by Melanie Lee
A Saturday at Aqueduct meant sitting in the dining room at one of the long rectangular tables draped with white tablecloths and keeping our feet in the shadows, on the sickening, deep rose carpets hotels love. One long pane of glass looking onto the grounds was divided into single windows. Squares of grey opaque curtains — more hotel things — occasionally blotted out the sky. TVs showing the horses and jockeys and the high, fast voice announcing which horse was now ahead or behind who in the race were hung all over the room. In case you wanted to see the races live you could go out through the small right-hand door near the window. The crowd in the stands was a sea of men in black and grey jackets craning their necks to see the horses. No one wore fedoras or coats with lapels like the men who went to the races in the movies. Some looked down at their white rectangular racing programs, scanning the print for a sure bet, then looked up, resigning themselves to what? The chance of a breeze, the crowd of heads, the luck of the right horse?
Allan had recently bought a horse that had won two races, so the maitre d’ always greeted us with a flourish and led us to our table with a bow. Allan was a new element in my life, brought in by my mother. Unsure of what owning a winning horse meant, I walked in a field of haze. I was in sixth grade at a new school. I spent these Saturdays at Aqueduct wondering how to sit at the table, how to walk around. My lap always felt I should be running in the wind. We had a photograph of Allan in the winner’s circle, my mother beside him, showing the world his horse, the renowned jockey and the wreath of roses. I wondered how the horse felt.
At times Allan would lean over, show me the racing program, explain about win, place and show and what the odds meant. Once or twice he consulted me before he made a bet and one of our horses showed. This was neat, sort of. The uncertainty of winning made the hair stand up on my arms. What was I supposed to do with them? I wasn’t sure why I was smiling.
One Saturday I asked for money so I could place a bet. Allan nodded, reached into his pocket and brought out fifteen dollars. He asked me which horse I wanted. I studied the program and tried to remember all the rules he’d taught me. After I chose a horse, we walked out of the dining room to wait our turn at the betting windows. We looked at the odds posted for our horse. 231 to 1. I tried to calculate how much we’d win if the horse won. Allan surprised me by telling me that we would place the bet to show, not to win or even place. I didn’t argue, figuring he knew what we were supposed to do.
All of the clerks were lit bright, light green from banker’s lamps. When we got to a window Allan told our wrinkling clerk that I’d be placing the bet. The clerk nodded, then waited. Allan smiled encouragement as I told the clerk “$15 on Number 9 to show.” The clerk’s hands were fast as they changed the money into a ticket. I clutched it as we passed the people still on line or on walking about, most of them on their way to the stands.
We were going to watch the race from our table, on the closest TV. We had to wait for the other races to finish. Once it began, I understood all the shouting and pounding on tables people did as the horses rounded the last curve and ran straight for the finish line. I shouted and pounded, too. In case it would help, I shouted louder, pounded the table harder. Our horse crossed the finish line next to last. Allan smiled at me. “You win some, you lose some.” He turned around and walked toward my mother at the other end of the table. The odds hadn’t guaranteed anything. I watched people talking at the other tables, wondering how they stood the uncertainty. I never mustered the wherewithal to ask my mother or Allan for money to let me place a bet again.
Many Saturdays later, Allan’s son joined us. Allan Jr. was sixteen and slouching in chairs. We were all spending the usual hours sitting around waiting for the outcomes of races, getting crumbs on the tablecloth, pushing the silverware around, when I saw Elizabeth Montgomery sitting at a table not far away. Samantha from “Bewitched” on TV! I looked at my mother. She looked at me with her head down, her mouth a slit. “No, you can’t get her autograph.”
“No, you can’t.”
I watched Miss Montgomery for a while. She was sitting with only men, chatting with them all. The closest one, sitting to her left and facing me, was a disappointment: balding, wearing a plaid suit, had reddish messy hair, pasty skin and flabby cheeks. Miss Montgomery seemed happy even so. I kept checking on her to be sure, but there she was, chatting away.
My mother rarely left the table, but today she decided to go with Allan to place a bet. Before they got too far she turned around. “Don’t ask for an autograph.” Then they went out into the crowd, leaving just Allan Jr. and me sitting at the table. Allan Jr. was in charge.
I was moving more silverware around when I looked up. Miss Montgomery had risen. She was walking slowly, looking straight ahead. Her dress was a pattern of irregular stripes of different browns, tans and white. She was tan. A couple of gold bangles rested on her hand. Her beige heels added to her lift. She entered the short passageway leading to the bathroom.
I looked at Allan Jr. He looked at me, then out the big window. He jerked his thumb toward the bathroom. “Go ahead.” I gathered up a program and a pen. She had almost reached the white tiles by the time I entered the passageway. It was blue, ladylike. My heart was thumping into my throat.
I dragged my toes on the carpet and then my feet danced a little as I wondered, was I or wasn’t I going to ask her to autograph my program? I stood still. I thought my thoughts sounded like a street-smart New York City teenage TV wise-guy. It was a matter of courage. I didn’t know if I had any. I wasn’t going to lose mine if I did.
I looked up to wait until she was done washing her hands. She was walking back up the passageway. I let her get past me but not too far. “Miss Montgomery? May I have your autograph?” She turned around.
She was beautiful. Her long blond hair was shiny and wavy, like a mermaid’s, hanging below her. “Of course” and she stooped down, her tanned legs smooth, her heels lifting for a second. She was just as gracious as you hear celebrities are. While she was signing, I blurted out, “My mother told me not to ask you for your autograph.”
“Oh, your mother loves you.”
How could Elizabeth Montgomery be so beautiful but so mistaken? I followed her heels along the carpet. And what was she doing with that dumpy man with his pasty, flabby face, plaid suit and bald head? We did not say good-bye as we entered the dining room. My mother had not returned.
I showed the autograph to Allan Jr. — he murmured “Yeah” — sat down and played with the small coating of water that had settled on the outside of my glass. My mother finally came back. I waited for her to look around. “I got Elizabeth Montgomery’s autograph. Allan Jr. let me.” He nodded. Her face froze in a twitch; her mouth was a straight line again. I showed her the elegant, delicate, blue up and down signature, its pretty loops and tails. She was silent. When we got home, I scrounged around for my autograph book.
I found it crammed under books and pencils in my bottom desk drawer. The white cover peeked out like a promise. I lifted it, found an empty green page opposite an empty blue one and taped in the autograph. There were more empty pages in that book than I wanted to look at but now that Elizabeth Montgomery was in it maybe some of my new sixth grade classmates would write in them.
On an afternoon ten years later, I was rummaging through the desk for things to take with me to my first apartment. When I uncovered the autograph book I flipped the pages, taking in most of the same blanks until I found the autograph. I looked at my room. Boxes were everywhere. I needed to clear up the clutter, do something at long last about those blank pages. I studied Miss Montgomery’s loops and tails for a long time, and finally acknowledged that I could not keep pretending her signature would bring me anyone’s friendship. Knowing what would never change, knowing I would be able to remember forever what Elizabeth Montgomery’s signature looked like, I tossed the whole thing, white cover and all, into the wicker garbage pail. And I’m tempted to end this story there, with the garbage pail and memory of determining loss. But writing all this down has shown me what tricks of perspective looking back can play. My surprise that Allan had told me to place the bet to show that day long before I met Elizabeth Montgomery kept pricking my breastbone like the corner of a misplaced ticket. I stopped writing to feel it out, to look at it.
Time stopped breathing here, just for a moment. I saw all the bettors, I saw Allan, I saw my mother. Because the horse was such a very, very long shot, betting to show was the best chance I had of winning anything that day. Now I’ve been captured by a strangling tenderness for a time, for times, when the bet was the best tenderness available and I had thought there was no tenderness at all.
About the Author Melanie Lee:
In 2010 I began to work on pieces to publish with the help of Elizabeth Stark and everyone else at Book Writing World.
Currently, I write about family relations and what I find in nature. I just finished reading the beautiful Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich and now I'm reading another beautiful book, Willa Cather's One of Ours. Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge is the book I've been going to for reminders on how to fuel zinging words.
I live with my husband, my daughter and her dog. I’m the one who takes the dog to the park every day. My husband wanted me to tell you he’s the one who walks the dog late at night when it snows. You can find my blogs at onegreendolphinstreet.com.