We approached the door. It didn’t hurt to have me be the one they saw first. I was with my uncle, Walker, who claimed to be a natural born salesman. Could sell a Buick to a blind man, he’d said. I wasn’t sure yet about Chicago. I wasn’t sure about this uncle. But after Dad found a beam to swing from — and Mom, who wasn’t all that together herself, hooked up with a steroid-built bouncer, they thought it best for me to get a fresh start. This uncle did. And, in the end, Mom did, too.
This house was roofing. If my uncle noticed something better — lawn work, a new driveway — then that would have been the pitch. The sell.
“Missing shingles,” he said. “Hell, another year and they’ll all be gone. Easy peasy.”
“Piece of cake. Easy peasy. You never heard that?”
“Not from someone your age.”
“Age smage. It’s all in your head.”
Probably it is, I thought. I was discovering you could sell someone any old thing. Make people, who, if they stopped to think about it, would say, Hold on, this sounds a little too good. But that was the problem. People don’t think. They believe. They want to believe. Easy peasy.
“Morning, mam. Sorry to bother you, but I was checking up on a job we finished. Not far from here. The Woodwards. You know them?”
The woman was wearing what they call a housedress. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard the word, but I guessed it to mean something a person wouldn’t wear outside the house.
“The Woodwards,” my uncle said. “Nice couple.”
“What it is you said you wanted?” she asked. “I can’t take any more magazines.”
“No, mam. No magazines. That’s not my line of work.”
The woman waited, blocked the door.
“What I noticed was — because this here’s my business, is that your roof could use some work.”
“How’s that again?”
“Your roof. I noticed some of the shingles missing. Told my nephew here that’s going to be some trouble right there.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“Leaks, mam. If it isn’t already, that roof of yours is going to let the rain drop right on through. Notice any spots on your ceilings?”
The woman turned her head. Looked back inside the house. A dog that moved slower than any dog I’d ever seen nudged her bare leg.
“Isn’t he the cutest thing,” my uncle said.
“It’s a she,” the woman said.
“Well, she sure is something.”
Walker had a sheet of paper in his hand. The woman was signing her name. Handing over a check. He’s good, I thought. I’ll give him that.
Walker drove north on Pulaski. News played on the radio while I studied the streets like a foreign country. In Tucson I knew where everything fit. Where I fit. Here, I was still trying to learn.
“I’ve been thinking,” my uncle said. “The fall.”
“What about it?” I asked.
“School. Where you’re going to go.”
“What if I took the GED?”
“That ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “How do you feel about Catholics?”
“Nothing, I guess. We never went to church or anything.”
“Me neither. Not since I was a boy. I was thinking St. Gregory’s over on Addison.”
I didn’t have an answer for that. School’s school, I thought. What I wanted to do was work. Find a job. Make enough money to not have to count on people. People are a disappointment. Probably to themselves first. They can’t help but spill it on whoever is closest.
“Why that school?” I asked.
“I heard the brothers run a pretty tight ship. They’ve always have a pretty decent football team. Plus, you went through some pretty tough things back home. Your dad and grandpa dying like that.”
“They killed themselves,” I told him. I left out the part of me helping Grandpa along. That was between us.
“Yeah, I know. That’s some pretty tough business.”
“Maybe it runs in the family,” I said “Suicide gene or something.”
“It ain’t like that,” Walker said. “Don’t be thinking that. Anyway, maybe we can go to a game or two over at St. Greg’s.”
“Sports are stupid,” I told him.
“Yeah. I don’t like them much myself. Except for The Sport of Kings. That’s a whole ‘nother matter.”
“Horses,” my uncle said. “Not the trotters. Thoroughbreds,” he said. “Most beautiful animals on earth.”
I’d only been on a horse the one time. Out on the western edge of Tucson where the saguaro stood tall as a house. A rattlesnake, thick in its middle, crossed in front of us, and that horse tossed me flat to the ground. Broke for safer ground.
“This doesn’t seem like a horse kind of place,” I said. “You know horses?”
“I do,” my uncle, “Been studying them my entire life.”
It was July and the nights were heavy with the city’s wet heat. It felt like I wore a blanket that never dried. School didn’t start for a month. St. Gregory’s waited all clean and shiny. What’s one year? I told myself.
I’d been in Chicago for more than a month. The northwest side where my uncle lived was almost familiar now. The street names. Pulaski. Kimball. Western. The stores and restaurants. Middle Eastern, Filipino, a deli Walker told me had been there sixty years, since when Jewish families crowded the neighborhood’s bungalows. I’d started to recognize faces on the sidewalks. The old couple who lived next door in what my uncle called a duplex.
The woman spent her days in her backyard garden. A chain-link fence separated her house and Walker’s. Her husband sat on the stoop in a sleeveless t-shirt and kept an eye on her. Once I saw him sitting in his car parked in front of the building. I knew he was smoking. I smelled it as I walked by. Everyone has a secret.
“You go to school soon,” the woman said. I wasn’t sure if it was a question. She was out front sweeping the sidewalk. She wore what looked like an apron over her dress. On her, it looked right.
“Another month,” I told her.
“School’s good,” she said. “Get good job after.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Like your uncle,” she said. “He’s a good man. Smart man. Hard worker.”
I didn’t know about all that. Walker was smart. But work? I knew he found other people — mostly Mexicans and men from Eastern Europe to do the actual work.
“What a contrast, huh?” his uncle said. Men from a place alive with color and others from somewhere whose only color is concrete.
“He reads a lot,” I told her.
The woman nodded her head.
I didn’t mind talking to her. I hadn’t made any friends yet. It was good to listen to someone other than my uncle. “We’re going to the track tomorrow,” I told her.
“Why you do that? You like horses?”
“Not really. My uncle wants to show me how to pick winners.”
I hadn’t expected the racetrack to look so — pretty was the word stuck in my head. Not a word I used much. The surrounding green grass, flags flying their colors, the white of the buildings even whiter in contrast. Families carried coolers filled with sandwiches and cold chicken, drinks in plastic liter bottles. It looked like what I imagined a picnic looked like. Men in plaid shirts walking with women in sun-dresses and wide-brimmed hats.
Inside there were other kinds of people. Men whose clothes did not fit right. Pale skin and sunglasses. They stood at tables and wrote things down with small, wooden pencils. It seemed they all knew my uncle. Walker had his eye on a television screen that listed the horses and their odds.
“Watch the numbers,” he said. “How they change as the bets sort themselves out. The late money is usually the smart money.”
I didn’t understand a word of it. My odds of understanding the man were maybe twenty-five percent. If that. It wasn’t like I wasn’t interested. I thought maybe I’d learn how to get by without any kind of real job. Find a way to live outside whatever normal was supposed to be. A job, the two-week vacation. It didn’t seem like a fair trade-off. It hadn’t worked out for my father. The game’s fixed, my uncle told me. You need to cheat a little to beat it.
“You ever feel guilty or anything?” I asked. I remembered the woman and her roof. If that roof would be leaking the next time we got a good rain. What were the odds of that?
“What about those Mexican men who got a little money in their pockets?”
“Not a lot, I’ll bet,” I said.
“It’s all relative. Didn’t hear them complaining. That roof will hold some.”
“If you say so.”
“Let’s get some coffee. We’ve got time. You hungry?”
“I could eat,” I told him.
“Walker,” one of the men in sunglasses said. “You like anything?”
“Not today. Just showing my nephew around.”
“Degenerates,” his uncle whispered as we walked away.
“Bunch of degenerate gamblers,” he said.
“I thought you bet on these horses.”
“Listen,” his uncle said. He had his coffee and had bought me a hot dog. “Listen,” he said again. “There’s smart bets — bets where the math is right, or the tip is solid. For most people it’s just harmless fun. Spend a couple of bucks at the track. Play a little blackjack in Vegas. But guys like those back there? They’re just sick with it.”
“Yeah, sick. Win, lose it doesn’t matter. They just need the action.”
Walker took me outside to watch the horses come in for the next race. The jockeys sat like toy men atop the shiny, brown horses. I saw the ease with which they rode. Reins in gloved hands, how the horses accepted the directions they were given.
Walker had what looked like a newspaper but wasn’t. The Daily Racing Form, he called it. Shows the horse’s recent history, he explained. How they ran their last times out. Track conditions. How many furlongs. Jockeys that rode them. The trainers, of course.
“You read all that?” I asked.
“I do,” he told me. “Trick is to figure out the real story behind the so-called facts.”
“You can do that?”
“I got a sense for it. You know what subtext is?”
“Never mind. Sometimes I get a tip. When a big favorite’s gonna hold back. A ringer whose numbers don’t add up. It’s sweet to beat the game, I’ll tell you that.”
I wasn’t sure which part of my split-apart life was crazier. Growing up in Tucson where Dad had a job at Raytheon until he hung himself in our garage. Mom going to work in a strip club. Not to mention my grandpa who died off as well. The plastic bag over his head sealing it. Caught up in offering a hand with that. That life fully unravelled.
Or this new life in Chicago with this Uncle Walker. Mom took me to the airport for the once-a-day direct flight to Chicago. It’s only for a while, she told me. Finish up your senior year. Just one year, honey. By then things will get settled down. Back to normal. You’ll like your uncle, she told me. He’s smart like you.
What’s normal? I wanted ask, but knew she didn’t have a clue. Except she was right about Walker. He was smart. Just not normal smart. I was seventeen years old and knew there was a road I was travelling. I was worried what I would find. What I would miss. I didn’t miss Tucson. There wasn’t enough to miss. If I never saw Mom again, how would I feel?
“That’s a fine looking horse,” my uncle said.
I looked where Walker nodded his head.
“Look at the rhythm in his gait. See his foot fall patterns? Calm as can be. Another day at the office for him.”
I didn’t see any of it. The horses just looked like horses. “That’s a good thing you’re seeing?”
Walker turned his head and winked at me. I was pretty sure no one had ever winked at me before. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
“It is,” he told me. “Means he looks too good for the price they’re setting.”
“He’s for sale?”
“Might be. But I’m talking about the odds to bet him. Eleven to one? Not this horse. Not against this field.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“It means something doesn’t add up. Come on,” Walker told me. “Let’s see if I’m right. You have any money on you?”
“Never mind. Thought if you had a fiver we could turn it into a couple of Jacksons.”
I looked at the man. I’m related to him I reminded myself.
“Twenty dollar bills,” Walker said. “Andrew Jackson our seventh president? Survived the first assassination attempt? They teach you anything down in Tucson?”
“I’ve got five dollars,” I told him.
“Come on,” Walker told me. “Let’s go make us some money.” The wink again. I hoped it was lucky, this winking business.
We stood in line waiting to reach the window where people handed over their money.
“Let me have that five dollars,” my uncle said.
“I can do it,” I told him.
“You twenty-one all of a sudden? Gotta be twenty-one to place a bet. Eighteen this year, right?”
I nodded my head.
“Eighteen you can go get yourself shot in some stupid-ass war. But you still can’t bet.”
“How much are you betting?” I asked,
Walker had his eye on the television screen, watching the numbers change. “Three thousand,” he said.
“Dollars. What else?”
“That’s a lot of money,” I said.
“Money’s just numbers you hope will add up. He’s eleven to one. Probably drop to ten. Thirty thousand if he comes in. Fifty for you. Know who’s on the fifty?”
“Ulysses S. Grant. Liked the bottle, they say. Gamblers think the fifty is unlucky. Casinos won’t even stock them.”
We were almost at the window.
“You believe that?” I asked. “Luck and all that?” I watched as Walker looked for an answer.
“I don’t. But why take a chance. Never met a gambler who wasn’t superstitious. At least a little bit.”
Walker handed me my ticket. Five dollars to win. Seventh race. Carmella was the horse’s name. A girl’s name. But the horse wasn’t a mare. “Who knows what the deal with that is,” Walker told me. “Long as he’s first to the finish line, they can call him whatever they want.”
Walker wanted to go up to the top deck. The glassed in rooms and real furniture. A bar where you didn’t have to wait. I wanted to get as close as possible. Up tight to the rail. I’d seen people yelling down there when the horses made their turn for home.
“All right,” Walker said. “We’ll rub shoulders with the hoi polli.”
“The plebian. Common folk. Sure hope St. Gregory’s teaches you something.”
It was crowded down front. Sunburned women and sunburned kids. The children running here and there. Men sitting on benches. Waiting. Walker elbowed his way to the front, and I followed.
The horses entered the gate a little further down the track. I watched as the jockeys guided the muscled shapes into metal chutes. Some of the horses seemed reluctant. You could see it more clearly on the screen across the track. The hard-set faces of the jockeys. The horses ready to be let free. To run and run hard.
“Do you see him?” I asked.
“Third from the end. Our side. The jock wearing purple.”
“Yep. Purple silks. Color of royalty.”
“That what they call what jockeys wear. Our boy’s wearing the color of kings. You study any history?”
“I took history.”
“Well, that’s something at least.”
I held the ticket tight in my hand. “So, you get thirty thousand dollars if he wins?”
“Less. I played him across the board. Plus the late Daily Double. Boxed for that.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“My ticket pays if he comes in first, second or third. Win, Place, Show. Or if I hit the Double.”
“My ticket just says Win,” I told him.
“You’re only in for five bucks. Gotta go for it. All or nothing. Me, I’ve got a little more in play. Need to hedge it a bit.”
The start. I missed it. I heard the noise, but I had my head turned looking at this uncle who talked in a language I didn’t understand. The horses bursting from the chute. The distant roar of it. By the time I turned around they were full out, a quarter way down the track.
On the screen I watched them bunch up as they made the first turn. All the colors. The green of the surrounding grass. The bright white fences. And the jockeys crouched low over their horse. Loud colors on their backs.
I counted the money. Fifty-one dollars. Two twenties, a ten and a single. It felt like magic. Something that wasn’t real, but looked real.
“How much did you get?” I asked.
“Twenty-one and change,” Walker said. “If that Double had come in — now that would have been sweet.”
“It’s still pretty sweet,” I told him. “We didn’t do anything and they gave us money. Gave you a lot of money”
“True,” Walker said. “We didn’t break a sweat. Weren’t working for the man.”
School started, but by Halloween I stopped going. I met two boys and together we spent our days along the lakefront. Meredith came along too. Meredith wore her hair short and dressed like a boy. Black Dr. Marten boots. Never any makeup. Bangs covered her eyes as if she were hiding. She walked right up and talked to men who had lines cast out on the lake. Nets at their side. I liked her. The first girl I’d ever really liked. Felt comfortable with.
I’d been in Chicago for almost three months. Mom and Tucson felt far away. It seemed you could choose a home anywhere, and if that didn’t work out, choose another. Place another bet. For now, and maybe longer, I wanted to — what did Walker call it? A flyer. Take a flyer on this Meredith, this place. See how I landed.