Trying to stay coherent, I find myself racing through gates of questions. Lapping around and around in circles til I reach the next steel cage. We have just trotted up to another. I could smell my breath, dancing in short hiccupy bursts like a pearl diver before submersion. Our hearts raced in anticipation; mine in my chest and hers, deep within my thighs. The green steel bars stand in front of us like subway exit turnstyles, steaming to gray with each breath. She licks away the small strands of hay clamoring to the bars like scattered mulch. I just realized she is not as anxious as I am; who can eat at a time like this? If we don’t answer this question right, we’ll be left behind. After all, that’s the key to unlocking our cell. We have to answer a question and the doors ding open. It makes perfect sense. I’ve pictured game shows like this my entire life.
“Pop, how was Vegas, you haven’t told us!?” Someone brimming with excitement shouts.
“What was your favorite game in Vegas?!”
Ah yes, I forgot. I have guests. It’s nice to have guests. I really can’t complain. I’m just not in the mood I guess. I’d rather rest but what am I going to do, ignore them?
Thinking first about the question, I process my response quicker than I can say it, and my lips squirm like a fish. Before I can push out the words….another question.
“Are you a blackjack guy?”
I know that voice but I haven’t put two and two together.
“Oh how about Poker Dad? Don’t you love poker, or whatever they call it these days, Texas Hold’Em?”
Now that voice I know is my daughter. And no, I don’t like poker, too much strategy. Too much thinking. Gambling should be fun, quick, exciting. Sitting there for hours and hours, I just don’t trust people. I try and voice my distaste for such five card shenanigans, but I can’t keep my lips away from each other. I lift my arm towards the ceiling and pull down. Up then down, up then down, and man does it feel good. I could feel the ball in my palm like a cue. The tick of the arm as it comes down….tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…..tick, ching. I love that sound. The reels are off and spinning as fast as my heart can run. I need to pull that lever. I’m most alive when I do. I guess it’s the possibility or the fantasy that winning actually could happen. Your dream could actually happen by taking a chance and pulling that lever. And you, and only you have paid for that right to pull it at that moment, no one else. You have a claim to whatever sum of money spits out. I love it. Not to mention, throwing my arm in the air is far easier then finding the air to speak. My skin flaps and tingles as new air cools the underside of my arm. I guess I had it resting in one spot for a while right on my chest. I can actually breathe a bit better now.
“Slots! Haha, that’s right!” yells a woman.
“You see, he’s doing the slot pull thingy” whispers my grandson. That must be my grandson.
“The one arm bandits?! Yea pop? That’s your favorite?”
I know this man speaking, it’s Alan, my niece’s husband. He’s a loud jovial man with a lumberjack look about him. He would make the perfect Santa Claus if he dressed up like him. I hope he does because he has three great children and a booming voice.
“Oh he’s always loved the slots. He could sit and have two machines going at the same time and be hitting on the lady next to him” says my daughter.
“No way! Pop, is that right? You’re pulling double handles and macking it to the ladies?”
“Macking it?” I think to myself. I want to tell Alan I have no idea what “macking it” means but I figure it’s like flirting when put into context. I dismiss the idea with a fling of my arm as if to say “get outta hear with that nonsense, I’m a one gal man.” They know what I’m thinking already. My action is fleeting enough to qualify their que to laugh, so I smile. After all, this arm gesturing thing is getting pretty easy.
“Oh we’re just busting your chops Bob.”
A woman’s speaking but I’m yet to place the words with a body. She bends down and kisses me on the forehead. I can feel her hair along my cheekbone and then inside my ear. An endearing gift but one I’m not so sure the reason. She’s never done that before.
“We know Elyse was and always will be your sweetheart.”
Got it, it’s my niece’s girlfriend. Her name is Lisa, no wait, Linda. Lisa is my niece. I reach out with my hand and she grabs it. I’ve always been aware of their relationship. I’m not stupid. I know what goes on out there in this crazy world, but as long as they’re happy who am I to say anything. It’s none of my business. Let them be if they’re not hurting anyone.
I begin to claw at both my arms simultaneously. They’re folded but scratching furiously because it feels too good. They’re so damn itchy. They’ve been like this now for the past few days. Once the yellow went away, this started happening. One thing goes and another shows up. This itching though, it’s like Athlete’s Foot all over my arms. You can scratch for hours and satisfy nothing but a deeper gash. I’d take the tan any day over this. I should put oven mitts on my hands and duck tape them at the wrists til it passes. My daughter just sat down next to me; I can smell her. She always wears the same scent. A tube squirts like an empty ketchup bottle; it must be that gel that lubricates my arms. She trims my nails first and gives me the same scratching speech since my skin is too sensitive to handle it. Like I need another friggin speech. She then puts the cool gel all over my forearms up to the tops of my shoulders. My daughter hangs around so much more often than she’s needed; I can rub lotion on myself, thank you. One stinking setback after the next, and she feels she’s gotta be here at all times. I can’t wait, in a few days I can get back out there and hit my routine. Say hi to my girlfriend Rose at Stop & Shop by the deli counter. Slip down the aisle with the wooden barrels and plastic covers. Raid a couple olives with those sun-dried tomatoes in the center; by God those are heaven. The sour twinge they squirt in the back of my mouth makes my cheeks clench and rise as my eyes water. Then I’m off to catch my senior special at McDonald’s and say hello to Ozzie. He probably misses me; I could imagine him people-watching and commenting to an empty table beside him. Then over to Ikea for those Swedish meatballs. Mmmm my name, just the thought of them is getting my taste buds puckered. Luckily I have a friend over there. Her name’s Margaret. Margaret always charges me for the kid portion but knows my addiction can’t manage only four of those little jobbys. She piles em on…. “shush…keep it quiet Bobby, between you and me”, and gives me a wink. She could be fired for something like that. I have a lot of respect for her. Then off to my usual post office parody….ughhh that friggin post office. I’d love to shoot the breeze with Ethyl and Harry, see what’s new with their families, who’s dropping out of school or getting a new tattoo, but I hate that place now. Ever since I had to be helped up off the concrete like some drunken invalid; it’s the site of my most recent malfunction. Who slips, falls and breaks their hip right after a massive surgery? In broad day light, no less….how embarrassing. At least I’m still able to ride her. I don’t notice any pain at all as she gallops, so that’s good. With her I cruise, light and fast like nothing exists in the world but us. I just hate to feel that breeze tempering in my ears; I would rather it whip so loud that it silences the world around me like sprinting through a desert at sunset. If we’re slowing down I know we must be approaching another gate. It’s like arriving at your destination when you would so much rather keep looking out the window to contemplate the many what if’s your life reveals in hindsight. Motion does that, it gives you a blank canvas to project yourself, no matter what way you wish; just for speculation of course.
“Grandpa, did you get to see any shows while you were there?” my grandson yells.
“Yea, did you check out Wayne Newton or any of those Cirque de Soleil shows? I hear they are great.”
“They are great, I must’ve seen three or four of them by now…” says my niece to her cousin.
Someone whispered about trying to keep the conversation going. Old must mean deaf. We did see a show actually, but the man’s name escapes me. I open my mouth to talk but I need to sit up and gather my breath. I push my back up off the sheets to adjust myself. This damn bed seeps so deep I’m like meat in a soft tortilla.
“Oh, help him up.”
Five people practically dive on me, digging their hands under my back to lift. I can’t imagine their help actually helping. Fingers pinching and pulling my damp t-shirt, applying pressure quickly to thin skin so they can get their fingers further under. If they all lifted at the same time, maybe, just maybe it would’ve worked but instead I’m wincing and bouncing around. I hold back from yowling and thank them; what good would complaining do, especially when everyone’s involved. Now that I’m propped up on a few more pillows, I burp. It’s a disgusting, empty burp; one of those throw-up gurgles, and it friggin lingers of aspirin and water. Ugh, that was disturbing, I could use some water. I’m always taking some kind of pill since the surgery and my daughter keeps trying to feed me some crap that I don’t want upsetting my stomach. I’ve told her I’m not hungry thirty times. I know what I want, what do you want from me? If she wasn’t so annoying, I might try to eat. Hocking up mucus and congestion in every breath, my daughter’s handing tissues constantly. The bed looks like a woman just got finished watching Ghost. If she wants to help she can stop wiping my scratchy face and friggin shave me for chrissake. I can’t wait to shave again. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a day but now I can feel the stubble press into the pillow when I sleep. It’s so weird that facial hair just keeps growing. What is hair? This weird strand of god knows what just starts forming under your skin, and then pops out? Where does it go once it doesn’t come back?
“Dad?” my daughter announces.
I shift my head towards her direction. I don’t think I’ve opened my eyes yet, but I can see everyone just fine. You know how you feel when you fall asleep at the wheel, you project the road in front of you as if you’re still driving but your eyes in the meantime have drooped closed? You don’t even notice the real world from a dream. I can hear all their voices and where they’re coming from, so I’ve painted my own visual. That’s the easy part, now if I could only separate these damn lips.
“Oh, he opened his eyes.”
“Shhh, he’s gonna say something.”
I find it odd that they’re so eager and attentive. I lower my eyebrows and I can see them become worried that I’m mad.
“Yea pop, who’d you see?”
I’m trying to friggin tell you for chrissake, I think to myself, gathering breath.
“What’d he say?”
“I don’t know, we’ve really gotta listen.”
“Shhh…what’s that dad, you saw a what?”
I breathe and try using my hands again as I gather some friggin oxygen in such a stuffy overcrowded bedroom.
“I don’t know what a rabbit means.”
“I can’t believe how bad he’s gotten, so fast.”
A concentrated look comes over my grandson and I can tell he almost knows what I mean. Frustrated, I could feel my body wriggling and my lips munching cornbread without milk. I begin to pull a long-eared bunny out of a hat and open my arms.
’wwahh lahhh”, a frog says.
Maybe not a frog, but my voice sounds like a bad Dracula impersonation. It’s on the tip of Alan’s tongue.
“Haha, he saw a magic show” says my grandson.
“An illusionist! I get it now…who’d you see? Seigfried & Roy?” says Linda.
“Thank you” I say and shake my head no.
“Oh, who’d you see then?” asks my daughter.
“Wait, who’s that guy that used to be married to Claudia Schiffer?” asks Linda.
I throw my hand up and point to my niece.
“No way, you saw David Copperfield!?”
I nod. My words just don’t sound clear without my dentures.
“Wow Dad, you didn’t tell me that and I’ve been here for four days.”
I throw my hands up like I’m supposed to know she’s unaware of what Brian and I did in Vegas.
“don’t have to tell you every…”
“Yes you do!” she responds with a big smile.
I grab her by the chin and give her a bothered shake. My hand slips off pretty quickly. My hands are bone dry as usual. I don’t know if I grew up like this or when it started happening, but I’m the guy spilling soda all over the dinner table. I’d actually rather have butter fingers than mine. Always carrying around that damned pocket-sized container of hand lotion; talk about a ridiculous condition. God forbid I meet someone and they go in for a handshake; chalk. They usually rise to their tippy toes and suck in til my grip is released. Their smiles stiffen and jaws juice; I can actually hear it. I never did the whole vice grip thing though, that I can attest too. I hate those guys. One time Elyse and I were out at a corporate Christmas party for Metropolitan Life. Elyse was wearing her new sea foam colored dress, and I specifically remember it because she had just come back from Sears & Roebuck and was trying it on when she boasted how festive she looked. I looked at her hair clips to see if they had silver bells or turtle doves with red bow-ties…embroidered holly or jolly santas on her stockings, nothing. I just didn’t get it. I hadn’t even said anything and she read my eyes. “My dress dumbie.” I said, “what about it? It looks nice.” “It’s green, for Christmas!” Once we got to the party, we sat down at our assigned table, grabbed some egg nog from the crystal bowl in the center of our table, and one of my assistant’s sat down. Right next to her was her husband, which she promptly introduced to Elyse and I. And I tell ya, this guy took my hand and tried to suffocate a bird. “You’ve got a lot to prove with a grip like that” I said. He didn’t seem to like me but for all I knew, his wife was coming home everyday with stories of office discontent. Instead of blaming her, I went in for another quick shot during his silence. “You a military man? You shatter any lady’s hand helping her out of a car?” I kept sipping my egg nog as Elyse gave me a kick. I hated that macho, holier-than-thou crap. I sit up straight and breathe in. Jostling a bit, I grab the iron at my right and stand up in the stirrups to shift my pants from riding up. She is so strong, I can just feel it as she doesn’t even budge at my adjustment. Sitting back down, I practice my crouch and pat her on the neck. Her hair is so course but shines like velvet. I wipe my smooth face of any drool that flew out uncontrollably and prepare for the next sprint. We go so unbelievably fast I don’t even remember the question; I must’ve got it right.
Someone’s hollerin…“Pop, did he make something huge disappear, or what?”
He actually did and I’m surprised Alan guessed that. That must be something all magicians do.
“A sports car” I say.
“Oh yeah? A Ferrari I bet!” booms Alan.
“Yea, it’s gotta be something like that. I saw a show, maybe it was Cribs or whatever, and they had this panoramic view of his house and all these gorgeous cars lined his driveway. He’s such a showboat” says Lisa.
“The guy’s a multi-millionaire magician. Of course he’s a showboat. These guys get off on attention. They’re attention whores.”
I can sense a bit of jealousy in my grandson’s voice when he says it, but he’s right. Modesty is a great quality. I’ve been in this house my whole life. My kids get whatever they want and I denied my wife nothing of course. It’s not like she wanted a sports car or anything. Kenny and Robby, now those are two guys that love their cars. Robby has that beautiful Corvette; purple-paint, tan top. That thing shines like my shoes. You can barely hear the engine start-up; it’s unbelievable. The thing sits 6 inches off the ground. Not that I know how he gets in and out of it, being 6’4”, 245 and 61. Wait, 61 or 62? Karen is…well, hmm….they’re all five years different, that I know. Elyse and I were married in 1949 and had Robby right away so…..well, 9 months or so later, that’d be…well, that might’ve been 1950 since we were married in July, so, well then yes, he’s 61. If he’s 61, then Karen is 56, Brian 51 and Kenny 46. Got it.
“A Rolls Royce?! How about that pop? Was it a Rolls Royce?”
Nah, it wasn’t a Rolls Royce, Kenny could never afford something like that. He has that racing car…..oh darnit, this is going to bother me…what’s the name…it was yellow with black racing stripes. SuperCharger? Nah, something with an animal on the side of it, a little insect towards the tail. It kind of looked like that bee from Honey Nut Cheerios. Oh, SuperBee, haha. That’s right, the SuperBee, thank god. I would have thought I was losing it. That’s gotta be an antique at this point. Made out of real steel, not that fiberglass plastic nonsense. Back into a fire hydrant and it folds like cardboard. That bee’s a car from back when men fought for their jobs, back when they had a trade and rode it through their entire lives. Families were better for that. Not that I wouldn’t love to sit in Robby’s Corvette because it’d be a real smooth ride, I just think I’d like to feel that engine rumbling my rear, giving me confidence like a weapon in battle. That’s old-time muscle right there. Cars would roar down the streets and cops would give you a break if they caught you doing something you shouldn’t. They were all veterans. They knew that what these kids were doing was miniscule compared to what they’d done or seen overseas. There was no reason to penalize their own or drag them down. We would look out for our own. Lead them in a direction with a few less hills to conquer. I remember they’d brought Robby home that one night. They just kept knocking on the door until I flicked on the porch light, all foggy headed, standing in my skivvies. The officer took his hat off and introduced himself. Robby’s head was down. He knew he’d screwed up, but to be honest I was glad it wasn’t something far worse. They’d just said they’d stopped him after he was swerving around town and figured it’d be better to let his old man handle him before he hurt anyone. I wonder if Robby remembers that? Where is Robby? And where’s Kenny? I feel like I just saw them, today, yesterday….who knows. What is today? The weekend maybe; too many people to be otherwise.
“What time is it?” I ask.
I open my eyes to such an exuberant response. I’d thought my eyes were open; I must be dozing.
“Umm, it’s 730” says Linda.
“Not too late” I respond, forgetting why I asked.
“Nah, not too late for a Wednesday.”
I looked over at my daughter to see if she was trying to trick me. When I saw her face, I could tell she wasn’t. I pretend to act like I know. I don’t want to question it or act overly surprised because I despise being made a fool of. No one visits on weekdays; there’s no point in it.
“Pop, who do you think’s gonna win the world series this year. You a Yankees fan?” Alan asks.
I readjust the sheets for a second and scratch my arm. I can see splotchy bursts of dark red below the skin so I stop.
“Baseball is a great sport…”
“Of course it is. America’s pastime! My kids and I adore….”
I raise my hand to pause Alan; holding one finger high. A roar of laughter ensues. I glare a toothless grin and raise one eyebrow. I repeat…
“Baseball is a great sport….”
Everyone laughs as Alan smirks and crosses his arms, blushing. I guess I couldn’t have cut the thought off at any better a moment.
“I have never really been a fan,…
those jibonies get paid way too much…
to hit some friggin ball…
the size of my fist.”
I look at my grandson.
“Get a job like that…
I’m telling ya.”
My grandson smiles with an “alright buddy, sure” but I’m not buying it.
”You don’t like baseball?” I ask him.
“Not so much grandpa, plus I’m a little late in starting now, don’t ya think?
“Forget school and go…
hit a million golf balls….
you can play that…
til you’re my age.”
I stare at my grandson still lacking intent while the others cheer me on. He’s such a good looking young man, I just wish….oh I remember now…. I’ve told him over and over.
“Didn’t I tell you….”
“Yes Grandpa.” He already knows where I’m going with this.
“Then go do it!”
“What are you waiting..?”
“I will Grandpa, I just gotta take some acting classes. You can’t just show up…”
“Of course you can!”
He laughs and smiles, but what he doesn’t know is my generation had to make things happen. You couldn’t just sit around and hope it comes. Just go do the bloody thing and see what happens.
“Alan?” I point at him.
“I’m a ponies guy.”
Alan smacks his forehead. He’d long known this but I’m not surprised it’d skipped his mind.
“Well Pop, let me ask you this? What track you recommend visiting? You must’ve been to all the tops?”
It’s funny but what his question reminded me of wasn’t the memories of track visits or famous races, women in their finest hats and feathered dresses. What I heard the most in his sentence was the way he prefaced the question with a question. It’s something a salesman does. He’s prepping the audience to gather themselves in a position of answering a question that may or may not be intrusive or personal. It’s a technique. Someone who’s less then receptive in-person or on the phone, will automatically be more so when you do this. Alan is a salesman, and I know that. I just hadn’t thought how noticeable it was until I heard one of the same lines I used to deliver back when I sold life insurance. Every important sentence would begin with “let me ask you this.” The person on the other end of the line would so blatantly adjust themselves in their seat that you could hear it. It’s like that comfortable feeling that comes over you when you sit down in an airplane. You submit yourself to a world that will be out of your control for a specific period of time; relinquishing the platform to a new speaker as it’s no longer your turn. It was easier to sell back then. People didn’t have much in the sense of advertisements, TV shows, competing products, differing opinions and analyses on every little detail. People trusted people who were more knowledgeable. Life insurance was an easy sell. Who wouldn’t want to protect their family if they died? We loved our wives like no other. We know what it was like to not have them in our lives for years. We weren’t letting them out of our sight, unless we were dead. And if we died, we sure as hell weren’t going to leave them empty handed. Now, you probably couldn’t sell life insurance to a clairvoyant. In fact, he’d probably apply for every credit card he could, start spending like a banshee and then off himself before the interest kicks in. Kicks in….kicks…in…..kickin….kick. My beautiful girl let’s out a loud, disgruntling breath as she shakes her head hard up and down. I’m an idiot, I haven’t looked up. We haven’t moved yet. The gate is still closed. “Sorry about that”, I tell her, leaning low and close. I graze my hand in the opposite direction of her hair just to feel it pierce through my clammy hand. The color changes slightly like rubbing suede or petting a schnauzer or dragging your feet through a new rug. “I thought we were running babe, haven’t we answered them all?”
“Hey pop, is it Belmont pop?”
Apologizing, I wave him off because I really haven’t been to many tracks yet.
“There’s three I’m yet to see…”
“Oh?” Alan nods.
“Which ones you wanna get to see Uncle Bob?”
“Did you hear me?” I asked.
“Oh no, what’d you say Pop, did you say something?”
“…I’ve been to Belmont.”
“He lives at OTB” says my daughter.
“I don’t live there!” I growl. I don’t like it when kids say something, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m only there for hellos and a few nickels and dimes. The minimum bet is a dime. Francis and the cats give me a “Hey Bobby” salute, and I usually curtsy a “gentlemen.” It’s my fraternity of TV addicts. No one mentions their actual bets to anyone unless they win, but Lenny could have six races going at once, but only talk to you about one, which is his golden goose. Even geese, to replace a more masculine word, poop the bed. I like to place one bet at Churchill Downs, Belmont, Dover, Freehold, Oaktree and Goldengate. I’ve had a lot of luck with Goldengate. It’s just one of those things. When you’re hot at a place, it doesn’t even matter if you lose 20 or 30 races, you’ll always remember the big wins and share those stories with everyone. Who wants to hear about losing? Not me. I’ve never done well at Turf Paradise. I don’t even like the name of the place. Sounds like some desolate desert putt-putt golf course off route 66 or something. I can just imagine it, dusty wind blowing off the hard crackled sand, cactuses as tall as palm trees acting as markers to remember where you parked your Caddy, 45 degrees in the early morning, 112 by mid afternoon, the grass outside the field-stand is bleached, short and flattened from relentless tires pursuing their fix. Anything with the word “turf” in it doesn’t sit well with me; that’s all. Name is everything in this sport. Same flies for the horse; if it ain’t named good, it affects your heart. You place your heart in every bet. I don’t care how low the payout is. We’re in it for the thrill of being involved. We love having a stake. It’s funny how we always say that. We all know what that means because it’s supposed to be a sort of tongue twister, or play on words. We have a “stake…..in the stakes.” “Hey Franny! You staking out your stake in the stakes?!” We’d yell it out over the benches when he’s reading his odds up at the counter. Everyone in the room laughs and someone usually throws in a dumb line about buying everyone steaks for dinner with the winnings, but it’s not the same word so I don’t like it. I’ll never say I don’t like it to whomever it is, but that’s the truth. Francis always likes to hand his money to Glenda at the counter. I shouldn’t say it’s just him; we all really like entering our bets with Glenda; we all have a crush on her. We only go to her though when we’re betting a decent amount. We wouldn’t want to look like cheapskates with our dimes and quarters, so we only stand there when our intentions are too the moon. We’ll use the machines for the really small ones. Those damn machines are so impersonal. They just take your money and lock it away. I like making eye contact. I always liked that. I always like the ponies I can see. They’ll look right at you, like you’re right there with them. You can see the fire in their eyes. Young and wild, that’s it, you’re indebted. I always wanted to ride one, hard and tight. Pinching em between my legs but hovering all the same to manage each galloping impact in my knees and hips. You’ve gotta manage it. Not like I’m light enough to really race but I always imagined it like being in a falling elevator. Right before impact, you somehow push off, curl, duck and roll to support yourself. I’d have my chin so low I would just bury it in her mane for aerodynamics. There’s no more powerful a smell I’d bet. Not even a woman’s perfume. I’d have her take me as far and as fast as she can go. Passing my friends as we would all get to challenge each other in one big race of course, and during that race I would just peer on over and yell “manage your jealousy boys, it’s my turn!” “Thwack, thwack….” the leather would land in rhythm with her leaps and I’d holler to the wind “gaw head baby, we’ve got it….open her up…I want to fly so fast that the ride won’t ever seem to stop.” In that same wind she did too whisper, and not through sound nor whistling breeze did her words travel, but through the hair that brushed against my face. And from face, the words trickled into my ear, and reassured me that she could handle this. “We’ve got it Pop, we’ve always had it” she said. And so I say in a whisper on back “let’s go get em sweetie….this is our chance…don’t you dare stop until you see that next gate.”