A Day at the Races
My father said I was living in his house persona non grata and that I needed to find myself a job. I asked why he wouldn’t just buy me a baseball team like the President’s daddy. He thought about this a second and offered me a ride to the temp agency instead. I liked that, though. The Latin.
This was how I ended up working with Don, counting lampposts for the city of Lockport. A field audit, they called it. The temp agency told us they’d had trouble finding a team who could execute this task with consistency. Don and I got a kick out of that, all these anonymous flameouts going down counting lampposts.
But Don was late this morning, and I couldn’t help imagining an accident. I’d driven around with the old guy enough to picture him doing something ill-advised. Reaching under his seat, or behind him, or into the glove box like I’d watched him do a thousand times before. Letting his head drop below the dashboard as he blew the red light so that eyewitnesses would claim that there was no driver in the 1991 Honda Civic at the time of the accident. Not an accident at all, really, but a crash. And maybe even a pileup. Dozens of cars slamming into each other behind Don. Heads hitting steering wheels; coffees bursting into laps. I imagined trucks jumping curbs and bending themselves around lampposts, our lampposts. Tires blowing out. Glass shattering. Women screaming. This caterwaul of brakes and impacted metal in the street. And Don’s car, in the middle of everything, sparking and bursting into flames as it flipped and rolled over on itself.
Why else would he be a half hour late?
But eventually I picked out the sound of his little Honda growling up the block. A hundred and fifty-four thousand miles, he liked to brag as he punched the dashboard. Don had total faith in his machine and he showed it no mercy, taking us through every pothole in the city, almost willfully. In a funny way the Honda matched his own shambling presence. Perpetually overburdened by found and collected objects, every morning involved a clearing off of the passenger seat anew, just to make room for me.
The car boasted a series of laminated icons who were the saints, I supposed. Led on high by Jesus on the Cross, swinging from the rearview. Bless this mess , Don would always say with a chortle, and I liked him for that. He was unmistakably a man in search of a calling, and yet it surprised me to find out he was a volunteer chaplain with the fire department. A couple times a week Don’s police radio would start twitching and crackling on the nightstand, and he would get out of bed and drive to the awful scene of some burning building. Watching and waiting; standing out in the street. Talking to the people there; looking to make himself useful. Don would never give me any real details, just some mornings he looked tired. I would ask if there had been a fire and he would exhale and nod. “Mm-hm. A pretty big one.”
But there was something off about Don this morning, something almost melancholy. We liked to start slow as a rule, but this was different. Usually we turned on sports talk radio, but Don was playing music at a whisper. I asked if there had been a fire and he said no. We drove on, past blocks of lampposts: five, ten, fifteen, twenty. I asked where we were going and Don said a circle. Letting it hang there.
“This isn’t really coffee,” he said, picking up his mug.
“I figure you have a right to know. I’m thinking about not working today.”
“Uh- huh,” I said, not following this at all.
“You up for something like that?” Don smiled. “Hooky?”
“Sure, I guess. I don’t care.” I shrugged and looked away.
Don swished the dregs of his coffee mug before finishing it. “Good. We better switch to beer, then, if we’re gonna be driving around.”
Don stopped at a gas station and cut the engine. I sat in the car watching him limp across the parking lot. He was a giant man with a clubfoot, which was inescapable. Lamed by birth or life, I had no idea. We weren’t brought up to talk about how something like a sixty-year-old man’s clubfoot could make you feel numb and self-conscious. It was easy enough to forget the thing entirely. But there were always moments like these when I’d see him lumbering on it, dead- asleep for all time.
Don was constantly shifting his weight as we drove around, tucking the crippled foot under the good one to streamline operation. I wish I could say that it was Don’s wonky feet that made us drive around in circles, but that was really just the job. Ostensibly this was a city audit, but that didn’t make the fact of counting lampposts feel any less absurd. Every lamppost was a near- identical copy. Even between decades the models stayed remarkably the same.
Don would pull the Civic up to a curb and start craning his turkey-neck under the windshield. “Thirty-foot post . . . wooden . . . ten-foot truss . . . cobra-head fixture . . . Wait, wait, it’s flickering . . . Yep, this one’s a dayburner.”
“Tag?” I would ask, looking up from the boxy laptop with the city serial number burned across its bottom, as I locked in our GPS coordinates.
“Cee-four-one-seven. Got it.”
And Don would pull up to the next post. All day long like this, over and over. It was fantastically boring, tedious work. Some days we would spend ten hours in the car this way, driving in circles, professionally lost. I had come to know Don as a meticulous micromanager of our days. He hated to backtrack, and he hated to put the Honda into park. When possible, Don preferred to ease off the pedal entirely, letting the car coast. This was how we missed the majority of our stop signs. Me on the computer and Don making a blind spot with the map. Rolling, to be inevitably jerked up by the sound of some angry horn. It was in the residential areas where Don felt most above the law. Driving up the wrong side of the street; going backward down an alley or a one- way. He thought nothing of wheeling right onto somebody’s front lawn in a hasty U-turn, if necessary. After all, we were working.
People often stared openly as we drove through the city with our hazards on. Don said the blinking lights made our work self-evident, but I thought it just invited cops to stop and ask us stupid questions. Smiling along like assholes. Yessir, we’re working out here. Yessir, counting the lampposts, har-har-har.
On a lucky day the girls from the high school cross-country team might run by in their short-shorts. This huddle of pumping arms and legs, with flushed cheeks and glistening skin. Shiny hair pulled back into ponytails, swinging and bobbing. They smiled and laughed as they ran, like they could keep it up exactly this way forever. These girls were a forest of young trees to me. I would stare out the window openly, trying to will eye contact with one of them. Any of them. Somehow, the fact that I was twenty years old now made them all suddenly too young for me. It didn’t matter anyway. I was invisible inside of Don’s little Honda. Even with the blinking lights.
Don actually took our job seriously, though, and I appreciated that he cared enough to set that tone. He liked talking to the cops and answering questions. He liked being out in the city where we might run into a mailman or a guy up on a power line. Clearly Don included us in their great Civic Brotherhood, and I could tell that he’d begun to consider himself some kind of authority on counting lampposts. It was fine with me. I was happy to let him play the boss if that’s what he wanted. I’m sure it’s the reason that we lasted so long.
Don came out of the gas-station store cradling a twelve-pack of Stroh’s. This was a beer I’d seen my entire life but never thought to try. It made me smile to suddenly know what Don drank. And all at once this day began to seem like fun. Two guys skipping work; driving around; drinking beers. I couldn’t decide if this was some kind of last stand for Don, and I didn’t really care. I was just going to go with it now.
I had gotten used to Don’s physical presence, but I could see in the reactions of others that he was creepy in some nondescript way. Always snuffing his nose and clearing his throat, or chortling unexpectedly when he laughed. He wore an uneven beard and glasses that tinted in the sunlight. It was not untrue to say that Don bore some vague resemblance to the Unabomber, and I tried to imagine him living in an isolated shack, which was easy. The Civic suggested a certain kind of house. Some old shackle falling in on itself, held up at pressure points by load-bearing columns of newspapers. Dusty cans of food lined up in the cupboards, bomb- shelter- style. A harem of cats straight out of central casting, even. And maybe Don was living off the land and fertilizing a garden with his own shit, like the real Unabomber did. Tinkering with complicated math by candlelight, and writing his manifesto longhand. Clearly the simple mechanics of a pipe bomb would appeal to a character like Don. The Clubfoot Killer, they would call him in the newspapers. And I would be interviewed on television as the blank- faced schmuck who worked with the madman. But instead of saying that I never saw it coming, I would say, with total earnestness, that all the warning signs were there. Everything Don did was a red herring to me. It was all so very, very obvious, and I was terribly sorry that I had not said something earlier.
But that was not really Don, either. He was too gentle for all of that stuff. Especially now, pouring a beer into his coffee mug. I was reminded that I did not really know this man at all. I didn’t know who he was or how he spent the four decades that separated his age from mine. I didn’t know what brought him to the world of temp work or why he couldn’t hold a real job. None of it. All I knew was that Don was in a great mood now, informing me that we were headed to the OTB.
“Off-Track Betting? Is that even open?” It was eight-thirty in the morning and I was sipping the foam off my first-ever Stroh’s.
“Of course it’s open. Have you never been?”
I shrugged. Not only had I never been to the OTB, I couldn’t even tell you what they bet on in there. Sports? Dogs? Horses? Those rickshaw-chariots you always used to see on Wide World of Sports? The only thing the layperson knows about the OTB is that it’s probably not for them. Like a bingo hall or a dirty movie house. Someone must be having fun in there, but we were sure we’d never met them in the daylight.
“The OTB.” Don flashed a toothy grin. “Where the magic of the racetrack meets the charm of the bus station.”
I couldn’t help laughing with him. I wanted to remember to write that one down.
It made sense to think of Don as a gambler. He bought scratch-off tickets compulsively throughout the week. Forcing me to participate in his ritual of losing, making me a party to it. Not only that, but Don would pick up other people’s discards. Even out of the tops of trash cans. Just to be sure, he always said.
Admittedly, there was a kind of scattered brilliance about Don’s disordered way of thinking. Don was a talker and he always had a theory. And he always had a theory for why his original theory was always so flawed. He reminded me of those Y2K doomsayers who changed their money into gold and talked endlessly about airplanes falling out of the sky. I imagined the old guy holed up in a dark house with a clock and a shotgun, waiting for the New Year, waiting for the End Times. That’s how it felt playing captive audience to Don in the passenger seat of the Civic sometimes. Still, there were certain tics that I enjoyed. Like the sports conspiracies.
Don insisted, for instance, that Monday Night Football was dreamed up by ABC Television and the mob, back in 1970, as a way of hooking all these poor assholes who’d lost their shirts on Sunday afternoon. Don said they’d all come running back to their bookies, double-or-nothing, trying to salvage the weekend. But by that point, luck had already sailed on them.
“Less than a third of all double-or-nothing bets pay out. Did you know that?”
“Holy shit,” I said. “Is that true?”
Don would raise his eyebrows and nod solemnly. “Oh, yeah.”
Even more damning was his takedown of the NBA. Don hated the NBA. “The most crooked sport by far,” he told me. “ Don’t ever gamble on the NBA.”
“What’s wrong with the NBA?” I wanted to know.
“It’s the referees, for one. They have too much power over the pace of play. More than any other sport. They literally blow the whistle and take away baskets, if they want to. Baskets we all watched go in. In front of you and God and David Stern himself. Gone! Or the opposite, right? Guy misses at the rim and here comes the whistle again. Free throws,” Don said cryptically. “More than one- third of all NBA points are scored at the free throw line, with the clock turned off. Heh?”
I nodded blankly, knowing Don was winding himself up for something big. “Did you know they’ve actually lowered the rim a quarter of an inch since 1987 to bring more dunking into the game? Do you even understand what that means!”
I laughed out loud when he went on this way. I was sure that Don was fucking with me. Either that or the NBA had burned him pretty bad. But this was really just the way he talked. After a while, I’d have to roll the window down and let the crush of wind into my ear instead.
I couldn’t help wanting a different life for Don somehow. Something steadier, more middle-class. Counting lampposts was a lark for me; I was headed back to school at the end of the summer. But there was something sad about Don really needing to do it. I tried to imagine how many different jobs a guy like this must have in a lifetime. All these different versions of the man I didn’t know. I wondered if he’d ever served in the military or tried college or been trained in a vocation. Don could be funny and scholarly, in his own cracked way. He had a strange way with expressions and I pictured him up on a stage, in a dark theater, in a play. I imagined him reading the Beats and hitchhiking across the West. We had a running joke that Don was in training to become Lockport’s only full- time taxi driver.
“We could put a shingle up right now and call ourselves a gypsy cab,” he told me with a wink. “Make ourselves a few extra shekels, heh?”
Whenever I thought of Don, I thought of him in motion, driving around in circles. I tried to imagine him driving a school bus, or a tow truck, or an armored car. Maybe he could’ve been a great paperboy, or an ice-cream man, or a dogcatcher, even. And then I’d always remember his clubfoot, and it was hard to even picture him five years younger. Somebody should buy Don a baseball team, I thought.
We parked the Civic behind the Off-Track Betting and got out. Don clearly had a spring in his step now, floating on that broken foot. The back door, and main entrance, of the OTB was tinted a kind of privacy- black. There was a handwritten sign, threatening: “Positively no alcohol or firearms allowed on the premises.” Don was holding the door as I realized I was carrying our box of Stroh’s.
“C’mon, c’mon . . .” He hustled me inside.
I walked in, glancing at his waistband, hoping we were following the stricture on firearms, at least. It was barely 9 A.M., but there was already a good crowd. Men sipping coffees and ashing cigarettes and ruffling newspapers. All eyes were fixed on a bay of television screens—everybody always watching the screens. They jotted down notes, and ripped up slips, and traded around some kind of track newsletter. I felt a weird charge just being here, suddenly feeling underage. It was like wandering into some secret gentlemen’s club, or a Meeting of Divorced Men. It struck me then that I didn’t know Don’s status on that front. He didn’t wear a ring. If he had a wife and kids bouncing around I figured he would’ve brought them up by now. Who knows?
Don got to yakking and joking with a couple of the guys right away, to prove he was a regular. I shook a few hands on cue and set our beers up on the big center counter. As Don and I settled onto our stools, I could see we were the only ones drinking. Still, I felt happy to have it, somehow. The Stroh’s was like a prop in my hand. I was certainly an odd presence in this Hall of Men, but I didn’t care. I was too taken up in the watching. Mesmerized by this wall of televisions and its hold over the gamblers. Endless fuzzy satellite feeds of horse racing.
“Where are all these races coming from?” I asked Don.
He smiled and spread his arms grandly. “All over the world. Mostly Florida.”
A bell went off on a corner set, and the men all turned like they’d been waiting for this race to start. A few got onto their feet and moved right up under the screen. A young man with a mustache was shouting at his horse to run.
“Go, Alimony! Go!”
He cursed it around the turns as the lady ticket-taker shook her head behind a wall of Plexiglas. The young man cracked the whip against his thigh, willing his TV horse to run faster.
“Go, Alimony! Run, you fucker! Run!”
And he did. Alimony raced his way around the track to an easy victory, which was strangely thrilling. The young gambler turned back to the room, looking vindicated, and I couldn’t help but wonder what his stake in the race had been. There was some polite applause and a chuckle as he strutted back to the window to collect his winnings.
“Well,” he said, “time for work, then.” And he disappeared out the front door with a swagger.
This was enough to make me want to gamble, too. I picked out a horse called Helter Skelter and Don showed me how to fill it out on the slip. I gave my money to the sexless woman behind the counter and promptly lost. I felt like a sucker. That five dollars was supposed to buy my lunch.
Races kept going, one after another across the bay of televisions, to decidedly little fanfare. I had no idea what distinguished one race from another, a good one from a bad one. I was looking for patterns in the men, but they were giving off something else, something worse. Lucklessness, I thought.
We’d slowed to a perceptible lull since Alimony first paid out, well over an hour ago. The OTB held the sad air of a waiting room, or a holding cell, maybe. Everybody carried a ticket, but no one’s name was called. I couldn’t help imagining some of the more stalwart characters coming here as a proxy to real employment. Telling the wife some lie about day labor or construction, before working banker’s hours at the OTB, desperately trying to reanimate luck.
Don was still going strong, however. Betting and losing, though I could tell he had some system underneath it. Don was not casting into the current haphazardly. He knew exactly where he wanted to drop his line. It was all a matter of time, he said. Losing didn’t seem to faze him as he sat there, stiller than a Buddha, sipping from his Stroh’s like it was hot coffee. He mooned at the televisions expectantly. Waiting.
I tried to keep following the races in earnest, but the whole thing had lost its appeal. I wanted to tell him to play it double-or-nothing already so we could get the hell out of here. Just that quickly, though, Don stood up with a ticket in hand. “See that?” he said, and I tried to find his winning horse on one of the screens.
Don took his money back to the counter and started winning compulsively then. This feeling was contagious and he was suddenly a sage among the men. Explaining his bets and doling out racetrack maxims. I was surprised to find how much time could pass in the winning. Don made a big show of peeling off a twenty and asking me to go buy lunch down the street.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Anything but peanuts.”
The guys all laughed like this was funny. “It’s an old superstition,” one of them said.
“No peanuts in the barn,” Don added with a grin.
“Uh-huh,” I said, without comprehension.
“Just some chicken wings or something. What ever you want.”
Don was playing the Big Man now, showing off for his friends, but I didn’t care. I was happy to run this errand just to go outside. The low ceiling and the still air had begun to wear on me. The OTB smelled of cigarettes and sweat and aftershave.
I drank down the warm bottom of my beer and walked out the door.
I actually thought about ditching Don then. Not to screw him over, but just because I had a couple beers in me. What the hell were we doing at the OTB anyway? I might as well have stayed home in bed.
The sad part was that no one was ever going to catch us blowing off the day, either. We did have a boss—this schlubby middle manager down in an off-wing of City Hall. He had red hair and pink skin and yellow teeth, and he was always calling Don and me guy or fella , no idea what our real names might be. He also had no idea how long it actually took to count a lamppost. He was just thrilled to see we’d made it through another week together. It was a good situation for everyone, really.
Don and I would show up in his office, every other Friday, with a 3.5-inch floppy disk filled with everything you’d ever want to know about a lamppost. Don loved being down in City Hall, and he’d try anything he could to prolong these visits with our faithful bureaucrat. Unfolding our maps and trying to talk inside baseball with the poor guy. It was pretty clear to me that this man did not give a shit about lampposts. We were just one more thing that landed on his desk.
I did wonder what happened to our disks after we left, though. Who’s to say they weren’t just putting them into a drawer, or a garbage can? I’d had a job once, in elementary school, helping the janitors collect recycling. I imagined a big truck that took our old tests and book reports to a processing plant, where they were cooked down and rolled out into wide, clean sheets of new paper. What I ended up finding out instead was that the janitors were just throwing it all into the dumpster behind the school with the rest of the trash. There was no truck, and I didn’t know how to feel about that.
When I came back with the food I was surprised to find that most of the men were gone. It was darker and warmer than I’d remembered, too. But Don was still there, sitting in the same seat, going through discarded slips and checking for a stray winner. I invited him to come outside and eat, thinking he could use the sunshine, hoping I could get him back into the car. But Don declined my invitation.
I sat outside alone, at a graying picnic table, throwing chicken bones at a menace of seagulls sunning themselves in the parking lot. It felt strange to watch these birds fighting over their own meat. Or close enough anyway. The warm beer and greasy wings weren’t helping me any, either. I sat there, feeling bloated and lethargic, unsure what to do.
“Don’t eat those,” I said tersely, scattering the birds.
Back inside, several of the sets had been switched off, and Plain Jane behind the Plexiglas window had been replaced by a man who could’ve been her brother. Don was still hunkered over his slips, but his face was blank and chalky now. I could see him crossing and uncrossing his fingers under the table, which was a thing I’d never seen a grown man do before, except as a joke. The Stroh’s was gone, too, and I decided this would be my last try.
“How’s it going, huh? Almost done? I’m thinking we should make a move soon. Go count some lampposts, maybe.”
But Don wasn’t listening. Something had gone wrong here today, and I wondered the extent to which he thought of me as a jinx. He grumbled without looking up, and mumbled something about holding my horses. I smiled and waited for the wink. But Don hadn’t meant it that way.
I went back out to the Civic and got the laptop and the GPS (which they tell you never to leave in an unlocked car), and I decided to work. Fuck it. There were lampposts out here, so why not just count them.
\I walked around the lot and grabbed three or four quickly: thirty-foot posts; ten-foot trusses; cobra-head fixtures, all of them. I tried to use my body to shade the sun off of the computer, but the whole thing was demoralizing. Some kids on skateboards had stopped to stare at me, and I was already losing the point of my protestation.
I sat down in a bus shelter and gave all four lampposts a single GPS location. And then I didn’t move. I didn’t know where to go, really. I stared out across the buzzing traffic, feeling shipwrecked. I didn’t care about Don’s suffering. I was thinking about myself, which is the only thing you know how to do when you’re young.
All of a sudden the back door opened and my bolt-necked partner came limping out to the car, like he’d forgotten all about me. Forgotten everything. I grabbed my things and hurried back to the Civic, worried I was watching him leave me here.
“Ho, Don, wait up, man. What’re you doing?”
But Don didn’t answer, opening the door and closing it behind him. I let myself in, expecting him to fire it right up. But he didn’t. He just sat there with his hands on the wheel, not moving.
“What’s going on?” I asked defensively.
But Don didn’t look at me. He started to speak, but I couldn’t hear him. Something about his inner voice shouting at him, he said. Something telling him it was all shit and meaningless. The fallacy of doing good. The impossibility of trying to see God in the world. Everything was temporary. People don’t care. Everything we do goes for naught in the end.
“The less you expect of the world, the less it lights you on f i re and consumes you whole,” he said in one scary, lucid beat.
I nodded blankly, trying to measure this. “I think a lot people probably feel that way sometimes . . .” But I stopped myself, knowing I was way over my head. I wasn’t even sure that he could hear me.
And without wanting to, I saw Don as some hackneyed drunk, falling off the wagon today. Letting it all go at once and hitting the concrete ground like a brick. One last act of futility after years of piety and sobriety and love. But that was all so stupidly easy for me to swallow, and I was sure it had to be much, much worse. Don’s real life had come wailing to the surface now and I couldn’t understand a goddamn thing. I was suffering a profound inability to actually imagine being Don in this moment. To really be this sixty- year- old man with this life and these problems. I was struck dumb by my total and utter lack of imagination. It scared me. I wanted to shut him up, to stop him. I wanted to shout in his face, Hey! Don’t look at me, old man. I’m just a kid.
Bang! He hit the steering wheel with his fist, and the tears finally dropped. It jarred me back to the present. Trapped in this car, with its religious icons hanging so limply. I knew I had to go. I knew I had to leave Don here, abandoned. We were just strangers, after all. What do you owe a man you hardly know? How do you stop yourself from fleeing another man’s suffering?
“I won’t tell anyone about today,” I said. “No one will even know we didn’t work.” I immediately regretted saying this, but I couldn’t stop. “We can make it up tomorrow. I’ll be ready in the morning like always, if you wanna pick me up.”
But Don didn’t answer. He didn’t do anything. He just stared out the windshield for a thousand empty yards. And when I saw he really wasn’t going to start the car, I finally let myself out. Leaving Don there, exactly that way.
I walked away from the Civic and crossed the busy street at a jag, not willing to wait for the light. I hurried across the open parking lot to a block of pay phones outside the Tops. I needed the space between. I needed to move away from the OTB. I didn’t want to have to say that I was there. I didn’t want to have to talk about Don. I didn’t want to make up a story about these things yet.