Are Trish and Duane on the worst date ever? A dying gambler’s wisdom might set them on track.
T hey were sitting at the bar in the Kennel Club. It was a Saturday night at Southland. They were drinking beer and talking about what dog they would bet in the next race. Well, he was talking about the dogs — he liked No. 6, a dark brindle moving down in class — and she was talking about what her girlfriend had said to her. She said, “My girlfriend, I told her you were bringing me to the dog track and she said — ” she stopped and took a healthy draw from her beer — “my girlfriend, she said that don’t sound like a Saturday night to me, Trish.” He watched her drink the beer and then let her finish whatever it was she was saying, and he said, “I like Itta Bena Slim in this one. The six dog. He’s moving down in class.” It was the only thing he knew about betting the dogs. He heard one black man say it to another as they walked across the betting floor, on the way to the Kennel Club. The other black man just nodded like he knew that already.
Trish laughed when she heard the name, Itta Bena Slim, said it sounded like a light beer or a cigarette for women, and then she said, “My girlfriend, I told her they had slot machines and maybe dancing, too, and she said that sounds more like it, Trish.”
He liked a woman who would drink a beer with him. He was to the point of not expecting a whole hell of a lot more out of his relationships with women. In the last two years alone he had been jilted at the altar, broken up with twice, and left for a convict with a tattoo of a thresher on his neck. It had been in the newspaper and on the TV action news, when he was in court, bragging of his guilt and claiming crimes that weren’t even his. Well, that sort of thing shakes a man, sends him to his own sort of solitary confinement, makes him question his core beliefs and wrestle, even, with the notion of acquiring his own farm-implement tattoo. And so it did to Duane. But in the end he did nothing in response, just went along, got along, dated not at all, and sank just that little bit lower, until his job as a liquor sales rep took him to the bar where Trish waited tables. She didn’t talk much that day, just looked sad in a needful way. She’d been to the dentist that morning and still was numb from the crown work. So they got to talking, or rather, him to talking and her to listening, and he asked her out and she sort of nodded. She tried to smile but could not quite; he thought she was shy and she thought the Novocain never would wear the hell off.
He looked over at her now and wondered how she did it, kept up that constant whirl and blur of both drinking and talking, the one giving no quarter to the other. He thought she might break out in gurgling, or drown herself, one. She said, “They have dancing here?” He just looked at her until she stopped talking and waited for her to take another drink of beer. She didn’t sip it. It was more a swig, like a man would do. She drank it straight from the bottle. She could put it away, too. She was on her second already. She drained the beer and clanked the bottle on the counter of the bar as if she had won a bet. He thought she might call for another but instead she said it again, “So, they have dancing here?”
He looked to his left, to an old man there. He was sipping whiskey and smoking a cigarette and handicapping two races ahead. He seemed deep in the task. Duane looked at him as if to say, That’s the difference between men and women, ain’t it, old man? Women get a couple of beers in ’em and wanna dance. Men are happy just to keep on drinking. Duane’s parents had been married nineteen years before they split up, on the night of his junior prom; it scarred him at the time — that, and when his date ended the night in the backseat of his car with another girl, them doing who knew what under all that taffeta — but he had come to consider it a remarkable feat, perhaps even some kind of record, for them to have lasted nineteen years without ever showing a sign of actually liking one another. His own experience was that two beers was about the length of time a man and woman could get along before one of them went and ruined the thing. He blamed men as much as women in this. He blamed God, the fates, and the times; it must have been easier in earlier decades, he thought, when at least the music was good.
The old man looked up at Duane and nodded, in sympathy if not agreement. Then he looked past Duane, to Trish, and said to her, in a tone of gallantry rare to the West Memphis dog track, “Miss, I’d be happy to take you a spin out on the betting floor, if you like.”
Gallantry had not been tried on her before, and so she was naturally suspicious of it. She said, “Well, if it comes to that, old man, I’ll be sure and let you know.” By the look on her face, she was weighing whether a pout or a snit might be the way to go. Instead she said, “It’s like my girlfriend said,” without even needing to say exactly what it was.
H is name was Old Willie Graham. He was a retired trainer. He was, like some of his former dogs, of Irish stock, once removed from the old sod himself. He was white-haired and ruddy-cheeked, and dying, but with eyes you would have called merry if you spied them on a child.
“Old Willie Graham,” he said by way of greeting. He divested himself of the whiskey glass and of the cigarette, turned the program upside down, and extended a hand to the young man. They shook.
“I’m Duane and that’s Trish.”
“You look like a nice couple.”
She shot Old Willie a look. “We ain’t a couple,” she said.
The old man just looked off in the distance and smiled. “Well, you’re here and together, at any rate.” Old Willie was a widower; Peggy, his beloved Peg, had been dead going on twenty years. He could have told them, in minutes and kisses and kitchen-table toddies, how long it had been, exactly. “That’s something, I guess.”
Old Willie looked back at them and paused, as if awaiting their assent, but it did not come. There was an awkward pause, as if the two had asked the one for a simple tip on a dog and instead the very secret to life and happiness, of all damn things, had been dumped in their laps. The air around them was unstable for a moment. So the old man reached for his glass and his cigarette and commenced again his handicapping of the eighth race. There was a dog he particularly liked in that one, though he could find no rational reason to bet it. It did not have much of a bloodline and he didn’t respect the trainer; the dog was starting from a middle post position, the four hole, where it was most likely to get jammed in traffic as the dogs burst from the gate and made for the rail. He smiled at the thought of betting it, still and all, still and all.
“Um, Mr. Graham. Old Willie,” Duane said. “Say, who you like in this next race? Myself, I kind of like the six dog.”
“Itta Bena Slim,” Trish said. “Oh, he goes on and on about Itta Bena Slim. It’s Itta Bena Slim this and Itta Bena Slim that.” She meant this to drip sarcasm but there was something about the name she liked. It was a lullaby in her mouth, child’s play on the tongue; it tickled, almost, to say. This did not please her.
She tried again. She stretched it out. “Itta … Bena … Slim,” she said, but you could have set it to music this time, strings and brass and maybe even slow dancing at night on the deck of a ship at sea. This riled her all the more. So she hailed the bartender and said she was switching to mixed drinks. She called him bub and asked if he had anything in blue.
I t was six minutes to post. Duane said it again. “Who you like in this race, Old Willie?” He didn’t want a tip. He wanted to hear how smart he was, realizing that the six dog, Itta Bena Slim, was moving down in the class and so was the clear choice. He wanted to impress Trish with his knowledge of the dogs; it was his first second date since the whole business with the convict.
The old man said, “Well, now … ” and the young one thought, That’s just great. He’s gonna tell me some long story about something that happened in eighteen and forty when his great-granddad was just a wee lad in County Cork. So he said, “The six dog, he’s moving down in class.”
The old man said, “That’s true. But he won’t win.” He said it like the race had already been run and the winning tickets all cashed and the losing ones fluttered to the floor of the Kennel Club bar like poor man’s confetti.
“How’s that, Old Willie?”
“He never wins, except by accident sometimes.”
“Well, he didn’t win at that higher class but he’s moving down now.” He held tight to this one thing he knew about betting the dogs. He was beginning to think it was the flat-earth theory of the sport.
“That’s right, Duane. You’re right about that. It’s just that — ”
Duane sighed and slumped on the bar. “It’s just that” was how it began with the girl who jilted him at the altar, once he finally did track her down, in a Bossier City motel room, wearing nothing but a trucker’s cap.
“OK, tell me, Old Willie. You’re going to, anyway.”
“He’s a good dog, yep. He’s fast. But he’s more a pacer. He’s running with those other dogs, not running against them.”
“I see,” Duane said, though he didn’t.
Old Willie saw as much, and said, “Some dogs are running a race, see, and some others are just running.”
“Kinda like life, huh, old man?” Trish said.
Old Willie smiled and nudged an elbow at Duane. He said, “That’s one smart lady.”
Well, there was no flattering her at this point.
“Ain’t no lady,” she said.
T hey all turned from the bar to watch the race. The dogs were in the starting boxes and now the lure was coming up from behind, rounding the bend, and then there was a noise like a fire alarm, but just a blip of one, a belch, and then the lure was out ahead of the starting boxes and the boxes, they sprung open, and the eight dogs in silks shot out in swift pursuit. Well, some of them did. Some were giving chase like that lure was a living thing of fur and flesh, and some others were just running because they were dogs and that was the thing to do on a Saturday night at Southland, in West Memphis, in Arkansas, across the big river from Memphis.
It was like the old man said. Itta Bena Slim was running third when they reached the first turn and he showed no sign of making for the lead. There was room on the rail but he did not pursue it. There was room on the outside but he seemed fine where he was, thank you, trailing those two dogs out front of him, a grey named Smoke Ring in the lead, flanked by a red fawn called B’s Double E.
“See?” the old man said.
Duane said that he saw.
All Trish saw was sand, silks, and dog ass, but she appreciated her date being schooled by an old man who probably hadn’t gotten any since the Great War.
“Itta Bena Slim,” she said again. “Itta … Bena … Slim.”
The alcohol talking now, breaking into song. She thought, Hell, there might be dancing, yet.
B ’s Double E caught Smoke Ring in the stretch, won by a nose, and returned six and twenty on a two-dollar bet. A light brindle named His Girl Thirsty took third. Itta Bena Slim finished out of the money.
Trish raised her glass, and what remained of her blue drink, to the old man. It looked like antifreeze on ice.
“Fair play to you, Old Willie,” she said, and then to the bartender, “Another one of these, bub.”
She stood and announced her intention to pee. You would have thought it was a ritual to be accompanied by pomp and some tourists, like the changing of the guards or the march of the ducks over at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
“All right, Old Willie,” Duane said once Trish was out of ear shot. “You win. You know dogs and I don’t. So, how about you give me a crash course so I can show this woman I’m just a little smarter than she takes me to be.”
“You think you’ve still got a chance with her, do you?” Old Willie said, in a voice some sweet and some sly. “You think maybe true love has not yet left the starting box without you?”
“True love? Nah, Old Willie, I wasn’t thinking of true love. Woman like that — ”
“Woman like what?”
“I dunno. You heard her. She may want a man and maybe even needs a man but she sure as hell don’t seem to like ’em much.”
“She might say the same about you, just the other way around, you know.” Old Willie said this gently, as one might pet a rescue dog.
“What is it, Duane?”
“This got anything to do with picking a winner?”
“Oh, everything,” the old man said, his merry eyes twinkling like the West Memphis night sky.
Duane just stared at the ashes of her cigarettes in the ashtray on the bar and then looked up. There was defeat upon his face now. He said, “Ah, hell. It ain’t no use. I’m a bitter man and she’s a hard woman and that’s all the hell there is to it. It’s a damned wonder we made it to the second date.”
Old Willie just shrugged and smiled and tipped his glass toward the opposite end of the Kennel Club. Duane looked up and saw Trish, walking back toward them. Now she stopped and rifled through her purse, came up with a cigarette and a lighter and commenced trying to light it, back in stride. She was long-legged on heels. She began to sway, unsteady as she goes. She seemed about to fall, just topple over there in the Kennel Club bar, with her head all full with beer and blue drink, disappointment and doubtless some bitter wisdom her girlfriend had told her. But then she caught some gust of rhythm, seemed like, and came up dancing. Or, sort of dancing. She made the whole thing seem like some sort of stage act. She got the cigarette lit and took a puff and then another.
Old Willie said, “Your lady’s got style. My lady had style, too. Not quite like that, mind you.”
“She already warned you against calling her a lady, Old Willie,” Duane said. “And I damn sure wouldn’t call her mine. As for style, well, I don’t know. But she’s dead set on dancing tonight, one way or another. I’ll give her that.”
Trish saw the men watching her. She gave a sort of a shrug and then some semblance of a curtsey and then a wave of her arms that suggested a brief stint of employment, perhaps between bar room waitressing gigs, as a magician’s assistant. She smiled, and Duane did, too, but he was a crescent of a second slow. She seemed to miss it, head down, walking back to the bar in a huff.
The moment passed at greyhound speed.
T hey sat, silently, staring into their drinks. Trish thought about that fall she’d just about taken and how it was as close to dancing as a girl could get, apparently, at the West Memphis dog track. It was fun, still and all. That one moment, and how Duane had looked at her from across the room, like they were in high school and it was prom night, say, and he was staring at her from across the gym. She wondered if it were a coincidence that her prom dress, junior year, was pretty much the same shade of blue as her drink. Was that the saddest thing ever, or just one of life’s absurd moments best laughed at and washed back with colorful liquor? Had Duane’s jaw dropped a wee bit, watching her? Was that why he was late to smile? Was this the worst date ever? Nah, probably not. There was maybe even time to salvage it. But then she heard the voice of her girlfriend in her head, the voice of wisdom and experience and two divorces, saying everything a man does, Trish, is somehow connecting to getting some.
And Duane thought — well, pretty much that. He thought now was the time for some gesture, something, if he was to have any hope of getting some. But damned if he knew what it was. And anyway, it had been such a long time, and he’d felt so low and lonely, that he wasn’t even sure that some was what he wanted, or needed, most of all, tonight. He just wanted to … what? Hell, he didn’t know.
So they fell to brooding, and Old Willie Graham back to his handicapping and his whiskey and his smokes. He smiled, a sweet old man alone in the world but satisfied, still and all, still and all. He smiled the smile of an old man with many more years to live than one.
But a year is what the doctor said.
A year, you say?”
“I’m as sorry as I can be, Mr. Graham.”
The doctor was young. He’d only meant to tell the old man it was time to start thinking about things. He’d said too much, and now didn’t know what to do. He stared at the floor, thinking of all the dying patients to come, a lifetime of death at his feet. How had his father done it, and his father before him? He looked up, not knowing what he would say, could say.
But damned if the old man wasn’t grinning. He was looking at the far wall, as if the wall were a window to the world and his place in it, to time and all recorded history, to the moments that made it up.
“Well, doc, how about 1956?” Old Willie said. “That was a good year.”
Fifty-six — the year he met his Peg.
I t was five minutes to post for the eighth race.
“I’ve about had enough of you two,” Old Willie said. “Follow me.”
“I don’t think so, Old Willie,” Duane said. “I think we’re about to call it a night.”
“Follow me,” Old Willie said again. “Grant an old dying man just that little bit.”
“Whatever,” Trish said.
They followed him out of the Kennel Club and across the west end of the betting floor and down the escalator, a sharp left and back toward the track itself. It wasn’t such a long walk but it was slow going because Old Willie, arthritic as he was, shuffled more than he walked. They followed him outside onto the apron and stood, nearly eye level to the track. It was a minute to post.
“OK, we’re here,” Trish said. “When can we go?”
The track announcer said it was post-time.
“What you want us to do, Old Willie?” Duane said. “Just stand here and watch those dogs tear-ass by? That gonna make everything all right?”
Old Willie said, “I don’t want you to do anything. I don’t want you to see a thing or think a thing. Just want you to stand here, close your eyes, and listen. Would you do that for me?”
Duane shrugged and Trish sighed and Old Willie said, “For an old man?”
“Sure, Old Willie. Whatever you say, on account of you’re dying and all.”
T he sound the dogs made as they passed was not what they expected. It was barely a sound at all. They had expected thunder and much yapping, some great furred ruckus, but it was more the sound of birds’ wings — no, not that, but this: hearts beating. They more heard the whir of the lure than the eight greyhounds giving chase.
And then the race was done. And then the race was won.
When they opened their eyes, they found that they were holding hands, as an old married couple might. They were alone on the apron, under the merry twinkle of stars.
The old man was gone, having shuffled back inside to cash his winning ticket on the four dog, a fawn by the name of Pretty Peggy.