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TWO NIGHTS BEFORE BAY MEADOWS CLOSED I found Dad down on the levee, sweating in the whipping wind, brandishing a crowbar. Whenever he disappeared, I knew I could find him down here, wallowing in the brine of low tide, silently chipping away at his grief while all around him the world turned on its dazzling axis: diesel-fumed tankers slugged through the waters of the bay, whitecaps lapped against the pilings of the bridge, and seagulls hovered impossibly on invisible updrafts.

Mom’s Harley pulled out of the driveway six months ago, and in the vacuum of abandonment, Dad began culling large rocks at low tide—an illegal affair—and hauling them back to our house in the dark. He said he was building an outdoor pizza oven, his material acquired by the inspiration of poverty. Sometimes he spent his days pushing bags of sand around our backyard, or shot-putting heavy objects. “What about a caveman gym?” he’d say. “Here, in the backyard.” He had plans like I had apathy—in great abundance and knowing no depth.

Yes, I’d say. Always yes. No matter that the cavemen would conflict with the mossy pizza oven.

What about grief rages, where you could come to a confidential place and say all the horrible things you think about loved ones who have gone. What about a school for blind chefs? A culinary academy, here in the backyard.

Yes. Yes. Sure. Why not?

After Mom left, something in him shook loose, and not just a few pounds. He literally seemed to float with ideas. He once said he wanted to create a lifestyle, told me he wanted to trademark and market it. I rolled my eyes and told him that you couldn’t trademark a lifestyle. You just did it, sometimes whether you wanted to or not. He’d just look at me, his enervated smile shiny and terrifying. In those moments it was hard to see who was balancing the scales for whom. Over dinner, through a mouthful of cruciferous vegetables, he’d tell me I should be proud. Some fathers would disintegrate under life events like these. Men often don’t have the courage to pick themselves up and dust themselves off of the floor of unemployment and divorce to find total reinvention. The winning ticket. To this, I’d nod. “Look at us,” I’d say. “Just a couple of go-getters.”

But now, as I watched him struggle to pry a mossy stone from the levee, I realized how difficult this task was, how silly, how dangerous. He seemed pitted against the entire bay, its elements raw and unconcerned with his human trifling. I thought he’d been coming down here mostly to think, but now I realized how drastically he had changed in the past six months. His shirt flapped in the wind, revealing a skeletal, wiry frame—a far cry from the doughy chef’s body he once inhabited. His hair grew in thick, almost mossy clumps around his temples, and his arms were striated with the glean of defined muscle. His eyes shone with an almost alarming clarity, like the eyes of men who amass many wives and establish themselves as reincarnated gods. I was sort of impressed. Slowly, without my awareness, Dad had transformed himself into a thoroughbred.

“What are our neighbors going to say when the tsunami hits and the majority of their levee is in our garage?” I asked.

A smile crept to the corners of his mouth. He wedged his crowbar in deeper. “In the day-to-day, they’re probably more concerned about living next to a professional gambler,” he said without looking up.

I jammed my hands into my pockets. When it came to judgment, we had been holding tight to a familiar orbit. Easy come, easy go. While he agitated and created and silently pressed against his losses, I had been spending my days in the grandstand at Bay Meadows, betting on the horses, honing my gambling skills, enjoying those few seconds as the horses came down the stretch—a cluster of moments that evacuated every worry I had, a rush that was profound enough to stop time. I cared not about being judged. I was at peace there, among the men who screamed at simulcasts from low-lit rooms filled with ash and smoke and the fine, earthy smell of horses. Bay Meadows was a place where I could forget. As the horses rounded the final stretch and mud was flinging and the jockeys were crouched tight, everyone sucked in their breath and screamed at the same time. In that moment there was no Mom disappearing on the back of a Harley with a guy named Guy whose hair was not unlike the mane of a two-bit claim out of Tijuana. Dad’s restaurant had never gone under, and I was not a college dropout. And perhaps most pressing: Bay Meadows was not slowly being pulled apart.

“I’m not a professional, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said.

Dad slung his body against the crowbar. “If you were a professional, you might make more money.”

“I didn’t think cavemen cared about money. Just survival,” I said.

“Shelter,” Dad said, and looked up, breathing heavily, “is paramount.”

A piece of hair whipped into my eye. “Should we be worried about the house?”

“Not yet, no,” he panted.

“Saturday night is closing night,” I said. “You should come. We could win some money.”

“We could lose some,” he said.

“Don’t you think we’ve lost enough?” I was joking, but he leaned on his crowbar and examined me.

“Is that why you came down here?” he said.

“I got a postcard today,” I said. This afternoon, another message arrived from my mother on her motorcycle tour across the country. It was addressed to the Fernipity Sisters of Baked Goods Lane—a name that suggested my mother’s ability for whimsy persisted, as did her resolute denial that she had dropped our days of baking as quick as a down-and-out man might bet on a trifecta with good odds.

Although she was gone, and the residual cloud of her betrayal hung thick and unspoken over our house, I still felt compelled to share news of my mother with my father; to parse out exactly what it was she was doing, to attempt to penetrate the silence of her absence in the hope that this wound could be healed, sutured shut with the right care.

“What’s this one about?” he asked. “Finding healing through crystals?”

I presented him with the postcard, edges torn in its journey from what appeared to be the southern California desert. A sepia-toned tortoise on the front exclaimed that it was time to Get movin’. On the back, in frenzied cursive, my mother’s hand told me they were monsooning through the g. canyon. She promised to wear a life jacket.

Dad looked at the card in my hand, shook his head, and went back to his rocks.

I tried to imagine monsoon season over the Grand Canyon: purple skies, the air thick with the scent of high-desert pine and hot, wet earth. It was escapism at its best, until a motorcycle hauled through the scene and deposited Guy and his six hundred pounds of steel Evil Knievel-style into the gorge below.

“What about the races?” I said.

“What about them?”

“No need for a proper goodbye?” I wanted to say: Let’s at least acknowledge the death of something, together. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Go,” Dad said and stopped to chew on the word. He looked at me, a specter against the wind. “You could still go. To college. Start in the spring.”

“What’s wrong with you?” I said. “You used to love it there.” Dad used to bring me to the races all the time. I learned fractions and odds before I could tie my shoes. It was probably one of the reasons Mom left, looking back: the easy way Dad had of taking everything and distilling it down to luck, even if it was failure.

“Nothing wrong with forward momentum,” he said, as he dislodged a rock and heaved it into his pile.

I said nothing and looked across the bay. If I squinted, I could see the spires of my would-be university jutting into the sky, unreachable in their aspiration. I stuck my toe in a tight crevice between two rocks and strained to hear the bell of the starting gate, post time, that brassy trumpet, clean and high, signaling the sound of another race about to begin.

 

The tractors arrived in the dark and went to work sometime after midnight, clawing at the earth in strange shifts, their diesel cough sometimes punctuated by a random human whistle. My bedroom window sat less than twenty feet from the practice track that abutted our backyard, and when the teeth and blades sunk into the soft earth, the floorboards shook. I couldn’t help but go outside.

I shimmied up our old peach tree and perched on the ledge of our fence to watch the carnage unfold. The moon hung sharp and high in the sky, but it was nothing compared to the floodlights that illuminated the workers, bulldozing beneath a halo of dust. Bay Meadows—the palm trees and tiered seats sat silent and commanding in the distance. I strained to see the zippered crack that ran straight through its heart. The racetrack, famously built before we knew of such things, straddled a fault line at the joint of two very active plates. As a result, fissures spread through the walls of the old grandstand like capillaries. The world was tearing it apart naturally, and it was probably always doomed for destruction, but it also happened to sit on prime real estate. In a matter of months, it would become a commuter’s dream: a Whole Foods topped with condos that overlooked the bay. Solid, new construction in the Spanish style, complete living for the tech workers who had flooded the highways and our communities with their lifeless drive.

The racetrack was a lifeline to a host of memories. My parents both loved the track. It was a cheap family outing that occasionally yielded a surplus. I understand now how unconventional it was to bring me: six, seven, ten, twelve. Expose me to gambling, to women who painted blue eye shadow on their lids and wobbled through the turf club in high heels. Men who spat on the floor and sulked over racing forms and cheap beer, illuminated by the dizzying shots of hooves and silks and turfs from simulcasts across the country: the roses and mountains of Santa Anita, the ocean views of Del Mar, the clean white lines of Belmont. The floor dusted with discarded tickets, dreams gone asunder. Laughter that mixed openly with curses aimed at everything: animals, mothers, luck. But I loved it, that feeling of hope: we were hemmed in together, minute after minute, ushered into whatever life held after that warm trumpet announced post time. There was always a muse to be chased, always a hope that rippled beneath the surface. We hedged our bets against lines of breeding and trainers and jockeys and history and weather, but at the end of the day, there was always some mystery, some line of fate that intervened.

What I hated most about my mother’s departure was that I hadn’t seen the odds shifting silently out of favor, hadn’t felt the pendulum of my life shifting imperceptibly. Neither, apparently, had Dad.

Memories of my mother were evaporating at an alarming speed at home, but at the track, every corner, every smell, and every race somehow managed to make us—our family—still feel inexorably alive. And now, watching the demolition of the practice track unfold, I couldn’t tell what bothered me more, the erasure of memory, or the inevitability of it. Regardless, watching the sharp claws of the machines root up my past solidified one single truth: I had lived a lifetime where things were whole, even though I could not have named that wholeness while I contained it.

I stayed there, watching until the engines died and the workers clocked out after another night of uprooting my childhood. I watched them pull away in their pickups, leaving behind a half-eaten practice track full of craters and piles of debris. When the last man left, I slipped down from the fence and removed the keys from every single piece of machinery.

 

Friday night was dollar night at the track, and I met my best friend from high school as a nod to old times. I hadn’t seen Tammy since a tearful goodbye in August, and now, each fist cradling a dollar hot dog, it felt as if she never left. She’d put on about ten pounds but seemed unbothered as she dug into her dogs and combed through the racing form with me.

“I like the looks of this one,” she said, her mouth full, pointing to a maiden race in the twelfth.

I nodded and she leaned back, putting her feet up on the chair in front of her. “I missed this,” she said. “I miss California. I miss the fog. I never thought I’d say that.”

Tammy had bright red hair, a slight lisp, and a fidelity to nostalgia that I found more than comforting. We never had boyfriends in high school, only each other, but now, according to her, she had “like seven” hunky midwestern men with big corn-husking forearms who roamed the grounds of the University of Iowa just looking to make her happy. This made me happy in a detached way, like another universe was unfolding somewhere, its proximity hypothetical against the reality of the cheers from the music of the eighties cover band that played below us on the wide, ground-level thoroughfare.

“How’s your dad?” she said. We talked about our parents like they were our kids. Her mom, the divorcée, perpetually finding footing, much like my father, in a new landscape of possibilities.

“He’s plugging along.”

“Have you heard from your mom?” she asked.

“Only postcards. She had a burner for a while, but apparently that was weighing her down, too.”

Tammy started on the second dog. “I told my mom you’re looking at the Peace Corps, just so she’s not worried, FYI.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll brush up on my African history.”

When I announced I wasn’t going to college, my father, Tammy’s mother, my teachers—everyone—expected me to have some alternative plan—they expected me to go linear. Choose a path. Put a stake in the ground. Even if they didn’t have direct advice for me, people still had some idea of what they thought I should do, and their unrealized desires rained down upon me: A good job in business. Community college. A volunteer gig with a tech startup. They knew nothing about the shards that littered my life but expected me to pick up the pieces and move on.

But I didn’t want to move on. Not one bit. I lived through the summer as though nothing had changed, but then September hit, everyone left for school, Mom had still failed to manifest, and they announced the closure of the racetrack. It was then that the slow realties of my new life tenderly took root. A failure to interpret a suitable future outside of the flicker of odds.

Tammy wiped her hands on her pants. “Let’s see some ponies.”

We wedged ourselves in the front row of the paddock and watched the horses get saddled. This was our routine, our comfort, a thing we’d done all summer together, and now, as the odds sputtered above the horses’ stalls, anticipation lifted me like a drug. Even after it felt like all the tendrils of my life had withered on their stalks, this place never failed to lift my spirits. Ignore what anyone says. Bay Meadow is an institution. A godsend. A haven. Where else can you get a dollar hotdog and the promise of riches, a joy surge that has the potential to make your heart explode? Where else does calamity meet humanity meet the raw ancient power of a racehorse, those lines of breeding coming together against odds and thrill? Here, I felt like me. Like the old me. A me that was gone, but still there, in the soil, in the trees, in the way the fog tumbled down the hill and shook us all with a cold that, at any given moment, was making a shivering tourist fork out for an overpriced fleece.

Number six was a spotted gray with blue silks named Palacios Fall. He sauntered by and looked the part. Tammy and I went in on a long-shot trifecta on him and two other horses and decided to watch from the rafters. Normally we’d be trackside, jostling for a good view of the final stretch, sharing the thrill of silks and flanks shining beneath the lights, pressed up against the chainlink fence that separated us from the finish line, waiting for the chaos of hooves and manes to speed by, but I wanted to see the races from every angle before everything ended the next night.

I took my seat next to the large cement column that boasted the famous zippered crack. I’d never been so close to the thing, the hot epicenter of movement that was slowly pulling the place apart. Here it was. The heart of chaos. For all its fault lines, for all the potential peril of the place, I placed my hand to it, looking to feel the pulse of something. I wanted to say goodbye, and thank you, but as I watched the horses trot to the starting gate at the far end of the track, Tammy sucked in her breath. She was looking at the wreckage that lay beyond—a scene of apocalypse. The old practice track sat in a pile of twisted metal, and the old stables, famous for their red paint, had been reduced to a heap of boards. Deep holes pocketed the earth. ‘They’re actually doing it,” she said with disgust. “They’re actually tearing it down.”

I nodded quietly, acknowledging that her hypothetical reality—the one unfolding for me every day—was much worse than a host of suitors.

As we settled into our seats and the horses into their gates, I thought about what was on the other side of the inevitable demise of the track. Healing. Closure. A lifelong hatred of Whole Foods. But also: all the things everyone wanted for me that I balked at like a horse at the starting gate. The idea of change wasn’t so bad itself, but the magnitude—the sheer energy it would take to step back into life—was overwhelming. I knew I could do it; I knew I would get a job. I would, in time, find a way to care about something enough to study it. Time would do its painful thing. I would forget the sound of Mom’s footfalls in the hallway. I would forget the way she smelled. I would heal, but only as a failure of memory.

The bell rang and the horses bolted from the gate. I watched them glide around the far side of the track, distracted by the race. Palacios Fall pushed steady in the middle of the pack. We glanced one last time at our tickets before the frenzy of the finish.

The straightaway was a cluster: hooves and whips and horses straining in a beautiful way that made me think about all the memories they held behind their eyes, the inklings of something wild still pulsing through them, all sinew and instinct and muscle. My heart raced, but everything slowed. In the last thirty yards, time stopped, and I was no longer me, saddled with a world I couldn’t control. The expediency of time held nothing, and for a moment, I felt free of its sway. Palacios Fall won at nine-two odds.

We double-checked our tickets in a rush, still suspended in that fine moment. Three thoroughbreds had erased the day and all its struggles. Mom could keep on gliding across the continent. Dad could soon sustain himself on air. All I knew was I had a hot ticket in my hand, around a thousand dollars, give or take, and the high of a win to carry me through.

Tammy and I collected our money and shuffled out with the crowd. As we passed the souvenir shop, I noticed postcards were on sale. Historical moments at Bay Meadows caught on film: opening day in 1942, War Admiral coming down the long stretch, Seabiscuit in the shadow of a grandstand before time etched its mark across the facade. Imagine this: a horse running, electricity pulsing through those perfect muscles with a groomed and ancient memory of old ruin. Flight turned into something prophetic. Every image captured a deep defiance, cellular, quixotic, and beautiful. Here it was: that essence, the moment we all came for over and over again, frozen in time. They were thirty for a dollar. I bought them all.

 

The garage was a low-slung, flat-roofed affair framed by two dying bougainvillea. It carried the dank smell of sweat, the unmistakable brine of low tide, and was perpetually littered with levee rocks of all shapes and sizes. The door was open when I got home, my arms full of racetrack memorabilia. Dad toiled inside. He stopped when he saw me.

“Next thing you know you’ll start coming home with sod.”

“Tammy and I hit a trifecta at the end of the night. Want to celebrate?”

“After I’m done here,” he said, as he looked around at his rocks. There was something defeated in his voice.

“What is it?”

He sat down on a large bag of pebbles and put his head in his hands.

I stood there, blood flooding my brain, high on optimism.

“I have a question to ask you. Are you a terrorist?”

A few postcards slipped from my grip, those shiny horses fluttering to the ground. I was ready for this: “Environmental activist is what I’ve been thinking.”

He raised his head and looked at me. “You know it’s a crime.”

I cocked my head sympathetically. “What they are doing is also a crime.”

“Tearing down a structural disaster is not a crime.”

Disaster is not what I would call it.”

“You need to return these.” He got up and walked over to the workbench that had formerly housed his tools, long ago shed to the gods of Craigslist. He held out a bowl of keys. All the keys. Dozens of keys. He held them out between us, and in the dim light of the garage their luster shone in the bowl like stars. “I am sure this is some kind of felony.”

“If they’re not smart enough to catch on, don’t you think it’s their own fault?”

“You know there is no money for a lawyer to get you out of a mess, so you’d better be as stealth about replacing them as you were about taking them,” he said. I could tell he was mad, but there was something else in the way the new extra skin on his face pulled itself into a grimace. “Another postcard came for you,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, moving toward the kitchen door.

“Do you want me to make her stop?”

I paused. “Why should she stop?”

He looked at me blankly, as if I should have known the answer.

“When she comes home, we can talk. Really talk,” I said.

He brought his hands together in a loose way, as if he were cradling something delicate. “You know that things can’t be the same, if and when she ever does,” he said.

If she ever does?” I repeated because it felt insidious, but also heinous. A thought I had not ever thought. A possibility not factored into the odds. A long shot not worth the time.

I sat on a tire on the ground. We were plunging into fragile emotions, a light tapping on a door we both kept closed.

“She left us,” he said softly. “She had the choice to stay here and weather whatever storms were headed our way together. But she chose something else, something easier.”

Mom’s reaction, her decision to flee, never felt like an indictment against me, but the way Dad said it stung. Whatever betrayals lay between them had been silent. Every parent has a moment where they simply shed their identity in a way. A sloughing off. A relinquishment of those familial bonds. Mom just did it without words. I never heard them fight, never swept up a broken plate. She slid away from my father slowly, until, I suppose, she wasn’t there at all. That old simmering silence made the pockets of quiet between us now even worse. Louder. Augmented. I tried to shift my loot, but things kept falling out of my grasp.

“We don’t know how long this is going to be. And by writing to you, I feel like she’s keeping you…hostage.”

“Hostage?”

“Emotionally hostage, yes. She’s making you hold onto something that doesn’t exist. If you were at school, you would at least be making some traction. Here…now…you’re just…”

“Hostage?” I sputtered. But he was right. The truth of the word squeezed my heart. Every postcard was just a reminder. Never an apology—just a painful affirmation of all that was unspoken. A long tether to a hope where she alone held the reins.

“I just want you to feel like you can move on,” he said softly.

“You mean you can’t wait for her.”

“You should focus your energy on something that’s going to help you,” he said. “And your mother is keeping you stuck. Doing what? We have to consciously choose, like she did, to live our lives.” What he was really saying was: Discard her trite postcards as easily as she discarded us, as easily as the world has discarded us.

My face throbbed with anger. “Why does everyone want me to move on? Why can’t I just be here, like this?” I dropped my postcards and picked up a rock the size of a grapefruit and flung it into the driveway. Dad was sitting in that general direction, and as the rock sailed past him, he looked at me with the wild eyes of a scratched filly.

He picked up my postcards—all those wining horses. All those once-in-a-lifetime animals.

“It’s about not being in the pain anymore,” he said. “It’s about saying goodbye to the past and looking toward the future. Your future.”

“That would make a perfect sympathy card.”

“It will get better. You just have to start.”

“And you’ve done that. Clearly. You’ve shed the weight and said goodbye.”

He looked at me, clear-eyed, and held his wiry arms out wide, as if to say, look around, as if to say, I’m trying.

I shook my head. It wasn’t about when Mom came back. She would, one day, and it would be ugly for a while. It was her absence that we were talking about, otherworldly, beyond touch. “We don’t talk about her anymore,” I said, eyes glazed with unwanted tears. “She’s still here, though. She’s everywhere.”

He sat back down. A single light overhead cast him in shadow, his curved and muscled shoulders heaved slowly, and it struck me that what we were doing was not so different. We were each racing toward a feeling or space that held us. He was searching as far back as he could, groping for a foundation, a spot on which to rest his reality. It was a fundamental thing he wanted, something undeniable even by time’s standards—something you could lay your finger on and say, yes, this is real. Here is the heft and weight of a rock. Here is your sweat. Here is an ancient memory, beyond consciousness, beyond the paltry feelings of your loss.

“It’s not easy. But we have no other choice,” he finally said.

I had to admit, it hurt waiting for her to come back, to walk through the door. Every postcard a letdown, a lie. The thin truth of our fractured family glossed over. And things kept going. The world, in its impossibilities, kept turning. The only reply I had was one that I could not say out loud: I refused to believe that there was no other choice. I could not believe it.

We stood in silence until he retrieved the postcard. It was addressed to just me, with my name scratched in careful lines: Maggie Turner. On the front of the card was a giant sequoia, hand-painted in watercolors. It was pictured from the ground perspective, angled upward to capture its cinnamon trunk, its branches spread in glory, its ancient life saddled, bearing witness to all the atrocities in our little human history.

On the back, it said: Three thousand years old! Going on a tree-hugging tour tomorrow! P.S. I can feel you in these woods. Wish you were here.

I traced the tree with my hand and felt a strand of hope detach itself from a nodule deep inside. We were all so lost, unable to find the words to find our way, and in our confusion, even Mom, on her “adventures,” went in large, searching circles. If she fled on the back of that motorcycle fast enough, time—reality—would never catch her.

 

The next morning, Dad taped a racing form to my bedroom door with the fifth, sixth, and seventh races highlighted and marked with hasty notes—mostly about names of the horses. And on the very last race, he wrote: I’ll hit these races with you if you go to visit campus in the spring with me.

Here was a room I could walk into. A room where my old dad lived. A man who still wanted to be a father.

I found him in the garage.

I waved the form sheepishly at him. “If you want to go to the races with me, I would like that, but we can’t be betting on horses just because you like their names.”

He nodded. “And my deal?”

I thought about inevitabilities, things written in time. A slight bend to my head would be considered a nod, a nod that would set forth whole new possibilities, silent trajectories. I thought about the last line in my mother’s postcard, the frivolity of it. All night I had chewed on the phrase: Wish you were here. There was a painful simplicity behind those words—words that ignored the reality of this moment. I didn’t want to be there. With great clarity, I knew I wanted to be here, and that was the first concrete thing I had known for months.

“I’ll consider it.” I told him. And that was good enough for both of us.

 

We were greeted by a full house. The paddock was all elbows and anticipation and angling for a better view. Newbies and first dates had come for closing night. You could easily pick them out, hunched over racing forms, their nice sleeves rolled up, gawking at the spectacle. Bay Meadows had gussied up for the occasion—bunting and a swing band and champagne flutes. The place I knew was already gone—it had slipped away from me as easily as Friday night.

Outside, floodlights illuminated the manicured flowers. The air was filled with the familiar smell of stale sweat, animal stress, and old cigarettes. Even the horses knew something was up, sidestepping, their bridles yanked taut, their eyes blinded against the excitement. The jockeys, small and wiry, seemed spring-loaded. I looked around at a familiar scene: my people—so many of them hoping and wishing. Fists filled with tickets, building silent levees against the failure of the future.

Dad rubbed his hands together, an old, familiar gesture, and we unfurled ourselves into the odds. Trifecta, pick three, pick six. We pushed through the crowds and spent the night winning and losing.

In the last race, a horse named Mayhem’s Revenge was slotted at twenty-to-one odds. Blood shot hot through my veins. That was a bet not to be overlooked.

“We could go big,” I said, pointing at the horse. “I could pay someone to go to college for me.”

Dad smiled his electric smile. “I smell the grand opening of the Caveman Gym.”

I placed our last bets and looked out across the bay as the lights of towns winked on in the darkness. Somewhere, in a dorm high on a hill, students slept or studied, or watched the floodlights illuminate the last night of racing while we were here, all breath and horse and muscle and hope.

The trumpets rang in post time and we flooded outside with the crowd. I savored the fading control of the moment: the fixed odds, the interplay of conditions, the impossibility of the outcomes and the inevitability of them—now and in the future.

We shoved our way to the front, to the edge of the chainlink fence, only a few yards away from the finish line. The crowed swelled and pressed in on itself as the horses exploded out of the gate. Soon they went out of sight on the far end of the track, but that beating, the unmistakable pulse of hooves echoed throughout the grandstand.

As they rounded the bend, I tried to ignore the crushing sadness of the inevitability of what the next morning would bring: Postcards that would come until they wouldn’t. The shift and clash of the plates beneath us, stars burning their gasses in bright bursts until they extinguished themselves. Everything would continue in its right and probable orbit, even if it wasn’t predicable.

The horses came into view, flinging mud, hides gleaming, jockeys swearing. Beneath the lights it was almost too beautiful to witness. And maybe that was why I turned and faced the crowd. It took everything I had to look away, but I did not see the horses in the heat of their final yards. Instead, I watched the faces of everyone who did. The crowd grew more agitated, the announcer shouted gibberish, voices were hoarse, fists clenched, and soon, everyone, for a split second, held their breath as the horses approached the finish. And there, in that breathless moment, the whole world was held, timeless, in the same ecstatic hope. My eyes settled on my father standing a few feet behind me, his eyes focused on the horses, silently mouthing the words, “Go. Go. Go.”

When the horses crossed the line, the crowd went to pieces screaming. Immediately, everyone, everywhere, began to check their bets. Some hung their heads in defeat; others crumpled their losing tickets or let them float wordlessly to the ground. My father met my gaze, and I knew we were going home with nothing by the way he looked at me, a half-sad smirk on his face. I held our unlucky tickets in my hand, and he waited patiently for me to let go.

 

 


Rose Whitmore is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, and Missouri Review. She is at work on a novel set during Enver Hoxha’s communist regime in post–World War II Albania.

 

 

 

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