his whole face, just part of his profile. “All right,” he said. “Bowl
Game is running at Hialeah on Friday. We’re gonna go watch him.”
“All right,” I said.
Her eyes went from me to him. “And?”
“Well, we’ll bet him.”
Her eyes did not leave his face, not for a number of seconds. “Bet him . . .”
“Let me explain something to you about, Hialeah, Ellie.” He touched the tabletop
with the tip of his index finger. “This time next year, Hialeah will be closed. Look at
these pictures. Can you believe that? It’s crazy.”
My mother’s eyes did find the book for a second. He’d opened it to a photo of the
great Calumet Farm racer, Coaltown. The sun shimmered off the colt’s black coat as he
was frozen forever just a few strides from the finish line in the Everglades Handicap.
I knew plenty about Hialeah myself. The horses did race against a backdrop of
palm trees and in the stands fans dressed sharp and looked elated about the world.
Everyone seemed like a winner. The pictures from there sometimes included the
flamingo’s that had a sanctuary of their own right in the infield. They were odd-looking,
peaceful birds who were oblivious to the hard-running horses and the cheering crowds.
“Bowl Game running there, it’s an omen,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see
this place. Look at how beautiful it all is. All we hit are the crap tracks. This will be gone
next year. This particular chance.” Her expression weakened a bit. She tilted her head to
one side. He leaned forward. “We can clean them out,” he said. My mother closed her
eyes partway and then she did open them again when he said in a whisper, “I haven’t felt
this way in a while, El.”
She watched him for another second or two. “You haven’t?”
“The glory of a great racetrack,” his voice said.
I said, “I want to go.”
Her eyes went to me, then back to him, then to me and to him again. “What I
don’t understand is why you are asking me,” she said.
“I won’t go if you don’t ride along,” he said.
“It would be good for me to see a historical place,” I said.
“I don’t mind it here,” she said, in a quiet way. “If the horse loses . . . it’ll be hard
to stay, Lyle.”
“I promise, no matter what happens . . .” he said. But she was shaking her head.
After a time, my father said, “Hialeah.” Then he sat back. He cleared his throat a bit. His
eyes went to the book and then he reached for it, brought it closer. He flipped some
pages. “This was published in 1984,” he said. “It doesn’t really talk about what’s
happened to Hialeah of late. See, horse racing is a dying out sport. It’s old fashioned.” At
this point, I supposed he was talking to me. He flipped more pages and said in an absent
way, “The modern world needs to be entertained. The guy who eventually took over the
track from Widener, he didn’t care about that. He thought the people would keep coming,
see.” His eyes went to my mother. He said, “The world changed, the track is closing. He
was not a man of his time.”
In a second, in a quiet way, she said, “Nobody worries about that anymore, Lyle.”
“I do,” he said, in a quiet voice.
Then, I said, “If you take me, I swear to god I will get straight A’s this term. I
absolutely swear.”
My mother looked in my direction and my father turned partway at this. It was a
lie, we all knew it. In their room, supposedly studying, I would just start looking at their
things again.
In another moment, she simply shook her head. “So dramatic,” she said, looking
back and forth from him to me. Then, for some reason, she looked out to the living room
area, let her eyes tour around everything there. It was difficult to say what she was
thinking about precisely. When she looked his way again, my mother seemed cool and
focused. “I’m not crazy about counting rubber bands,” she said. “If, in fact, this is the
point you are trying to make.” He seemed to be thinking about something. She said, “Do
you have to bet everything, sweetheart?” He didn’t answer and then she sniffed and then
looked around the living room again. “What I wonder about more than anything is why
you are asking me.” When she steered her glance his way again, her eyes seemed to be
smiling. But then they weren’t. “I don’t know why you need my approval.”
“I need you to be interested,” he said. He shrugged. “I already know you
In a second, she was shaking her head again. I thought she might get up and walk
over to a window and look out at the street. “Any chance this horse can win?” she said,
just flicking her fingers at a crumb or something on an open page of the book.
My father didn’t answer, not for a minute. But it was clear she wanted him to. His
eyes were on the table top when he said, “The problem is the horse could win and we’d
miss out on it. On a big hit. At this world famous racetrack that’s not even going to be for
much longer. I don’t really think there’s much choice, do you, El?”
My mother took in one long breath, then another. “I just don’t want the drama,
okay, Lyle? That’s the one goddamn thing I do not want.” Her voice was steady. Her
eyes aimed in my direction. “And you, promising something.” I just gave her a quick
shrug. My mother looked at him again. “No drama, do you hear me? And I want a hotel
on the beach.”
My father opened his hands, turned his palms upward.
The book was between them, at the center of the table. I was getting excited and
wanted to look at the pages about Hialeah again. But, it did not seem to be the right time
for that.
Finally, my mother said, “I can fix you something. Are you hungry?”
He nodded. He said, “Yes.”
My parents picked me up from school after classes on that Thursday afternoon-they’d both called in sick to their jobs--and once we were on the interstate, my father
floated the Eldo into the right lane and there we stayed as the sun began to drop for the
western horizon. At one point, my father leaned back in his seat, draped his arm so his
hand was atop my mother's headrest. He said, “Oh, goddamn, here . . .” He reached for a
folded newspaper sticking up between the seats, then held it over the seat. “Tomorrow's
edition.” It was a Daily Racing Form. “What about tomorrow's results, they going to be
in there, Denny? Man, think about that. You'd be the only one in the world who had
them, too.” I sat back, opened the thing, leafed through the pages for Hialeah. “Think of
that,” he said.
I didn't like it when he talked to me like I was a little kid. So, I said, “This thing's
a tub, old man.”
“A has-been jockey sold it to me," his voice a quiet laugh. "Old Sandy. He was
the one who gave me the tip on Bowl Game. I park his car when he comes to the
restaurant. He said if the horse won I'd have to buy this car from him. Imagine that, some
goddamn jockey . . . telling me . . . He said, ‘Just don't take it too far from here and it'll
run to the end of time.’ I got it for free if you're looking at this thing a certain way.” His
voice had this vacancy to it, like he couldn't help anything at all. “Your mom thinks the
damn thing's just gonna come apart.”
“I haven’t said that exactly,” my mother said. She did not appear to be in a poor
mood, but she certainly didn’t seem to be someone on her way to bet on a jet-fast runner.
Bowl Game was listed for the third race tomorrow. The handicapper’s notes said, Up
from the minors . . . this isn’t the minors. Proceed with caution. None of the five expert
handicappers had its name listed in their top three choices. I felt like asking him about it,
but my father was never too much interested in any details that did not support his current
point of view. He was illuminated in the yellow-green light of the sun and now and then a
car would went schoooweeyow as it passed the Eldo. I folded up the paper and thought
about what Miami would look like at night, if we would have the chance to take a
speedboat ride. I wanted to go deep sea fishing, that was another thing.
We reached the outskirts of the city after the sunlight was gone. First came
illuminated seaside motels with names like The Swordfish Inn or Seashell Arms, and the
tight line of lighted rooms at The Teal Mermaid made me think of a disconnected train
car. Then, a run of small hotels with a hodge-podge of names: Casablanca, Silver Surf,
Ocean View, Gold-A-Coast; places with exterior decorations that included splashy
fountains, golden panther statues, martini neons--pink glasses crossed at the neck. Strip
malls, restaurants, apartment buildings with wafer-stacked floors. One empty lot featured
a 40-foot billboard, an illuminated mural of the apartment building that somebody
dreamed would be there soon. Silhouettes of palm trees lined an emptier expanse of
highway. The ocean was out there too, a thick dark border on the moonless night. Then
came taller hotels, neatly kept apartment complexes with floodlights splashing across
entrance signs that read Bal Harbour View, Ocean East, well-lit areas with sand-colored
buildings and rounded corner balconies made of tinted blue glass.
“Jetsons,” my mother said. She'd been quiet for a while.
He said, “They lived up in the sky.”
“Why'd they live in the sky?” I said.
“I don't remember that part,” my father said. “Did they ever say? Eleanor?”
“Why would they live in the sky?” I said.
“Don't know,” their father said. “Because they could?”
“They lived inside a big plastic bubble,” my mother said. She seemed interested
in the things we moving past.
“Meet Lyle Lin-zer,” my father sang, a second later. “El-lee, his wife.” I guessed
he didn't know the words to the rest. It was off key anyway, nothing like the old theme.
The line of the traffic lights began to thin. On the right appeared an inlet waterway with
two huge yachts moored to a tiny dock, floodlights sitting in a small stretch of grass,
hitting their hulls, making them seem like the tips of glaciers.
“The Beau Rivage,” my mother said, sticking her arm forward, twitching the end
of her index finger. “Pull in, Lyle, it's right up there. That's where I want to stay.” Just a
block ahead was the pillbox shape of the Beau Rivage Hotel, a blue neon sign on the
roof. We wheeled onto the parking lot, drove to where the sign pointed, stopped right in
front of the entrance. At the top of the steps, a bronze fountain splashed blue water at the
ankles of a Greek god in a toga. A young, blond haired guy in a mustard-colored jacket
appeared at the driver's side and my father, in a measured way, rolled down his window.
“How far is Hialeah from here?” my father said.
The question changed something in the valet's helpful expression, his eyes went
along the car, found me and then his look was like he knew something about us. “Coupla
miles,” the guy said with a smile in my direction. His eyes went to my father and he said,
“I don't think they race at night though, sir.”
“I know when they race, son,” my father said in this perfect way. Then, he turned
slowly, looked at my mother. “This'll be all right,” he said.
He wound up getting us a suite on the second highest floor. He forked over three
$50 bills and my father did appear somewhat stunned after receiving the key from the
smiling desk manager. We rode the elevator upward and it turned out our room had a
huge panoramic window that held the downtown of Miami in the distance. The skyline of
the city was a dazzling collection of angles and patterns of light. I wound up with both
hands on the window. When I turned to see if my parents were watching they seemed
surprised about something, though it wasn't as if they were in some kind of romantic
embrace. They were standing a few feet apart from one another.
My father and I carried the couch over to big window so I could fall asleep there.
My mother fretted a little, she thought I might go sleepwalking but then my father tapped
soundly on the window with a knuckle, said, “These things are reinforced, Ellie. He'd
have to take a running jump to knock it out. You're not going to do that tonight, are you,
“I don't know,” she said.
“Let him be close to it if he wants,” my father said.
When I opened my eyes the following morning, my father stood right behind the
couch and his focus was on that big window. The front of him was blanketed in a soft
yellow light and he stood there with his arms crossed, just watching, though I could not
tell what he was interested in. He seemed holy, he was bathed in that kind of light. When
I looked to the window, I had to squint.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, right as he looked down at me.
“She's getting dressed . . . she wants to talk me out of it now.” He looked outward
again and his jaw muscles knotted, then relaxed. “We shouldn't have come to this hotel.
This is a bet of a lifetime, we need to stay focused. It should matter, it ought to change
something . . . shouldn't it?
“Do you ever think of a miracle, what that might constitute? My problem, or so it
seems, is that I believe one is out there. Why do I think this way? What happens if this
horse wins today and we don't play it? It's a fortune lost right there. It eats at you forever,
something like that.” He shrugged. “I'd rather lose.”
He wasn't talking to me, I knew that but it suddenly seemed as if what he was
saying was all that I knew for sure. This was a gambling trip, something I had been on
with them before. Delta Downs in Louisiana, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Remington
Park in Oklahoma City. It certainly was unlike my mother to have cold feet, so maybe it
did have to do with this hotel. He turned his head after another minute and I knew my
mother was in the room because he looked as if he were done talking now. “Get in the
bedroom and get dressed,” her voice rang.
“Morning,” I said, when I brushed by her and after I reached their bedroom, I
closed the door. A clean pair of jeans and a collared shirt were laid out for me on the bed,
which she had already made, even though this was a hotel.
When I walked out into the little living room again, my mother was seated at the
couch facing the big window. She sat at one end of the couch, so I went over and sat on
the other end and she didn't change what she was doing, which was just letting her eyes
find different things beyond the window. My mother had broken her nose when she was a
child and there was a flat spot on it, right between her gray eyes. Her coal-colored hair
was pushed away from her face by a couple of barettes. “I did try,” she said. Then, she
just exhaled through her nose, scratched at something on the knee of her jeans. “He says
I'm losing my edge. I'm giving up. That's really funny.” I watched her for another second
and then I looked out the window, too. To our left was the blue-gray Atlantic Ocean. A
wiggling vanilla strip of beach specked with people. We had the Gulf near Ibor City, so it
wasn't like this was something new, this long, empty horizon. Last night, with the city
jumping at the other side of the window, I barely even noticed the water was there. “I
don't care about big things anymore,” she said and at this, I turned, but could not think of
anything else to say. I couldn't tell if this was the truth or simply a response to a charge
levied against her by my father. They had not been arguing last night, at least not loudly,
but like I said, that type of fight usually scared all of us to death. “I really don't,” she said
and then she lowered her eyes, considered her folded hands. “What do you want?” she
said, like I was sitting on the couch for a reason.
To cheer her up a little, I said, “I could be in charge of Miami. I'd like to sit up
here and have a phone. I could give you any job you wanted.”
“You'd make your mother work?”
“Well, mother, yes, you would have to work for me. But just for me. It'd be all
“You sound exactly like your father.” She smiled quick, let it go. Then, she
nodded, lifted her chin upward. “Does this horse have a chance today?” She knew how to
read the Racing Form, so she might've been interested in something else.
“I don't know.” I wanted to impress her somehow, so I said, “I probably wouldn't
bet it.”
“Wouldn't it be incredible?” she said, her voice with a hint of true hope that really
got to me. She didn't say anything for a while after that and I wondered if she still might
be thinking about work. My mother was not a complainer so it was hard to tell.
“I could work for you,” I said. “But I would want something good. Like I could
be in charge of all the Nathan's.”
“Yes, but you couldn't eat Nathan's every day.”
“See, already you're interfering,” I said, trying to make my gripe sound authentic.
The door to our suite opened and my mother and I turned. After he closed it again,
my father stood in place for a moment. Then, he strode over to the couch and stopped a
few steps from where he'd stood when I awakened. His hair was blown back and blasts of
sand were stuck to the shins of his khakis. “I have to do it, El,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “We gotta get going.”
She nodded and he didn't wait a moment longer, walked right for their bedroom.
My mother made half a fist, examined her nails like a man does. When she glanced my
way again, she squinted, as if I had just appeared, or she had noticed something different
about me. “You're not eating Nathan's onion rings every day,” she said. “No way.”
“I wouldn't eat them every day,” I said. “God.”
“Damn straight you wouldn't,” she said.
When my mother and I stepped through the opened glass doors of the hotel
entrance, we were greeted with sweet-smelling tropical air. Beyond the bottom of the
steps the Eldo gasped, but my father gave it some gas and he kept grinning at us. His
window was down and expression dimmed as my mother, without a word, strode ahead
of me. She leaned into the driver's window and straightened his collar. A horn honked
behind us and my mother stepped back, nodded at him, then motioned for me to get into
the car. By the time I was in the front seat, she was near the entrance of the hotel again,
waving from near the fountain. My father got us rolling forward, but even when his eyes
were on the highway, looking straight ahead, it seemed as if he was still seeing the
entrance of the Beau Rivage. He didn't say anything and I didn't ask and I just hoped she
wasn't leaving us for good. We did have her suitcase in the trunk.
Hialeah was not far, just a few minutes away, and the entrance to the track was a
road that ran between 50-foot high palm trees. Their trunks curved and their fronds
waved down. They seemed sorrowful to me. A huge, ivy-covered clubhouse stood in the
distance. It seemed like something from a university and I felt something remarkable was
about to happen. When we got closer, I could see the empty stands that faced the racing
oval. The parking lots were barren, like everything was already over, and my father
followed the arrow that said Free, which, of course, was the lot furthest away. I hadn't
said anything during the drive, had been thinking about my mother, what she might be
doing back at the Beau Rivage. We'd already checked out, so I pictured her taking a walk
along the surf or perhaps just sitting out by the pool. I thought of the way she was
dressed: crisp jeans and cowboy-style blouse. She might've made up her mind on the spot
about staying there a while longer. I wondered if it was because of the Eldo, that the sight
of it or my father sitting in it that had her wishing for something else. The car already felt
unlucky to me now and I knew the horse wouldn't win.
My father had nosed us close to a fence that separated the lot from the outside rail
of the racing oval, then he switched off the engine. The Hialeah flamingo's and their podlike bodies, stick legs and hook-shaped necks were assembled at one corner of the
metallic blue infield lake. It seemed odd that a flamingo sanctuary would be at this lake
that was inside a racetrack that was itself inside a big city. I said, “Why are those birds
here, anyway?” I guessed I sounded cross or something because he did turn my way.
“Goddamnit,” he said, though his voice was quiet. Then, he just put his hands on
the wheel and looked at the windshield. “This is their sancutary,” he said. “Right?”
“Well, that's what a sanctuary is, Denny. That's where you go where nothing can
get at you.”
“It's weird, though.”
He shook his head at something, said, “No, not really. Tell me you know what a
sanctuary is. What it means.”
I just shrugged when he looked at me. “Yeah. Jesus.”
His eyes were on the windshield again when he said, “I go to bed at night
believing I'm raising you right.” His voice was a bit dry and I didn't know what to say. I
wanted the horses we bet on to win, I was like every other kid out there. “We could just
sit here,” he said.
“I want to stay at the hotel,” I said. That surprised him. “We can stay if he wins,
“You got it,” he said. He seemed to be thinking about it, by this I mean he
appeared to be picturing something. “That's all I'm trying to accomplish here. I have two
thousand dollars in my pocket. We could spend a week at the Beau Rivage. But then what
we do? In an hour, that two could be fifty.” Suddenly, he reached up and rubbed a hand
over his face. When he brought it down, he looked at me and his expression surprised me
because he seemed exhausted. “I'm alive,” he said. “That's the point. How about you kid,
you alive today?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well,” he said. “Are you coming?” His voice was as if this was what we had
been talking about all along. He bumped open his door and waited. Then, I opened mine.
Once the two of us were outside and I was walking at my father's side, he draped his arm
across my back just for a moment, then took it away again. It was sunny and the bottom
of my sneakers felt warm under the asphalt.
My father suddenly had a bread-slice thick roll of $50 bills in one hand. He pulled
off the one on top, held it over, said, “Pay for us to get in, hang on to the change.” He
looked at my face a second longer. He said, “Here, take another.”
I just held out one $50 bill as we approached a turnstile, where a round-backed
ticket taker sat on a tall stool. He did not seem to be far from being a flamingo himself. I
waved my finger in the air, indicated to my father and me, and then I accepted the
change, stuck it right into my pocket. The ground floor ahead of the clubhouse was
smooth cement covered in shiny gray paint, and the few gamblers here seemed to have
gotten straight out of bed. Their shirts were out, or they were unbuttoned. Some heads of
hair were a little berserk. They were standing well spaced out from one another, each
man by himself, and it made me think of the losing side of a chessboard. My father
nudged me, motioned out to the clubhouse apron, where there were nothing but empty
benches. “I'll be out there in a little bit. Look around, but stay there.” Out from the cover
of the stands, I liked how the sun felt. I was excited to be here, but I was bewildered, too,
and for a second, I thought of what the valet had said to us the day before, about when
they raced and that we were here on the wrong day. I was used to seeing empty stands at
other tracks but those were lousy tracks in small towns.
I certainly was glad when I felt my father's hand on my shoulder sometime later. I
was just sitting on a bench, getting all worried about everything. My head turned and I
said, “How good was Citation?”
“Citation,” he said and sat down next to me. “Don't worry about that shit right
now. We're here, man. We're doing it.” We watched the odds change on the infield tote
board for a while. Then, before I knew what was happening, the horses for our race
appeared from the paddock tunnel. Bowl Game was #2, and his rider, Guillermo Milord,
had a solemn expression, like someone at a graveside. At one point, my father stepped up
on the bench, even though a sign attached to the hurricane fence down by the outside rail
said No Standing On Benches. I did the same.
I had already seen a hundred live horse races, but once this race started and the
horses dashed by us the first time around it was as if I couldn't hear a thing. I panicked,
started to jump up and down. I said, “Go Bowl Game, come on Bowl Game! Go!” I could
feel my heart pounding and then as the horses went around the turn I could hear the race
caller's voice, which sounded far away. My father's hand was on my shoulder and I just
gyrated in place then. Bowl Game was towards the back but it was going to work out. It
almost felt that way. The field turned into the stretch and the race caller did not say Bowl
Game’s name. Whips popped as the horses grunted by. Bowl Game finished close to the
inside rail, just one horse behind him at the wire.
The side of my father's face glistened. He put his arms out to his sides, and dipped
his head towards the pavement and was considering it as if it were a lot further down. He
jumped from the bench. He turned, faced me and said, “Time.” I let him stay a step ahead
as we began walking for the parking lot. He walked fast, wanted to stay ahead.
I ducked into the Eldo and he backed up the car and then stopped it with a quick
jerk. In drive again, the car sputtered but he kept on the gas and it shook some more,
began to level out. “Unfortunate, this ride,” he said. In a moment, we were moving under
the towering palm trees. Sometimes, when my father had a big losing day, he'd actually
just laugh it off. Once after blowing nearly his of his paycheck on the King Cotton
Handicap at Oaklawn Park, my father took us to a little diner on the outskirts of Hot
Springs and he and my mother kept sneaking shots of bourbon into their glasses of iced
tea and we stayed there for a long, long time talking about the future and what we all
wanted to do with it. I was in grade school, but I had ideas about things, even if they were
only close to what we were already doing. But my mother wasn't here now and I guessed
that was the difference.
The Eldo ran choppily, and we made it back to the hotel in a little while. When
we finally pulled up to the Beau Rivage my mother was already out there, sitting on the
lowest step of the hotel entrance. She might've been worried, or she might've just heard
the car coming up the street. When she got in, she took the back seat and then she didn't
say a word. No one did.
My father might've seen the name of Lake Hiawatha on one of the billboards
along the highway when we were past Fort Lauderdale and the coughing of the Eldo
must've already been on his mind. Sometime later, when we were at the lake, the three of
us were ritual-silent and solemn about things. My father had edged the car to a section of
grass and he switched off the engine overlooked the glassy blue lake in front of us.
Without a word, he went to the trunk, opened it. My mother got out, went to the back of
the car and they talked in a low way. He closed the trunk again and she helped him carry
the bags over to a beat-up, wooden picnic bench. Then, my mother said my name and I
got out of the car.
I wasn't sure what was happening until I was standing in front of my mother, the
two of us near the picnic table, her hands on my shoulders while my father stood next to
the opened driver's door, the top half of him bent inside the car, the sunset beyond
everything starting to turn peach and royal blue. He started the engine again he seemed to
be fooling around in there. Then he brought himself out again, glanced in our direction. I
guessed my mother nodded. He ducked back in halfway again and she said, in a quiet
manner, “All right, go ahead, do it.”
Nothing had been said between them, but when my father jumped all the way into
the car and then drove it right for the lake, my mother feebly said, “What?”
The Eldo didn't have much momentum when it reached the water but it seemed to
keep going anyway; tiny waves flickered at its sides and my father wasn't doing anything
other than driving. The Eldo seemed to catch some type of little swell, a crazy undertow
and it rose then, and appeared to be rising, going faster. The Eldo started to float to one
side, and then it began to take on water. My mother was already knee deep into the lake
by then. She dove and began to swim. I made it down to the water's edge, stood calf high
and by this time the car was up to its windows in water, my mother was free-stroking for
it. There was a wave near the driver's side at one point and and for a moment there I
couldn't see either of them.
I was up to my chest when they reappeared. They were swimming next to one
another like this odd person-and-a-half creature, him hanging onto the waist of her jeans
with both hands. She kept free-styling, pulling him along and they went right past me and
kept going. It was only when they were standing in the shallows again did my father turn.
He looked at me, then down at the water, stuck his hands on his knees. The water ran off
him like he was this fast-melting man of ice. Once they had walked to the shore, my
father moved over to a patch of tall grass and sat down. My mother stayed near the
water's edge. An old man in gray slacks and a white t-shirt appeared, perhaps from the
bait shop in the distance. Across the lake, a couple of people had been fishing and one of
them was running back and forth along the shoreline now.
My mother noticed I was watching something and when she turned, the old man
was still about ten yards from her.
“Must have slipped into gear!” my mother said his direction. “We tried to stop it.”
The man stopped, then he crossed his ignuana-like arms. “Lady, you gotta get that
thing outta my lake,” he said, sort of twisting to one side.
She pushed back her hair with both hands and said, “Let me use your phone,
“What is going on here?” the man said. The car's roof was all you could see, a
tiny island of glowing metal.
“What kind of fish do you have here?” she said, as she slid her hands over her wet
“Bluegill!” the man said. “I saw you all taking the stuff out the car before it went
into the lake!”
“Leave him be,” my mother said because the old man's eyes were on my father.
“He buried his parents today.” Her voice was quiet at that. Then, she looked out to the
lake, shaded her eyes. When she turned again to the old man, she said, “Lemme use your
phone, all right?”
My mother followed the man for the bait shack in the distance. My clothes clung
to me. My father sat in the grass, looked out at the lake. I wiped under my nose with my
index finger. I did not want to look worried and when my mother arrived at my side
again, she seemed not to notice anything about me. “Cab's coming,” she said. “When it
arrives, get in, keep your mouth shut.” She left me, walked over in the direction of my
father. She knelt down near him, said something, and he nodded. He smiled in the faintest
of ways. The next time I looked over there, she had her hand near the side of his head,
was tucking a sliver of his hair behind one ear.
The old man stayed away, kept close to the bait shop. And when the taxi
appeared, it headed for us over the gravel road we had taken to get here. I waited for my
parents to stand and when they did and began to collect our cases, I started moving. The
bait store guy walked in our direction, but he didn't move fast and I couldn't tell what he
was doing on purpose.
After pulling himself in the front seat, then taking a quick look to the backseat, to
my mother and I, my father said, “Go!”
From the backseat, my mother held two soaked $20 bills at his shoulder. “My
cab's wet now,” the driver said, with a big laugh.
“Hurry,” she said.
“Yeah, we'll be back,” my father said waving at the old man who had just
stopped. Then, the old guy looked out to the Eldo again. The cabbie was a black man,
very dark skin, and he wore a straw hat missing its brim. We pulled out, traveled up the
gravel road.
“Just drive for a few minutes,” my mother said, in a clear way, from the backseat.
“Right,” he said.
“Until I get this figured out,” she said, then she turned and put her eyes on the
passenger window.
One thing about my father's gambling trips was that someone always seemed to
have some cash left afterward, money for a restaurant or a night out or, in this case, a
motel, the Passport Inn, which was a $17 cab ride from Lake Hiawatha. I kept watching
the meter, worrying about how we were going to pay . . . then I remembered I had
something from the track, the money my father had given me, I reached into my pants
pocket, held the clammy bills in the air. My mother nodded, then tapped my father's
shoulder so he could see.
At another point, the cabbie did grin and say, “You went into the lake, yes?”
“Yes,” my father said. “We're a family of swimmers. It's in our blood.”
“The Passport has a pool,” the cabbie said, smiling, his teeth bright.
The motel was just out in the middle of nowhere, all this Florida scrubland and
after the cabbie left us off, all I could see in the distance was an illuminated Orbit Truck
Stop sign above the silhouette of a treeline. My father's clothes were still wet when he
walked inside to see about a room and I would've liked to have heard the explanation he
gave the clerk about that. I watched him intently from where I stood and from behind my
mother's voice at one point said, “Are you all right?” and at that I turned pretty quick.
The damp fabric shrank to the shape of her shoulders and inside her shirt was the outline
of her brassiere. She looked powerful to me.
“The horse lost,” I said.
She said, “He wasn't trying to get away.” I thought I looked scared, so I looked
away again. “He'd never driven on a lake before, that's what he said afterward. He said,
‘Why waste the final ride?’” Inside the glass, my father's shirt clung to him and for a
second I wondered what it would've felt like, riding in the water like that. Overall, I
understood that the car was unlucky and it had to go. “He just doesn't plan ahead,” she
said, though her tone was not accusatory. It certainly didn't seem like much of a sin to
When my father came out, he smelled like dumpster garbage. It was from the lake
water and I guessed we all did. He had two room keys and he handed one over to me and
then he started to pick up our bags. He said, “I think I'm going to change clothes and
walk up there and arrange for the evening's supplies.” And then no one said anything
else. We walked past the filmy surface of the pool to a line of rooms with prefabricated
siding, weak-looking pine doors. I had a room to myself and I had to open the window in
my room because it was my high school cafeteria in there; way too warm, like somebody
had been stewing meat. I sat motionless on the edge of the bed, watched TV for a long
time and I wondered if my father was coming back at all. I was itchy and hungry and
nothing seemed certain. But then I heard the door to the room next to mine open and
close and there were voices, his mostly. When there was a knock on my door, I pulled it
back and there he was and I guessed I still appeared a bit shook up because his smile
shrank. “Hey, it's all right,” he said. He reached forward, pushed my shoulder. “Come on
over here.” He had his hand on my shoulder as he and I stepped into their room and the
spread from the truck stop was on the bed: wrapped sandwiches, little bags of potato
chips, a six-pack of beer, a carton of lemonade, two pints of vodka, two wrapped
cupcakes. My mother had showered, her hair was wet, she was in different clothes. We
all sat around the food, on the bed, and their TV was on, the sound down to almost
nothing. Everyone was quiet, and I didn't know what they were thinking about at all. My
mother said at one point, “Please go change.”
“Let him eat,” my father said. And, I did. I started to feel better and I must've
have been eating a lot because my mother gave me half of her ham and cheese and in no
time just the cupcakes were left and my father scooted them both to me.
“We're going to settle down some now,” my mother said.
I looked right at my father then and he offered an almost-convinced look himself.
It panicked me, though I couldn't really say why. He said, “Do you know how many
racetracks there are?” My mother and I didn't say a thing. “Four hundred and nineteen,”
he said. “I will not see them all in my lifetime.” He watched me for a full second more.
“Maybe you will.”
“He'll want to do more than that with his life,” she said in a quiet way.
"Of course, he will," my father said, as quietly. He held up a finger and his
expression just seemed mysterious now. “But Hialeah won't be here.”
“Maybe it'll come back,” I said. But this was all I could think of.
“I'll meet you there when it does,” he said.
It spooked me some and I had to look at my mother then. She did not look
worried at all. “Dramatic,” she said, and this time just looked the slightest bit hurt. She
drew in a sharp breath after this. She raised the back of her hand to her nose. “We still
smell . . .”
“We're born again.” My father looked goofy, as if he really didn't want to get into
“Are you finished eating?” she said to me. “Because if you are, I want you to get
back over to your room and take a shower. I mean, right now.” She drew in another
breath. “I can barely stand this.”
“We don't stink,” my father said, his voice quiet. “The lake does.”
“I know I am not garbage,” she said. She lowered her head. After a minute, she
sniffled. My head was down, too.
“You saved us,” my father said.
“I just don't know what from,” she said, her voice quiet.
My father looked at me in a calm way, he even offered a quick, fatigued smile.
“Well, the bottom of the lake,” he said, and then he put his eyes on her.
“Don't say you're sorry,” she said. “Just don't do that.”
He opened his hands. “I wasn't going to.” He smiled then. “I was just going to say
that's what you are good at.”
“I don't know,” she said, after a pause. But when she looked at him neither of
them seemed angry.
In a moment, he nodded. “Son, she's right, get over there and get a shower. Right
now. Take those with you.” He motioned to the cupcakes, but they suddenly seemed like
food for children.
“You guys gonna stay here?” I said.
My mother looked up at this. He looked at her. They were startled. “Just tap on
the wall if you need anything,” she said. “You know that.”
I did what they asked, went back to my room, took a shower, changed into the
clothes I'd worn on the drive down from Ibor City. I laid on top of the covers with the
lights out and listened to the sound of their voices until they stopped talking. Then, water
was running. I guessed the shower ran for a long time.
In a while, they were talking again. She said he needed a change in his life. I
could definitely make out that part. Anyway, he laughed. He said they both should just
give up and work in the rubber bands forever. It was quiet then, so much so I went to the
wall and put my ear against. They might have been kissing. Or, they might have just
finally run out of steam.
The door to their room opened. And then came a splash. I heard my father say
clearly, “You look beautiful!” I yanked open my door. He stood just outside his and my
mother's room and held a pint of vodka in one hand. My mother was swimming, nude, in
the oval-shaped motel pool. A chrome hand-rail shined like a sliver of mercury in the
moonlight. My father cut his eyes at me for a second, but he didn't say anything else. The
pool lights were on and she swam from shallow to deep. It was just the sound of her
swimming, her splashing, and only when she stood to rest in the shallow end with the
front of her facing us did I feel like I shouldn't be watching. The water was just waist
deep for her and she seemed to be making circles under the surface with her hands. She
had her head down and I guessed she didn't care who was watching or maybe she wasn't
thinking about that at all. My father said, “Go back to your room now,” in a quiet way.
And, I did this, closed my door as quietly I could. After that, I went to the window and
pulled back the curtain, just an inch.
She said, “You just watch me!”
It seemed as if they might be having two different conversations. But then he said
in a clear way, “I will.” There were no other sounds out there, not until she began to
swim again. I dropped the curtain and just listened. I wound up imagining myself on a
beach, watching, the city of Miami behind me, her getting smaller and smaller as she
swam for the horizon. If this was the ocean, she would have made it a long way out, that's
what I decided. But this was not an ocean and there was no getting away. If this was an
ocean, he wouldn't be able to watch her doing this. Not at night, not in this particular kind
of light. And she wanted him to do that. It was as if this was all she wanted him to see.
Wayne Furlo had been a wine salesman in Miami Shores and Miami Beach, so he
was used to talking. He said to Tommy Bick, who sat behind the steering wheel of their
pick up, “Last Saturday, I went to the off-track betting parlor at old Tropical Park. The
man sitting in he cubicle next to me, he seemed like this nicely-kept older guy. But I
wondered about him, you know? What was left of his hair was combed, he wore clean
clothes, a button-down shirt. He whispered to himself. One time, when I looked his way,
there were blood spots on the back of his shirt. The spots were growing. They had a sicklooking green border to them. He seemed completely oblivious to it. Must have been bed
sores or something. He might have escaped from a senior’s home . . . or a hospital.”
“What did you do?” Tommy said, though he did not sound all that interested. It
might have just been because Wayne said the man was old. Their pick-up had ‘Security’
in yellow printed on each of the cab doors. Tommy turned and looked past Wayne to the
10-foot high hurricane fence adorned with colorful advertisements that had to do with the
condominium high-rise still under construction beyond it. The syndicate which had
invested in the high-rise had run out of money and the banks would not lend them any
more. So, no work was being done. There were ominous stacks of steel beams, 10-feet
high mounds of dirt. The skeleton of the building was partially constructed, it stood a
dozen stories high. The architect’s plan said it should eventually be 40. It was difficult to
imagine that any criminal, professional or otherwise, getting away with much of
anything, much less wanting to steal any of this in the first place. (Neither Tommy nor
Wayne carried a pistol. In case of an actual problem, they were to call the police.) Their
pick-up was parked near the entrance of the construction site. Twenty yards dead ahead
stood a streetlight and the edge of its glow fell just short of them. Their shift had started
at midnight and Tommy’s face was shadowy and unconcerned, even though the security
commandant said he wanted the pick-up to be parked in a highly visible place. Tommy
had thick, khaki-colored hair parted down the middle and when he was not talking, which
was practically all the time, he had a way of holding his mouth open partway. In this way,
it did not seem to matter what Wayne said to him. The middle-of-the-night sky was lava
lamp shapes of navy and plum and when the street was empty of traffic, Wayne could
listen for the tide of the Atlantic Ocean, which was beyond the building’s skeleton.
Up until last week, Wayne had been working as a salesman of fine wines. He had
been working even harder at that job since his divorce the year before, but the economy
was dismal and people were hardly preoccupied with luxuries. A salesman was only
needed to sell the unnecessary; Wayne wondered when he would be able to get back to
this kind of work. He scaled the want ads closely to find another job. He recognized the
name of the commandant at the security firm, it was someone who used to run a
restaurant in Bal Harbour.
After he was hired as a security guard, Wayne decided to celebrate by spending
his final day of unemployment at the Tropical Park off-track betting parlor. When there
used to be live horse races at Tropical Park, Wayne and his wife brought box lunches to
the track. They unfolded a blanket on the grass in the picnic area and after eating, she’d
lie on her back and listen to the sound of the hoof beats racing out on the track. At least
that’s what he thought she was doing. Other parents brought their children to this area.
There were swing sets, whiffle ball games, even a small water slide. But business for live
racing had dried up. The rails over the racing oval were taken down, sold for scrap.
Weeds grew in the picnic area. All you could hear was the sound of the traffic from the
nearby interstate.
On his latest visit to the track, Wayne had walked these grounds before he went to
the section of the clubhouse that was converted into an off-track betting parlor to begin
his afternoon of horse playing. He and his wife, whose maiden name was Leslie
Hernandez, had never planned for a child, and then when they tried to have one, they
could not. She had remarried earlier this spring. Wayne was not invited to the wedding
but he did get a long letter from her with a San Francisco postmark. Initially, he thought
it remarkable that she would write him while on her honeymoon. But then the truth did
sink in: She was telling him goodbye. Wayne laid out the $2 for a cubicle in the betting
parlor. The parlor’s TVs had races going on from all across the country and his eyes
darted from one set to the next, looking for the just the right horse. At some point, the old
man had taken the cubicle next to him. The islands of blood started spreading on the back
of his shirt and Wayne had no clue what to do about it. Wayne had seen every type of
person at the track. He used to think of them as simply the odd ends: the unemployed, the
underachieving, the drifters, the handicapped, the bachelors, the depressed, the needy, the
uninspired, the desperate, the desolate. Wayne was a good salesman and he knew he fit
into a couple of these categories at least. His wife had loved him anyway. Now that she
was gone, there were more categories springing up all the time. As for the old man,
Wayne imagined that he was aware of the fact he was bleeding. But bleeding here was
better than bleeding somewhere else. At least he could show the world he knew how to
pick winners. Wayne just tried to put himself in the old man’s place. He imagined syrupy
spots expanding on his back. Wayne closed his eyes and then he thought, Please stop.
He said, “What did I do?” Tommy Bick did not figure to respond. For a second,
Wayne felt angry with him. Tommy was in his late-20s, a decade younger than Wayne,
but Tommy had seniority, which in this case meant he got to drive the pick-up. Wayne
could have mentioned something about where they were parked, which was right
alongside a 20-foot long advertisement with a beautiful blond woman reclining on a softlooking sofa. The commandant said under the streetlight, but Tommy was awestruck by
this woman. It made Wayne think of the time when he was a grade schooler and his
family lived across the road from Mrs. Glynnis, who coached the high school girl’s
softball team. She used to pay Wayne a dollar to run the bases during practice, mostly to
tag up on fly balls so the outfielder’s could practice their aim. Wayne was small for his
age but he was quick. Those country girls were big and they could really throw. Most
times, when he looked up after a slide, the infielder would already have the ball in her
glove. Her face blocked out the sun, and there would be a glint of triumph in her
expression. You’re out, she would say.
Wayne said, “Well, I guess that’s the thing. I didn’t know what to do. He was just
an old guy who wanted to gamble. It wasn’t like the blood was shooting out of his back
in jet streams . . .” Tommy’s eyes did go to him then and Wayne tried to grin. The blond
woman on the fence behind them was smiling, Wayne did not need to check on that. She
took up two sections of fence; the artist’s rendering of the high-rise occupied one. That
was a drawing that featured a building covered in tinted glass. A clear, aqua sky was
beyond it. Next to this was a smaller mural of the blond woman and a man standing along
a shoreline, their faces confident, their hair blowing lightly. The advertising strategy here
was typical. You were never selling the thing. You were selling what the thing could lead
What about reality, though? What if Wayne owned the high-rise right now, would
he just leave the hurricane fence unadorned? Might it be good for the public to just see all
that went into building something like this? People who drove on this street every day
might actually get to see something go from foundation to finish, even if right now it
looked like that might take a long, long time. Wayne said, “When the old guy went to
make a bet, the back of his chair, this leatherette chair, had thick blood smears. I leaned a
little close at first . . . then I felt kind of sick . . . even though it was just blood.”
Tommy had the faintest of smiles himself. “I know how this ends,” he said. “You
could not say a thing. You just moved to another place.”
The light falling from the closest streetlight was cone-shaped and saffron-colored
and this made Wayne think of a UFO, how it might hover around in the darkness and
then beam in on something of real interest. But an alien would have to explain this to
him, how an empty sidewalk was meaningful. “For once, I had nothing to say,” Wayne
said. “ I tried not to stare over there again . . . I just thought everybody ought to leave the
guy alone. I’m so used to finding a positive. You can’t just take this world lying down,
you know. You have to react. You have to find something to good say.”
“Somebody probably did say something to him.” Tommy sat up straight. “Sir, you
must stay out of sight while your sores are bleeding.”
“People are trying to gamble here.” Wayne chuckled a little with him and then
they were quiet again. “I don’t know.”
Tommy said, “I know you wanted to help him.”
Wayne turned to Tommy at this point. “That’s right, I did.” Tommy nodded as
well. A few days ago, Wayne had first been introduced to Tommy by the security
commandant. The commandant said, Fellas, the most important thing you can do is keep
one another awake. In Wayne’s direction, he said, I know you are a good talker. I
couldn’t sell half the stuff I ordered from you. Wound up drinking it myself. I know you
were just doing your job. This job pays minimum wage, the commandant said.
Presently, Wayne and Tommy sat in the quiet, and Wayne listened for the ocean.
Wayne said, “I am sure his bleeding stopped.” He thought for a time. Wayne turned and
considered the long blond woman on the fence panels. As a salesman in Miami, painting
pictures for retailers had been easy, even pleasurable. Wayne panicked, it suddenly felt as
if he might have lost his touch.
He said, “Probably right now, this very minute, he is sitting up in a chair in his
apartment by the beach, reading a book. His window is open and he has opened a bottle
of Louis Jadot Beaujolais, 1989.” The next time he looked over at Tommy, Wayne saw
that he had closed his eyes. This was another reason Tommy liked to park away from the
streetlight. Wayne thought for a while. He thought about where they were parked right
now. He said, “The man falls asleep in his chair. When he awakens in the morning, the
window is still open. He sees that all these people have gathered along the shoreline.
They stand in clusters and when he heads outside and walks out to them, he sees the
people are curious about these terrifically large footprints in the sand. The footprints are
as long a tall man’s arm and they track all up and down the shoreline. The footprints are
those of a giant's but they are narrow and lovely in the sand. There is the scent of perfume
in the air.
“The old man is barely be able to believe it himself. His heart is racing. He leans
forward, suddenly feels as if he is a professor of archeology. Yes, he murmurs to himself.
Of course. Someone in the crowd watches the man’s expression, they understand that he
understands something. Someone says to him, Come on, can she really be this big? The
old man will look in the direction of the voice who asked. He will say, Good lord, isn’t it
obvious?” Wayne stopped at this point, he was surprised at what he had just said. He
supposed that he should not have been. He looked over to Tommy, who nodded one time.
“It is,” Tommy said.
Wayne said, “It doesn’t matter what I say now, does it?”
“Things will get better,” Tommy said. Then, as if on cue, a shiny, strawberry-red
Corvette blazed by and rocketed up the street.
Tommy sat up right at the Corvette . His eyes had followed the shiny car up as it
raced up Collins Avenue.
“The man with the next great idea will own this city,” Wayne said. “That will
never change.” The words were out before he knew it.
“Oh, yeah,” Tommy said.
The Corvette was gone, had disappeared in the distance. Tommy sat back, he had
a peaceful look on his face. Wayne now felt like closing his own eyes, for some reason it
felt as if he had arrived at something himself. The sound of the Corvette’s roar hung in
his ears for a time. Soon enough it would just fade into the sound of the ocean again.
Angela had not been able to specify the reason for her poor mood to Robert, but
the result was that she had decided to take a drive down to Coral Gables, to the Fairchild
Botanical Garden. She was always moved by the single baobab tree there. For part of the
afternoon at least, she said she wanted to sit in the afternoon shade it provided. She would
not say as much out loud, but right now Angela felt helpless. She wanted him to feel this
exact way, too. He wondered how much more they really needed to say to one another.
She returned to the apartment late that afternoon and when she did, she opened
the front door and then she ducked to one side. In her arms was a brown sack, and she
had to readjust her grip on this. “Good god,” she said. She spotted Robert at the dining
table. Her eyes returned to a large sculpture that stood in the middle of the room.
The sculpture was a seven-foot human torso. There were no arms, no legs, no
head, no genitalia. It was broad at the shoulders, muscular through the chest, and
narrowed slightly at the waist. The thighs were slender and one moved ahead of the other.
The sculpture rested on a round base that was as slim as a bicycle tire. The entire
sculpture was made of cherry-gray terra cotta clay and painted with a smooth glaze.
Robert did not think that the sculpture would be greeted with warmness by
Angela. They were lovers but they had not been getting along during this particular visit
by him to her condominium in Miami. She was somewhat picky about how the place was
kept. Anymore, she seemed to be picky about a number of things. He could not say or do
anything to make her happy.
The sculpture was not his idea.
He had met Angela three years before in New Orleans, when each of them was on
a vacation. Robert and Angela had shown up for lunch at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen,
and because they were both a party of one, the maitre’d asked if they would not mind
sitting together. They considered one another for a moment and then they had nodded.
Angela was a tall woman with crinkly, shoulder-length auburn hair and oceanic eyes.
Robert’s wife, Grete, was back in their room at the Bienville House, sleeping. They had
stayed up late the night before. He and Angela were given a table by a window that
looked out onto colorful world of Chartres Street. He was a sales manager for a wine
distributor in Memphis and he explained that he was married, and was not unhappy, and
Angela explained she was this way, only single. He asked if Angela would like to take a
walk with him after lunch. They talked as if they had known one another for a
considerable length of time and they stayed together for hours. When Robert returned to
his room it was dusk and his wife was sitting up in bed, reading a novel. She apologized
for leaving him alone all afternoon. He sat down at the edge of the bed and caressed her
During the following three years, Robert would fly to Miami a total of a six times
to stay with Angela. He did not tell his wife this, of course. He would say that he was
going to get in some golf at Southern Pines with an important supplier, or there was a
sales conference in Atlanta. Grete would swallow and say, Make sure to call me.
However, after the first year, each visit to Angela’s became more awkward for both
Robert and Angela. When he returned home, he never asked what Grete had done with
her time while he was away. Just days before he was to make this latest trip, he got home
from work one afternoon and discovered a pair of loafers, not his, set together under a
chair in the kitchen. Grete arrived home later that evening, later than usual. He could not
bring himself to ask about the loafers.
He flew down to see Angela and that first night together with her, while in bed, he
mentioned the loafers. Angela’s response surprised him.
She said, What did you expect? Leaving her alone all those times?
Robert had decided to not pursue the subject any further. This trip thus far had not
turned out to be an enjoyable one, though he did not think the mention of the loafers was
wholly to blame. Angela was in real estate and the market in south Florida was terrible.
The value of her own condo had declined so significantly that she would have to blow out
her savings in order to sell it. Earlier this morning, over gourmet coffee and grapefruit
halves, she had said to Robert, “I feel like being alone. It’s not your fault. But you are
here . . . I just want to go somewhere where my problems will feel very small.”
Now that she was back, Angela just stood where she had stopped, right inside the
front door of her condo. She seemed bewildered and Robert moved from his chair and
arrived at her side. After he lifted the brown bag from her arms, she reached up and
wiped something from the corner of her eye.
“This thing is horrible,” she said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the torso.
“It’s a story,” he said, in a quiet way. “A neighbor.”
“This is not a neighbor of mine,” she said, pointing.
“No,” he said. “Come on, Ang,” he said. “Let’s go over there and sit down.” She
pulled her arm from his grip. She walked ahead of him to the dining table. The bag he
held was warm, there was a faint aroma of chicken. Angela dropped into a chair, the
exact seat where a visitor had been a short time ago. Angela sat with her knees apart, her
back slouched and she stared in the direction of the sculpture.
“The man across the courtyard, Guillermo,” Robert said. He gestured in that
Two hours earlier, the doorbell to Angela’s condo rang and when Robert pulled it
open, there stood a man, perhaps five feet tall. The man was mid forties, olive skinned,
with thick salt and pepper hair. At first, Robert thought it was Guillermo, the ex-horse
jockey who lived across the courtyard. But then, he wasn’t so sure.
“Yes?” Robert said.
The man said, “I am Homero Milord. The man there? You know him?” He did
indicate across the courtyard.
“Yes.” Then, he paused.
“Yes, I have met him.”
“He is no more.”
“He is . . .?”
“No more.”
“What happened to Guillermo?”
The man’s jaw muscles tightened, then his expression eased again. His skin was
smooth and waxy with a deep crease down either side of his mouth. What Robert knew
about Guillermo was that he had been a jockey who, a few years ago, had been injured in
a fall at Hialeah Racetrack. After that, he walked with a heavy limp. He had to give up
riding. He decided to be a painter. He wanted to paint Angela once, a portrait, and Angela
decided to let him. She wore a silky white blouse and slacks and she sat in a wicker chair
by his front window. Homero worked on her portrait for hours. When it was time for her
to view the portrait, Angela stood next to Homero and touched his arm. Oh, so
interesting, she said. Thank you. When she told the story to Robert, she confessed that
she hated the portrait. She looked like she was made of cardboard. She looked demented.
Robert supposed the man standing before him now might be a jockey, too.
“Suicide,” Homero said. “He tried to cut off his own legs. In a nice hotel up the beach.”
“When was this?” Robert said.
“Well, yes,” the man said. “He was found two days ago. Our mother is coming up
from Caracas tomorrow. There is a thing he has . . . he made himself. It might be a
creature. We want to have people over.” He seemed catch his breath. “The thing will
bother people. I cannot hide it anywhere. I will not bring myself to break it into pieces.”
“What would you like me to do?” Robert said.
“I don’t want it to scare anyone. You can look at it first, see if . . .”
“No,” Robert said. The man before him was struggling. This man appeared to be
scared himself now. Robert said, “It won’t bother me, not as long as it can’t jump out of
its frame.” He decided then he could not comfort Homero and perhaps he should not try.
Homero said, “Okay?”
“I’ll keep it, that’s fine,” Robert said. “Is this what you are asking?”
To this, Homero nodded. “Just for two days,” he said. “Then, we will . . .”
“Este Guillermo yo hermano?”
“Yes. Mi hermano. Yes.”
“I’m very sorry,” Robert said.
“Ma madre is out of her mind,” he said. “To her, he’s doomed now. Hell.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
The condo complex was crescent-shaped, two stories tall. The front windows of
each unit looked out onto Collins Avenue. The courtyard featured sections of neatly
mown monkey grass and the walkways were lined with clay tiles. Across the street were
the hotels, the Sea View, the Beau Rivage, the Pearl Sands. Beyond this was the beach,
and the Atlantic Ocean. Robert wondered how many other doors Homero had tried first.
Inside Guillermo’s apartment the sculpture stood in the middle of the living room.
The torso seemed much larger than Robert. He said, “This it?”
“Yes,” Homero said.
When Robert stepped closer however, he saw that he was only a foot shorter than
the sculpture. Robert had to tilt his head back to observe the base of the neck. The base
was clean and flat and Robert wondered for a second if he had to choose whether to have
just a head or a body without one which would he want. The glaze brought a gauzy
whiteness to the sculpture. Robert tried to feel sympathetic, though he did not know the
Milord family at all. Robert had no traumatic dealings with suicide, nothing that had
changed his own life. A friend of a friend here and there; the circumstances were
different and then they weren’t.
Robert stood near the sculpture and his eyes went around the room to see if the
portrait of Angela was hanging on a wall. He did like her. He would like to see another
version of her.
Homero said. “I will take the shoulders.”
“Okay,” Robert said. “All right.”
Jockeys were small, but they had to be strong men. As they carried the sculpture
across the courtyard, Robert hoped that he and Homero would not be seen, but then he
realized this was not a rational thought at all. We aren’t stealing it, this is ours already. It
was not as if this were a murdered human body or a work of terrific monetary value. A
doomed man had simply been trying to express himself. They had to set it down outside
the doorway of Angela’s apartment. An inch from the ground, Robert’s grip slipped and
the base hit one of the clay tiles. A bit of the base chipped away. Homero, for just a
moment, looked insane. The floor plans for the apartments were similar. They placed it
approximately where it had been in Guillermo’s. Homero and Robert stood with their
hands their hips. Homero had thick, powerful hands and the shoulders of his shirt were
damp with perspiration. “Cerveza?” Robert said.
“Yes,” he said. He rubbed his hand down the front of his face. “Thank you.”
Angela’s living room was large and rectangular shaped. One end of the living
room was sunken and the windows there looked out to the street. At the other end of the
room were the dining table and the doorway to the kitchen. The table was oval with a
dark marble top and could seat six. Homero and Robert sat across from one another at the
dining table. Robert drank half of his beer without saying a word. He said, “Guillermo
painted my . . . Angela’s picture once.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I didn’t know he did sculpture.”
“He did some of these. There are smaller ones in the apartment, like that.” He
nodded in the direction of the torso. He held his hands a foot apart. Then, even further
apart. The brother’s eyes went in the direction of the torso again and then he shook his
head. “I hid them all away. I don’t know what else to do right now. Maybe the next one,
it would have been a skyscraper.”
Robert considered that, the first image that came to his mind was of a sculpture of
a tremendous torso in the middle of Memphis. What a remarkable skyline that would be!
Perhaps it would seem to be both inspiring and terrifying. Homero should do the talking,
Robert understood this. If any talking needed to be done. Homero kept his eyes on the
sculpture for a full minute or more.
“You a jockey, too?” Robert said.
“Yes,” he said. “I ride in Tampa.”
“What’s it like?” Robert said.
“Tampa? Very nice.”
“Oh, yes. Everything happens right in front of you. High speed, quick decisions.”
His eyes were on the torso. “I dream about it when I’m not doing it. I’m sore and I am
tired. But, hard to quit.”
“I guess so,” Robert said. He almost said, It’s hard to quit anything, then was glad
he did not.
A moment later, Homero stood. “Well, yes,” he said, “Thank you.” They did not
shake hands. Homero nodded again, simply left Robert alone again.
Robert did stay in his chair at the dining table, and his eyes went to the sculpture
and then the partially opened Venetian blinds over the windows above the sunken section
of the room. The lines of light from the blinds reached the carpet but fell short of the
sculpture. Robert tried to picture Guillermo sitting on the edge of a bed in a luxurious
hotel room, holding a knife that had a long, mirror-like blade.
Some men burned with passion, Robert understood this. Deep inside him, he felt a
terrible longing but he did not know what to do about it. He liked women, women gave
him hope. But, he was more afraid of losing Grete. They were afraid of losing one
another. Robert was a sales manager for a wine distributor and would leave the job
tomorrow if something better came along. In recent years, he had supposed nothing was
going to. But he liked his house on Mullins Court. He had been married now to Grete for
14 years. If he had his choice right now as to who he could look over this unexpected
sculpture with, he supposed it would be Grete. He wondered if he would ever be able to
tell her about it.
Where was Angela, anyway? He thought about calling her, but decided against it.
He decided their affair could use a surprise like this. Last year, she had taken him to the
Fairchild Garden and they had walked the grounds together. She had shown him the
baobab tree. Its trunk was wider than the length of Robert’s body. The trunk held water.
This tree, she bragged, would last forever once it took root. There were exotic plants
everywhere, a pond made colorful by slow-swimming orange and white koi fish. Angela
had turned melancholy by the time they left, he remembered that.
Robert understood that no matter the circumstance, he would have never turned
down Homero’s request. If Angela had just driven up Collins Avenue to buy some porn
or if she had eloped with one of the Miami Dolphins. The sculpture had nothing to do
with him. And now, Angela was back. They sat at the table and as Robert talked, he
wondered if something could be changed. It seemed to be this dramatic thing. The living
room did not feel empty at all.
“So, it’s cursed?” she said.
He supposed she had not been listening to everything, that just certain things had
stuck with her.
“No,” Robert said. They watched one another. It was difficult to figure out what
she might be thinking. “See how neat the torso is? No scars. It’s just this neat, clean
thing. I don’t know. But I’m wondering about it.”
“Artists were sculpting torsos before Jesus Christ ordered his first ham and rye,”
she said. “It’s like the scales when learning piano. It’s like the first thing you do.”
“Sure, I know that,” he said.
“Maybe he was just learning his way around, you know?”
Robert shrugged. “Of course,” he said. “I think his brother didn’t want it in the
apartment because of this. You know, the missing things.”
“Maybe this was something he dreamed of being,” she said.
“You sure it’s a guy?” Robert said, and tried to grin.
“Yeah,” she said, after a second elapsed.
Robert decided not to pursue this.
In a moment, Angela turned and she swallowed. Her eyes were large. “I’m sorry I
said this a monstrosity. Is that what I called it? I know that you were just trying to be kind
to someone.”
“Well,” he said. “The thing is surprising. . .”
“I thought you might be getting worried. I was driving around out there for a
while. I always have looked forward to your visits.” She cleared her throat in a quick,
sharp way. “But this ought to be your last one. We shared etoufee at K-Paul’s, it carried
us this far. That’s not too bad.”
“What about the sculpture?”
“What about it?”
“I’ve been sitting here thinking maybe it ought to change something. You know,
sometimes things happen.”
“What do you want to happen, Robert? You told me about those shoes in your
house. I think your wife is telling you the clock is running out, pal. I think that our fling is
“You are mad at me.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “I have just arrived at the point where I look
forward more to you being here than when you are actually here.” She stuck her index
finger in the air and moved it like a metronome. “Too much time in between.”
“This kind of thing drives me crazy,” he said. “I am so bad at it. I can’t . . . I don’t
Her eyes went out to the sculpture and he watched her as she considered it and
then he looked out to the sculpture himself.
“You’ve been to Paris,” she said. “The Louvre. You know the Nike, the Victory
of Samothrace, the winged statue at the head of the grand staircase?” A corner of her
mouth went up at this. “The first time I saw that, I was a girl, 20 years old, on a summer
trip with my junior class at good old ISU. Was having an affair with the prof who
traveled with us. He was married. I knew that about him. I was with some friends at the
Louvre. I knew that he was married.” She shook her head. “The first time I saw the
Victory of Samothrace, I just burst out crying. I was a kid. I was so overwhelmed. I
understood how very very weak I was. People stared. But I thought I was in love, see. I
wanted all that I could not have.” Angela, in a quiet way, said, “I have gone from the
Nike to this. Maybe the world is trying to tell me something. But I can’t imagine not
wanting what seems to be right here anyway.” She held her hands like she was choking
something. Then, she brushed a strand of hair that had fallen to her forehead. She seemed
quite pretty to him.
He said, “I have been to Paris. That seems like a dream now. Actually went with
my wife though she wasn’t my wife then. There were statues and sculptures everywhere.”
“I remember,” she said. Angela’s voice was like it was she and Robert were the
ones who had been together then.
“There was this tiny park a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “There
was a gold sculpture. A public bathroom was right there, too. The smell of piss was
overwhelming. The statue was of a soldier dancing. It was called Dance of Triumph.”
“Le Danse Triomphale,” she said.
“He was in a motion like those guys from Madness,” he said. “Just from a
different century. Remember that band?”
“Right,” she said.
He felt himself taking deep breaths. “I can no longer tell you what I want from
this affair. If I am being honest. But, I don’t know what I have to look forward to now.”
She then motioned to the bag on the table. “I brought chicken from the Cuban
place down there on 32nd Street.”
“Well, sure,” he said.
“You hungry?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess we’ll need plates. And wine.” Neither of them moved,
though. He said, “Did you know that when Michelangelo wanted something to eat or
drink, he drew a picture for his servants? They were deaf and illiterate. He would draw
fishes or bottles of wine. Nothing fancy. Just like a child’s drawing.” He made motions in
the air. “See, I just drew a bottle of red, a bottle of white.”
Angela shook her head at this, though she was amused by what he was doing, he
could tell. She stood, walked to the kitchen door, hesitated, then pushed it open.
They sat at the dining table and ate the chicken and rice from the Cuban restaurant
and they went through two bottles of wine. The food tasted hearty and wonderful and
there would be considerable moments of silence while they ate. Then, with a sigh, Angela
sat back from the table. She touched the back of her hand at a corner of her forehead and
said, “I’m whipped. I’m toast. I ate too much and I drank too much.” Her eyes tried to
focus. “This chicken was good though,” she said. “You mind if I just flame out, by
“No,” he said.
Angela just tilted her head to one side. Then, she began to draw something in the
air. She said, “A man standing at the kitchen sink.” She batted her eyes at Robert; then
she stood and aimed herself. She walked close to the torso, and without stopping, she
reached up and waved her half-clenched hand in front of the chest. She might have
touched it. She moved by, closed her door.
He thought about opening another bottle of wine but now that she was gone, it
seemed as if his head was starting to ache. It was not an unusual feeling, sometimes he
felt like this right after he got home from work. He would sit on his couch and try to
ratchet down. He would sit there and try to understand why his life was turning out this
way. He lived in a city where everybody he knew worked hard. The air was heavy, there
was a smell like burning rubber you tried not to get used to. Grete taught at a public high
school and sometimes when she arrived home from work she was so tired she could
barely speak. He brought home bottles of wine, which he purchased at a discount. In the
morning, Grete’s good will and energy returned. They had coffee and chatted about the
upcoming weekend, or trips they would like to take.
In the past two days, Robert had spent plenty of time in the guest room of
Angela’s apartment. He thought repeatedly to himself, I did not fly down here so I could
be alone. But he understood that in her own way, Angela was trying to tell him
something. She was trying to tell him everything. There was no use in yelling at one
another. He understood that she did not want either of them to feel any worse than they
already did. He lay on the bed in there presently and wondered about his life with Grete
once he no longer had Angela to look forward to. He thought of whom Grete’s lover
might be. He thought of her head resting on another man’s shoulder. The image made
him think of museum in Berlin where he had seen a cubist painting of Dora Maar,
Picasso’s lover.
There were footsteps out on the carpet of the living room. Then he heard the water
faucet running in the kitchen. A wine cork popped. From under his door, he saw the light
go on in the living room. Footsteps went back across the carpet. He tried to imagine it
was the torso doing all of this, the poor thing was walking on its thighs, bumping the
corner of its shoulder against the handle the refrigerator.
He opened his door, steered himself out into the light of the living room. It was
not a total surprise to find Angela standing by the torso. She was in her underwear, a
matching royal blue set of bra and panties. She held a glass of red wine in one hand and
ran her other hand up and down the back of the sculpture. She looked up to the base of its
neck as if she were listening to it speak. The sculpture could be explaining its day at
work. Robert stepped in this direction. Angela knew he was there. She held herself in a
loose way, like she was modeling for the statuette awarded to the all-time greatest
cocktail party guest.
He stopped while still a few feet from her. She lolled her head to one side, gave
Robert a smile. “What are you guys talking about?” he said.
“Oh, this and that,” she said.
“You look like a vodka ad,” he said.
She wagged a finger back and forth. “Un-uh,” she said. “Not in front of company.
Don’t hit on me. Look at the way . . .” He did take a step in her direction then. Angela
held up her free hand. “It would be rude to just leave our guest out of anything. I mean,
here he’s been, singing for his supper.”
He said, “I wasn’t going to . . .”
“Let’s do something,” she said. “Let’s try to make him feel at home.”
Robert decided to stand like the sculpture. He held himself in a frozen way.
“See how simple that is?” she said.
Robert decided not to speak. He tried not to smile. He tried to hold his expression
like someone from a war poster. Angela was watching. Robert was pleased with how this
“Stay there,” she said. “Both of you.” Angela steered herself for the kitchen.
Drawers opened; she had been drinking and, for fun, she might bring out a knife. She
might play at sawing off Robert’s parts. She could just keep Robert’s torso in a box under
her bed. She could take it out from time to time and examine it and think, Okay, what
was it I wanted again?
When Angela returned, she held a black Sharpie marker in her right hand.
Robert’s eyes were on her, he tried to hold his position. He said, in a whisper, “You
shouldn’t draw on the . . .”
She said, “I’m not going to draw on him.” She drew a deep breath herself.
“Ready?” Angela leaned down and set her drink near the base of the sculpture. She stood
up straight again and said, “Okay, strip. Remember I have seen it all, nothing is new.
Come on, I am going to relieve you of all your worries.”
“Okay,” he said. Robert, in a measured way, began to take off his clothes. His
socks were last and he went over to sit down on a chair before removing them. He
returned to Angela, and he stood near the sculpture. He decided to return to the pose
where he appeared determined.
“Stop screwing around,” she said, in a quiet way. She held up the pen, right in
front of her face. Angela said, “Close your eyes. I said, close your eyes.” He took in one
more second of her, then he did what she asked.
The next thing he felt were her fingers on his elbow. She lifted his arm and then
she touched the marker to his shoulder tip. She traced the tip down, under his arm, then
around to the other side, to the point where she had begun. She let his arm down again.
She moved across the front of him, he could feel her breath, the front of her touched his
chest. She made a circle around his other shoulder. She stood right in front of him again.
He felt the tip of the marker at the base of his own neck. She drew a line around to the
back of his neck, then had to reach around with her other hand to finish it. She lowered
herself. He did glance down to where she knelt. Her hair was parted down the middle, her
roots were gray. He felt like placing his hand on her head and stroking her hair and telling
her everything was going to be all right. He liked it when Grete said that to him. But,
right now, he thought it would make Angela defensive. She touched the marker to his
thigh. She made a circle around it. She made a circle around the other one. He closed his
eyes when she started to stand. When he opened them again, she said. “You got
goosebumps. All over.”
“It felt great there for a second,” he said. “Something altogether different.”
She watched him for a second longer and then she shook her head. “Come on, do
me now.”
He understood. “I want to,” he said.
Angela peeled off her clothes but she did not pose like the sculpture at all. She
folded her hands in front of her chest and closed her eyes. Robert touched the tip of the
marker to her shoulder. He had to lift her left her elbow and slowly drew a circle around
her shoulder. He repeated the process on her right side. Then, he began to draw a circle
around her neck. He was stunned by how very thin it was. Her head seemed so large now.
Then, he knelt down in front of her. He held his hand on her right thigh and began. She
was alive but she seemed to be even more than that. She was a subject in this way. He
wished there was more he could do than just draw circles. He capped the pen and traced
the tip along her ribcage.
He stepped back.
When she opened her eyes, she noticed the change in him.
He said, “What are you praying for?”
She blinked once and said, “Nothing, really. I just would like to appear innocent.”
She watched him for a second longer. “If I would pray, it would always for be the same
He raised one arm, made a strong man’s pose.
“I guess the secret is out now,” she said.
He dipped his head, noticed his underwear flat on the carpet. Hers, too. There
seemed to be something ominous about this. He noticed that she was looking at these
things as well.
Wordlessly, they each tugged on their underclothes again. He touched his fingers
to his breastplate. “Well, now what is going to happen?” he said, and tried to sound
nonchalant about it.
“You will go to bed,” she said. She spoke the words slowly. He shook his head
and then, a moment later, she nodded hers. “Oh,” she said. “You mean happen happen?”
“What,” she said. “I have all the knowledge in the world now?”
“Didn’t you just create me?” he said.
She said, “Oh, okay, I get it. That’s good. That’s funny.”
“Tell me to do anything. I probably will.”
“I want you to go back to Memphis,” she said. She said this in a kind way, but a
moment of uncertainty followed. Robert did feel angry at something and wanted to say
something sharp to her. And do what? he thought. Tell me.
But, it passed. He found himself trying to breathe in a more even way.
“Good night, Angela,” he said. “At least we got to know each other.”
“I’ll take you to the airport in the morning.”
“No,” he said, without really thinking about it. “Let me call a cab. Let’s give each
other a break, okay? You know, I’ll call him and when he gets here, he’ll honk and then
we will know it’s time for me to go. Be easier for me to start all over.” He spoke quickly.
It sounded as if he had done all of this before.
“Okay,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“Good night, Angela,” he said.
Robert returned to the guest room and this time he slipped under the covers. For
the longest time, he wondered about how his life could be better. He wondered about
what type of dramatic move he needed to make. He did need to do something. But
eventually, he grew tired of thinking about this. In order to cheer himself up, Robert tried
to imagine that Angela had actually just created him. If this was the case, what would he
have to be mad about? Of course, he would not be married to Grete, he would have never
met her. He would have this beautiful city of Miami to live in. He would have Angela to
live with. As a work of art, of course, he would not have to seek employment. He could
just make appearances at museums or whenever she brought friends over. It would be an
easy life, but Robert could not escape that notion that something about it would
eventually make him unhappy. He would become tired of being viewed with such
curiosity. He imagined himself standing in a circle of people, tapping at his chest. “Hey, I
am the real thing,” he would say. “I think for myself. Therefore I am, you know.”
The discussions that would follow such claims would be endless.
Additionally, no matter the situation, Robert had never been good at explaining
himself. Perhaps this type of life would provide a greater source of frustration for him.
Robert supposed that when he arrived home tomorrow, he would not feel like
talking. His silence, to Grete, would be paramount to a confession. A request for
forgiveness. She could take him back, though right now he didn’t see why she should.
We still are in love, he thought. But he did not know why. He thought about the sculpture
in the middle of Angela’s living room. It was dark under his door, she he simply pictured
a silhouette of the sculpture. He tried to imagine what would happen to it. He supposed
that after Guillermo’s funeral, Homero would appear and he would say he was here for it.
Homero might say, Where’s the . . . man who was here? Robert thought of Angela giving
a quick shake of the head, something that would say to Homero, Don’t ask.
Robert touched at the circle she had drawn around his neck. Perhaps just a small
part of me will be left here, he thought. But I was here. It meant something.
Angela, of course, would not explain any more about Robert to Homero. She
would just tilt the shoulders back. They would be slippery. But this would always be the
case. She would be trying to grip a large and strange object, one that was the result of a
man who had tried to make more and less of himself at the same time.
When Homero lifted his end, the base, she would hang on.
I got it, she would say. They would begin to move for the opened door, one that
held the steady glow of paradise sunlight.
On a Sunday afternoon, my father appeared in the doorway of our living room
wearing a sleeveless white t-shirt and nothing else. He had dark hair between his legs and
his pink dick hung from there like an exotic, sorrowful eel. At the time, he was 33 years
old. His mother had died a month earlier. He raised his hands to the top of the door sill
and stood there for a time.
The television was on, but the television was always on. He did not seem to notice
that I was in the room. I did not want him to be too startled, so I said, “I’m here.”
His head did turn at that. “I thought you had a basketball game today.”
“That was yesterday.”
“You sure?”
“I had seven points,” I said.
“Hmm.” He still held his hands to the top part of the sill. “You know what I was
thinking about just now?”
“Not really.”
“I read this movie review and it had all this praise for one actor because he could
do a handstand. The thing raved. I mean, I know those critics are on the take, but come
on.” My father sold Reunite wine for a company which allotted him a Plymouth with an
AM radio and misbehaving heater. He was always exhausted. He was usually joking
around. He said, “Who can’t do that?” and then without a word from me he eased himself
to the floor. It seemed at first as if he was about to do push-ups. He flattened his hands on
the carpet and said, “Ready?” in a half a voice. I was not sure who he was speaking to.
When he tried to kick his feet in the air, it all happened quite slowly and the whole of him
finally collapsed to one side on that carpet of ours with the burned rubber smell we never
could do anything about.
In another minute, my mother stepped into the doorway. You would have thought
she would have been hot about the racket because of her headaches and so on.
She was nude. She looked down to where my father was on his back. She stood
there with her hands on either side of frame. In a moment, her look was far away, too, as
if she could picture herself on the front side of a post card. My father ‘s eyes were on the
ceiling. He said, “The boy is home. He can see you.” It seemed like a dream, all that was
Without a word, my mother disappeared from the doorway.
I supposed that they had been drinking.
“Are you there?” he said, quietly.
I decided he was speaking to me. I said, “Yes.”
“Well, you saw it,” he said. From the floor, he offered an untroubled smile.
“I did see it,” I said.
He said, “I tried.”
He fell asleep and when I finally heard him begin to snore, I took the folded
comforter from the arm of the couch, walked over and draped it atop him. I placed a
pillow under his head. I had always been with these people and I did so desperately
wanted to fit in. I could not think of anything funny to do now, but I did want my father
to feel better. I always wanted that.
So, what I did then was imitate something I had seen my father’s mother once do.
I brought my hands down and I flattened them on either side of his face.
When his mother had done this, we were all in a hospital room together and she
was lying in the bed. It was my father, my mother and me and, before the drive over, she
whispered to me, Be good now, this is the only time you will have to do this. So, I was.
We each had in a chair in the hospital room and the adults simply talked about the people
they knew and so on until my father’s mother had a coughing fit. My mother went to get
the nurse and after the nurse tended to my father’s mother, the nurse gave my father a
little nod.
My father stood abruptly from his chair, and he said, Well, Mom, I guess it’s time
to go.
She said, Come over here and he did and this was when she placed her hands on
his face. She said something funny. She said, But, I just got here.
I wanted to say something like that now. My father was asleep, but I thought he
was aware of things. When I laid my hands on his face, his expression changed. I
understood I could not make the joke his mother had made. I said, “Why the long face?”
It was the punch line to one of my family’s favorite s, the one that went what did the
bartender say when the horse walked in and sat down at the counter.
My father’s eyes closed a little more tightly. “Damn you,” he said. It seemed as if
he was about to say something else, but then his eyes flew open. He seemed panicked to
see me there. He sat up so fast we bonked heads. I fell back a step and then he and I were
rubbing our noggins like a couple of the Stooges. He seemed to notice the blanket and
when he tossed it back, he saw the undressed half of him. He kept looking at this.
He’d caught me right over the eye. I held my mouth open, squinted my eyes and
tried to make a comic, wow-that-really-hurt face. “You tried to do a handstand,” I said.
Then he said, “Don’t you have some traffic to play in? Some one else’s house to
burn down?” The first thing he said was an old joke between us, but the second one was
something new. I had not heard it before. I did not have any pat lines for a response. I just
kept rubbing.
“Don’t tell your mother, son,” he said. He touched at his own forehead. “You hear
“Okay,” I said, though I was not sure what he was specifically referring to. Why
she had seen him nude before. I mean, what, I just materialized here? I knocked on their
door one day and said Are you hiring? He’d done a lot crazier things than a handstand
without wearing his pants. One time, for Halloween, when my mother was away visiting
her own parents, he had dressed up as a very real looking devil with red and black paint
on his face and a black cape and went running out our front door every time children and
their parents approached for trick or treat. Some of the children screamed and the parents
complained. One of the fathers wanted to take my father “to the woodshed”. I didn’t see
how my mother would care if we bonked heads. She might even give us each a kiss on
the forehead for that. I guessed that my father was referring now to the “Damn you”.
Maybe because there was no way to save that one.
My father pulled himself to his feet then and he held the blanket in front of him.
He nodded to me like I was a boxer who had given him a good match.
He walked down the hall and I heard the door to their bedroom close. In a minute,
my mother laughed at something, I could that hear from behind their door. I knew that
everything would be all right then. That was really all he wanted to do and it seemed even
more this way after his mother died. I listened for the sound of him falling to the floor
again but I actually I did not hear anything else. They were not doing boing-boing-boing
because you could always hear that, it was like they had on a ladies tennis match turned
up all the way on the TV in there. They were just talking and maybe even whispering and
I supposed they finally fell asleep. My parents did like their Sunday afternoons together.
I decided to go out and play. The other parents were still kind of wary about us
after the Halloween stunt and I didn’t have a lot of friends in those days. I grabbed the
basketball from our garage. There was never any traffic on Sundays. I did what what I
always did and dribbled right down the middle of the street. If I could not be a comedian,
I could be Clyde “the Glide” Drexler. There was a goal at the elementary school and my
parents would know where to find me. When they were ready, they would walk together
and when they arrived they would be smiling. They would stand behind the hurricane
fence that separated the court from the rest of the playground but they never stepped onto
the court even though I practically begged them. They seemed happy to be on the other
side of that fence. They seemed content with the fence between them and me and me and
them. They just held hands and watched. I did feel different on this side and I always
wanted to hit a few jump shots for them.
Wayne sold cleaning products for Hanover Chemical and he spent 20 days a
month on the road in his Chrysler covering accounts that spanned from Akron to
Baltimore. He liked being on the road and he liked staying in hotels and motels. There
was a town in West Virginia named Steelage with a motel named the Inn of Steelage he
liked because the motel proprietor, Maggie DiMaggio, would sleep with him whenever
he stayed there. They had to be discreet because her husband, Raymond, traveled, too.
After the second time Wayne and Maggie slept together she explained that she did not
have sex with the customers usually. She had chosen Wayne, in part, because he showed
up dressed in a jacket and a pressed shirt. You arrive in the evening and you still look
neat, she said. It looks like there is something left in you. When you run a place like this,
well, that matters. Maggie explained that in the future, when Wayne came through town,
it should always be on a Sunday evening because that was after Raymond usually left
Steelage for his own route.
She and Wayne were lying in bed together.
“What does he sell?” Wayne said.
“What?” she said.
He did not answer.
“Sundays, okay?” she said. “But not a lot of them.”
“All right,” he said.
Wayne had been with Maggie a half dozen times in a year. Then, late one fall
Sunday afternoon, he arrived at the Inn of Steelage and after he tapped the bell on the
counter twice with the tip of his index finger, a man stepped out from the doorway
beyond the desk. The man touched a napkin at his mouth and then held it at his side.
“Need a place for the night?” he said, as he arrived at the counter.
Wayne’s eyes went to the doorway. There was a light on inside the room just
beyond it. There was the aroma of fried chicken. Wayne’s heart turned. He had been
married once. It was the type of marriage that made him never want to marry again. He
did not want to marry Maggie. But he did want to see her. Right now, he tried not to think
of anything else. He certainly did not want the man at the counter to see that he was
thinking about anything else.
“Room?” the man said, when Wayne remained silent.
“A single, yes,” Wayne said.
The man pushed over an info card to Wayne and Wayne stared at him a moment
longer. “Is there anything else?” the man said. He had a boxer’s nose, flattened, heavylooking eyebrows and there were brush-strokes of gray at his temples. Wayne dyed his
hair. He did not want to look to his customers like he was growing old in his work.
Wayne wondered what Raymond sold and had to catch himself before asking it out loud.
Wayne said, “I am hungry. Can you recommend a place?”
The man’s thick fingers were already fluttering over the keyboard of the computer
at one end of the counter. Then he said something that sounded like V-8 Chapeau.
“Excuse me?” Wayne said.
“Vietnamese place,” he said. “Take a right on Elm Street. They will be open on
Sunday, right?” He said this last part in a louder voice.
“Yes,” a woman’s voice said from the lighted room.
The man said, “Tell them you are staying here, you’ll get a ten percent discount.
They can use the business.”
Wayne was given Room 5. He opened the door, but then he suddenly could not
bear the thought of being in the room by himself. He decided to get back into his
Chrysler. As he drove, he felt exposed in a way that shocked him. He felt literally as if he
only wore socks and shoes, that the whole world could get a look at his pale, unfit body.
This was not his wife. Only when he was with her, he imagined he was living a more
interesting life. The interesting life would not last and he knew he should never forget
this. He was not in the mood for Vietnamese food, but he, somewhat desperately,
invented the idea that Maggie would show up. She’d heard what her husband had to say.
The restaurant was in a small, detached, beige-painted building that stood perhaps
50 yards from a tire repair shop. The words Viet Chateau were illuminated over the
doorway in strawberry neon and inside a slight, dapper man in a jacket, white shirt and
powder blue necktie stood at a podium and nodded. Beyond him were tables covered in
white tablecloths. At the center of each table was a slender glass vase that held a single
red rose. There were only two other people in the room, a couple dressed in overalls
sitting at the table by the window that looked out over the empty street.
“Anywhere you like,” the maitre’d said with a sweep of his hand. Wayne selected
a table for two near the back of the room. Music played inside the restaurant, currently it
seemed to be a techno-dance version of “Avalon”. The paper menu listed Sea Bass as See
Bass and after reading this Wayne flipped the menu over a couple of times. He glanced to
the couple seated by the front windows. They both had fried platters of something and
they ate steadily and while they chewed they simply looked out the window.
When the maitre ‘d happened over, he smiled at Wayne, a big, piano-key smile
and Wayne wondered how much the man had to pay for the caps. The man had black hair
and kind eyes and Wayne supposed he was of Vietnamese descent. He’d had a vision for
this restaurant, this man, and as he stood with his hands behind his back, Wayne,
unexpectedly, recalled an intermission of a hockey game game he attended in Wheeling
where a long red carpet was rolled onto the ice and then from a tunnel at the far end of
the ice appeared a small man sitting atop a unicycle. He guided the unicycle to center ice
and balanced himself without touching his feet to the pedals. He stuck out his right foot
and an assistant stacked small bowls on his foot right side up then upside down and then,
when the unicyclist was ready, he kicked them high in the air and they somehow landed
all sleeved together atop his head. Then he tilted himself forward on his unicycle and
leaned back again. The tall stack of bowls weaved like a caterpillar. Wayne remembered
clapping enthusiastically. Sometimes the world just knocked his socks off.
“Quite a lovely place you have here,” Wayne said. “I’m not kidding.”
“Thank you.”
Wayne said, “I will have a triple bourbon, please.” He held over the menu. “And
for dinner, whatever you recommend.”
“Right away,” the maitre ‘d said.
“Oh, no hurry,” Wayne said, after he was gone.
When the drink arrived, Wayne took a few quick sips. He felt emotional and he
wanted to calm down. Maggie was the only woman he saw on his route and he looked
forward to seeing her. She would not show up at this restaurant, all out of breath, with
him just on her mind. He thought, What will I do? This route here, this is my life. Of
course, just because her husband was home one time, that did not mean Wayne could
never see Maggie again. She loved her husband, she had told Wayne this a number of
times already. But she did spend a lot of her life in these motel rooms, looking after them.
Maggie liked owning a motel. She wondered about the lives various people led. She
simply liked to imagine that she was someone else for brief periods of time.
Wayne’s bourbon tasted really strong but he drank another when the maitre ‘d
brought it over and then he ate the special which was a rice dish prepared with sweet
shrimp and pork and it was not until an hour after he’d returned to his motel room that
Wayne began to feel sick. He had to race for the bathroom and stuck his head down in the
toilet just as he was no longer able to control himself. Afterward, he sat on the floor with
his back against the bathtub. He began to wait for the next jolt of nausea. When it hit, he
rolled his head for the toilet again. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and
closed his eyes as he flushed it. He suddenly felt a familiar, intense hatred of the world.
Maggie was married, and he was going to have to pay in some way for his relationship
with her. People like him never got off Scot free. The misery was always worse than the
pleasure was great and he had gotten so used to of living without either one.
Wayne continued to be sick. It went on. He tried to think of anything to make
himself feel better. He could not believe he felt this bad. That being alive could feel this
bad. He tried to think of times where he had felt better. He tried to think of times when
he’d felt worse. It was all quite unconvincing. It will pass, he thought. Wayne knew this
much, but it was all he knew. He felt exactly this way.
In a while, he was just steady enough to go to his bed. He laid down and closed
his eyes and waited for the next moment he would have to rush for the bathroom. He laid
still for the longest time. When he heard the doorknob lock turn, something tightened
inside his chest. The door was opened and then closed again quickly. “Hello?” he said.
Without a word, the person who entered, walked over to the bed. For the briefest
of moments, he was terrified. Then, the person lay down next to him on the bed. “I have
about five minutes,” Maggie’s voice said.
“I ate something bad at the Chateau place,” Wayne said, in a whisper.
“You don’t have to whisper,” she said. He heard her sniff. “Yes, well, I guess you
Wayne said, “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“I can’t see you at all,” she said.
In a second, he said, “Maggie.”
“Well, maybe it’s not such a great idea that we keep this up.”
“Well, why?”
“That guy is your husband, right?”
“He was my husband the last time you were here, too.”
“You know what I mean, Maggie. I’ve seen him now. Things don’t feel as
simple.” Wayne wanted to reach for her hand but he did not.
“I thought you might worry,” she said. “My husband wanted to surprise me today,
that’s all. He made me dinner and everything.”
‘That’s pretty good.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Don’t you feel bad, Maggie?” he said.
“No,” she said, right away. “A plate of chicken wings doesn’t really change all
that much.”
Wayne wanted to make a joke. He said, “What, he burned them?” When she
didn’t laugh at all, he said, “I ate the special tonight.”
“I wouldn’t have recommended that restaurant necessarily,” she said. “I heard
Raymond tell you about it and I almost got up to offer another suggestion. But Raymond
knows the owner. They play cards at the VFW hall. Anyway, I thought if the three of us
were in the room together, you would feel odd.”
“Wouldn’t you, Maggie?”
He heard her sniff again “Of course,” she said. Her voice was quiet.
“What happened when you heard it was me?” he said. She did not answer right
away and he said, “Maggie?”
“I’m thinking,” she said.
“You aren’t going to hurt my feelings.”
She gave a little laugh.
“You’re not,” he said.
“I am trying to say what I felt in an accurate way. I am not in love with you,
Wayne, but you already know that. When I heard your voice, I wasn’t too surprised. I
knew everything would be okay. Because you and I are not in love, are we?”
He thought about sitting alone at the restaurant earlier. “No,” he said. “We
“While you were out there talking with Raymond, I thought what a shame this is.
I have two men tonight. I will wake up one day later this week and there won’t be any.”
She said this in a light way. She seemed ready to give a soft laugh. He was ready to hear
something like that. She said, “I want you to keep coming back. That’s what I wanted to
Wayne said, “Why?”
“Because of this,” she said. She moved her hand back and forth in the air, he
could just see the silhouette of that. “Just this, you know. Talk. Different kind of talk. It’s
nice. I’m not going to beg you to come back, though,” she said.
“You don’t have to,” he said.
She did reach over and squeeze his hand. Then, she was on her feet. She seemed
to be looking down at him. “Can I bring you an antacid? Anything?”
“No,” he said. “It’ll pass.”
“All right,” she said. “And listen, you don’t have to make the bed okay? Last
time, you did that. I walked into the room after you were gone, I was so surprised by it.”
“I was grateful,” he said.
“I did have to change the sheets,” she said.
“Right,” he said.
“Good night, Wayne,” she said. “I look forward to seeing you again.”
“Night, Maggie.”
She had been gone for no longer than a minute and Wayne understood that he
would return to this motel. And when he did, nothing would be gained from it. Two
voices in a dark motel room on a Sunday night. But he was like Maggie, he would want
this. He was very glad that she had stopped by to see him. Nothing had been lost at all.
When Wayne opened his eyes in the morning, he could see the sunlight shining
behind the gauzy royal blue curtains. His room had an odor to it. Still dressed in his
clothes from the night before, Wayne went out to his car and removed some cleaning
samples from the trunk. He had a small box filled with cleaning cloths. He took some
samples from his trunk and two clean cloths and then he went back to his room, his
bathroom, and began to clean every inch of it. It was not as if he had vomited all over the
bathroom. When he finished in the bathroom, he looked around the room itself and
decided the window ledges could do with a wipe down as well. The top of the old
television set. He had slept on top of the covers. He neatened them. He felt oddly excited
about everything.
Wayne returned his cleaning products to the trunk and removed the hanger
holding his pressed jacket and trousers from the hook inside a passenger seat window. He
showered, shaved and dressed in an efficient manner and then stuffed his wrinkled
clothes in the small laundry bag he always brought on the road with him. He sniffed the
air inside the room, then walked out to his car and returned to the room with a small
bottle of air freshener. He pulled the trigger twice, watched the mist disappear into the
faint sunlight inside the room, sniffed again, then closed the door behind him. He stepped
out into the broad sunlight of a Steelage, West Virginia, morning and there was Raymond
up by the registration office, sweeping away the autumn leaves that had gathered on the
ground outside the entrance.
Wayne tried to decide what he ought to do now. He did not want to be frightened
of Raymond but Wayne also did not want to seem cavalier. He stood by his Chrysler and
Raymond continued his sweeping. Finally, Wayne walked in his direction. Raymond
looked up when Wayne was just a couple of steps away. Wayne held out the room key
and said, “Here you go.”
“Oh, okay,” Raymond said. He accepted it, stuck the key in the pocket of his
khaki pants. “Need a receipt?”
Wayne thought for a moment, then he said, “No. I’m just visiting.”
Raymond squinted at Wayne in a mild way. Wayne did seem dressed for work.
“Hey, how was the food?” Raymond said.
“Good,” Wayne said.
“It can be a little hit and miss. Victor’s the name of the guy who runs it.”
Raymond turned his head in the direction of the road. There was nothing happening there,
no traffic. He must have heard something Wayne did not. But Wayne was nervous.
Raymond turned and looked in Wayne’s direction again. “Everyone wants the place to
You ordered there recently? Wayne wanted to say. But he did not want to seem
difficult to Raymond. Besides, the restaurant was marvelous in its own way. Wayne did
try to make a joke. “Food is overrated,” he said.
Raymond did squint at Wayne again. Raymond appeared to be intrigued “If you
say so.”
Wayne decided to shrug. He nodded once in Raymond’s direction and then turned
and began to walk for his Chrysler. The sounds of Raymond sweeping were competing
with the sounds of his own steps whisking over the pavement. Finally, Wayne was far
enough away. There was just the sound of his own steps. He slowed down a bit after this.
He thought he would feel relieved.
A kid jockey with a born-to-ride name, Paul Wager, booted home a plow horse of
mine named Moon Glitter to win the nightcap at Cincinnati Park by three lengths at odds
of 29-1 and I had felt strangely positive about all of this going in, so much so that I laid
$5 for a ticket right on the nose. In the winner’s circle, I collected the trophy, a ceramic
coffee mug with the track’s name painted in cursive, then ducked for the windows like
they were about to close forever. I drove my Falcon back to the barn to see that my horse
cooled out right and then I jumped back in my car and aimed it downtown, where I
ordered the blue plate at the Bank Street Cafe, as well as a wedge of coconut cake, then
took twice as long as normal to finish everything. I kept running the day’s race over in
my mind, thinking about Paul Wager, how perfectly he’d handled it, what a wonderful
rider he was, how he had looked at me in the winner’s circle after the race . I guessed the
truth was that I was queer as a bluebird in flippers, in love with this boy-kid jockey
who’d been riding nothing but winners for me all summer.
A waitress I knew by the nameplate riding atop her bosom, Alycia, was near the
end of her shift when she stopped by my table in her crisp-looking black shoes to collect
and I held over the usual two sagging singles, which meant a 50 cent tip. I had a habit of
looking over her figure, her features, but all I noticed now were the strands of khakicolored hair that had fallen limp across her forehead. She turned her head sideways after
her eyes caught the number of cigarette butts in my ashtray. Then she slid the dollars into
one of her big apron pockets and just shrugged. I did have seven $20 bills in my wallet,
the result of that brave win bet on my own horse. I felt as if I ought to keep the evidence
of that for as long as possible.
While staring in the direction of the kitchen doors, she said, “You look kinda
unfocused.” Maybe she wanted me to ask what she was doing later. I had walked her
home a couple of times. She was a girl who’d grown tired of her little hick town in
Indiana, but she thought for a real city Cincinnati was sad and dull. I had the idea she’d
feel pretty good. All I’d done was think about it, though. That meant something.
After my dinner, I did stroll up the street alone, with thoughts of a quick beer. I
stood on the sidewalk outside the front window of the Phoenix Tavern. On some nights, I
sat at the bar inside, had a couple glasses of tap and listened to music on the radio from
KUBE, across the river, in Newport. Usually something big band, Woody Herman or his
kind. These people lived in a time machine anyway, wanted everything to be like right
after D-Day, when it seemed like everyone’s life was set forever in the foundation of
victory. My old man had a joke: he said he wanted to be in Cincinnati at the end of the
world because everything happened there ten years later. I knew it was someone else’s
joke by the way he told it, which had actually been a long time ago.
A cardboard sign the size of a magazine cover rested in a corner of the front
window and in red letters it said No Women. This was strictly the coal gray suit set in
here, fellows who sat up straight, gobbled down their gin martinis. There were beer joints
closer where my horses were stabled, but sometimes in the evening I felt like something
else, to see if I could hang with another class of people. This time, I just remained on the
sidewalk, thought about the kid rider I was queer for, where we might be able to be seen
together. I’d heard of a place that was also across the river, in Covington, Kentucky,
where everybody dressed in Halloween costumes and there were mattresses laid out in a
back room.
I walked up the street another block further to fetch my good old Falcon. The car
was cream-colored and had bald tires, though I did keep those hubcaps shined as bright as
a captain’s buttons. When I’d driven far away enough, I checked the darkening skyline in
my rear view, wondered about this, too, the secrets of an entire city. How queer sex
would really go? I wondered if Paul Wager would want me. I was 30, way older than
him, and nothing in my life had ever been accomplished without a lot of trouble. And I
guessed I looked that way. Paul couldn’t have been much past 16, so it looked like I was
not only going to be a pansy, but perhaps a convict as well. Honestly, I just hoped the kid
had some secrets himself. What I did know about him for sure was that he was hungry
and, as far as work went, he was ready to do what you asked.
Paul lived two barns over but I parked outside my own, thought it would be less
conspicuous this way, and then walked the shed row, checked on my four horses. It
would have been impossible for them to be less interested in me. “Yep,” I said, in a
murmur when I walked by them one more time. Then, I strolled down to the tack room at
the end of the barn and there I sat down and smoked cigarettes until it turned completely
dark outside. I guessed that my breath was going to taste like a cemetery, but it was all
right, I was crazy nervous and what could it matter?
The barns were two trolley cars long here and there was just one light burning at
the end of the one where Paul stayed . . . his tack room. The doors were made of nothing
but plywood and his fluttered even though I tapped on it gently. Then I heard his pubertycracked voice, and, for a second, I thought I might not be able to go through with this.
The voice said, “What can I do for you?”
“It’s me, Mr. M.”
I leaned closer to the door. “Walter May.”
He fooled with some lock before getting it open and there he stood, a head shorter
than me, green-blue eyes blinking from under an olive-colored corduroy cap. He wore a
brown and white checked cowboy cut shirt, tight jeans, and spit-polished boots. Probably
headed for the rec room to shoot pool. Behind him, at the far wall, was a canvas fold-out
cot, with a blanket folded under a pillow at one end. On the floor below it sat a small,
bowl-like ashtray jammed full with stubs. I thought about putting my hands on his
shoulders right there and kissing him a good one and it must have looked that way
because he did back up a step. Such a sweet face, the apples of his cheeks shining . . .
jocks never stayed this way for long. The thought of Paul in his 40s or 50s, face hardlined and eyes watery from years in the boot just about killed me right there. That was a
thing about riders, it took all they knew to make it and after they made it, it was all they
knew. Their careers were never over.
“Inside?” I said.
Without a word, he walked across the room to the canvas cot, planted himself at
the edge of it. He sat there with his knees apart, arms crossed, toes of his boots pointed in.
I’d already closed the door, and now stepped towards the middle of the room. I said, “I’m
not sure how to tell you what it is I have to tell you.”
“We did good today, huh?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. I stood right under the one bulb in the room. “You’re a great rider.
You can ride the barn for me. I want you to . . . I want you . . . I’m sorry, but I do.” He sat
where he did, eyes like something from a penny comic. “I think it was true the first time
you won a race for me.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Then Paul made a noise, a grunt. I thought it would be
a mistake to move from where I stood, at least not right away.
I said, “I don’t mean to scare you. I just have these feelings. I don’t understand
He said, “I’ll put it in my mouth. I don’t mind.”
“What would I do?”
He pulled off his cap, ran a hand over his short-cut, thick dark hair. “Light,” he
said, motioning to it. “Off. Then I guess you should walk over here.”
I did what he said and then it was happening and I didn’t know what to do with
my hands, probably would have just put them in my pockets if my pants were still on.
Finally, I rested them on his shoulders. It began then, and it was an embarrassment that I
got hard so fast. His hand was moving and I could imagine his eyes looking up at me. His
hand was thick and his fingers were strong. Riders had to be quite powerful. But I was
glad I couldn’t see him right now.
And then it was done, and he pushed my hips back. I reached down to pull up my
pants, and this made me think of this ass-whippings I used to get by one of the nuns,
Sister Carla Marquette at St. Regis, where I went to grade school. She’d take you in the
cloak room and after she made you drop you jeans, she turned your ass cheeks flamingo
with a 12-inch ruler. You knew somebody else had gotten her good along the way, too.
None of the parents ever complained.
I reached up to wipe my face. I said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what else to
do.” I kept my voice low, backed up a couple of steps towards the middle of the small
room again. “I only know what I keep thinking about.”
After a time, he said, “I know.” Then a match struck in front him and there was
the shape of a lovely face, a cigarette sticking out from it.
“Can I walk over there and sit next to you?”
“Yeah, sure.”
I did this, though Paul seemed to scoot away just a bit as my backside met the
canvas. “I pulled my pants on,” I said.
“It’s all right,” he said. When he took a draw on his cigarette, the glow around his
eyes made it seem like he was wearing a vivid Mardi Gras mask.
“Are you queer?” I said.
“It’s all right.”
“I want to know.”
“No, I’m not, Mr. May.”
Then why did you let me? The words were right there, but I knew the answer. His
life was all zeroes; he had arrived from nowhere and was heading for the unknown. I
might as well have placed a pistol to his skull. “I . . . I mean, I like you,” I said. “If
anybody I knew ever found out that I did this. I come from a town in West Virginia.
Bunch of Slavs and old Wops . . .”
“There are queers everywhere. That’s my experience.” Paul had dropped his arm
down; the tiny ball of burning ash was down near the knee of his jeans.
“This is what I am saying to you, Paul,” I said. “This isn’t because you’re some
boy. I just keep thinking about you. I know this is wrong,” my voice was small now, in a
whisper. “It already feels like you are the best thing that has happened to me.”
“You gave me a chance to ride,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
“Goddamnit, forget that bullshit,” I said. “Can you, I don’t know, I already feel
like you need to forgive me. I don’t want to leave here . . .”
“Look, I like you, okay?” he said. “It’s all right, Jesus Christ.”
“I can get you a room in my apartment building,” I said. “I’ll pay for it . . . you’re
here, you’re all alone. I can do more for you than give you horses to ride. I want you to
be with me.”
“Too risky,” he said.
“You just said there were queers everywhere.”
“I also told you I’m not queer,” he said. “I’m not, either.” I could hear him
breathing. “I don’t like biscuits and gravy all that much, but that’s what they serve in the
track kitchen every morning.”
“It wasn’t easy for me to walk over here tonight,” I said. “I want you to know
that. I was born, you know, I don’t know. I thought I was a certain kind of fellow. Totally
unremarkable.” I felt myself give a quick shrug, was glad he couldn’t see that, either.
“Then, here we are, you know? My thing for you is overpowering.” I tried to laugh. “I
don’t know who I am.”
“I run away all the time,” he said. “I look in the mirror; I don’t know who the
person is.”
It made me feel better, that we might be a pretty good match. I said, “I’ll do
whatever . . .”
“No,” he said. “No more talking about this, okay. I just wanna get fucked too, all
right?” His voice sounded thick and his hand went to my knee. He stubbed out his
cigarette with his boot, there was a new, charred odor. His voice said, “Goddamn if
somebody doesn’t get me soon . . . I’m gonna . . . I forget even who . . . here, take it.
Take it.” His hand was finding mine. In my hand, he placed a book of matches. The
canvas dipped as he shifted his weight.
“Light one, hold it out over me.”
I did this, watched the flame rise, then shrink at the tip of the match. The front of
Paul was in a faint orange light and he leaned back. He unzipped his pants, split them
right down the middle in that way and he reached into his underwear; I guessed that he
was going to be begin jerking off, that was how you started something like this. Then he
was holding something in his hand, up for me to see and I felt sick. It was something
awful, something he’d just torn off himself, a cock and balls, and I swear for a second, I
thought he’d castrated himself; my mind was just leaping around like that.
He held it higher, and I didn’t want to raise the match after it. There was a
wizardly look on his face.
Paul lowered what he was holding and it about caught on fire. “I make it with
panty hose.” Reached up, tapped at the shape of a scrotum with the tip of his index finger.
I held the match until it went out and then I lit another.
“I use plums, super balls . . . the dangle is made from aluminum foil . . . make it
as big as I want. Everything’s held together inside this panty hose, see?” Paul was tracing
his finger along the homemade penis. “One time, I was at this diner, having a meal and a
girl came up to me, started in right away with how nice I was. We wound up in a park,
sitting under a tree, drinking from a half-pint of gin; she started running her hand over it.
She kept waiting for something to happen.” Paul shrugged. I had to light another match.
“I just told her I was drunk. But I think she suspected something, you know? It got dark,
she wanted me to eat her after a while. So, I did.” He had the fake thing in both hands
now, holding in carefully, like a bird.
I said, “So your name’s . . . Paula?”
“My name’s Helen,” she said her voice quieter. “I thought Paul Wager sounded
like a good jockey’s name. Here,” she said, and then she took my hand. She brought my
hand to her head. “Rub my hair,” she said. “Please, just for one night.” I did, tried to do it
gently though my heart was pounding like a war drum. Her hair was clipped short and it
was as soft as fur.
She said, “I’m afraid of most everyone.”
“You’re not afraid of everything, otherwise you wouldn’t be a rider,” I said.
“How do you hide your . . . stuff . . . in the jock’s room?”
“I told the valet I don’t like to undress all the way because I have scars on my legs
from where my old man used to beat me. I’m self-conscious. The valet doesn’t say
anything. He thinks I’ll last about all of five minutes. Nobody pays attention to me. You
want to kiss me, Mr. May? Somebody sure needs to.” I moved my hand to the back of her
head. Her breath was harsh and smoky. We somehow managed sex on the cot . . . she
grabbed me by the collar and said, “Take it right out before!” We could not hope to lay
side by side afterward. It was a cot for one. She said she would just sack out on the floor
until I left but I would not hear of that. “Just sleep on top of me,” I said, in a whisper.
“You cannot stay here all night,” she said. “People will find out. Some already
“That I’m queer?”
All we had in there was the blue moonlight against the one window pane in the
room. She was on the cot, sitting up again at one end of it. “You’re queer?” her voice
“No, I thought . . . look, you lay down okay? Put your head in my lap if you want.
I’ll sit up, I’m not going to fall asleep. But I want to stay for a little while anyway. I just
didn’t come over here to get a piece of you.” I waited. “I think about you,” I said. I
thought I had said enough at this point. In a minute, she had stretched out on the cot,
placed her head on my thigh, and just used her hand for a pillow. Helen did not put her
clothes back on and I kept caressing her shoulder. “How old are you?” I said.
“Close to seventeen,” she said. “Sometimes when I am in here alone, I start
shaking. I’m scared that someone is going to find out who I am. If that happens,
somebody is going to put me over a fence in a race. I don’t trust anyone. I don’t trust
whites or Negroes or industrialists or commies or preachers.” She recited it like
something you were taught as a kid.
“You have to. I can protect you,” I said.
“You’re here in the middle of the night,” she said. I felt an exhale leave her body
and she said, “Gotta smoke?” I lit one up for her, held it over and she breathed life into
the tiny meteor of burning ash. “I keep telling myself I am tough enough for this,” she
said. “I’ve won five races now. Maybe that’s enough.”
“You’re probably the first woman jockey of all time,” I said.
“No, I’m not. I guarantee I’m not. I’ve heard stories. I heard how you can stay
alive out here. I just don’t know. Promise you’ll stay awake?”
Her back felt buttery to me. “All right,” I said.
It did take some time, but it finally seemed as if Helen had grown still under my
arm. The window was just over my shoulder and there were other shapes in the room, a
shipping trunk by the door, a horizontal row of tack pegs above it. At some point,
something seemed to be under my knee and I reached there, eased it free and it was
gizmo she kept in her pants. The pantyhose felt sandy and I took the penis by the tip,
dipped it up and down, and watched the plums bob right below. How much of a man was
I? I was with a woman here, she was right under my arm, but that seemed to be pretty
frail evidence over all.
I had first laid eyes on Helen dressed as Paul Wager a few months back, at the
start of March, when he showed up at my barn one morning, asking for work. Coney
Island was filled with any number of obvious snakes and sharks, and I hadn’t been able to
outsmart very many of them. My stable of horses certainly was one of the least
prosperous on the grounds. When I laid eyes on Paul, I thought, here’s one that escaped a
boy’s home, an angry old man . . . kicked to the curb by something or someone and his
expression was just that way, like you couldn’t do enough to him. I guessed that he’d
been to every other outfit already. There was never a crowd of riders around my barn, so
I said yeah right sure let’s give it a try and put him on the this big nasty bay, A Letter to
Harry--nicknamed H-Bomb by his groom--and all Paul Wager did was glide that bastard
around the oval as smooth as running water. If you were training horses at a place like
this, you never wanted to show that a thing pleased you and I just shrugged at the kid
after he dismounted, said, “Show up again tomorrow.” Which, Paul did.
At the time, I needed something good to happen so badly at my barn that I really
would have tried anything. I was even thinking about going to plugging something in, get
a jock to carry a buzzer with him, zap the horse when it started falling behind. Jocks
would be glad to do this; they wanted to win, too. I got beat a lot by guys playing that
way. The only thing keeping from doing it myself was the fear of being caught, which
would have resulted in a suspension or perhaps something more severe. They made
examples out of small timers like me. And without the track, I’d really be lost.
I had been training horses for a decade by this time, had worked my way up fast,
from hot walker to groom, then stable foreman. When I took out my trainer’s license, I
started at Northfields up in West Virginia, about 40 miles north of my hometown of
Wheeling. I’d grown up smelling the burned air made by my town’s steel mill, and my
old man had always been telling me my own future lay somewhere else. The racetrack
was my choice. My father did seem disappointed when I told him about my plans; he
thought I might be like him and go into sales. You’d be surprised how far it can take you;
he’d said that more than once. We shook hands the morning I left Wheeling for good and
after that I never saw him again.
When I first got the call about his death, which was just two months later, it was
from the priest, Father Tenhunfeld at St. Joe’s, at the church we’d gone to on Easter and
Christmas only. The priest said, “He’s dead, Walt. I’m afraid it had something to do with
a bar fight at night. They found him out at the railroad tracks past Ontario Avenue.” It
didn’t sound right to me, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The chaplain at the
racetrack loaned me his ‘48 Pontiac and when I drove down the river road for Wheeling,
I thought, my old man, sitting around in one of the steel worker’s bars, mixing it up with
somebody? My father was a beer salesman, he also had his own little distributorship, and
during daylight hours, on his route, he’d line up beers for the locals in any pub, might
even have one himself with them to show he wasn’t stuck up. But he was a loner; he’d do
his route and then work off his necktie and jacket right after stepping through the front
door of our little house on Hawlings Street. The town was full of mill workers and he was
not one of them, had never wanted to be. At night, he was a poor man’s Magellan. He
liked to look at world maps and drink scotch over ice.
After I buried him in the city cemetery near a powerful-looking box elder tree that
put shade over his grave in the late afternoon, I found out the old man had borrowed a lot
of money against his little beer distributorship. To get all the bankruptcy paperwork
started, the bank said they had to see a death certificate. Otherwise, they could hold me
accountable. When I received it, I read SUICIDE above the line that said Cause of Death.
I felt the shape of my insides changing, even if I had already suspected something like
this had been the case. The priest didn’t want my father to shovel coal in hell but my
father, I was certain, would want people to know the truth:
For more than a decade, he had traveled, gone all across the country, trying to
promote the Pittsburgh brand he sold, Steelage Lager and perhaps with the idea of
starting up another distributorship and getting himself far away from West Virginia. For
two different summers, when I was nine, and then again when I was twelve, the old man
took me on “sales” trips with him. First time, we went out through a Dakota, then
Montana, Idaho, all the way to the state of Washington. It was just him and me; my
mother had drowned years earlier when swimming in the Ohio River. She went on a
picnic with some friends and then decided it was a fine afternoon for a swim. She went
out too far and her friends yelled for her to be careful. They lost sight of her. She never
came up again. My father, he had all these doubts about her death, he seemed uncertain
about it, though what details specifically tormented him I couldn’t tell you. Maybe just
that one big one. After any long workday, he might be chattering away about his latest
sales pitch, how he’d talked somebody into something they didn’t even want, at our little
kitchen table and then he would murmur something like, Wait till she hears about this
one. He would notice I was watching him, and his sly expression would appear.
On my second trip with him out west, we made a big loop through the heartland:
Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas. I still could not believe that places could be like this,
just days and days of emptiness. He did not make any sales calls at all. We were driving
back across some endless section of eastern Kansas, heading back for West Virginia, and
he said, This is nice isn’t, just the three of us? I did not know what to say to this and
when he looked over at me, he said, Do you dream about Eleanore, son?
This was my mother’s name. Though I did not know much of anything else about
her. I was small, three years old, when she drowned. It was a strange question, and all I
knew to do was tell the truth. I dream about people swimming underwater, Dad, I said.
They have the long fish tails. They swim really fast.
Well, that’s right, he said. I dream about mermaids, too, I think. He grinned at that
but it left him pretty quick, too. I dream, he said. I dream about Eleanore. She rises from
the water, see? She rises to the surface and when her face appears, it isn’t wet at all. Her
hair is long and dark and just the ends of it swim around her shoulders there in the water.
I had that dream last night. I have that dream all the time. Sometimes, she turns her back
to me. I can just see the back of her shoulders.
Dad, I said.
I’m all right, he said. I just wanted to know if you dreamed about your mother. I
think that you should. She keeps getting larger and larger to me.
You like it out here? he said, a while later.
I guess, I said.
See, there’s no water, he said, gesturing at something out the windshield. I like
this. People are safe out here, I think. Just look around.
I didn’t see anything, just the horizon, which was everywhere.
I wished we’d raised you out here, he said.
It’s okay, Dad, I said.
Okay, he said. Some time later, he said it again.
Sometime during the summer of ‘38 or ‘39, he took me in to see a doctor, said he
was having seizures, and said I’d begun to have them, too. I’m worried, my father said.
I’m all he’s got. He laughed in a weak way. We left that day with what we’d come for, a
diagnosis that we both were epileptic. My father knew another war was coming. He did
not want to be a mill worker, and he certainly did not want to be a soldier. Then, when
Korea rolled around, he took me to the draft board with the same doctor's diagnosis from
a decade earlier. Now he said I was all he had, that his business was failing. And,
somebody at the draft board bought that, too.
On that drive home, he said, Now, you need to find something for yourself, Walt.
Get off Main Street, get interested in something.
I like the racetrack, I said. I go there, I skip school.
I know about you skipping school, he said. But Wheeling Fields. He shook his
I like it, Dad, I said. When they close, the horses all go up to Northfields. That’s
where I think I will go.
He said, You’ll be broke till the end of time.
No, I won’t, I said. You wait and see.
Just don’t let it bother you too much, he said, in a quiet way. Then, he added,
Whatever happens, try not to take it too hard. The world ain’t personal, you know.
He certainly hadn’t killed himself because I went to work at a racetrack. But once
I was gone, away from the things he’d me warned about, my father might have felt as if
he could let go of the salesman act. His life was a sad one. He did care about one thing
way too much and it wore him to the bone. It was not hard to imagine him walking along
some empty railroad tracks late one night; that was actually something I would expect
him to do. The gun, that was a surprise. At first, I even wondered if he just found the
damn thing along the tracks. Decided this was sign enough. Eventually, I found out that
he was the one who purchased his own suicide pistol. He’d bought it a couple of years
before I left home. He’d thought about it for that long at least.
Before the bank yanked our old house away forever, I filled two shoe boxes with
all the books of matches the old man had brought back from his travels. Inside the drawer
were all the colors you could imagine, shiny golds (Dallas Athletic Club & Tavern),
ocean blues (Neptune Grill), sunny peaches (Lancelot Room, Macon, Ga.) . . . he even
had a royal blue and gray matchbook from Sardi in New York, though it was hard to
imagine who he talked to about a beer distributorship there. The old man had never given
me advice on money or women, he just insisted I stay out of the mill, and when I
gathered up my matchbook collection in a shoe box so it could ride back to Northfields
with me, I supposed this was good enough; it seemed like plenty of inheritance. By the
time the early fall when I thought I was queer rolled around, I’d been on my own for
more than a decade and I still had those matchbooks, even the empties. The shoe box was
in a closet in my apartment on 11th Street in downtown Cincinnati right now. When I did
run out of the matchbooks I did pocket out in the world, I would have to break into one of
his, though I usually wound up being thoughtful there before choosing to use one from
some diner in Minnesota City or a motel in Shorter, Alabama. I’d take a matchbook in
my hands and I’d think, my old man held this. Put it in his pocket. I’d strike a match,
hold it to a cigarette, watch it go out. I’d think this is the truth, what just happened with
this match.
“You should leave here,” I said, into the darkness of Helen’s tack room. “But I
don’t know where to tell you to go.” I had my hand on her arm and she had not moved. I
could not believe how good she felt to me earlier, when I knew that she was a woman and
that maybe the world wasn’t that complicated after all. “We could do something different
with our lives,” I said. “Other than this racetrack. I just don’t know what else.” I hoped
that she was sleeping.
I did fall asleep while sitting up like that. Helen might’ve even helped guide me to
my side. When I woke up, dawn’s light was in the window above me. I was by myself.
Didn’t see any suitcase, any personal effects and I rolled over, poked my head under the
cot. There were voices outside, heavy horseshoe plates clocking in a metronomic on the
asphalt . . . I could not think of a way to leave the tack room without it appearing as if I’d
slept here . . . I opened the door, closed it, caught the eye of a lanky Negro groom down
the shedrow and then I stepped out into the sunlight, stuck my hands in my pockets and
began walking for my own barn. After a few steps, I tapped at my pockets because my
wallet had been there and now it wasn’t. Helen must have snatched it when I dropped my
pants. I said to no one in particular, “All right. I’m not mad.” I walked around the end of
my barn, made the corner, knocked on the already opened door where my one employee,
Stan Hoyer, sat on a shipping trunk, polishing a set of boots. His eyes went to me, and
then he nodded when his eyes were back on the boot his left wrist was inside.
“Good thing this isn’t Bethlehem Steel,” I said. Many of the grooms were colored,
but Stan was a wiry white man, salt and pepper hair, in his 40s and he never said much of
anything, which I usually was grateful for. I didn’t know anything about his past, if he’d
been a cold blooded hunter of fascists or a if he’d shot up a series of banks in Mexico, but
he was good with horses and seemed content to play the role of groom for the rest of his
life. He’d traveled with me from West Virginia a couple of years back and he and I were
roughly the same size and shape so I brought him bags of folded clothes from my closet
and then last Christmas I’d bought him a radio, even though it seemed as if everybody in
the world was screaming for was a TV set of their own. I thought Stan might like a radio
better and anyway it was all that I could afford. For all that I did not know about him, I
had the feeling that he understood plenty about me, all there was to me. My car had been
parked here all night; these were the clothes I’d worn the day before so he knew I’d
gotten into something. Stan had a thin mattress over his cot, a blanket pulled tight over
that. He did have a metal, fold-out chair in there, something he kept for me because I
liked to take a break once in a while, too. “Cigarette,” I said. He nodded to the tack box
that hung by the door and I took a Pall Mall from his pack, lit it up then walked over to
my chair, sat down, leaned back and crossed my legs, ankle resting on a knee. I watched
the cone of smoke I’d exhaled dissipate and then I said, “Did you know that our jockey
was a lady?” I didn’t think that he wouldn’t care; I just wanted to see if this would change
his polishing in any way. In a moment, he did lift the boot up towards the light streaming
in from the window. I said, “I guess she’s gone for good now.”
His eyes did turn to me then. We watched one another. “We were winning,” he
“I know,” I said.
Helen had also been our exercise rider and I didn’t feel like looking a
replacement, so each horse in my little stable just walked around the shedrow for its
morning exercise. Stan and I took turns, one of us would walk a horse while the other
pitched out a shit-filled stall. Then, we each groomed two horses, brushed their coats,
picked their hooves and afterward we sat in his tack room smoking and having coffee
from the Army-issue steel pot he warmed on his hot plate. He made us eggs and potatoes.
We rarely ate together, I couldn’t remember the last time we had. I was hanging around
and he knew it, didn’t say anything. I figured Helen wouldn’t come back, but I hoped she
might. I finally said the hell with it, asked him to feed for me this afternoon and then I
cruised slowly past Helen’s barn on my way out. I drove back to the city, to 11th Street,
and then I just laid on the bed inside my apartment for a time, my eyes up to the ceiling
mostly, though I occasionally glanced out the window to the brick siding of the apartment
building next to mine.
I told myself to stay away from the barn area but it wasn’t much good, I was back
there in a hour and this time I even walked over to Helen’s barn and asked if anyone had
seen Paul Wager around. The groom who’d seen me step out of the tack room earlier that
morning wasn’t there, but another Negro was there and he did look at me in an insulted
way. I thought about leaving a message on the door, something like Please stop by,
Walter May but I guessed she’d think I’d want something in return for that stolen wallet.
Wherever she was, Helen was out there by herself and I was glad those 20s were in there.
A couple of days later, I stopped by the book keeper’s office, told the fellow in
there, Look, I’ve got a check for that kid who was riding here, Paul Wager, can you give
me a forwarding address? and right away I got the look from him, the one said my story
was a complete lie. Who left town with somebody owing him money? For about four
seconds, he ran his fingers across the tops of some pages in one of the metal file drawers,
then looked my way and shrugged.
I walked back through the barn area and a tepid, autumn-like breeze fluttered past
me for a while. When I arrived at Stan’s tack room, I tapped on the door even though it
was open partway. I sat down on the fold out chair while he ate a sandwich and drank
coffee while he sat up on his cot. Sunlight streamed in through the one window and it felt
strange to me, like something from one of the 25-cent Martian movies they showed at
The Elm Street Theater. I lit a cigarette, waved out the match. “She’s going to change her
name,” I said. “At the next place, she might be Tommy Champagne or Michael Silver.
Do you know how many racetracks there are in America, Stan?” I said.
“Nope,” he said.
“A ton,” I said. “Hundreds.” I crossed my legs, let my arms fall limp.
“Impossible. I just can’t chase . . . what am I going to do, run all over the map for
someone who will be hiding from me? Leave these horses behind?” I dipped my head.
“That’s it. She’s not coming back,” I said. “I have nothing to offer someone like her.
Maybe she ought to go ride in England.”
“They don’t let girls ride over there,” Stan said.
I looked his way then. He took a bite from his sandwich and just kept his eyes
straight ahead, at the section of concrete wall beyond his feet. “Damn it, anyway,” I said.
I kept looking his way until he finally looked at me. “I’m scared,” I said, then laughed a
little. “This was a chance.” I waited a second for him to disagree. I said, “You need a
winter coat? I felt this breeze while I was walking over here . . . not far off, I guess.” He
didn’t say anything to this, either. I said, “I have a good one . . . I’ll bring it by
From the line of stalls outside, I could hear the horses crunching their afternoon
feed. I felt the light from the fading afternoon on my face and my hands. I orchestrated a
vision, I guess that’s what happened next. I was standing outside the Bank Street Cafe
and it was night time. I was inside the diner as well, I was on my feet, talking with
Alycia. She was listening, and finally she was nodding her head. We had just agreed that
it was cold outside. Then, I said to her, Look, you know where to find me. In the vision I
had, the part of me that was watching from the outside had seen enough. It was as if this
part of walked up the street and disappeared into the night forever. I felt just that way
Stan said something and I turned to him. He said, “I said, are you talking about
that blue and gray checked wool coat?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Stan nodded at this. “I like that coat,” he said.
“I hope it lasts longer on you than it did on me,” I said. It sounded like a joke, the
words were out there before I knew it. Stan didn’t say anything else, though I wished he
would have. He might have smiled. But with him it was so hard to tell.
Before my old man blew the family’s eight Detroit-area dry cleaning stores due to
his compulsive gambling, we used to travel to some of the best hotels in the country. The
Breakers, The Drake, The Ritz. Then, along with everything else, he lost my trust fund,
and the university savings. We began to live Russian box lives. Every time you lifted one
out, that was us inside, in the smaller place. We moved out of our mansion in Bloomfield
Hills to a two-story place on Becker Drive. Then into a ranch house in Normalton. I did
think it would be a positive step to get away from him and my mother--who’d never done
anything to stop his betting sprees and seemed even more to blame in this way-- so I
applied to colleges in great hotel towns down south and wound up attending the
University of New Orleans. I put myself through school pushing around laundry carts at
the Fairmont, then doing dishes and parking cars at the Bienville House. During
summers, I waited tables and ran trays for room service at the Grove Park in Asheville,
North Carolina, and then I worked the front desk at the Lynch House on Cumberland
Island, Georgia. Right after graduation, I was a registration clerk, then assistant manager
at the Blanchard Hotel in downtown Atlanta. I was made interim manager after the
previous one, a man named Billy Carlyle, suffered a heart attack and died right there in
his office.
As a manager, I felt at ease. I felt something had been returned to its rightful
place. When I was just 26 years old, the EW Corp. in Dallas, which owned the
Blanchard, as well as a number of other hotels, offered me a breathtaking promotion:
executive manager at the Carolinian Hotel, a resort in eastern North Carolina with 91
guest rooms, each of which faced out to the Atlantic Ocean. By this time, my parents
were living in a one bedroom rental apartment in a West Detroit complex a former maid
of ours, Inez Hidalgo, had recommended to them because of its cleanliness.
I visited my parents once, on my mother’s 50th birthday. There were stacks of
newspapers and magazines everywhere. I didn’t recognize any of the furniture . My
father pedaled back and forth on a bicycle to his job at a sandwich shop. He had been
going to Gambler’s Anonymous for a half dozen years. As a gift, I brought my mother
some sky blue beach towels with Carolinian logos, items I had purchased at full price
from the hotel gift shop. My mother didn’t say anything, she just hugged me for a minute.
She had quit everything, too; smoking, drinking, pills. Predictably, everything that was
said between us was dramatic:
MOTHER: How do you feel about the world these days, son? Do you look at your life in
an optimistic way?
EXECUTIVE MANAGER: For heaven’s sake, I run a resort. I’m probably the youngest
executive manager in the whole country. Do I even need to answer that?
FATHER: Your mother and I are living with great humility now. It took a lot for us to
finally understand how to do this. Don’t let it . . . I suppose what I am saying, son, is that
I am sorry.
EXECUTIVE: About what?
FATHER: We didn’t save anything. You will have to work for the rest of your life. I
mean, I suppose everyone has to in some way . . .
EXECUTIVE: (Suppresses a laugh) I don’t work hard. I love my work. Oh, mercy.
MOTHER: It’s all right. Your father has been so brave. I didn’t know we had this kind of
courage inside is.
EXECUTIVE: It’s fine. You all did not ruin my future. Because of you, I simply know
what I don’t want to be. (A long silence ensues). All right, there had to be a better way to
express that. (Silence.) I don’t hate you. I don’t hate anyone.
MOTHER: It’s all right.
MOTHER: We’re so proud . . .
EXECUTIVE: Happy birthday.
I had not been back. Two Christmases ago, I did invite them to stay at the
Carolinian, but they gave me all these reasons why they couldn’t make it. My mother
finally said, Honey, we just don’t live hotel lives anymore. I supposed it would have been
strange to see them in the lobby, checking in like two people on holiday. My father had
once owned three Cadillacs, a white one and two green ones. Now, he just wanted to talk
about why the world was such a mystery. I certainly did not tolerate a lot of
philosophizing or other forms of messiness from my hotel staff. If one of the maids
brought in one of her squawking babies because the day care was closed, that maid was
sent home. A bellhop who argued with his girlfriend on one of the house phones?
Suspended. Unkempt uniform? Written up. Bad language? Docked a day’s pay. I had
been running the Carolinian for just a few months when I received a call from the home
office in Dallas with the explicit order to ease up on the staff. They are complaining, the
company exec explained. It is hard to get any kind of help with what we pay. He said,
Half your workers are not even documented, you know that, right? The staff also disliked
the fact that I was so apologetic to the customers even though to a good number of our
guests, the Carolinian was nothing more than a huge living room. Bare feet on the lobby
carpet. Backwards ball caps, shirts hanging out. Arguments. Mothers shouting after their
children. In a way I supposed they were the biggest problem of all.
We also had guests like Mrs. Catherine Nance and her son Michael who traveled
down from the state of New York for two weeks in May, the beginning of our off-season.
They both were slender, blond, fair complected. Mrs Nance was a shade over 50, I
thought. Michael, in his early 30s, did not appear to have a worry in the world. It was
uncanny, the similarity in the shapes of their faces, how much they looked alike in the
eyes. Once, I stopped by Michael’s table at our piano bar, the Meteor Lounge, while he
was there having a drink by himself and he wound up showing me billfold photo of
himself and his mother at the Kentucky Derby from two decades earlier. Little Michael
wore a child’s blazer and his hair was combed back. His mother wore a silky, strawcolored dress, her Derby hat shaded the top half of her face. Look at her, he said. Thank
God, Mother is gorgeous. I imagine I’m not so bad, either, right? Of course not, I said.
Where is your mother tonight? Upstairs, he said. I’m bringing her a drink . He raised his
glass to me in a toast. You’re a terrific fellow, he said. I don’t know you very well, but I
can surely tell that much.
Mrs. Nance’s husband spent a lot of time in Tokyo, that seemed to be the story,
and Michael, the story went, was the only company she wanted for her travels. There was
the predictable, mean-spirited gossip about them amongst my staff. Mrs. Nance and her
son Michael, though, they just had the loveliest way about them. Nice manners, nicely
dressed, marvelous, attractive people. (Twice, other guests at the hotel mistook her for
Diane Sawyer.) Naturally, they were restless, Michael in particular was a fidgety one. He
liked to slip into the hotel’s pool and he would stay out there for a half an hour at a time,
just swimming his laps back and forth until it exhausted him. Then, he might return to
their cabana and order a pitcher of martinis. He’d fall asleep on a chaise lounge and our
Tiki Lounge bartender, Bobby Ray, said the fishing boats way out at the horizon probably
heard the snoring. Michael might get into the water again after he awakened. On one
occasion, I saw Mrs. Nance walk along the pool’s edge in her royal blue one-piece
swimsuit, a light green, gauzy sarong tied around her waist. She carried a towel over to
the deep end where Michael was doing laps. When he saw her, he immediately aimed for
the ladder. He climbed out, accepted the towel and began to dry off. She touched his
My second year at the Carolinian, they returned again in late May and this was
when we actually had the issue with them. The problem would have been avoided
completely if Mrs. Nance had simply hung the DND sign out on her door. Or, if our maid
on that floor, Kayla Shuler, had followed a company policy, which clearly states: Before
a maid is to open a door, she is to listen for a moment. If she hears the slightest noise
from inside the room, she is to move on to the next room. When she unlocks the door, she
is to open it and say Good morning! And then she is to wait another moment for an
answer. Kayla said she followed the rules. She opened the door and said Good morning
and then she eased the maid’s cart into the little hallway of the room. She caught
something in the mirror hanging on the wall opposite the king-sized bed. Then, in the
mirror’s reflection, she saw someone sitting up. My god, get out of here! one of the
Nances yelled at her. This was what she explained to the day assistant manager, a young
kid just out of Wake, Wayne Samuelson, who was already shooting for my job. Wayne
explained Kayla ’s story to me after he called the main office in Dallas. Then, while
Wayne was in my office explaining this to me, I received a call from Dallas myself. On
the other end was a company lawyer, a Mr. Hanover, and he said to me, Look, quickly
and quietly, get these people out of the hotel. Today, do you hear me? They need to check
out and they cannot return. Do it fast and it will go away. Do you understand? I
understand, I said. Good lord, he said. After I hung up, I could only stare at Wayne.
Young kid, early 20s, always with an answer for every damn thing.
Why didn’t you just tell me? I said. Why call Dallas?
Couldn’t find you, he said. I was about to ask him again and his mouth opened.
He said, When Kayla came to me, there were a couple of other staff members around.
She was babbling, she was speaking in tongues. They suggested I call Dallas. Not bother
you with it.
I’m not satisfied with your explanation, I said.
We didn’t think you would do anything about it, he said. The customer is always
right. He smirked after he said that.
I said to him, Please get out of this office right now. I was stunned by his
behavior. Just speechless. My first thought was that he was to be fired for
insubordination. But since he was management in training, I would have to get approval
from Dallas. The kid was an head-to-tail copperhead, but they would not let him go
because of that. I thought, hoped, either Mrs. Nance or Michael would call down to the
front desk and say they were checking out immediately. Save everyone. I stayed at my
desk in my office for half an hour, then I phoned the front desk clerk, Helen Dolphin,
asked her how things were going. What Kayla had seen was all over the hotel by now and
Helen understood what I meant.
Not a peep, she said.
I said, The Nances are in 729 & 731, yes?
She said, Wow, you memorize every guest like that?
I said, No, I don’t. After a pause I decided to hang up. Helen was just a year
younger than myself, she had intriguing clay-colored skin, shining black hair, a smile that
put people at ease. A natural for the front desk. As I rode the elevator up to the seventh
floor, I supposed I should have asked her which Nance had which room but I imagined it
did not matter. Sometime, I thought, I will call Helen to my office and tell her not to let
this business with Nances make her feel strange about the resort life and what kind of
place we are running here. This whole thing is for us, I might say. Don’t you see that?
My heart pounded and I tapped on 729 first and there were steps and when the door
opened, Mrs. Nance stood there dressed in a khaki skirt and ivory and blue-striped silk
blouse, her thick blond hair all swept back. Her aqua eyes seemed hectic and exhausted.
Her faint eyebrows sharpened towards her nose.
MRS. NANCE: Oh, I thought it was going to be Michael.
EXECUTIVE MANAGER: No, I’m sorry, I said. How are you?
MRS. NANCE: Yes, I am fine. How are you?
EXECUTIVE: I’m all right. Where is Michael?
MRS. NANCE: I don’t keep track of his every moment on this earth. I thought you might
be him. I just said that. He’s probably running out on the beach.
EXECUTIVE: It’s good to stay in shape.
(Mrs. Nance turns and walks in the direction of the armchairs situated near the room’s
balcony. She stares at the drawn curtains.)
MRS. NANCE: You’re here about the maid barging in. That’s all right, I have already
forgotten about it. No harm.
EXECUTIVE: She said there was no sign on the door.
MRS. NANCE: My attorney’s name is Mr. Levy . . . (Muttering) perhaps . . . Do you live
in this hotel? I’ve stayed in hotels where the manager has a room to himself. In Europe
it’s like that. There to help you all the time. Back in Buffalo, Michael lives all the way
across town from me. He has a girlfriend named Shauna.
EXECUTIVE: There are non-hotel lives. (A considerable pause.) I live in an apartment
building further inland, about a mile away. At night, I do something quiet, read a book,
watch a DVD . . . (A straightening of the shoulders.) I can’t say I am surprised by any of
MRS. NANCE: That is a terrible thing to say.
EXECUTIVE: I only meant . . .
MRS. NANCE: What did you mean!
EXECUTIVE: (Politely) A little is too much, isn’t it? (She glares at him.) Right now, I
have a hotel to look after. You understand that. I will send a man up here to get your
things. In one hour. I can call ahead, find you another . . .
MRS. NANCE: No. Do you understand? Michael will return and when he does, I will
call down to the front desk. Do you understand? We will leave when we are ready.
EXECUTIVE: When you are ready? Look at this. (Strides in her direction, then reaches
the closed curtains and pulls them back.) Look at this set up you have! Look at this view!
(She turns away.)
MRS. NANCE: Is that what you call it?
EXECUTIVE: (Considers what is out the window. Yanks the curtains shut again.) I
would appreciate it if you didn’t came back here.
MRS. NANCE: Just do your job, sir.
MRS. NANCE: (Quietly) Just do your job.
EXECUTIVE: (Shakily) I am.
I supposed if they left one hour or three hours from now, it would not make a
difference. I was just glad no one but her could hear the sound in my voice. I left that
room and I walked up the hallway of the 7th floor. The service elevator was the closest
one and I stepped inside that, pressed ‘B’, then started my descent. I had this odd thought
about blackmailing the Nances. How easy that might be. They could just send me a
check, once a year. I wouldn’t have to work another day for the rest of my life. But what
would I do? Learn to play an acoustic guitar? Wear cut-off jean shorts and just be a beach
guy who was all right with everything? The elevator doors opened for the basement and I
faced the laundry room. There were two full carts of linen still to be washed. A couple of
the maids, Brandi and Maria, were propped along the edges of the big folding table and,
clearly, they were surprised to see me. Maria was smoking a cigarette, which absolutely
was forbidden inside the building. She dropped the cigarette into the can of soda she held.
They were on their sneakered feet, padding for the machines.
I decided that I needed some fresh air, so I walked up a flight of stairs, up the long
hallway past my own office, made a right, then pushed the door open to the outside. I
walked past the swimming pool and the cabanas and wound up at the edge of the Tiki
Lounge, just looking out to the beach and the ocean beyond it. I had a picture in my head
of Michael Nance running, just running until he was exhausted, losing track of how far
he’d gone.
You okay there, boss? a voice said and I stayed in place. Boss? I thought. One
summer, when I was still a teenager, I worked at my father’s dry cleaning business on
Grand Avenue in downtown Detroit. Everyone called him that, though they did this in a
certain way, as if to give him confidence. He had all these problems but everyone seemed
to like him, anyway.
I’m not my father, I said aloud. When I did turn, I said Please, call me Anthony.
The person I said this to was Bobby Ray, the silver-haired bartender of our Tiki Lounge.
He stood behind the counter of a bar that had a bamboo hut motif. The wall behind the
row of bottles was covered with plastic palm fronds. After five, Bobby Ray folded it up
like a city corner newsstand. In the evenings, he put on a dark vest and worked inside, in
the Meteor. I watched the beach for a time and then I turned to look at Bobby Ray again.
You think I’m a good manager? I said. This question caught us both off guard. But he did
what a good bartender does, he smiled in a knowing way.
Still, it took him longer to respond than I would’ve liked. He said, Best manager
in the world is a ghost. People think he’s around, but he isn’t. He was a bartender, advice
was a reflex.
I said, You think I don’t try for that?
Bobby Ray said, You look kinda warm in that jacket, Anthony. Lemme get you a
cranberry juice.
I squared my shoulders to the shoreline again. I said, The hotel feels a little shabby to
me today. I felt tired after saying that. I felt as if I had not slept in a month. My back was all
tingly. I wondered how much better the ocean would make me feel. The water out there
seemed dark. There was an endlessness to it. And people usually complained that it was cold. I
turned to see if Bobby Ray had heard me. But he had already walked down to the far end of the
bar counter. He’d begun to slice a lime with a big knife that had a serrated edge. He kept the
limes in a wooden bowl, which seemed right for a place called the Tiki Lounge. But that knife
seemed awfully large for a lime. Bobby Ray then lifted the ice scoop, filled a tall glass with
cubes. He poured in cranberry juice, set a lime wedge on top. To my surprise, he reached for
the vodka bottle and poured in two fingers of that. He set the drink on an emerald green
cocktail napkin. In a moment, I stepped over there to it. I’d never had a drink on the job in my
life, not even when I worked in New Orleans. Of course, I did drink liquor, I knew what a
vodka and cranberry tasted like. I just didn’t want to get a bad habit started. I lifted the glass,
took a sip, then another, and then I set it down again. Pretty good, I said. Thank you. I decided
to take another sip. After I sat the glass down again, I said, Sort of a large knife there, Bobby.
He held it up. The blade was as clear as a mirror and it held a tiny burning ball of sunlight.
We have an island theme here, he said. I want it to seem authentic. Know what I
I said, I suppose I do. It’s your island, right?
You’d be surprised how my guests behave, he said.
I supposed he could’ve meant this one of two ways, but all I said to that was
Thanks for the drink. He nodded and his expression was bright. I decided to get moving,
get on to the next thing, whatever it happened to be. I walked past the bar, then down the
wide sandy path between the lines of cabanas. I walked alongside our swimming pool,
which for some reason was unused at the moment. The pool was Guests Only and we
kept water heated and sparkling clean. A couple of weeks ago, a cabana boy, I forget his
name, had asked about having have a pool party out here, just him and a few of his
friends who usually worked nights. They would have the party in June, when the number
of guests went down even more. We’ll play our music soft, he said. Just a little dancing.
We want to go swimming.
I stared at his silly, young face. It seemed to equal the truth about any number of
things. I pointed and said, Swimming? See that out there? There’s a huge ocean just
waiting for you. There had been a better way to handle that and I guessed this was the
thing with me. Eventually, I would figure out the right thing to say, though it usually
happened after everyone had gone home. I wondered. Anyway, what I should have done
was fix things, not just leave the kid feeling scolded. I should have reminded him that no
matter what our job titles were, in the end the rules were the same for me. I should have
said, For heaven’s sake, I am the executive manager and I understand they did not put
this pool here . . . I should have said, Look, the ocean. It’s waiting for me, too.
On the Lufthansa flight from Berlin to Atlanta, there were not many words spoken
between Grete Havlid, a flight attendant, and a Colorado businessman whose first name
was Thomas. He flew first class and he seemed to watch every move she made. Finally,
when the flight was high above the Atlantic, he passed her a note he had written in both
English and German that said, Your eyes are beautiful. She had noticed him working on
his pocket-sized translator. Below the English were the words: Sie haben die schonstein
Augen. An hour later, they wound up in a lavatory in the belly of the plane, her sitting on
edge of the sink. Then, it was over and she whispered, You will leave first. She stayed at
the back of the plane, inside the attendant’s station, napping for half an hour while sitting
upright in a fold-out seat. She felt a hand on her shoulder and when Grete looked up, one
of the attendants smiled down at her. It was Grete’s turn to check on first class. When she
did, Thomas would not look her way. She stopped by his aisle, asked if he needed
anything. He closed his eyes.
It was sunrise when the pilot announced in German then English that the flight
would be landing at Hartsfield-Jackson International in 20 minutes. Grete noticed
Thomas the businessman motioning to her. She felt quiet inside and went over to him,
placed her hand on the shoulder of his seat. He said, I need to talk to you. Can we, after
the plane lands?
Grete had the key to a Midtown apartment of an attendant friend of hers who was
currently on a flight bound for Johannesburg. The apartment was across the street from
the entrance to the city park, which would be adorned now with the colors of fall. Grete
had recently broken up with a man she loved, Julian, and she did not feel like talking to
any one about any thing.
Please, Thomas said.
What are you going to tell me? she said, in half a whisper.
I want to explain something to you, he said. I have a layover for two hours here.
Five minutes, she said. Her voice was loud enough for the man sitting next to
Thomas to hear. She turned away and did not check to see if the man raised his eyebrows
or even elbowed Thomas.
After deplaning, Thomas and Grete sat down at a table for four inside a Caribou
Coffee Shop and Grete waved when he asked her what she wanted. After this, she just
felt like bursting into tears. Thomas watched her for another moment, then said he also
wanted nothing himself. He began to talk. He said that when he had been dating his wife,
they saw one another for more than a year before they slept together. He moved his hands
while he spoke and Grete understood a lot of it. He said he did not cheat on his wife. He
said that his business trip to Berlin had not gone well and that he was in danger of losing
his own company in Denver now (something that had to do with chicken). He said that he
was in good health; he leaned forward and said that could not get a woman pregnant. He
also was “clean”. Grete had nothing to worry about. Grete watched the man. Thomas
explained certain pressures he had. When he had initially laid eyes on Grete, she was
welcoming people to first class and he suddenly felt as if all the things he wanted in life
were slipping away from him. Could she understand? She was the person he could tell all
of this because obviously he could never say anything to his wife. He continued to talk.
He said that it was important that Grete know he was a good man. I mean, I will never
forget you, he said. Then, he said,What did you do with my note?
Grete reached inside the small pocket above her name tag and held up the slip of
The man reached for it. He unfolded the paper and his hands began to tremble. He
said, I am losing my mind. What is happening to me?
In a slow way, she said, Ich habe von meinem Freund gedacht. She nodded, but
she would not say in English what she meant which was that all she wanted was a man
and she wanted the man not to remind her of Julian. Julian was tall and slender and had
powerful hands and after they had been dating for a few months, he had flown with her
on a flight from Munich to Paris. She wanted to make love with him on the flight but he
did not have such a daring personality. Grete would stop by his aisle every so often and
lean over to whisper sexy things to him. Finally, he had just reached for the lapels of her
uniform jacket and kissed her. It startled people around them. He let her go. Grete stood
up straight, and then, for everyone’s sake, she simply pointed to Julian and then herself
and she smiled. A couple of people actually applauded. This was somewhat against the
rules, but the attendants on the flight were her acquaintances. They all knew how she felt
about him.
She tilted her head and she said to the businessman, How can this be about you? I
do nothing to care about your wife. Give me the note, please. She reached over and took
it from his hand. Grete tore the small sheet of paper into quarters. She placed the pieces
in her mouth, chewed like she was breaking in a piece of gum and then she swallowed.
She stuck out her tongue. Stop talking, please, she said. Horen Sie auf, zu reden bitte. She
nodded at him.
Horen, he said.
Horen sie auf.
Horen sie auf, he said.
She held an index finger to her mouth.
Grete stayed at the table for a few minutes after Thomas left. She thought about
coffee but decided against it. She felt exhausted. Her heart was already broken and she
was ready for sleep.
When she caught the city train that would take her to the apartment where she
already had a key, she sat by the window. She was in her gray and yellow uniform and
her eyes stayed on the window that held the morning sunlight. She could see her
reflection and she touched at her neck, at the age lines closing in around it. The train
began to move and she decided to shut her eyes. When she opened them again, the
downtown skyline was in the distance. Her eyes did not leave the window as her train
raced for the city. She was glad for the sound.
She was glad a few minutes later when at the College Park stop, a black woman in
a pin-striped skirt and jacket sat down next to her. The woman seemed peaceful and glad
to be off her feet. She held her arms in a loose way, her hands rested in her lap. Such
beautiful, richly colored hands. The woman wore pleasant smelling perfume and Grete
closed her eyes again and breathed it in. She thought,We should always feel like beautiful
women. She wanted to speak it but was afraid her words might mean something else.
Grete said aloud, Wir sollten immer des Gefuhl, wie schone, Frauen. Grete was surprised
she had said anything at all, she just blurted this out. When she looked at the woman
sitting next to her, the woman cut her eyes in Grete’s direction.
Right? Grete said.
The woman seemed to be thinking. Then, she nodded once and motioned with one
of her hands in a vague way to something in the distance. Grete watched. When the
woman looked to Grete, they nodded to one another.
Grete felt helpless, but it was not an entirely unpleasant feeling. Pretty close, she
thought. Grete said, in a whisper, Thank you.
Gordy James had worked on Crowe Farm in Midway, Kentucky, for 22 years
while Mr. Harold Crowe was alive and five more after he wasn’t, and then one day Mrs.
Crowe drove up to the main barn and informed Gordy that she had just agreed to sell a
large part of the farm to land developers. “We have been bleeding money,” she said. “I
am sure that’s not been lost on you.”
“No,” he said. “It has not.”
Mrs. Crowe seemed to be studying Gordy. Her expression said, How much does
this guy really know? She said, “I can keep you on at half salary. But I’ll need to move
you into another tenant house. Yours will be bulldozed, I suppose. I am so sorry. You can
have the house that Vernee left behind.”
After Mr. Crowe passed away, Mrs. Crowe had run the farm her way. She was
from Denver and had been a few years younger than her husband. When he died, she
bought expensive horses and traveled the world. The horses had not worked out. Other
investments had collapsed, that’s what Gordy had heard. Vernee was Mrs. Crowe’s maid.
When Mrs. Crowe had wanted to cut Vernee’s salary, Vernee left. She had a big family
back in the Bahamas.
“Okay,” Gordy said.
Mrs. Crowe said, “I need somebody to look after the farm, Gordy. The horses are
gone, I couldn’t buy any more if I wanted. Just keep the place looking nice. Fix the
falling boards. Keep the barns swept. Until I figure out what’s next.” If Gordy had owned
the farm, he would not have run it the way Mrs. Crowe had. In the next life he might own
a plantation in Brazil and marry the most beautiful woman in town. He had been married
once, but his wife eventually decided he lacked backbone and ambition. He did not want
to argue any more with her.
Without his full salary, Gordy knew he could never find an apartment in town. He
had some savings and he knew that one day his arms and his shoulders and his back
would give out. And when this happened, there would be plenty of time for everything
else. He did want to understand everything.
He met Mrs. Crowe at the maid’s house the following morning and he liked how
she was dressed in khaki pants and an aqua-colored sweater. Her silver and black hair
was swept back behind her ears. Gordy, knowing he was going to see her today, wore a
cotton checked shirt and had combed his hair neatly. They moved for the front door, her
ahead of him. Mrs. Crowe stepped into the small bedroom, then she exited it again. She
sat down on the sofa in the living room and when she did, little clouds of dust appeared
around her thighs. She held her hands in her lap and Gordy’s eyes went around the room.
It was as if he and Mrs. Crowe were looking for a place together.
Her voice said, “I think Vernee found this house to be quite manageable.”
Currently, the house had aromas of wax and old fruit. “I like Vernee,” Gordy said.
“Last year for my birthday she made me a batch of four-alarm chili.”
“Well, she did not like me,” Mrs. Crowe said. Gordy supposed he should say
something to offset this. But, he did not. His back was to Mrs. Crowe, he stared in the
direction of the kitchen doorway. Her voice said, “I never expected any of you to be
particularly loyal to me. Harry found you all. He brought you here. I suppose I am the
wicked witch. Gordy, I am speaking to you.”
“I know that,” he said. He turned as he spoke. He could not tell anything about
her expression.
“Is there anything you would like to say to me? Something that you have always
wanted to say?”
Gordy held his hands in his pockets. “Not really,” he said.
“I won’t fire you, I promise.” She sat back on the sofa; her arms were crossed and
she held them over her stomach. “Go on, say it. I inherited a prosperous farm. And, I
simply ran it right into the ground. That’s what Vernee said to me. In so many words.”
“She probably was upset,” Gordy said.
After a moment, Mrs. Crowe said, “Yes, she was.” She cleared her throat in a
sharp, quick way and said, “How do I look today, Gordy? Tell me, please, be honest.”
“How do you look?”
“Yes, goddamnit, how do I look?”
Gordy gave a soft laugh. “It sounds like you and me are married, Mrs. Crowe,” he
What he said caught her off guard. She appeared to be more at ease. “We are
married. In a way, I suppose.”
There was another silence between them and then he imagined he knew what she
meant. “We are going to see the end of this together,” he said.
She blinked her eyes. “You still haven’t told me how I look.”
“I haven’t. You look nice,” he said.
“Damn straight I do. I am nowhere near my age.”
Gordy nodded, then he decided to step into the kitchen. He went to the kitchen
sink and turned on the water. It was the color of strong tea. He turned off the water and
he saw Mrs. Crowe standing in the kitchen doorway. She said, “I thought if you said
something cruel to me it would be easier on me when I had to let you go for good.” He
simply nodded at this. She said, “I don’t want you to live like this. But Harry always told
me you should be the very last to go. He was sick when he told me that. When he told me
that, I believed there was something wrong with you.” She smiled at him in a hurt way.
“But there is nothing wrong with you is there?”
“Nope,” he said. He decided to turn the water on and off again.
“Harry knew I’d go through the stuff fast,” she said. “He liked me, you know?
But I know he would be upset with me for putting you in a house like this.”
“I don’t mind,” Gordy said.
“I will lose everything,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I am trying to tell you that I didn’t mean to. I wanted more. I won’t apologize for
that. I wanted everything.”
“I did, too,” he said.
She nodded at this. She seemed to relax some more. Mrs. Crowe said, “I will keep
you on for as long as I can.” She held her hands together. She nodded to him. Mrs. Crowe
said, “You will be able to manage here then? All right.”
Gordy settled into his new house a few days later. The tap water remained murky
and he had to buy his own space heater. When Mrs. Crowe went to play bridge on a
Tuesday, he invited over a friend who fixed things for a living.
On that Tuesday, late in the afternoon, Bubs Cershaw and Gordy sat in chairs
around the kitchen table in the tenant house. Bubs lit a cigarette and looked surprised
when Gordy reached for and then removed a palm-sized, octagon-shaped ashtray from
the table. Bubs put out his hand, which Gordy saw was calloused and not exactly clean.
“What’s this?” Bubs said. Gordy held over the ashtray so Bubs could see it. Bubs
said, “Rue des Fountain Blue.”
“It says Paris right on there, numbnuts,” Gordy said.
“Isn’t that cute?”
“She put the ashtray in here right before I moved in,” Gordy said.
“You don’t smoke.”
“That’s right.”
Bubs said, “Hold that over here again . . . What? She wants you to know she’s
done more with her life than bankrupt a farm?”
The ceramic ashtray felt as light as a dime in Gordy’s hand. He said, “What gets
me is her removing it from a hotel in the first place. The Crowes are the richest family in
this county.”
“Were,” Bubs said. “She stole it, she stole everything, maybe that’s what she is
telling you.”
Gordy said. “No, I thought about it. I know what it is. She is telling me we had
something once here.”
Bubs sat back in his chair. “What’s that?” he said.
Gordy said, “I don’t know.” He thought of his own wife, who he did not think of
often. He pictured her sleeping, then smiling with her eyes closed when he said her name.
He said, “All the time in the world?”
“So that ashtray is the proverbial gold watch.” Bubs watched his friend’s face.
Then, he clenched his teeth on his cigarette filter and said, “Goddamnit, come on, let’s
get a beer, slick. I’m buying first round today. Your farm will be here.”
Gordy held onto the ashtray until Bubs had to stand and flick his ash in the sink.
“You fixed the faucet,” Gordy said. “I’ll buy.”
“I had the Blue Devils last night,” Bubs said. “Let me, okay?”
Gordy finally nodded , but he did not replace the ashtray on the table until Bubs
was moving for the kitchen doorway. Gordy took his hand away. He again imagined Mrs.
Crowe’s hand placing the ashtray on the table the day before he moved into this house.
Then, he pictured a younger version of the same hand removing it from a nightstand in
Paris years before.
Gordy went to the sink, flipped on the faucet and water that shone like glass ran
from the spigot. He watched the water circle the drain as it washed away the ash. The
ashtray was all she had been able to get away with. Perhaps she feared that she would get
upset one night and throw it against a wall. Gordy understood why she wanted him to
have it. As long as he had it, it would not be worthless.
Akiko Yu-Ying Radosevich and I arrived on the outskirts of Atlantic City on an
October morning just as the sun nosed its way above our current horizon and produced
colorful stripes of orange and blue. I was about to touch Akiko’s shoulder to wake her,
but then I alternated between just watching her and the highway ahead. Her face was
profoundly lined,and her hands, which rested in her lap, were not a woman’s hands at all.
On either side of her neck was a quarter-sized tattoo of a black bear paw. She was in her
late thirties and had been riding in horse races since she was 16. She was born in
Okinowa, Japan, and she was raised by a robotic mother and a crazy and cruel ex-Marine.
I was sort of in love with her, and in one way she seemed to be all I had going for me.
Then, I said, “Hey, we’re here,” gave a tap to her shoulder. We had left Steelage,
West Virginia, the night before after getting a call from her ex husband Mickey. Mickey
had phoned Akiko and that if she wanted to collect some alimony, she needed to get up
where he was staying, the Flamingo, because he had just hit a tremendous jackpot. The
call was fishy, Akiko and I both agreed about that. But it was also unusual. Mickey, just
like myself, was a horse trainer. He was a real crook, but he also had some successes in
his time. Akiko was currently immersed in a slump and so was I. We lived together in a
single-bedroom apartment on Greene Street in Steelage, a one-time mill town that was
still home to Valley Racetrack, a place that was kept open with the hope its license for
gambling would one day attract a big casino company . I did not think Mickey had any
serious money for her, but they had been married for six or seven years half a decade ago.
When she spoke of him, it was not usually in a bad way. I did not know if Akiko was in
love with me, but I knew if things had been going great between us or we had been
winning a lot of races, she would not have time for Mickey’s nonsense. The only real
positive sign as I saw it was that she had asked me to drive her, though that too might
have been because she was uncertain as to his actual motives.
Anyway, all three of my three horses, A Letter to Harry, Barely Safe and Lot
o’Gold, were pretty sore in various ways and they could use a day off from training.
Before we left last night, I called their groom, a 50-year-old Canadian who everybody
just called Beans and asked him the handle the morning chores for me and he answered
“Right” and did not say anything at all after I said thanks. As for Akiko, she had not
ridden in a race in more than a week. Her last few mounts had been disasters; she was
trying too hard and she wore out her horses with the whip. She did not ride my horses, for
right now we both wanted it that way. We both were career racetrackers. We both
understood that when you were losing, blame was like a dinner check and we were in no
hurry to signal it over.
Mickey had said the Flamingo was right there on Pacific Avenue, she couldn’t
miss it. I had not been to Atlantic City for years and was expecting one of massive places
with blinking arrows pointing the way towards valet parking. I supposed both Akiko and
I were imagining this. But up on the left now, I spotted a sign that said Flamingo Motel
sticking up from behind a line of rooms that ran parallel to Pacific. With a hint of relief, I
said, “Maybe there’s another one, further up the street.”
“He left a key for me,” she said. “If there’s no key, we’ll keep looking.”
“There’s another one,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“Goddamnit, anyway,” she said.
I pulled my Acura up to the registration lobby and she left the car without a word.
She reappeared not a minute later, and she held up a plastic key chain that seemed to
shaped like a pair of dice and walked right past the front of the car. I had to walk fast to
catch up and I was at her shoulder when we were about ten yards from the door to room 8
of the Flamingo. She rapped on the door twice, then twice more, said, “Hey, it’s me, it’s .
. .” And then she stuck the key right into the knob and swept it open. She went in a step
and started to touch at the wall for the light. When it went on, the room turned from deep
gray to whitish-yellow. Her shoulders dropped, and I touched at her back, nudged her in
another step. In the bed there was a man, on his side, he wore black socks and nothing
else. A bottle of Old Crow bourbon sat on the nightstand, siphoned down to the bottom of
the label. The man’s skin was white and the room was chilly. There was just the sound of
the heater, which must’ve been turned up all the way. I finally closed the door behind me.
She crossed her arms, said, “Mick, Mickey. Mick!” His head turned at that and then he
sat up pretty quick. He had a huge head of curly, silvery, Kurt Vonnegut-hair and he a
sleeper’s hard-on, so his dick was shaped like a water faucet. He hung his head. He was
heavy and his body sagged like he was leaking air. For some reason, he reached over and
snapped on the light on the little stand by the bed. In a quiet way, he said, “Who’s that
with you?”
“This is Walter May,” she said.
“Where am I?” he said.
She still had her arms crossed. “You know where you are, goddamnit,” she said.
“Don’t give me that.”
He seemed to be studying the section of carpet between his feet. “I didn’t think
you come,” he said.
“You practically begged me to,” she said.
“Yeah, well,” he said. Without another word, he pushed himself up from the bed,
stepped in my direction, said, “I’m sorry, I’m Mick Radosevich.” I had this rule about
shaking hands with naked guys, but I did not want to seem difficult right now. Mick was
a huge man, over six feet tall with clusters of berserk hairs sticking up from his shoulders.
After we shook, his dropped his hands to his hips and looked down at Akiko. “How’ve
you been, doll?” he said, in a gruff way.
“What’s the story here, Mickey?” she said. “What’s going on?”
He put his eyes on her and shrugged. “I’m broke,” he said.
She made a noise. She started a word and then abandoned it, and they watched
one another for a moment. He definitely knew something about Akiko.
“Excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom,” he said. And he turned and headed there
without another word. The door closed and the water began to run.
“Remember, you expected something like this,” I said.
She turned her head fast, glared up at me. “I did, huh?” she said.
Part of me wanted to say, Want me to leave? But I checked that, I thought, Where
am I gonna go? Go up the street, play some blackjack? If Akiko asked me to leave, I’d
think about it, but that’s not what happened. In a minute, she and I were just each sitting
in a chair at the little table by the one window in the room, and there was not a word
spoken, not until Mick reemerged from the bathroom, dressed in a gray, long sleeve tshirt and khaki pants. Same dark socks. He offered us another nod, and then walked over
the sat down on a corner of the bed. He faced us with his hands folded, his arms loose at
his sides. There were circles under his eyes, his expression was emptied out. He drew in a
breath and he said, “What time did I call you yesterday?”
“’Bout seven,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, I did make a decision. I decided to quit horse racing. I’m
gonna go back home, to Utah, to Cortez. I’ve been out here for a long time,” he said.
“Probably just time to go back to where I belong. Help my old man run the farm.” I could
not tell if his main motive here was to garner sympathy from her. Akiko didn’t say
anything and he looked at me. “Where are you from . . . I’m sorry, what’s your name
“My name is Walter,” I said. “I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”
“Vicksburg, huh? That’s where U.S. Grant first made a name for himself.”
“I’m glad somebody did,” I said.
Akiko sat with her legs crossed. Now, she waved a hand back and forth from me
to him. “You two done?”
Mick sat quietly, just opened his hands, palms facing the ceiling. “I wanted to see
you before I left.”
“There is no way that is accurate . . . completely,” she said. She turned to me at
this point. “See, there is something else going on here, Walter. Because if this were true,
he could’ve just driven down to West Virginia.”
“Don’t have a car anymore,” he said. “Couldn’t keep up the payments. Took a bus
down here from Suffolk, thought I could win at poker. I needed to change my luck,
needed some quick cash. I needed new horse money. It didn’t happen. I have fucked over
everyone else I know. I’m tired. I think I’m ready to go home. I knew you were in West
Virginia. I keep up with your career.”
She said, “Obviously, you haven’t been keeping up with it that closely.”
I felt then that I ought to say something, it seemed to be getting personal, that I
did not belong. I said, “How much do you need to get back to . . . where was it?”
“Cortez,” he said. “Utah.”
“How much would something like that be?”
“I priced a train ride from Philadelphia, see. If I got a little sleeper room, the
whole thing would be about 600 dollars. I owe for two nights here, so I think about sixsixty will cover the whole thing.”
“What about food?” Akiko said, for some reason.
“See you get a sleeper, they throw all that in,” he said.
“Can’t you just take a bus?” I said.
“I rode a bus down here from Suffolk,” he said. “I really don’t like buses all that
much, Walt. That’s what I know. I think a train is more noble. I imagine just sitting up in
my sleeper and watching. The train will travel through Kansas and Colorado, that’s my
old stomping grounds, I barnstormed through there when I started out. Never knew where
the next meal was coming from.” He was smiling at Akiko in a way that made me think
she was the only person who could understand. They’d met for the first time almost two
decades ago in Baltimore, on Preakness Day. It was the year Sunday Silence was trying
for the Triple Crown. He said, “I’d like to think something has been gained from all this.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant exactly, but Akiko seemed to have lost steam. I tried
to imagine Mick when they first met, if he was slimmer and more energetic. His
reputation, I knew something about this. He was a dirty trainer, had served multiple
suspensions in his career. The way he was talking now might have been an act, and I
supposed this was what Akiko was trying to decide for herself.
I said, “Look, man, I’m not sure I can afford to loan you that kind of money. I
sure as shit am not going to give you six hundred bucks in cash with this type of city right
outside the door.”
“You’d have to drive me to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia,” he said.
“That’s another thing.” He opened his hands.
Akiko held up her hand to me. She said, “I guess I don’t understand something,
“What is it?”
“If I mean so much to you, why wouldn’t you call me first? If you were really in
trouble like this.”
Mick’s eyes went to me; he expected me to understand something. And, I tried to.
I said, “Maybe he doesn’t want you to have to see him this way.” I was just guessing,
though. When I turned to her, she looked at me with huge, blinking eyes.
“He was naked when I opened the door,” she said. I didn’t see the need to try and
make Mick’s argument for him, so I didn’t add anything else. “I just don’t know what to
say,” she said.
Mick’s expression had changed by then. He was frowning at her, which I
supposed I understood. Here he was, peeling back the layers of his failures, and here she
was accusing him of cooking up something else. Perhaps this was the reason he called her
last. She just worried so much about getting tricked.
Then, Akiko turned to me. “Well,” she said. “What do you want to do? You’re the
guy with the money. You’re the one he’s talking to now.”
That seemed true enough. I glanced down at my hands because I did not think that
looking at either one of them would help me make a decision I would not later regret. “I
know we aren’t going to just leave him here,” I said. “That’s right isn’t it?”
In a moment, her voice said, “No, we aren’t going to do that.”
I said, “So what you are asking me is for the money to send him on his way.”
Neither of them responded and I supposed I understood. It was a situation where, on the
surface, it seemed like you had options. But I was reminded of a truth I’d once heard
someone say about women and that is when you take up with one, you take up with all of
her. If I am being honest, I will say that I knew I had a chance to send this part of her
further into the distance. “We can take him to Philadelphia,” I said. She kept staring, kept
trying to see something in me. “It is on the way,” I said.
“What about the train?” his voice said.
I kept my eyes on her. He was her ex husband. “I guess that we wouldn’t just
abandon him there,” I said.
It was agreed that the three of us would head for Philadelphia. Mick got his things
together and I walked to the registration lobby to pay for his room. When I stepped
outside again, Mick stood by the front seat passenger door while Akiko was already in
the car, in the backseat, behind the driver. She had locked the doors. Mick and I looked
over the roof of the car at one another and then I opened the driver’s side door with my
key. We both got in. He had his suitcase in his hand, a rectangular leather case that
couldn’t have held two days of clothes. After he sat down in the passenger seat, he held
the case to his chest. It seemed as if he wanted to be ready to jump from the car at any
We drove out of Atlantic City and I supposed Akiko had calmed down some
about not having thousands more in her pocket right now. I was not crazy about how this
was turning out; it was their past, yet I was the one who got stuck buying a train ticket?
But, I was glad the train ticket wasn’t for me. The end of the line was certainly something
I had thought about before. Me, nude, in a motel room, calling every last soul I knew?
Probably not far fetched. The difference between being young and the age I was now was
that I used to believe nothing could happen to me and now I supposed everything was
going to. Racing was just that way. But there wasn’t much choice in the matter, not
really. You could either do this with your life or you just could sit home and hold your
We jumped onto the Jersey Turnpike and after I paid the toll there, I said, “So
what’s waiting for you in Utah?”
“Ranch,” Mick said. “Ranch, stinking cattle, my old man. Maybe my old room.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe it’s over.”
“Anything happening up at Suffolk Fair?” I said.
In a second, he said, “It wasn’t altogether uninteresting, Walt.” His arms were
draped atop the suitcase locks and he looked at my profile for a second. “You a trainer?”
he said.
“Walter, right,” he said. “Yeah, I think I’ve seen your name in the Racing Form.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said.
“Well, you probably know what I’m talking about when I said I needed to get up
new horse money. Working those fairs, you can make a little score now and then. Those
fellas up there, they know I am notorious and I can’t set foot on the backstretch. So, I
operate out of a little coffee shop down the street. I give ‘em stuff to give to their horses.
Some of the stuff is better than others. When I give them the good stuff, I bet myself. The
problem is the pools are so small, you kill the odds with one bet. That’s why I needed to
come down to AC, see. I needed to turn over some bucks faster. It takes twenty grand to
buy a real horse. At least that, don’t you agree?”
“I could get five decent horses for that kind of money,” I said.
He said, “You aren’t thinking big enough, my friend.”
I turned to him for a second. He looked tired and thoughtful. I said, “I’m not the
one who has to take the train home.” I checked the rear view to see what Akiko was
doing. Her eyes were there, I thought she was interested now. “Hell, I don’t have a home,
anyway,” I said, looking out at the road again. “My old man worked on a peanut farm. He
died of lung cancer, so did my mother. I bought a couple of geldings with bad feet with
my inheritance. I’m out here by myself.” I usually did not talk this way, especially to a
total stranger. To me, this was defeated talk, somebody who feels the need to explain
himself. It didn’t feel terrible to say it though. For whatever reason, it seemed all right to
put it out there.
“Mickey still isn’t telling us everything,” Akiko’s voice said for behind us. My
eyes found the rear view and I felt myself frown. “You don’t know who you are sitting up
there with,” she said.
“You gonna be this way when I call you for help one day?” I said.
“You gonna be honest about the reason you call?”
I wanted to shoot back something right away at her, but my mouth locked up for
some reason. Why would I call a bitch like you? I did glance over at Mickey and he did
have his head tilted, his right hand patted at the handle of the suitcase. He understood that
Akiko and I were waiting and he was taking his time. “I just wanted to see you,” he said.
“I had no way to get anywhere. I decided to quit the life. I called you because I thought
you were the one person who would try and talk me out of it. I thought you might get all
fired up and tell me to get my head out of my ass. Stop feeling sorry for myself.”
“You’re a crook,” she said. “You shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself.”
Mickey’s eyes went to me. “See what I mean?”
Akiko sat leaned back with her arms crossed. “Am I your fucking mother,
Mickey? I’m sorry, did I miss something? Did your entire body slide out between my
legs all those years ago? Are you my responsibility for ever and ever?”
Mickey did turn to her, and he said, “You know something, you need to lighten
up, sweetheart. I don’t remember you being this way. Not when I first met you.” He
glanced my way. “Sorry,” he said.
I checked the rear view again and Akiko was looking to one side. No one spoke
for a minute and then she sniffed, I heard that. “I’m not this way,” she said. “Take it
back.” Mickey didn’t move and then she leaned up and whacked the back of his head rest
with the palm of her hand. “Take it back.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“And thank you for defending me, asshole,” she said to me.
“You are being difficult today,” I said.
“Well, I got my hopes up, didn’t I?” she said. This was news to me. Akiko
flopped back in the backseat again. “My mistake. I won’t let it happen again.”
“I just told you you were the one person in the world I’d listen to,” Mickey said.
“Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“You want me to say certain things that will make you feel better,” she said.
“That’s all.”
“No!” Mickey said. He’d been minding himself, no doubt, though I guessed more
than anything it just meant he needed our help. He said, “You can’t convince yourself of
everything. Don’t you see that? You can only tell yourself so much and then you do need
someone else.” His voice dropped in volume. “Yes, I know the truth. I don’t want to go
back. All that quiet. Except for my old man smacking his lips all the time.”
I looked to the rear view, Akiko was still looking to one side.
“What’s wrong with you?” she said, after a moment, in a quiet way. She might’ve
been talking to me, I didn’t know.
He said, “I’m getting old. I feel terrible most of the time.”
She brushed at something one her forehead. “You’ll feel worse if you go home,”
Akiko said. Her voice was dry. I wondered if she believed him now. She did drive pretty
hard at things, but maybe she thought she’d arrived at something. She said, “You don’t
need for me to drive all the way up here to tell you that.”
“Where am I going to go now?” he said. He did look my way after a second, I
could feel his eyes on me. I supposed he was smiling about something.
“We are taking you to a train station,” she said. “The trains go everywhere.”
“They used to,” he said.
“You know exactly what I mean,” she said.
Once we reached the city limits of Philadelphia, Mickey did know the directions
to the train station, and as he was saying “Left here” and “Go right now” I could not help
but wonder how much of this he had really thought through--perhaps every last possible
detail--or if this wasn’t the first time he’d planned on taking a train home. I wasn’t sure if
he was going to go back to Utah now, but I supposed that earlier this morning, it might
have seemed like one distinct possibility to him. That was the way it was for a lot of
people. I frequently thought about Vicksburg, even though I had no reason to ever go
there again. I could not tell at all how much Akiko was going to influence his decision,
but once we arrived at the station and walked inside the terminal, she and Mickey drifted
in the direction of a huge electronic board that listed the cities the trains ran to and when
they were scheduled to arrive. It made me think of an odds board at a racetrack because it
kept changing every minute. He just wanted to see her, that seemed obvious enough. Get
him to stop feeling sorry for himself, maybe feel the love he once felt for her, maybe
something else. Anyway, he knew just enough about her to imagine the effect she would
have on him. They stood there for quite a while, she even pointed once the names of the
cities changed again. They were not all racetrack towns, but the fact was there were a lot
of towns with racetracks. I tried to imagine what it would be like if they walked over to
me in a little while and she announced that she was going to go with him. What could I
say to that? I tried to take some solace in the idea there was nothing to say. I was not
going to jump up from where I was sitting and get into it. If I was twenty years younger, I
would have and either way the end result would have been the same. Akiko was going to
leave me at some point. One morning, she would wake up and decide she’d had enough
of West Virginia. She would head for a place where my horses had even less chance of
winning. I’d have to sell them off, become a groom again. I liked being a horse trainer. I
liked being in charge of a very few things. There was not a lot more to me than this and
everybody knew it. I certainly was glad for anything good that came my way.
There were a couple rows of church-type pews, dark, hard, shiny wood, and this
was where I was sitting, watching the two of them. After a time, I held my hands together
and bowed my head, though what I was doing was far from praying. If I had been praying
for something, it would have been that Akiko could stay with me for a while longer. But,
like I said, I wasn’t doing that. Train times were being announced over a speaker system
and in general I liked the hum of the place. I had not been on a train myself in a long
time, when I was a kid my folks used to ride up to Memphis on the old King Cotton line,
which originated from New Orleans. When I left Vicksburg I was 17 years old. Neither
of my parents encouraged me to stay. They hugged me and wished me luck.
When Akiko and Mickey arrived at my bench, she motioned with her fingers and
said, “Cash card, please.”
I tilted to one side, reached for my wallet. “What did you decide?” I said, in
Mickey’s direction.
She said, “He’s going to Geronimo Downs.”
Right away, I said, “Man,” because I had spent one winter there, years ago.
“Yeah,” he said. “East St. Louis. Right where the Great Plains begins. I mean,
more or less. Just my back-up plan this morning. I did the circuit, don’t recall when
exactly.” He laughed. “I know it’s cold.”
Akiko accepted the card I held out and then she held it with both hands. It made
me think of a priest holding up a communion wafer. She said, “I want to buy him the
ticket and I want to loan him $200. He’ll pay me back when he’s on his feet again.”
I shrugged and Mickey immediately put out his hand. We shook and then he gave
me a slap on he shoulder. “Glad she’s going out with a better class of guy these days,” he
“Good luck,” I said. It was all I could think of.
“Okay, Mickey, let’s not get him too confident,” she said. Akiko took his arm,
turned him and they walked across the shining marble floor for the ticket counter. I
dipped my head again, couldn’t find anything much to focus on. Psychologists say that
people who keep their heads down are invariably thinking of themselves and their own
problems but it didn’t seem to me as if I had many problems at all. I did not mind sitting
here nor did I mind the way this terminal felt. And, I did have faith, I reminded myself of
this. I knew that fortune would never find you without it. Without it, you sure wouldn’t
buy a train ticket for a complete stranger and loan him $200 on top of that .
“Hey,” Akiko said and when I looked up, it was just her standing in front of me.
She placed her hand on my shoulder. How long had I been sitting there?
“Mickey already catch his train?” I said.
“No, that doesn’t leave for hours. He just went to the bathroom, wanted to wash
up. Brush his teeth. He’s all set. We can go.”
“East St. Louis?”
Akiko shrugged. “He just needed a little push.” She did make it sound as if I was
the one who had really been uncertain about things all along.
“He’ll be all right then?” I said.
“Why, I don’t know,” she said. Then she tiptoed up and I leaned down and I felt
her hand holding mine, her lips touching my cheek. It surprised me how deeply I felt it.
She said in a whisper, “He’s just like you. He knows his way around. He isn’t kidding
Outside in the sunlight again, we walked for my car and then we were sitting
inside it. I put my keys into the ignition and then I waited. “I probably have some money
left on that card, think you might want to drive back to Atlantic City for the afternoon?”
“What would we do there?”
It was fall but the sun was high in the sky now and, more than anything, I just felt
like talking. So, I said, “The first time I ever was in Atlantic City I was in my early
twenties. I was living in Bowie, Maryland, at the time, working for a trainer there. He
shipped up a horse to run in the World’s Playground Stakes at AC, must have gotten beat
by a quarter of a mile. I rode on the horse trailer up and back. I only saw the city in
“I’ll go with you, if you just want to walk around the look at things.”
“No,” I said right away. “But we’ll come back one day, you and me, okay? If we
really need to hit a big jackpot or something.”
“Obviously,” she said.
I started the car and we pulled out of the train station lot and began to make our
way out of Philadelphia. Akiko pointed out the various lefts and rights and what I did was
think about the last thing I had said out loud, and how it might have sounded like I was
just talking to myself.
“There it is,” Akiko said and in the distance was an overpass, cars shooting along
on the interstate. “I am going to close my eyes once we’re on the highway again, you
I did not have to answer. I clicked on the turn signal and relaxed in my seat. Soon
the skyline of Philadelphia was behind us while up ahead the fall horizon was a gray one.
I thought of how Atlantic City had looked this morning. I even thought back to the first
time I’d been there. The horse had a small window it could look out of, though they
didn’t give the groom anything at all. Once the van slowed, I stood by the horse and
looked out the window myself. The driver must’ve got lost, too, because for a while it
seemed like we were going in circles. For example, we passed Caesar’s three times. I
supposed that the driver must have wanted to see the famous stuff, too. Anyway, I always
knew I would be back. It’s a city you have a hard time believing you will never see again.
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