“Look. Down there,” says your dad, palming his hand over your crew cut, guiding your head in the direction he points: the ring, the gates. “They’re about to start.” Generators hum. Above, birds flit about, their nests like little eyes, wedged between cross boards, looking down at you. Hanging from the ceiling, bowl lights blanket the track and stands with a tangerine light. Your dad wears his royal blue and yellow Seattle Mariners hat, the one he always wears, even though the Mariners are the worst damn team in baseball.
“The season’s over,” he told you, as the ’82 Toyota Tercel slugged down the I-5 south carpool lane. No baseball, no Kingdome today.
“Why?” Rain pelted the windshield, and you scratched your fingernail on the frayed nylon seatbelt to the rhythm of the wipers.
“Not every team has a dome,” he said as his forehead gathered lines, “So in winter when the weather’s nasty all the time they can’t play.” With his pointer finger and thumb, he rubbed the pockets beneath his eyes.
This big warehouse smells like a baseball game, with the salt of the peanuts, the bite of the mustard, and the sweet of the beer.
“We’re in Puyallup,” he says.
You whisper it to yourself a few times, testing how it sounds in your mouth. You wear a Mariners hat, too, one of last year’s Christmas presents. It barely fits anymore. But you squeezed in anyway, because it matches your royal blue Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high- tops, the ones that you saved up two whole months worth of allowance to buy at Chubby and Tubby.
The beer in his plastic cup reminds you of pee. He picks the light blue betting pamphlet up from the bench and curls it in his hands, then comments on why he made this bet or that wager and the difference between a trifecta and a superfecta. As they leave his mouth, all of these words sound heavy. You whisper them too, but lose them to the brassy, spitfire voice clammering from the loudspeaker.
The glossy cover of the McGraw-Hill Science textbook, your first big school book, the one whose weight in your backpack makes you feel important, shows all nine planets, Mercury to Pluto. The expanse below the aluminum row bleachers, below your shoes, is as black as the space between the planets. You wonder whether your body would fit between the rows if you fell. You stick your shoes out in front of you, twisting them this way and that, profiling them at every angle. Then you sneak a glance at him, to see if maybe he sees. The binoculars are at his eyes. The loudspeaker belts the names of the dogs, their gates, their numbers.
“The orange one,” he says.
The greyhounds are all skin and bone, look like they need a good meal. Nothing on their bodies is round or blocky. Every appendage resembles a leg stretched tight. Even their snouts seem as though they could take a few steps, if needed.
A short man, in jeans and a black long sleeved shirt, leads the dog in the orange vest to the stall. He slaps its rump, leans in close, speaks to it. The dog’s vest has a white number 6 on it. The sixth planet from the sun is Saturn. The quiz is on Monday.
Your dad gnaws on his toothpick, shading his eyes with the pamphlet, even though you’re both inside.
And they’re off. “Go!” he yells. You want to reach up with both hands and grab his cheeks because you can see the tiny black specs popping through his skin. When he lived with you and your mom, you used to sit in his lap while he watched the news and pinch and roll his cheeks through your fingers, feeling the stiff black hairs poke you. Then you would go to bed and fall asleep with your fingers next to your nose.
“Goddammit,” he says around the toothpick.
A slick of oil and sweat has built up in the crevasse between his chin and his mouth, and you want to wipe it up. A napkin, left over from the hot dog you ate for lunch, lays next to you, in the cardboard tray, but sometimes it is tough to know what sorts of things he will find annoying. Instead, you think of a question. Something that he would want you to ask. Something that he would want to answer.
“That’s three bucks down the drain,” he says, while sitting down.
“Why do they run,” you ask. He unrolls his pamphlet, and looks at it.
“Why do they run,” he mutters, still reading, “Why do they run.”
“Yeah,” you say, “why do they run?”
“The dogs?” He searches your face. A tuft of hair has come loose from his part, and lilts above his forehead. He rests his arm around your shoulder and, with the pamphlet, points back down towards the starting gate.
“You see, there’s a mechanical rabbit that they all chase. It goes around the track on, I don’t know, some rail. Like a train. Anyways, they’re after the rabbit. But the rabbit’s just a machine.” He shifts the toothpick to the other side of his mouth, “a robot. The faster the dogs go, the faster the rabbit goes. And so on. They never catch it. Ever! What do you think about that?” He slaps your knee with the pamphlet, laughs.
You laugh too.
He pulls his arm from your shoulder, then opens the light blue pamphlet back up. He hunches around it, nose close. He folds it, lengthwise, takes the toothpick from his mouth, then licks along the fold. He tears the wet crease until he has a strip. He crumples it up, then tosses it into his mouth, like popcorn, and chews.
You mouth the words. They never catch it.
Ross McMeekin is currently studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts, pursuing a MFA in creative writing. In his free time, he plays in local indie rock band The Charity Stripe, obsesses over U.W. Husky sports and fishes for trout.