One balmy Indian summer evening stands out from all the pablum. It began, as had a thousand other nights, when Ira called. “Well, Mister B, looks like a beautiful night for the ponies.”
My friend looked like a ferret: lean, beady eyes, with a nose pointed for action. For most horseplayers, past performances danced in their heads like a two-step; for Ira they were tangos. He choreographed each race. “The Five’s a lock. He’ll follow the Two who’s got the early speed, then he’ll blow him away in the stretch.” So many horses danced to his tune, you’d think they were his charges, but sometimes the chorus line didn’t step so lively. If a driver improvised, Ira was ready with an expletive-laden tirade. “That son-of-a-bitch Six boxed in the Five and set it up for the freaking Two.” He forgot it just as fast to study the next race.
Until our wives had babies, the four of us chased the ponies all over the East Coast. In our ten-year odyssey, we ran the gamut from tap city to fat cat and back, sometimes in the same day.
“Honey, you don’t mind I go, do you?”
“What! Schneider called this morning.”
Always something. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
“If we…” She shook a serving spoon in my face.
“Don’t worry, Ira’s got a sure thing in the eighth.” He better.
“We have a child, you know.”
“Stop! Everything will be fine.” She sure knew how to take the fun out of life.
Yonkers Raceway featured pacers and trotters that pulled two-wheeled carts with driver, unlike thoroughbreds that have “monkeys” on their backs. The place attracted cadres of middle-aged men wearing trench coats, cigarettes dangling from their lips, staring at tip sheets while scratching their asses. On hot nights it smelled of horseshit and sweat. It wasn’t a place to take a lady.
We got there early, bought and studied the program, and bet some daily doubles. Then Ira did something I’d never seen him do at the track: he drank a beer. Quaffed it down in seconds, belched, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
At the end of the second race, as others papered the concrete floor with their losing tickets, we cashed the daily double. We’d also cashed our show parley, a separate fund reinvested in each race, looking to get through all nine races with a little bonus. Ira grabbed another beer.
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“Two for two. What could be better?”
By the end of the fifth race, we had increased our winnings big-time, and Ira, his alcohol intake. “Well, Mister B, this could be our night. Let’s eat. The next race for fillies is a no-man’s-land.”
“That’s the first halfway funny thing you’ve said all night.” We cashed a nice exacta in the seventh and had enough to quit. More than enough. “Why don’t we call it a night?”
But Ira’s best bet was coming up in the feature race. We win this, we own the track. We bet it all on the One, who went off at three-to-one. The Seven was the even-money favorite. Ira said, “Fool’s gold. Too erratic.” A month’s income was on the line, most of it the track’s money.
“I hope you’re right. Not that anything is really wrong or anything, but Faye’s been funny about money lately.”
As we walked toward the track to watch the stretch run, Ira banged into a trash can, cursed, and kicked it aside. He stood there a moment as if he’d forgotten something and was trying to remember.
The horses, eight abreast, followed the moving gate hauled by a truck which sped up and got out of the way at the start/finish line. The One horse went out fast and, halfway up the backstretch, had a five-length lead. Ira woke up, ran toward the rail, pacing and screaming, while slapping his hand with the rolled-up program. “Hold that One together!” The horse rounded the final turn into the stretch with a six-length lead, and Ira scurried toward the finish line. “Okay with that One. Easy money. Keep him together!” This wasn’t a race; it was a blowout, and we could smell our winnings.
Then Ira did a 360, batting his forehead with his palm. I grabbed his arm to keep him from falling. His best bet of the night, a horse that had never broken stride, started galloping instead of pacing. My stomach jacked toward my throat. The driver jerked on the reins to get the horse back on stride. His lead was dwindling fast, but if he got him back on pace, we might still collect. With a sixteenth to go he did, but the favorite was closing. The crowd came alive. It was a race now. The Seven was inching up. The finish line was suddenly too far. We were frantic.
“Get that Seven out of there!” The noise from the crowd shook the stands as the two horses crossed the finish line together.
From the loudspeakers came the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a photo finish. Please hold all your tickets.” Ira paced and grumbled.
“It could be a dead heat, and we’ll still win something,” I said.
A guy at the finish line said, “One by a nose.” Another, “The Seven clear.” Motion and emotion rippled through the mob; most of them had money on the Seven.
Finally the numbers went up. The winners cheered and headed toward the cashiers’ windows looking smug and superior for picking the winner, even if it was the big favorite. We wilted. This wasn’t horseshoes; close doesn’t count, and the photo was clear – there is no appeal at the track. We studied the floor as we walked toward the exit. We were tapped. What was I going to tell Faye? Who could I borrow from? Then I remembered our show parley. It’d survived through eight races, giving us back half the money we’d started the evening with. Not a total loss, and we still had one more dance.
Filled with nags posing as racehorses, last races everywhere were virtually unpickable, but even these steeds had a leg in each corner, and one of them had to cross the finish line first. Ira took the favorite and the three longest shots and boxed them in the trifecta. This wasn’t handicapping – it was desperation. He bet all but twenty, which we took to the bar.
After ordering a beer, he took a swig. “Debbie left me.” He never took his eyes off the payoffs flashing on the TV.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. We got along fine when we were all together – which was plenty. The four of us played pinochle twice a week. “What happened?”
“I beat her in a game of gin.” He continued to study the TV with no expression.
“C’mon Ira. Really! Bartender! Give me a double shot of Red Label. Yeah, the Johnnie Walker.” Last time we were together, everything seemed fine. What did I miss?
The horses were lining up behind the rolling gate on their way to the start. One side of his face crept upward in a crooked smile. “Unlucky in love, lucky in cards.” He finished the suds, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and belched.
“This ain’t cards. Does Faye know?”
“Oh, Jeez. Sorry. I forgot to ask her on her way out.”
I guess I’d have to wait. This was too much to process. I’d already abandoned hope with the last loss and was trying to figure how I’d make it to my next paycheck without telling Faye.
The race unfolded in slow-motion with the field strung out down the backstretch. Horses were breaking all over the place. It was difficult to see which horses finished where and who might get disqualified. Three of our four horses had to finish in the top three spots for us to cash. When the unofficial results were posted, we had a winning ticket – the three longest shots in the race! Then flashed the steward’s inquiry and the announcement, “Please hold all your tickets.” The way our luck was going, they’d surely take one of them down. They almost always do when there’s an inquiry.
The sweepers were scooping up mounds of losing tickets. The minutes swept by. It grew quieter. Sweat trickled down my back. This is what it was all about, being on the edge, waiting for the all-or-nothing decision.
A few boos attended the official sign, and the losers headed for the exits, dropping the last of their ill-spent investments. You could smell the despair. One guy yelled, “The fix was in.” We knew better than to celebrate, but I could have danced all night. This was a miracle. I don’t think I’ve felt this good since – since never.
“Well, Mister B, did you get your money’s worth?”
He bought a horse with his share and moved to Monticello to race at that smaller country track. I paid Schneider two months’ rent and blew the rest on a two-week cruise to paradise with Faye: Antigua, Curacao, St. Barts, and half-a-dozen other sandy gems floating in turquoise seas. We had a great time.
A month after we returned, she cleaned out our bank account, took our three-year-old son and our cat and fled. She’d been preparing for it. “We’re just not dancing to the same tune,” she said. The break was clean. No appeal. How could she do this to me? My son. The boy I love was taken from me as was the boy in me. On his weekly visits, he was listless and kept looking out the window. “I want my mommy.”
I missed the boy who would run to me when I came home, hug my legs and scream, “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” I missed how he giggled when our cat pushed her face into his. I missed Faye’s warm body. She was so quiet and gentle, rubbing my head with affection.
For the next year, I avoided the track – the joy was gone. I’d let Faye steal it.
Then a phone call and a familiar voice caught me off-stride. “Well, Mister B, looks like a beautiful night for the ponies.”
Ira never made any money with his horse and had sold it to be somebody’s pet. He seemed untouched by any of his losses. Why should I?
Gustaf Berger (AB Colgate University) is proud of his cynical New York sensibility. A lifelong storyteller, he began writing fiction in 2008 after closing his mail-order business. He travels extensively, having visited 45 countries and 35 states to date. Four of his stories have been published in journals and his first novel, Death Postponed, will be released in the Fall of 2016.
Photography by Alyssa Yankwitt.