Checked the email one last time before bed, and saw a message from my dear old friend Tom.
"Thinking of playing hooky tomorrow to go to the track. Any chance of you joining?"
"Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt, we were never here
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer
Tell my love to wreck it all
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Right in this moment this order's tall..."
"Skinny Love" - Bon Iver
"Funny you wrote tonight", I wrote back.
"Was just thinking about you today."
Was in Congress Park in Saratoga today, I work up there (in 'Toga) and most days I take a walk at lunch, I get an hour. Might as well get some exercise while I can, the doc says it's good for me.
Congress Park is the one in the middle of town. Was thinking back, today, to the summer of '93, 'cause you know, that's what I do. Think back. S'pose that's why I write. After awhile, you can only think back so much before you gotta let it out one way or another.
Anyway, was thinking back to the summer of '93, early August. A bunch of us, including Tom, Dan, Vaughn, and several others, drove up to the track. I was trying to save money to go to England to see Lauren the following month. I'd already bought the ticket, on my sister's American Express card, so the pressure was on. I guess the Amex, ya gotta pay it back within the month. I figured she'd kill me, and maybe literally, if I didn't pay it back.
As we were wont to do back in those days, we got exceptionally baked before we even left Albany, and then we re-upped in that parking lot at the track, the one off of Nelson, with the barn for sick horses. It was a day like today, maybe that's why I drifted back there. Cool, gray, a little rainy. I remember Tom intentionally wore a colorful sweater that couldn't have been more mismatched from the colorful pants he wore.
We wandered around the clubhouse laughing like hyenas at the Perry Ellis-clad crowd.
The big race of the day was called the Sword Dancer. a mile and a half on the turf. I only brought $20 with me because I had socked away the rest of the $250 or so of the temp job paycheck I'd gotten the day before, to give to my sister. I knew better than to bring two-fifty to the track in an hour of need. And seven-fiddy an hour was decent money back in those days, for a guy with no connections and no marketable skills other than an agreeable nature and the ability to take instruction; in hock up to my ears, desperate to cross the ocean to see my love, no way I was gonna pull one of my typical crash-and-burn acts.
But then, there was a horse in there I knew, just knew, was gonna win. Spectacular Tide was his name. I'd been watching him for several weeks, waiting for the right moment. I knew horses, knew how to figure out why a trainer might not have a horse cranked up one day; knew it was about setting it up for the score.
In the moments before the race, Dan asked me who I thought would win, and I told him, Spectacular Tide, easy.
Who's Jerry Bailey riding, he asked.
Square Cut, I told him. Square Cut was a big longshot. 20-1, maybe, something like that. He looked dubious to me, like he'd set the pace and then fade in the end. It was a long race, a mile and a half.
We had this whole semi-obsession with Jerry Bailey back then; he was my favorite rider. Eventually, he became the premier jockey in America, but I'd caught on to him before much of the rest of the world had, and he'd made me some money in the late '80's and early '90's.
For some reason the subject came up one night in the fall of '92 at Margarita's on Lark Street. Wildly drunk, I crouched up on a bar stool like a jockey, took a Racing Form out of my cargo pants pocket, and slapped the Form loudly across my thigh, over and over, whilst yelling, "Get 'im goin' Jerry" at the top of my lungs.
Well, Spectacular Tide was only 4-1 odds, which is not bad, but I was trying to win a plane ticket and an engagement ring on top of that. I had asked Lauren to marry me over the phone, she was in England and I was in the US, but I wanted to get her a ring to make it official. She'd first spotted one that cost about $400, and, bless her heart, she thought that one might prove overly expensive.
Thinking of my sister's new husband and the $5,000 or so he'd spent on her ring, I told her, out of shame of comparison, mostly, that I might be able to do better than the $400 ring. So she found another one to consider, a diamond and emerald twist going for about $1400.
Well, I thought, that afternoon, it's a long way from Spectacular Tide at a mere 4-1 to a $1400 ring, a $600 plane ticket, and spending money (I'd be staying at her folks' house for free, at least) for the trip.
I spent most of my $20, or what was left of it, on some crazy trifecta bets that required Spectacular Tide to win and some other stuff to happen behind him.
Dan bet an exacta box of Spectacular Tide and the Jerry Bailey horse, Sqaure Cut.
As I said, it was a long race.
Square Cut broke from the gate, went to the lead, and stayed there. And stayed there. And stayed there.
About an eight of a mile from the finish, he was still in front, but he hadn't faded like I thought he would. He was going strong.
Spectacular Tide was going even stronger, though.
Dan and I were standing out by the fence, near the finish line.
At some point, it became obvious that Spectacular Tide was going to win, without me; all those weeks of watching, and waiting, for the right moment, down the drain. All those weeks knowing Spectacular Tide would win a big race wouldn't get me a dollar closer to the $1400 ring, or even that $600 plane ride.
Dan, meanwhile, starts yelling. Hang on Jerry! Hang on! Hang on!
And Jerry hung on, for second. Dan had the exacta, and he had a few bucks on it. I think it paid $195 and he had it three times that, almost $600. That was a lot of money to any of us back in those days, wasn't it? I felt a little sick. A little stupid. I shoulda done the same bet, I thought. Even $20 to win at 4-1 would have paid a whole lot better than nothing.
After the race we went back to our parking lot, smoked some more, and then went downtown. Tom insisted Dan buy us all dinner with his winnings, and he did. We went to Gaffney's, on Caroline St.
Afterwards we walked around Congress Park, smoking bat hits under the cover of the early evening darkness.
Eventually we all went back to Albany, to Tom's place, and then later on I went back to Dan's, where we listened to something or other, probably Dinosaur Jr., but maybe something else. Maybe PJ Harvey, or The Jayhawks.
About 3:00 in the morning I decided to drive back to Mechanicville, relatively unbaked by this point.
As I was about to walk out the door to his apartment, Dan stopped me.
I want you to have this, he said.
What, I asked.
He took a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket.
I can't take that, I said.
C'mon, buddy, take it.
I resisted again, but he insisted.
I wouldn't have had that exacta if it wasn't for you, he said. Your pick plus Jerry Bailey. That's how I got it.
And there's a whole lot more to that story, but I don't have time for that now.
I reached out and took the C-note.
Thanks, brother, I said.
The next morning, at my family reunion, I gave that bill to my sister, along with some other money I socked away.
I'll get you the rest before the bill's due, I said. I promise.
I came through. Sort of. My sister got her money. Lauren got a ring, but only the $400 one, but she acted like it was worth a hundred times that when I slipped it on her finger while we sat on the shore of the lake at Tarn Hows on September 4, 1993.
A few months ago, a few days after he turned seventy, my father called me on the phone, despite the fact that I live a block and a half from him, to tell me he had cancer. I guess he just didn't want to do it in person.
As it turns out, he made out fine.
He had an operation, and as it turns out, they got it all. He should be fine. Doesn't even need to have any radiation or chemo.
A couple of weeks ago, a book he wrote was published.
A real publisher, by the way, not some vanity thing; the book's an essay-and-pictorial history of my old home town. It's selling like hotcakes in these parts. People have approached me lately to tell me how much they like it.
A couple of days ago, I called him.
Hey, I said. Where's my copy?
Ah, I gotta write something in there for you. I'll bring it over soon.
I walked through Congress Park today, the rain falling on top of my umbrella, thwack, thwack, thwack.
Never guessing Tom would email me later on, I thought back to the day we all wandered around there. I imagined myself making different bets, scoring out on Spectacular Tide, getting Lauren that $1400 ring instead.
I ached for that day; for a time when I was young and had my whole life in front of me. I'm happy again, something I'd never thought I'd be after Lauren died, but I'm also forty-seven, more memories behind me than memories to be made, for- I spent way too may years smoking, doing bat hits, drinking beers; I'm way past middle-aged, middle-aged would put my life expectancy at ninety-four, and scientifically speaking, ninety-four is asking a lot of laws (physics, gravity, etc.) to be defied. Hopefully I'll make it as long as my Dad did; seventy, what he is, gives me another quarter-century. I'd take that in a heart-beat.
Thought of that as I walked through the park today; thought of an old life gone, an old life I'd give anything to visit for just a half an hour.
My Dad finally dropped off his book.
I opened the front cover, curious as to what he wrote; he'd had the book for at least two weeks before he gave it to me.
I was expecting something, well, I don't know what I was expecting. Something long and wordy, for sure.
I opened the front cover, saw something written in the bottom left hand corner.
"David," it said.
"Don't wait until you're seventy to write your first book.