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A More Or Less Rational Act


ISSUE:  Summer 2000

I was looking for fireflies between the dusk-thickened underbrush whizzing past the passenger window of my father’s Chevy, thinking a flicker from one might light something inside me, and my father braked and asked, “Wanna bet with me tomorrow?”

He was trying, I was sure, to take my mind off the fact that, after 20 years of smallness, I was growing too big to jock at Finger Lakes Racetrack. “No,” I said, and I told myself I’d never bet—not even if I’d never ride—because betting could only mean losing.

I tasted warmth like carsickness, and he cleared his throat and asked, “Why not?”

“I’m not old enough.”

“You’re weeks away. Anyway, I can buy your tickets.”

As a kid I’d always asked him to buy mutual tickets for me—and he’d always said no. “Since when?” I asked now.

“Since when do you care about rules?”

I shrugged. Then, given his silence behind the hum of the tires, I trusted he was watching the road. I considered glancing at him to make sure but preferred not to. Since he’d retired from riding, there’d been moments when I’d hated the sight of him, like when he’d second-guess a bet he’d lost, or when my mother would talk and he wouldn’t pay her mind, or when he tried to make me feel better when feeling at all good was impossible. You don’t hate him, I thought. You hate the sight of him failing. “Since I don’t know,” I said.

The Chevy accelerated, and he sighed. “Since our argument?” he asked.

“What argument?”

“About whether you’re having a growth spurt?”

Night-blackened milkweeds zipped past. That argument had, I knew, taken away my desire to do much but sleep and eat. A firefly shone, but nothing brightened inside me, and I eased my eyes toward my father. His face, in the blue glow of the dashboard, seemed freshly fixed on the road, as if he’d just glanced at me, his gaze mechanical and forlorn as it was when he faced my mother after a losing day at the track. Then he looked out the driver’s side window, maybe, I thought, needing his own firefly, and I knew I was seeing the man he was becoming—an outsider of the club of horsemen, a guesser, a wonderer—and I wondered if my growth spurt were bothering him. Jockeyhood, after all, was something I’d never experienced, but for him, it was something he’d had and lost. Maybe, I thought, he needs to believe his blood can still ride.

“That wasn’t an argument,” I finally answered.

He handled a curve. “Then what was it?”

“You showing me how to win graciously.”

Shifting in his seat, he pinned back his shoulders. He drove on and I couldn’t stop looking at him: he was relaxing, and I was his son, and, riding together, we were picking up speed.

“Let me tell you something else,” he said as we hit an incline. “About losing. I mean, even a top-notch jock loses more than he wins.”

“I know.”

“And when he loses, he remains top-notch if he looks at losing as learning. In that sense, he’s lost but still gained.”

“Realistically, Dad,” I said. “What can you learn from losing?”

“Acceptance. Everyone knows that. But what a jock learns—if he’s truly excellent—are the mechanics of winning.”

Then he went on talking, one hand atop the steering wheel, the other scratching the underside of his chin, about how, in horse racing at least, a winner never sees how he won. He sees some of it if he wins by coming off the pace, but even then, at some point, the bulk of the action down the stretch is behind him. He might look over his shoulder for a moment, but only if he’s clearly ahead, and then he’s looking back to make sure he’s not facing a threat rather than to see how he’s winning—and anyway, my father reminded me, champion jockeys, if they have class, don’t look back.

On the other hand, he explained, a jock who loses has the advantage of being able to study victory: to see how eager frontrunners sacrifice themselves by trying too hard too soon, how wide-running entries make moves at the wrong time, how horses that have something left quit because the winner has beaten them through an opening, how bumping and whipping and positioning play out to allow the winner to win. Yes, my father said, luck had to do with it. But only a loser could see how luck combined with speed and smarts to produce victory.

“In fact,” he pointed out, “a jock who begins a race in last and never passes a horse sees winning like no one else can.”

Then we slowed down so fast I grabbed the dash.

“What?” I asked.

“Someone.” He turned on the brights. “Someone’s up there.”

“Where?”

“I think it might—”

Blood ran down the shin of someone in sneakers and a sweatshirt stepping off the highway into milkweeds.

“Is that?” my father said. He pulled over and engaged the brake, and we got out and walked ahead. “Ma’am?” he yelled. “We mean no harm.”

Between branches, I saw Montenegra, the apprentice whom I’d seen riding morning workouts, silhouetted and frozen and shying from us like a raccoon. Her father, everyone knew, had jocked and committed suicide, and her eyes, I knew, were a hazel-gray that jumped out at you, but I couldn’t see them or the charming crook of her nose—because of the darkness.

“What are you doing?” my father asked.

Montenegra faced me. “Running.”

“From what?” my father asked.

“Nothing. Just trying to get in shape.”

“You’re in shape,” my father said. “You all right?”

“Just embarrassed is all. I’m fine, Tom. I like running when no one can see me.”

I didn’t like the sound of her calling my father by his first name. “What about your shin?” I asked.

“What about it?”

“It’s bleeding.”

“I nicked the corner of a dresser drawer on my way out of .my room. It’s just cut a little.”

“I assume,” my father said, “you run with a flashlight?”

“Sort of,” Montenegra said.

I suspected she was lying the way I lied to my father: using words that conveyed literal truth while my heart hid the admission he wanted. I did this, I usually told myself, to protect him, but something, sometimes the way he blinked, usually told me I was protecting myself more than anyone.

“Are you finished?” he asked Montenegra.

“No,” she said. “Got at least a mile to go.”

“You sound like me,” he said. “Before I retired.”

“Then you understand,” she said, and, given the aim of her face, her eyes tried to engage my father’s.

“The jock in me does,” he said. “Or what’s left of it.” He walked back to the Chevy and got in and sat behind the wheel, and I knew he’d said “what’s left of it” to speak for me. I wished he hadn’t said those words, and I didn’t want to sit beside him.

“Son?” he said.

I knelt and pretended to tie a sneaker.

“Should we go home?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I think I’ll stay here.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and he closed the driver’s door, then mine, then fired the ignition and drove off. He passed me, then Montenegra, then pulled over and U-turned and passed both of us without waving, and then he was gone except for the sound of his shifting gears, and then that, too, was gone.

And Montenegra was walking ahead, into thicker darkness away from me, and, for a moment I felt that, for all she cared, I might as well have left with him. I began toward where I guessed she stood, and, unable to see my feet, asked, “Where’s the flashlight?”

“It’s broken,” she said, closer than I’d thought, close enough that I smelled her scent—soap, skin, baby shampoo and perspiration mixed into a sweetness that scared me.

“Let me try fixing it,” I said.

“You can’t,” she said, now beside me. “I don’t have it. I lied because I didn’t want you to think I was strange.”

I laughed a beat. “You’re not strange. I just want to know what you’re doing.”

“I told you. Getting in shape.”

“So you are running.”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re doing it at night because you don’t want me to know.”

“Why wouldn’t I want that?”

“So I don’t feel bad,” I said. “Because you’re going to be a jock and I’m not.”

Montenegra didn’t speak. Listening to her silence, I was surprised by my patience: even in the dark, I could wait to hear anything from her. She was standing with her arms crossed, I guessed, not wanting to talk about our futures—but she didn’t want to lie about my growth spurt either. We both believed, I was sure, that lying protected no one in the long run: that when an unspoken truth hangs between people too palpably, discussing it sometimes hurts least.

“That’s not why,” she said. “I mean that’s not why I’m doing it at night.”

“Then why are you?”

“Because. Running in the dark helps you jock.”

“Says who?”

“Your father.”

He’s giving her tips? I thought, and that made me dislike her—and him.

“He said it helps you beat fear,” she said. “Because when you’re winning a lot and getting tight mounts, jocks on longshots’ll box you in—because they’re jealous and they’ll do what they can to beat you. And when you’re boxed in, you might luck into seeing an opening, which could scare you because you know you could get bumped and go down. But you can’t fear going down. Because if you do, the hole’ll close and you’ll lose.”

Everyone knows that, I thought. Grandstanders know that.

“Which means you have to trust,” she said. “And running in the dark helps you trust. Because trusting means forgetting your fear, which running in the dark helps you do.”

“My father told you all this?”

“Most of it. The last part—about trust and forgetting fear—I made up. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Because trust can mean fearing but going ahead anyway?”

Again, Montenegra went silent. Again, I felt patient.

“Is that what it’s like for you?” she asked.

“Let me put it this way: If I ran with you now, I’d be scared.”

“Because you can’t see the road?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look at the road, silly. You look at the stars.” She grabbed the sides of my head and aimed my face skyward, her fingers, over my ears, cool and strong. “In the gap. Between the trees on the sides of the road.”

Stars did form an obvious lane, wider than I would’ve imagined, making the thought of running beneath the center of it more or less rational, even tempting.

“That’s our path,” she said, and I imagined that she, too, was looking up, and she took my hand, and we began. We ran slowly at first, side by side, and I watched the center of the stars and heard her footsteps beside mine and allowed the asphalt’s flat grade to reassure me. I let go of her hand to take the lead, then feared I’d run into a parked car or a tree or a buck, so I thrust a hand in front of my face, glad I could see stars and that this run through this darkness would end.

Then I thought of potholes, and I slowed. Ahead, the sound of Montenegra’s footsteps faded, and I worried I’d lose her and accelerated hard to catch up, hearing that false wind-sound that feels laced with freedom. Then I was back beside her, and I worried less about what bothered me that summer—like the fact that I wouldn’t jock or that my father and mother went days without conversing— and soon, rather than worry at all, I simply thought.

I had almost become a jockey, I thought, and, according to what my father had told me, when you almost get something you want, like when you wait out and lose a hair-splitting photo finish, you feel success and failure at the same time. And the problem with that, he’d told me, is that a person can’t feel two opposites at once, so instead of feeling either, a person feels nothing.

My father had explained this the previous winter, and then, when he’d told me, I’d thought he was preparing me to jock. But now, as I ran with Montenegra, I sensed he’d explained it for another reason: to tell me, or maybe himself, that he and my mother no longer felt love. They had, he might have been telling me, felt an almost-love for each other, and now, as a result, they felt nothing. If that were what he’d really been telling me, I felt sad for him, and, again, scared to like the scent of Montenegra, and then she and I reached a crossroads lit by streetlight and sprinted across it and back into darkness.

This darkness felt denser yet safer, but then the sound of Montenegra’s footsteps disappeared all at once, and I figured she’d quit, and I stopped. We both stood, maybe six feet apart, breathing hard and listening to our rhythms, our way, I believed, of admitting we were tired, relieved, no longer as tense as we were before we’d begun, more experienced in each other’s company, she closer to being a jock, me closer to being whatever I’d be, both of us closer to marriage, parenthood, aging and each other because—now that we’d run through the dark together—we shared a secret we would probably tell no one.

Then I realized she’d convinced me to do something, and that having done it felt good, maybe because it had taken me from my doldrums about not being able to ride, and I wanted to thank her for that, but thanking her aloud then would, I was sure, lead her to think I was strange. Do it tomorrow, I thought. With a gift. The problem with gifts, though, was that they cost money, of which I had little. When I was ten, my mother had put $200 in a savings account in my name but had since declared it untouchable, and my father had— since my 16th birthday—given me a weekly allowance of a few dollars, but of late I’d had to ask him two and three times to get anything, and, when he was losing at the track, sometimes nothing.

My father still showed spunk on the track’s backside that summer—he still drove past the security guard with nothing more than a nod and parked where he wanted and sneaked up on horsemen and took chaw from their back pockets and spat on their freshly-hosed sidewalks—spunk that had led me, when I was a kid, to keep beside him. But the day after I first ran through the dark with Montenegra, he paused longer between conversations with trainers and owners, as if savoring the minutes he and I sized up horses alone. Or maybe, I thought, he was delaying the conversation that would begin when a young hotwalker would say, “Sir, what’s your business here?”

His true business among the barns that summer, I knew, was to learn which horses were tight so he could bet them, but that was a truth he kept secret behind his image of Retired Great Jockey and Horse-Lover and Friend. Earlier that summer, when I’d still believed I would ride, I’d considered accusing him of being no more than a bettor—because his duplicity around horsemen irritated me—but that day, I understood his motivation, because I shared it and considered milking it for a tip.

If the tip were solid enough, I told myself as we headed to Arnie DeShields’ barn, wagering on it wouldn’t really be betting, and I could pocket my winnings and use them to buy Montenegra’s gift. This gift would be something she’d cherish, though I didn’t know what it would be. A ring was the obvious choice, but my father and mother had exchanged gold wedding bands, and Montenegra’s mother had one, too, and none of them seemed happier for wearing them, so I sensed I’d buy something else, maybe a necklace. I didn’t know the price of a good necklace, and I didn’t want to ask my father because he’d been so cool before he’d driven away from me and Montenegra the previous night, so I merely said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” he said, and he stopped midstride near a curled orange cat beside the bed of marigolds that ran alongside the DeShields barn. I’d seen this cat before; he limped on three legs, his left front paw pulverized by a rat trap in Ed Considine’s stables, and he always shied from me but I liked his bravery in continuing to walk, and I called him, in my mind, Cat-With-A-Bad-Leg. “You suppose,” I asked, “you could lend me some cash?”

My father stuffed four fingers into his right-front jeans pocket. “For what?”

“I thought I might. . . join you in backing a horse today.”

I’d used the word “backing” for the same reason any horseman did: “betting” referred to the unwise risks grandstanders took after they read the Form, whereas “backing” meant something altogether different. “Backing” meant joining the club of knowledgeable horsemen who, for gentlemanly reasons more than greed, nodded approval toward excellent entries.

My father looked off at the grandstand, winced and said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” I knew what was coming: “Why.”

“Just to join you. And I’ll only do it in one race. So I can cheer with you harder during the stretch run.”

Cat-With-A-Bad-Leg stood and arched and hopped toward my father, who nudged its underbelly with the top of his shoe, lifted it gently, and returned it near the bed. “What if you lose?”

I tried to smile, and my father frowned, not so much, it seemed, out of doubt, but instead as if to punctuate that question—What if you lose?—on my heart. “We won’t,” I said.

My father shook his head. “With an answer like that, you’ll never get a penny from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re talking about horse racing, for God’s sake.”

“Which you know all about.”

“I know all about riding. You’re talking about gambling.”

Cat-With-A-Bad-Leg rose and walked off. “The two are that different?” I asked.

“If you ride and your heart wants to win,” my father said, “you can control, at least to some extent, the outcome of a race.” He rubbed sleep from his eye, or pretended to. “Whereas gambling—or handicapping—or whatever you want to call it—is messing with something plain out of control.”

“But you know people here.”

“I know people. I don’t know horses—at least not like I used to—because you can’t really know a horse until you’ve ridden it. And when you handicap, you pick a horse, and the windows close, and you’re done. The race hasn’t started and you’re done. And you know what jocks can do between the close of betting and the start of a race.”

“Yes, but—”

“And what can happen between the start and the finish. So handicapping isn’t something you can be excellent at. You can be good, and you can be lucky. And you can believe you’re helping your luck with information. But don’t ever forget that goodness comes from your heart.”

What’s he trying to say? I wondered, and I wished Cat-With-A-Bad-Leg would return—to distract us.

“And don’t forget that luck,” my father said, “comes from outside you. Which means your heart can’t control luck. In fact luck, depending on whether it’s good or bad, will either ruin or lighten your heart.”

There were times when I believed my father told horse racing truths to avoid truths about himself, and this, I guessed, was one of them. “I understand,” I said, and that wasn’t true either.

“You sure? Because if you don’t, we might as well go home.”

I nodded. Then I wondered what would have happened if I’d called his bluff—about going home. To me, it seemed Bible that he would never leave the track until the last race on a day’s card was official. I had never known him do it, and, seeing how he and my mother treated each other when he was home, I understood why.

“How much you want?” he asked, and he fished out his cash wad. It was folded once, thick and dirty, and he held it between his finger and thumb, and I could have all of it, it seemed, if I asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Two dollars?” I thought I was asking for too much: that he would tell me to start my handicapping career by chipping in a dollar on his first two-dollar win bet.

“Wanna start small, huh,” he said, and it hit me that he might have been betting a lot more on horses than my mother or any horseman imagined. He unfolded the cash and thumbed four C-notes to expose a twenty, then thumbed twenty after twenty until we saw a one. “Only one of these,” he said. “Tell you what. Take a twenty and owe me the rest.” He held out a twenty like a magician set to make it disappear, and I took it, and its dampness stirred my insides. “Just don’t get bet-happy on me,” he said.

“Sir?”

“Bet-happy. When you believe you’re good when in fact you’re just lucky.”

“Oh.”

“Remember: Goodness comes from your heart. And once you forget your heart, you lose goodness. And once you lose goodness, you’ll bet for betting’s sake.”

I folded the twenty and slid it into the right front pocket of my jeans, which were hand-me-downs from when my father had broken his tibia 10 years earlier and had put on an extra inch in the waist, and right then, in the wake of those words about heart, I felt for him what had to be love. Love for him had always come in waves that appeared and broke and rolled over me almost at once, a little like my feelings for Montenegra the night before, except love for my father never surprised me. What surprised me about him—and scared me—was when I hated him. That scared me so much that when waves of love for him washed me, I felt relief and joy and renewed pride.

“But here’s my best piece of advice,” he said, grinning, and we stepped into Arnie DeShields’ barn. “All you have to do is win.”

“Hey, Loser,” someone yelled—Arnie DeShields stood in a shade-darkened stall, arms folded. He was watching my father approach him, or so it appeared: the shade made his face look blank save his smile, which was white and thick and fake, the result of having been kicked in the mouth while watching a blacksmith re-shoe a $3,000 claimer 20 years earlier.

Arnie himself was thick—and tall, more than six feet. So I could have looked at him as a role model; here was a man whose body had dictated, perhaps since birth, that he’d never jock a horse in his life. But right then I didn’t want to look up to anyone but my father.

“Watch his hands when I talk about Devilette,” my father whispered as we approached. “What’s the word?” he shouted at Arnie.

Arnie eyed me as he spoke: “Pietro let us down hard yesterday.” He spit tobacco juice, a straight orange-brown shot to the dirt at our feet.

“Pietro didn’t force you to back it,” my father said.

“No one said I actually did. All’s I’m saying, is that the man said he was going to send the horse—and it didn’t even land in the money.”

“Can’t control the jock,” my father said. “Right, Son?”

I nodded and Arnie looked away from me, toward the doorway. “I suppose,” he said, “you wanna know if I’m sending Devilette today.”

“It’s his third maiden race and he won’t be favored,” my father said. “If he’s tight and you don’t send him, you’re insane.”

“Maybe I was insane to begin with,” Arnie said. But is the horse tight? I thought—and he folded his hands over his paunch, then slid his fingertips into his back pockets.

“Maybe we all begin insane,” my father said, and he winked at me.

I nodded, and Arnie assessed me with the shy formality he used to pay my father. He still thinks I’ll jock, I thought.

“My son’s planning to back his first horse ever today,” my father said. “You can’t look him in the eye and help him out?”

He’s using me, I thought. He sees Arnie’s respect for me and he’s using it. I righted my posture, proud that my blood could think that quickly—or maybe I just wanted a tip so I could buy a gift for Montenegra. Or maybe I just wanted to win.

“You want to jock and you’re already telling strangers you back horses?” Arnie asked me.

“You’re not a stranger,” I said. “And I’m not telling anyone anything.”

He smiled widely, appearing more equine than human. “Good answer,” he said. “Just remember me down the line. After you collect on your first win bet ever.” He regarded my father sheepishly, his way of saying, You’ve won. I’ve gifted you. Keep it secret so we can both enjoy its value. Then he turned and walked deeper into the shade, toward the southern-most stall in his barn. My father elbowed me and followed Arnie, and I, clearing my throat, followed my father.

The first I saw of Devilette was the white Texas-shaped blaze on his snout. Then, eyes adjusted, I saw all of his head, chestnut-brown and bulged at the jaw, bright-eyed and calm, statuesque. His mane was braided, and he didn’t flinch when I petted him.

“Big horse for a short race,” I said, and Arnie and my father nodded, as if I’d assured them that all of us, Devilette included, would win.

“Filled out in the chest,” my father said.

“Tight as a drum in a freezer,” Arnie said.

“You got his front ankles wrapped,” my father said.

“To keep Pietro guessing,” Arnie said.

“You gonna miss the post parade and take them off at the last minute?” my father asked.

Arnie shook his head. “I’m keeping ‘em on. They’re loose as hell. I want to win and show Pietro who’s boss.”

We spent the rest of the morning visiting horsemen, standing beside them in their barns without speaking, breathing with them the smells of hay and sun-warmed hose rubber while staring out from the shade, relaxing in a full-fledged way you can relax in the stables away from people who don’t love horses for being horses. Then edge-like shadows said the sun had eased past high-noon, and I felt that aging feeling of a day passing too quickly, and my father, a bent blade of grass in his mouth, elbowed me and said, “Let’s go.”

We were just inside the Capizzi barn then, Frank Capizzi and his brothers having never arrived, and we walked away knowing they probably had a tight horse they wanted to keep secret, and the Puerto Rican hands watched us leave. We walked side by side past the security gate, and the guard ignored us until my peripheral vision allowed me to see him watch us, and then I was sure everyone in every barn was relieved we were leaving, maybe because they knew more about my father’s wagering ventures than I did—or because word had spread that I was thinking about making my first bet.

Devilette was running in Race Two, Before Race One, as my father bought us programs, the thought of winning on him tempted me to bet him as half of a Daily Double, but I knew what every seasoned horseman believed—the Double was a sucker bet—so I didn’t mention the temptation, just followed my father across the upper grandstand toward the section of empty seats nearest the head of the stretch.

“So we can see the crux?” I asked, and my father nodded, and we sat. I was referring to end of the turn into the home stretch, and I’d used the word “crux” because that’s what my father had called it the previous summer, when he was advising me daily about riding, trying to prime me. He called it the crux, he’d explained then, because the end of that turn is where most races are decided: where the whistling gets loud and the whips are readied and an oncoming horse might run wide; where jocks yell unheard by stewards to rattle the favorite or fix results; where secretly game horses make their moves and cause driving horses to change pace and lose hope.

“And,” my father said now, “so we can think by ourselves.”

“Without the crowd,” I said.

“Without anyone.”

I wondered who else he was avoiding. Horsemen? My mother? I studied my program, and he watched the odds board and chewed his fingernails, a habit he’d had since he’d retired.

“Let the first race go,” he said, almost to himself.

“I told you,” I said, “if I back anything, I’m only backing one horse in one race.”

“And you like Devilette.”

. “Shouldn’t I?”

“Not with your life. Arnie’s talk might have been nothing but bull.”

“He seemed straight,” I said. “I mean, we sort of cornered him into it, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” my father said, and he flipped to Race Two in his program. Devilette was the 3 horse, which meant he didn’t have to break against the rail, and he had Jorge Garcia on him and no workouts listed, his morning line 6—1. “He’ll go off lower than that,” my father said, and I took the twenty from my pocket and wondered why he’d said that and went silent trying to figure out why, and Race One began and ended and the frontrunner won going away. That meant the track might have been biased toward speed that day, and I figured, given what I remembered about Arm’e DeShields from my childhood, that Devilette was trained to run from behind. A speed-biased track, I told myself, would only make his victory more heartfelt, and then I remembered my father’s speech that morning about heart and luck, and I supposed that, given my incomplete understanding of that speech, to become a top-notch handicapper, I should train myself never to feel joy after watching the horse I’d backed win. For a moment I hated handicapping and wished I could be elsewhere, maybe running through the dark with Montenegra. Then I told myself I was about to make money I could use to buy a gift for her, and sitting there, in that grandstand, overlooking the crux beside my father, felt right. I stared at the pond in the middle of the track during a silence that didn’t bother me, then wished I’d kissed Montenegra the night before, then wondered why my father and mother had kissed for the first time, touched each other, married, made love, taken vacations, sung in their cars, jocked and cheered for horses, argued, retired, ignored each other, kissed for the thousandth time, spent time with children, lied to each other, stared at their aging nakedness, bet on strangers’ horses, slept. I glanced at my father—now he was watching the pond—and the bugle announced the post parade, and Devilette appeared from beneath the grandstand and stepped onto the combed track. He held his head higher than the rest of the field, perhaps trying to see beyond the chain-link, and Jorge, in bumblebee-colored silks, sat on him comfortably, going with the bounce of the canter.

“Two on Devilette to win, please,” I said, and I handed my father the twenty. I knew he was about to do for me what I’d told myself I’d never do, and I thought about asking for the money back, but he smiled.

“Prepared to dump?” he asked.

“Why? You don’t think he looks right?”

“I think he’ll be there. But a top-notch handicapper never bets a penny he can’t afford to lose.”

“I can afford it,” I said, and my father stood and walked off. Because we’d gotten a tip, I believed, neither of us was really gambling, but I wondered how I’d pay him back if Devilette didn’t win, then told myself that, if I lost, I’d find a job. The thought of doing something other than jocking stiffened my shoulders, and I considered possibilities—mechanic, farmer, attorney, doctor, librarian, salesman, teacher, baker—none of them easing me, and I felt my face flush. But no one can see you, I thought, and I knew no one but my father would know I had bet, and that he understood why I had done it: because I, like he, was a horseman, and horsemen showed love by trying to win.

In that sense, I told myself, it was good I had done it, and my father returned with my ticket and change, all of which I folded into a square I hid in my pocket, and then it was post time, and an assistant starter I’d never seen was loading Devilette into the third stall. My father slouched back in his seat, his eyes, intent and forlorn, on the front of the midnight-blue starting gate, and I wanted to grab his forearm but told myself we were too old for that, and then the flag was up, and they were off.

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