Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie



Whenever Cross took the A train out to JFK, he couldn’t help but look out the window at Aqueduct and think, I should come out here some time during the season. The thought had the character of something that would never be acted on, but it also had the urgency of something that sooner or later would happen. But why, Cross wondered. He hadn’t been at a race track since the age of twelve. That’s why, a voice answered back.

When Cross was around eight or so, his father bought several thoroughbreds. These horses existed at some remove from East Lansing, housed at tracks in the suburbs of Detroit, and maintained by a series of trainers who loomed in Cross’ imagination like archetypes of desperation and failure: Denny, in his John Deere cap, who radiated haplessness in his eyes and speech; Larry, dark-haired, tanned as his stylish leather coat, who seemed ready to hustle you even if all you were talking about was the weather; Butch, bullet-headed and bearded, who seemed to live for the moment when the day’s work was done and the neck of a Southern Comfort bottle would widen to swallow him whole; Spider, with his cowboy hat and Kung-Fu mustache, his snowy white husky and his guitar, who seemed as kindly and gentle as a philosopher, right up to the day he loaded his pick-up with hundreds of dollars worth of tack and disappeared without so much as a note.

After this roll call of incompetence and drama, which unfolded alongside the expansion of the stable until over thirty thoroughbreds now patiently munched their hay awaiting their chance to come in fourth or fifth at Hazel Park or Detroit Race Course, Cross’ father decided that he was overdue for a mid-life crisis, and dispensed with the services of trainers altogether, along with his twenty years as a real estate broker. His father would become an owner/trainer, and make his living on the purses. Cross’ mother looked askance at this, naturally, but it was the price she paid to finally leave Michigan and its winters behind; six months after the decision, Cross looked up from his comics or Micronauts, spread out on a table in the club house, and saw the decrepitude that was Jefferson Downs, just outside of New Orleans.

The rest unfolded more or less according to the script for this sort of thing: near bankruptcy, separation, reconciliation, the move west, the return to real estate. But even by the time Cross was in high school, his father insisted on retaining horses, and bought a ranch house off of Las Vegas Boulevard South, in the days before housing developments swallowed up such ranches. For several more years, as his father tried to raise thoroughbreds that would never race (the desert not being conducive to breeding), Cross looked across the lawn into the eyes of a half-dozen doleful mares, each of them twitching their ears as if they could hear his mother’s litany of complaints as the cost for what was now a ruinously expensive hobby mounted.

Eventually it did stop, as all things do. The horses were sold, and then the ranch. By then his father would no longer have recognized the fact that he had ever owned horses—he might not have been able to tell you what the word horse signified. For Cross, horse signified nothing so much as familial unhappiness and strife. For a long time. Cross cultivated a studied dislike of horses.

This hadn’t been the case when he was a child. Though he was mostly ambivalent about them, there was a certain excitement when horses first appeared in his life. He’d had his own horse, a tame Arabian that he would occasionally ride around the stables when he wasn’t helping muck out stalls, a task that taught him how to breathe through his mouth for hours on end (there was nothing as sinus-opening as fresh horse piss, thought Cross). He was fascinated by the oddball names that thoroughbreds acquired, and often listed them in his mind or spoke them aloud like a chant: Royal Perfecto, Canadian Jeff, Wee-Ette, Hairbreadth Harry, Queen’s Hand (a mean one, that last, always ready to bite if you walked to close to her stall). Cross remembered trying to sketch them—he was always drawing in those days, how he wished he hadn’t stopped—remembered studying Wee-Ette for what seemed like hours...

Even during the races, Cross would set his fantasy world aside long enough to study the racing form. He remembered his mother patiently teaching him how to handicap, and the joy when the $2 bet his mother had put down on his recommendation came through... that was a chant, too: trifecta, perfecta, exatca... (How many times could that have happened? It seemed to Cross he’d won more than once, but that couldn’t be right, could it? Would he recall any of that if he looked at a racing form?) He remembered, too, those times in the winner’s circle, the breathless run down from the club house, the smell of sweat, the jockey’s grimy face above his silks, the quick arrangement of people and horse just before the photographer’s flash... He wasn’t there for it, but he remembered too when Hairbreadth Harry dropped dead of a heart attack after winning a race, the halter twisting in his father’s hand, the jockey giving out a startled yelp as the animal sank suddenly to its knees... Cross always wished it had happened as the photographer released the shutter, so there would be proof to correspond to his mind’s-eye memory.

Poor Harry. Cross always thought of that when he thought of his father’s passion. But that was what most rankled Cross, what made him feel most ambivalent about these memories: was it his father’s passion? It was something Cross had never been able to figure out: did his father really love horses? Of was it all of a piece with his father’s persistent, pathetic ambition: to be a big shot? Didn’t his father ultimately care more about being the sort of man who owned and raced thoroughbreds (and was known to do so), then he did about the horses themselves? Who cared more about purses and stud fees than a love for animals?

Cross wanted to give his father the benefit of the doubt. He pictured his father brushing one of them after a workout, remembered the way the horse’s flesh would shudder and twitch a little, the way the horse’s eyes would take on that sleepy, patient, satisfied look of a dreamer. Horses always seemed a little dreamy to Cross, and the rituals they would endure in order for a little feed and peace always gave him a twinge. Cross readily understood that deep connection, forged over centuries, between humans and horses—that strange intimacy born of mutual need and respect—even if he didn’t feel the pull much. But wasn’t the reason he didn’t feel the pull was the image of his father’s face: impatient, full of the concentration on the task at hand but little else. Surely his father felt some sort of connection. Surely the only time he smiled couldn’t have been in the winner’s circle.

Well, what if it was. They were all dead, his father and those horses, all run off over distant hills. The last time Cross had felt anything while in the presence of a horse was during a hike near Lake Mead, when they’d come across three wild horses that didn’t run off, but shadowed them as they walked, always keeping a hundred yards between Cross and his friends whenever they moved toward them. That was a little magical. But to spend a day at Aqueduct wouldn’t be about horses, and it certainly wouldn’t be about gambling—it would be an attempt to reconnect with an atmosphere that said father . You might as well crack open a bottle of Old Spice, reflected Cross, for a sense memory that at once meant so much and really meant nothing at all.

Besides, who among his friends could he convince to go to the track anyway? He certainly couldn’t go alone... Cross turned away from the window and thought he could always present it as a lark: a retro, boozy, Runyonesque day at the races... His father would have been 75 yesterday, thought Cross as the train lurched and swayed. Cross was now the same age as his father had been when he heard the Call to Post, but Cross had long ago given up on being a big shot... What did it matter, the nature of his father’s pleasure? What did it matter what horses had meant to his father? It had meant something, after all. When, Cross wondered, would he stop sitting in judgment of the dead?

Ah, but when does anyone stop sitting in judgment of the dead. What was paternity but the long, arduous fitting for robes of those who will ascend the bench in the court of memory and love?

Perhaps Cross would go the track alone after all, one day in the spring, if for nothing more than the pleasure of making a bet, and tearing up the losing ticket as the rumble of hoofs faded, and scattering its pieces to the wind with a deep and knowing sigh.


Reader Comments (6)

He should go and buy a ticket and tear it up win or lose.

My father bred dogs on one of those ranches on the North side of Vegas.

Loved the SoCo hyperbole.

February 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Darling

Masterful. A horse isn't just a horse, of course.

February 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Carter

Thanks for letting the grown-up Cross and the young Cross have their say in this piece. So, yes, go to Aquaduct on a sunny Spring day and wear your white suit and hat, but...tuck a cigar between your teeth, just for the hell of it, and a Micronaut in your pocket (after a trip to Forbidden Planet), and complete the circle.

February 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

We often speak of how the past haunts us, but I suspect the opposite is the truth - We haunt the past refusing to let it go and give it and ourselves, the peace both deserve. I think you should go. Exercise yourself from it.

February 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElaine

I think Elaine is onto it. The French root of 'remember' is 'remourner' -- to mourn again.

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Darling

We don't forgive people and finally let go of the past untill we forgive ourselves. I think as children we take on the stuff our parents weren't able to work through. We can't help it, that is what was modled for us.I know when my mother passed away, I was finally able to figure out what was her's and what was mine. I then had to forgive myself for taking on her stuff or thinking somehow it was my job to redeem her life. Now I know that is not needed and never was.
I think you should go to the track if for nothing else than to finally forgive yourself and him, let go and say goodby. :)
This is an excellent piece!!

June 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMontana Black

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