The tea party — unlike those of Jacob’s childhood, where stuffed animals, scores of bears, and dogs demurred in response to his prodigal munificence — was spare. The cookies, ostensibly shortbread, felt like sugared granite on the teeth. And his mother hadn’t come back from the bathroom.
It had been ten minutes. Perhaps a dozen. Society always granted women extra time for such matters, just as it employed euphemisms — bears and women, thought Jacob — and old women, those like his mother, could take an age if they needed it. No one would say a word.
The tea was getting cold. In moments of slow waiting, for society loved exaggeration as much as it did euphemism, minutes were said to be like hours. Days became eternity, and the imagination stopped, though the calendar went on in inexorable somnolence.
A server stopped by twice to see if Jacob needed anything, though the shop was small and what he required, besides his mother, he did not know. He didn’t want to ask someone to go into the restroom and check on her either, to see how she was coping with being alone. Besides, the server might have refused, thinking how the newspapers would repeat the story of a woman who’d died during afternoon tea and all those who neglected her. Easier to blame family.
Jacob thought of his father, dead less than a month. This was the third time he’d checked on his mother since the funeral, and their first time going out. Without the old man, he’d have to pick up new habits, arrange new schedules, and shift his priorities.
His mother returned a moment later and there were relieved smiles all through the small shop. A phone call, she said, as though explaining how a wind-up toy worked. She’d had to answer. An old friend was in the hospital. More and more of her address book was tending that way, relocating for short stays.
Jacob listened with half an ear. He’d just remembered a book, a novel where people had to pay for dreams. The nicer the dream, either in luxury or reassurance, the more expensive it was. So middle-class dreamers paid for middle-class versions of sex, or a sumptuous meal. The impoverished rarely wasted money on dreams, but when they did, contended the author, it was for visions of warm houses. Those with money to spare, to burn, could pay to see into other people’s dreams, though only for part of it. Lacking context, they would have to invent and interpret on their own. The author never made clear why such limit existed — it simply did. It was the way the universe worked, a counterweight to privilege. And no amount of money could make the people in a dream love someone else. Sex was just sex, no different from food or warmth. Such emotional connections, apparently, had to originate in the dreamer. Jacob forgot how it ended, but he would have paid an obscene amount at that moment to see into his mother’s thoughts.
Her smile was captive to insecurity, and seeing it, Jacob recalled the end. The author of the book on dreams revealed on the penultimate page, leaving space for a philosophical though untitled epilogue, that all dreams, despite a change in vocabulary or fragmentation, were the same, not merely driven by some proto-human desire inherent in everyone, but replicated features, colors, tones. Peel away the shadow and beneath you’d find light.
He’d hated the cheap ending, and as he paid for tea, wondered if he’d deliberately tried to forget it. Still, his mother looked as though she was recollecting, with displeasure, a truth everyone knew in the end, so he embraced her, his arms merely fragile walls.
The car was silent as Jacob drove his mother home. When he dropped her off, conscious that the house which had suited two people was now far too big, she thanked him. Said she’d like to see him next Sunday. It could become a regular thing. Jacob agreed immediately. Smiled. He didn’t drive away until he saw her pass through the front door, as though, passing through, the house assumed all responsibility for risk, yet even then he was thinking he’d have to arrange for a cleaner to come in once a week. The same for gardeners during the spring and summer. His mother, who had been her own woman for years, the last generation to bake their own bread, had, in a matter of weeks, become a child again.
The next Sunday, they did not go for tea. The weather was cooler, threatening rain, perfect for slow minutes and warm drinks, but his mother asked to go for Italian food. Jacob offered his arm and she took it, laughing at his absurd sense of chivalry, walking like a woman secretly carrying a bomb.
After they’d ordered, his mother excused herself. Jacob resisted the temptation to rise and follow her, to listen at the restroom door and be accused of moral turpitude, always worse than crimes that appear on judge’s lists. Even if he wasn’t confronted, he’d have to endure sideways looks and invent stories upon stories, though they all came down to the same thing — he no longer trusted his mother. Jacob would never speak the words aloud, but say he was worried about her. Describe how unexpected his father’s death had been, that although there was no question of foul play, the old woman had been acting strangely since her spouse passed. Might have been acting strangely for much longer, but he’d been too busy to check in regularly.
His mother arrived back at the table just before the food did. Jacob had ordered her a glass of wine as well, and now that it was poured, she could not refuse, but must drink, or at least sip, and reveal her secrets, unravel whatever riddles had overtaken her life. They both ate heartily, Jacob pleased to see she still had an appetite, wishing she would drink faster, perhaps ask for a second glass of wine. All his understanding of grief had come from books, and so he assumed that after death the living were as lost as most souls.
“If I tell you,” his mother said when she’d had enough of food and prying looks, “can we go somewhere a bit different next week?”
“The best answer,” said his mother, “is that I’m old, and that I haven’t forgotten what it is to be young.” She reminded him, a story he’d heard hundreds of times, that she’d grown up on a farm, adding that everything there had been about work. The horses hauled wood, plowed snow, and spread manure. Growing up, she figured life was toil. She’d married a man cut from the same cloth as her father. Every minute was judged on its utility, and it was only when she slept that she dreamt of ripping the fabric of the universe, getting rid of hard-working dusters, hemp used for bags instead of clothes, and silk turned from webs to soft pillowcases.
“I loved your father, but he was relentless. Even after we both retired he wanted to save, to plan. That worry killed him. He never had a chance to take a chance.”
“And now you’ve found something different?” asked Jacob as he paid for lunch — including the requisite tip, having inherited his father’s sense of ethics and thrift, knowing how little servers made per hour.
“I have, dear. Next week, I’ll drive.”
Despite the seven days, his mother looked younger when she picked him up. It was not enough to put it down to sleeping well, the way canyons do, their openness making them unassailable to ghosts and nightmares, the sleep of the just, because his mother’s late liberation could hardly be sufficient compensation for a lifetime of drudgery.
When they arrived, his mother strode into the seedy building with confidence, nodding at a few others who clearly recognized her, and when Jacob opened his mouth she shushed him, reminding him it was better to take care with his assumptions. Beneath each one he was liable to find a hundred more, and the last would prove indefensible. Chastened, he took in the room, which wasn’t ornate, the kind of window dressing that let visitors harbor illusions, but a simple layout: blue chairs, always in sets of three, around small elevated tables. Two oversized televisions adorned the walls, and large windows looked out on the green oval field surrounded by dirt, space that would have meant nothing without familiar demarcations of starting gate, backstretch, far turn, homestretch, finish line.
His mother didn’t speak again until she had the first ticket in her hand, the weight of the world in mere words. From an endless pattern of military and monetary names — Lords, Lieutenants, Lucky, and Grands — she had selected a horse called Clover Shoelace. Jacob merely observed, not asking why. It was one thing for government and corporations to poison the public, and quite another for them to do it themselves, to embrace madness, convinced that for a short spell, today didn’t have to conform to the same rules as yesterday. Two and two might surprise you. Happier times, which people always spoke of with nostalgia and longing, could be bought, paid for by the minute.
“If you bet on two horses, you might lose twice,” his mother said. “I learned that the hard way.” Jacob would have remarked that only one horse won at a time, but the race had begun.
It was over quickly, minutes that finish too soon, and though his mother’s pick had lost to Sapphire Peanut, had come in behind Molly Meadow and Big Mama Fox, not placing or in the money, she was flush with excitement.
“We’ve got a while until the next race. I could use a drink.”
She didn’t mean tea. And the food they bought made no pretense either, using the name shortbread for rocky granules of sugar or requiring sursum corda before it was shared. Track food was fried and heavy, eaten with gusto so it could meditate profoundly in the guts instead of trying to sing operatic arias.
A respectful silence overtook punters as they stood in a queue before the second race, questioning their equine choices, and imagining what they’d do if they won. This hush would take on greater resonance if it preceded a victory. Bookended by loss and gain, a moment of quiet proved necessary to make other notes stand out, the kind that became stories. Yet even then, when recounting the day, people would talk about how, in the brevity of peace, they’d had a feeling. Something larger was at work. A crack, fine enough, would open up a realm they’d always fantasized about, beneficent cadres attendant on them. To speak on one’s own terms of cafés and violins and curtains of an old-fashioned hue. Sturdy oak tables, steaming cups of tea, and delicate traces of icing on pastries. Windows strong enough to keep the hostile world away. And most of all, thought Jacob, imbibing the noiseless line that drives through all prayer, forgetting how nothingness is the most resilient thing. It doesn’t need tricks, but merely pulls up a chair.
After they had their ticket, where his mother picked Blind Writer, Jacob remarked that the horses were probably more nervous than any bystanders. It wasn’t like these animals had signed a contract. They could be taken off the track, forced into early retirement, at a whim. Put out to pasture. Put down. Turned into glue, thought Jacob, resurrecting a belief he’d held as a child. But then, he’d also been convinced his mother and father were happy, more like a folk tale than a pop song. His mother gazed out the window blankly, author of a nervous silence, so Jacob rested his hands on hers.
“I’m glad you brought me here.” She met his eyes and smiled. “Better than cars,” he said, “where it’s too easy to point to mechanical failure. Loose levers and pedals or stripped pads. At least you can wonder if the horse is happy when it crosses the finish line first.”
“I’m sure it is.” Her tone indicated more than lumps of sugar or garlands, or even the calming of nerves, the return of quiet breath after exertion, horses and gamblers no longer watching the opening of a gate or the soft motion of a flag. The blinkers would be removed, and the horses, their focus previously drawn to only the turf in front of them, could witness crowds for the first time, prompting a moment of reflection and faux pas, disbelief that they’d been so busy, the minutes moving so fast, that they’d neglected their supporters and detractors — and how quickly those two roles could switch. Settled, they could take up what life had in store for them now they were done chasing tails. At least for a spell. For a few beats after a race concluded, no living thing had to feel defenseless or exposed. Even those who ought to be suspect, the hopeless public and greedy owners, might have a change of heart.
While Jacob had considered all these things, his mother’s horse had won. Blind luck, it seemed, something written by a hand they couldn’t see.
“Let’s collect my winnings,” she said, and Jacob marveled at her calm. Perhaps it was automatic caution. A winning ticket among so many losing ones required silence. No one needed to know a gambler’s business while they slowly advanced through the queue. Punters were not mere beasts, a second set of subjects to bet on, for the safe bet would always be loss. Such was life’s public business.
Still, Jacob’s mother smiled, joy he hadn’t seen for years.
If he’d closed his eyes, Jacob might have called it dozing off, the weighty food moving slowly through unpronounceable systems while the beer coursed to his brain, but he supposed what happened was what novelists termed a moment of distraction. Either they’d sat down at the wrong table or they’d missed a crucial change. Decorum making protest impossible, they found themselves seated with a third party, a woman even older than his mother, whose eyes seemed so pale and milky it would have been easy to believe she saw nothing at all. Yet she carried a small pair of binoculars, superfluous and out of place at this track which, while not low-class, had no noble aspirations. The woman nodded at them and said it was nice to see sons who still cared for their mothers, words that turned the shabby room, with its small tables and blue chairs, into a confessional.
Jacob shifted in his seat. If it hadn’t been for the death of his father, he would have gone on neglecting his mother, a practiced indifference that was parallel to his father’s relentless busyness. He noticed a tear in the fabric, a rip that would, over time, eventually require mending or re-upholstering or a brand-new chair, one such an establishment was unlikely to afford. People weren’t so fond of losing their money as all that.
But if the purpose of the room was now revelation, an unburdening of the soul, perhaps the grimy chairs or sticky floor didn’t matter. Priests and monks and shamans could elicit the truth in cells or a copse of fig trees as easily as in a gilded room. The stranger looked on kindly, and soon she and Jacob’s mother were chatting like old friends, discussing close races and the most inane horse names they’d heard. It was a wonder they hadn’t met before. His mother confessed she’d only recently taken up the sport. The stranger admitted she was around nearly all the time, a blessing to be sure, for opportunity did not turn everyone into thieves. His mother whispered a prayer and crossed herself. The stranger watched, her nose twitching in distaste, as if aware of herself at last. Self-reflection is an ailment of every age, like the realization that tomorrow, the next day, or some time in a certain future, is a closed book.
They exchanged tickets. His mother had bet on Barley There. The stranger on Sad Smile.
Without anything formalized in words, the throwing of verbal gauntlets, it was clear from the picking of different horses that the two women recognized each other at last and stood in competition. They joined the crowd at the large window, safe from buffeting winds. Nothing would matter except which horse won. This wasn’t merely a contest that invited the friendly ribbing of can’t win ’em all or better luck next time, but the gratification of some hunger. Jacob’s mother, freed from an officious husband, wanted to try the world out. Her present infatuation with horses would translate into flights of pinot noir, longer flights to warm destinations, and dark glasses. The stranger was merely voracious, subject only to time itself, and never hid her eyes, preferring to let company understand her. If she translated the world, it was always secondary to other satisfaction, the vertiginous compensation she sought, and got, but had the audacity to describe as just.
The present race began unceremoniously, or at least without more ritual than a lowered flag and the opening of gates, so many misnamed horses thundering around the track. The larger race had begun long before, with formalities still open for debate, whether cosmic fireworks or merely a deity deciding on a whim to turn on the lights.
The stranger lifted her binoculars. Lowered them. Smiled sadly at Jacob, who held his mother’s hand and felt a grip that might crush bone.
“I’m ahead,” said the uninvited guest.
Readers curious about war might read Homer or Hemingway, just as those interested in horses could look into McCarthy or Porter. Jacob, one eye on the race and the other on the two women, for in some way he’d connected his mother to the stranger, and so joined, they seemed inseparable, thought of two literary wolves. Of lighthouses and never going home again.
Sad Smile stayed ahead through the first turn, though in the crowded field no one was winning. The lead shifted in a matter of seconds, achieved an intemperate stasis, and then shifted again. During these paroxysms of hooves, the stranger’s horse kept in front of Barley There, but when the track straightened, his mother’s horse had a chance to stretch its legs, an absurd idea for a creature that spends most of its time standing, and was presently running, each fetlock and cannon firing, extended in full. By the time Barley There passed Sad Smile, his mother did not notice, having been overtaken by a fit of coughing. She was not merely playing the weakling to outfox an enemy, to be the stone in the street that trips up her foe, an etiological tale to be passed down to future generations. Her body trembled, wracked by the expulsion of air, so much so that other gamblers edged away, their indifference replaced by malice, as though Jacob’s mother was a curse, would be the reason their longshot didn’t pull through. Only the stranger seemed unbothered, her eyes never straying from the track and the pounding of hooves.
Jacob helped his mother straighten up, and in a series of whispered words, listened as she recovered her air. The race, now rounding the far turn, was close. She confessed a litany of medical secrets, the impetus for wanting more than just tea, for letting herself be reckless again, the first time since childhood. She no longer despised pain or begged for an end. She wanted to see color, breathe in hues before she went blind and breath was relegated to a medical textbook, a binary term that indicates life or death, willfully ignorant of the thousand states that exist in between or how to read them. How easily we forget our Latin, as if a burial Mass, a graveyard sacrament, is the only place to use it, cinis cinerem in worship instead of merely recollecting that the act of reading comes from reri, a discovery of what is true.
“That cloud,” Jacob muttered. He struggled to believe it was only one cloud, enormous enough to capture the horizon, and it seemed likely to open a moment later with such vehemence that the track would be instantly flooded. No need to cancel the race — the horses would be swept away. The stranger had noted the change in atmosphere as well. She lifted a hand, as though her fingers were powerful enough to stop celestial traffic. Words, imprecations most likely, came in undertones, and Jacob saw why. She was about to lose the bet. Her horse was behind.
In twenty yards it would over, not close enough for a photo finish, for argument and debate, lies if necessary, though Jacob, watching the strange woman, concluded she couldn’t lie, even when it might benefit her. Her work must be above reproach. Her face, judging the distance, was hostile and afraid as her chosen horse fell further behind. She was used to people asking for their mothers in the final moments of life, of welcoming ghosts. He wondered about the last time she’d lost. Wondered if she grew bored of her labor and turned to bets to break the malaise. In all likelihood, certainty being found both in volumes of poetry and medical textbooks, she probably forgot about losing until it happened, a painful reminder that nothing is unassailable. Eventually ants or rain will visit every picnic. And the abundant gods, including those who pretend, must have their penitents.
The question of who’s the bigger thief, an institution that routinely takes small amounts from the newly desperate and inveterate alike, or a woman whose chance defied the odds, to say nothing of a stranger who’s seldom shy in her grim toil, hasn’t been resolved by the shrewdest economists or the most staid philosophers. But Jacob still had his mother with him. He observed that as the rain rolled in, hiding the sky, while the horses were hurried back to the dry solitude of the paddocks, the strange woman had also disappeared.
The door to the stands stood open, swinging in the wind, so the sound of rain mixed with the usual grumblings, heightened because foul weather meant the track would close immediately and stay quiet until the following week. Punters trod slowly toward the parking lot. Jacob’s mother returned with her winnings, immediately handing half to her son, enough to give them a few good dreams. Anything else would be a fiction on the same order of happier times. Today had merely delayed tomorrow, but a little more time was sufficient when it came to revisions to be shared and understood.
Jacob took his mother’s hand, glad to escort her wherever she wished. He had some vacation saved up, and he chuckled to himself, seeing how pointless such economy was. Newspapers rarely dealt in fables beyond the political anymore, but he considered writing the editors, reminding them of Aesop’s wisdom. How a lucky woman with a spate of good fortune doesn’t always finish first. Some weeks, she may barely place.
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