Hanging at the Track

By Scott Cooper

I lit a cigarette and took another look at the Daily Racing Form.  The overnight rains had stopped so the track would be dry by first post making the whole day easier to handicap.  More often than not, the first race is useless foreplay, a claiming race for two-year-old fillies.  But the more I looked, the more I saw.  Babette’s Death Fear had been steadily improving over the last six weeks and had just come off a nice show finish at Hollywood Park.  But it was Slavoj’s Nightmare that caught my eye.  She’d only finished out of the money once, at Suffolk Downs in heavy slop.  If the track is even half-dry, she can sleepwalk across the line.  I felt good about it.  Babette was going off at 3-1 and Slavoj at 5-2 and I figured if I bet a $20 boxed exacta, I should collect $85.  That will take care of the power bill and a copy of Third World Medical Procedures, the one with all the pictures.  It was 10 am, the first race was at 2 so I started putting the wheels in motion.

“Hello?”

“Yo, it’s me.”

“What time is it?” Tyler asked.

“Time to place your bets,” I said.

“Isn’t the first race this afternoon?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s never to early to check out the Form, hammer out a game plan, get the ball rolling, check the irons in the fire…”

“How many clichés do you have?” he asked, annoyed.

“About six but I’ll double that by noon.”

“Wonderful.  Where is this Emerald Park anyway?”

“It’s Emerald Downs and it’s down off the 167, in Auburn or some God forsaken place.  I know how to get there so don’t worry.”

“Have you talked to Gabe?”

“No, he’s next on my calling tree.”

“Calling tree?  Sweet Christ…  Well, call him and call me back in a bit.  I’m still asleep,” he said, yawning.

“Fine.  You get your beauty rest, God knows you need it and I’ll circle back to you, as they say in business.  But we can’t be late.  I’ve got a lock in the 1st and I can’t miss it.”

“Yeah…” he said and I heard the phone slide out of his hand onto the carpet.  “Hello?”  Fuck it.  I hung up.

I lit another cigarette and called Gabe.

“Hello?”

“Four hours ‘til 1st post!” I said, with a little too much enthusiasm.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothin’.  I was thinking we could meet…. wait, what is that noise in the background?”

“Spice Girls.”

“Ahhh, how’s the psychological endurance test coming along?”

“Not bad.  So far, I’ve been able to tolerate up to three songs in succession before my skin crawls and I run screaming from the room.  Up from two last week.”

“Nice.  Be careful though.  I told you about my Garth Brooks experiment disaster of ’98, right?”

“Yeah, you did.  Don’t worry, I won’t let that happen to me,” he said with the confidence of youth.

“Smart move.  Without insurance, shock therapy can be expensive.  All right, let’s meet at Denny’s on I-90.  I’ll be in a booth by the window with my Racing Form.  I’ll let Tyler know and we’ll take off from there.”

“Sounds good.  Oh, can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“Can you ‘tell me what you want, what you really, really want?’”

“No.  No I cannot.  Take it slow, my friend.  If you’re not there by 12:30, I’m calling the cops.”

Tyler perused the Racing Form while I finished off a plate of hash browns.  He wore one of his horizontal striped shirts, like something out of France, circa 1966.  I always had the feeling there was a Sarte book nearby whenever he wore one.  Gabe showed up a couple minutes later, a little haggard, dressed in black, sunglasses on.  He nodded to us both and sat down.  The waitress came over, Tyler did his Daniel Day Lewis/My Left Foot impression to order a cup of coffee (he was getting good) and Gabe, without looking at her said, “A cup of tea, Maggie.”

“My name is Jennifer,” she said, perplexed.

“Nevertheless, “ Gabe replied, staring out the window.

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

“Is that a movie line?” I asked.  Gabe shrugged.

“What are these bold black numbers on the right?” Tyler asked.

“Beyer Speed figures,” I said, putting more ketchup on my plate.  “The numbers themselves are important but more important is the numbers in relation to the numbers of other horses in the same race.”

“So, in the last race, Slavoj’s Nightmare ran at 89 and the next highest is Whitman’s Beard at 84 but Whitman won.”

“Yeah, that happens,” I said, searching for a plausible explanation.  “The average speed of the race generates the number and in the last one, Slavoj pulled up a bit on the outside; he was boxed out by Whitman so, his speed was faster overall even though he placed.”

He nodded, furrowing his brow to make sense of it all.  The coffee and tea arrived, the sound of ceramic cups placed on the table.  At other tables came ambient sounds of cheap metal forks clinking against plates, knives, teeth– the soundtrack to living.  It struck me again that life exerts itself the most when one stops trying to figure it out.  Like art, it exists more when you refrain from defining it.  It was hard to take.  I knew if I held my mind back from opinion, there would be only feeling.  The abysmal canyon of feeling churning with the same punishing message every time; there is nothing left to say.

I looked to Gabe who appeared to understand this silence in an active way and asked, “Does it ever feel like all talking, all speech, regardless of insight or value, is one long desperate attempt to avoid the hangman’s noose of silence?”

He nodded.  Damn straight.  We played a three person version of rock, paper scissors to determine who would drive.  I lost.

“Do you see this?” I asked.

“See what – who are you asking?” Tyler replied.

“Anyone who will listen.  This, this traffic.”

“This isn’t traffic, we’re going 60.”

“Exactly.  We should be going 72 but we’ve fallen behind a wall of cars, four wide, that won’t budge.  You see in front of them?  Space, open real estate, untouched pavement and none of these assholes will pass or move over.  It’s crap-traffic.  It’s not real congestion, it’s stupidity.  It’s fundamentally selfish driving, very egocentric.”

Gabe laughed.  “You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you.”

“I live on earth, I drive these roads.  I have no choice.”

“When you are bent over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 10 at night, illuminated by a single light bulb from the ceiling, you’ve contemplated the dynamics of this crap-traffic, right?” Tyler asked, with a smirk I could sense from the back seat.

“Since you bring it up, yes.  You may laugh but, before, during and between bites of said sandwich, I’m working on solutions, stuff to take to the mayor.  Maybe caring about the welfare of others is wrong, maybe wanting to see this world run a little more smoothly is naïve but, hey, this is what I do.”

They both laughed, not buying it.  Fuckers.

We got to Emerald Downs in plenty of time, grabbed some beers and sat trackside as the trainers walked their horses around the one mile course.  I tried to convey the obvious wisdom of a boxed exacta on Babette and Slavoj but Gabe liked Bulgaria’s Promise and Tyler was leaning towards Natalie’s Problem.

The A-Frame structure was already in place at the right end of the infield.  I nodded in that direction – “Hey, check it out.  Halftime entertainment.”

“Do they have halftime in horse racing?” Tyler asked.

“No.  It’s like the seventh inning stretch between the 4th and 5th races.”

We waited as the gate was set up.  The first race was 7 furlongs.  I took one last look at the Form and made my decision.

“Ok, I’m going to the window, you guys want me to place your bets?”

“Sure,” Gabe said.

They handed me their money; Gabe $5 to win on Bulgaria and Tyler, $10 to show on Natalie.  I smirked as I took their money and walked to the lady at the 5th window.

“How you doin’ sugar?” she said.

“I’m very fine, thank you.  I’ll take a $20 boxed exacta on the 1 and 5, $5 to win on 6 and $10 to show on 7.”

“That will be $55.”

“Here you go.”

“Thank you sweetie; good luck.”

She was an old track hag but calling me sweetie, that melts my heart every time.  “Well, thank you and you have a nice night.”

I went back to the table, gave them their slips, lit a cigarette and gave one to Gabe.  I looked at Tyler who was transfixed by the sky.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“This hot chick totally just checked him out,” Gabe said.

“Is that it?”

“No, it’s not that,” Tyler said indifferently, as if a hot girl checked him out every day.  Actually, they did.  “It’s just weird.  Those clouds, their shape, the sun pushing through where it can, this pattern, this design, it’s unique.  No two clouds are the same and even the individual clouds change, therefore, they are in constant flux.  No two sunsets, rainstorms, sunrises have ever been identical.  They may seem so but they’re not.  Sometimes it hits me that every sight I see, every second I exist is a constant rapid fire succession of birth, death, rebirth.  Before you can blink an eye, it changes ever so subtly but because our minds can’t take it, we assume consistency.”

“That’s true,” Gabe said, “because when you throw in time, even things that don’t change much, like a table or a light switch, are in fact different because they never exist in the same instant but once.  Scott, we talked about this remember?  I’m sitting on one side of Tyler, you on the other and yet we both assume it’s Tyler because there is enough similarity to make the assumption, yet, he is changing, we are changing and time is changing.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “If we didn’t assume the basics, if instead we let ourselves get caught in the web of dissection over and over, we’d miss the event of experience.  It’s like our minds have no choice but to concede certain things in order to live as we do.  Sometimes I think transcendence is the simultaneous knowledge of this rapid recurrence, and the ability to work it into solidity for the sake of sanity.  It’s the ability of the mind to hold more than one thing at once.  As it is, in our unenlightened ways, the brain cannot do two things at once.  Whatever we do, however many things we think we do at once, the brain always shifts focus from one thing to the next.  Fuck.  That is weird…”

The horses were in the gates and ready to go.  The gates snapped open and Slavoj got to the front of the pack inside of a furlong.  Yes.  Babette was close behind followed by Natalie and Bulgaria a half a length back.  It was a good pace, no need for the whip, nice and easy around the first turn.

At four furlongs, Babette pulled even with Slavoj and Bulgaria and Natalie started moving up a bit on the outside.  “C’mon Slavoj!” I yelled, standing up.  No sooner than the encouraging words left my mouth did Slavoj start losing ground as if distracted by something, as if she suddenly remembered she hadn’t yet filed her taxes.  “What the fuck is this?” I said, looking back to Tyler and Gabe who were now laughing.

Babette breezed into the lead with ease as Slavoj slid into second and then, eighth.  “You stupid motherfucker, what in the holy hell…”

“C’mon Natalie, c’mon baby!” Tyler yelled.  We were all on are feet now.

“Hit it, Bulgaria!  Get to the fuckin’ rail!”

When Bulgaria pulled into the lead, I sat down.  They finished – Bulgaria, Natalie and Babette.  My lock was a bust and my certainty squirmed in my stomach.

“Son of a bitch.  Goddamn, asshole horse… You should be turned into glue!”

I threw my betting slip on the ground in disgust and went to grab three more beers.  Maybe it would help.

We sat out the second race, bet the third and fourth and were all hovering near even.  After the fourth, the bright white track lights went red and intermission was underway.  A man in a black suit walked to the center of the infield and turned on his cordless microphone.

“How you all doin’ tonight!”

A few people cheered but it was the track, not a Seahawks game.  Tough crowd.

“All right then.  As you can see down by the structure, my associate, Billy, is securing the rope as we speak.  As some of you may have read in the program, available for $4 at any concession stand, tonight we are putting to rest one Alan Phillips.  Mr. Phillips was found guilty last year of preaching religious ignorance and hatred in the first degree.  He was a pastor at the Light of the Shining Christ church in Kent, Washington, which has now been mowed down to make room for, what else in Kent, a strip mall!”

The cheering grew louder.

“All right!  Yes, this new business complex will include a nail salon, a dry cleaning enterprise and a Thai video store.  As you leave tonight, you may pick up a coupon at the door for 50% off any one purchase from any of these fine, future establishments.  Now, if I may draw your attention to the white tent to my left, Mr. Phillips is receiving last rights, as if that will help!  By the gallows, you will also notice five lucky kids, winners of the lottery, for the rock throwing portion of the event.  They were randomly chosen from many young choir boys at Shining Light, ready to take out their vengeance on the man of their misleading.  Ready boys?”

The young boys jumped up and down with excitement, a small pile of stones by their feet.

“Ok!  Let’s bring him out!”

The stereo speakers began to moan a guttural sound, like a distorted, droning sewer line pumped through a wall of amps.  The crowd cheered louder as Mr. Phillips, in nothing but white underwear and a black hood, hands tied behind his back, was led to a small step ladder under the noose.  Billy walked him up the steps and removed the hood.  Mr. Phillips looked around at the crowd.  The emcee reached into his pocket and pulled out a microphone.  He asked, “Any last words Mr. Phillips?”

 “Long live Jesus Christ.  In the name of Christ I submit my life and you will all burn in hell for this.  If I must die to make it known that I…”

The emcee interrupted, “And die you will!  Billy, string him up!”

Billy put Mr. Phillips’ head in the noose, tightening the knot at the back of his neck.

“All right boys, let him have it!”

The boys screamed with vicious delight as they hurled stones at his head and body, skin splitting open, blood dripping down his thighs, Phillips screaming in pain.  As the last of the stones was thrown, Billy stepped forward and yanked the step ladder away.  Phillips dangled violently, kicking his legs, his body snaking back and forth from the will to survive.  He let out difficult gurgling sounds as he writhed for two full minutes.  The horses were being brought out at the other end in preparation for the fifth race.  As the last bit of life and soul crept from his body, Phillips stopped moving.  Billy went with a stethoscope to his chest and gave the crowd a thumbs up.

Some cheered as Billy put the ladder back under his feet, climbed up and began cutting the rope with a hunting knife.  A couple of men from a hearse parked at the half mile pole came over with a stretcher to help carry him away.  The white lights came back on, the low murmur of the crowd restarted and there were ten minutes left ‘til post time.

I suddenly yet vaguely remembered a time when these public hangings were met with public opposition.  Like the war in Iraq that the government declared permanent in 2010.  Now, the hangings, like the war, were simply another accepted fact, a staple of our culture like American Idol, also declared permanent, by FOX Media.

I turned to both guys.  “Are we supposed to feel something?  I mean, I hate Christians but…”

“I feel like we should but what?” Gabe asked.

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

“Yeah, I think we are,” Tyler said.  “It’s like something I can’t locate has been stripped from me.  All I know is that this thing, whatever it is, makes me want to move to Europe all the more.”

“Exactly,” Gabe said.  “I feel like I have to get out of here, like I’m being slowly lobotomized.  Something is off in this country.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, “ I said.  “I don’t always know why, maybe my roots are too deep but I’m going down with the ship.  Nice sunset though, huh?”

And it was.  We looked into the twilight knowing it was one of a kind.  A new, electric sky, turning into a memory of itself right before our eyes.  Phillips was dead, the sun was dying but there were plenty more of both out there waiting to be born again.  I began to concern myself with tomorrow; school, errands but I stopped.  No.  There is only right now.  This day and this moment will end like everything else and I’d hate to be responsible for killing it before its time.