by Margaret Mendel
Enjoy this never before published father related short story in honor of Father’s Day, with just a bit of a mystery twist.
Pop died suddenly. There were no warnings. He had slightly elevated blood pressure and the doctor said he was pre-diabetic, but with diet and standard meds there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. I guess when your time’s up, there’s not much you can do about it.
Pop was a barber. He owned a barbershop for over forty years, working Tuesdays through Saturdays all those years, taking only two weeks off in the summer. In the last couple years, he and mom had begun to take one-week vacations in the winter. The cold was getting to the both of them and a little relief from the bitter temperatures in February made it easier for them to wait for the warmer days to swing around. Besides these vacations with mom, Pop never took time off from work. He was never sick a day in his life, never complained, and always seemed happy. The news of his passing came as much of a shock to mom and me, as it did to everyone who knew him.
At Pop’s funeral the family sat in the front rows, while his friends and customers sat in the back rows. There were more than a hundred men in those back pews. Many of them were old-timers from the neighborhood. Some were retired, and they’d come into the barbershop to hangout passing the time, retelling old jokes, sometimes catch up with gossip, and sometimes they came by to spread a bit of juicy information.
Looking out on to those back rows I couldn’t help but notice the different shades of gray hair; there was salt and pepper gray, yellowish gray, white with streaked gray. There were a couple old customers with dyed brown or charcoal black hair. Some men were in different stages of baldness. One guy had a thick hairpiece perched on top of his head that looked a bit like an inverted birds nest. Pop had clipped the hair of every one of those men. He shaved them. I always thought the funniest part of Pop’s job was snipping the hair that grew from inside their ears. The men in the back rows talked softly. Some of them sat quietly lost in thought, and I wondered if they might have been a bit concerned about which one of them might someday soon be joining their dear barber. Pop always joked around with these men. They were his buddies. Once when I was out walking with Pop, we ran into one of his old customers and Pop said, “Why don’t you come by the shop? Your hair doesn’t grow as fast as it used to, but your neck needs a shave.”
Looking at the coffin, draped in flowers, I wanted to shout, to shake that fancy coffin mom purchased for Pop. I want to do anything to bring Pop back. I wanted the whispering men sitting in the back rows to make more noise: to holler out, for us all to stomp our feet, to break furniture. I wanted them to grab Pop with their voices and pull him back to us. Instead they sat thoughtfully and talking softly. An angry hotness spread down from the top of my head with a ferocious heat, sliding down my forehead and onto my eyes, it felt as though my face had melted, leaving nothing but a hot lump of expressionless flesh. I could not cry.
Mom was pale and drawn. Her eyes were dry and red. I knew the pillows on her bed were soaking wet with tears. She was a private, proud, silent woman.
When the funeral service was over, one of Pop’s friends came up to me. I noticed fuzzy growth of hair coming from the sides of his neck. “How do you do?” he asked. Taking my hand in a gentle but manly manner, he introduced himself. “I’m Arnie Swartz. I’m very sorry about your father.” He then handed me an envelope. “This belonged to him.”
“It’s from the last race your Pop bet on,” he said.
I was confused. Pop never gambled or bet on a horse race. “This must be a mistake.”
“Oh, it’s no mistake. He asked me to make the bet when I went up to Saratoga last week. He could have placed the bet himself with a bookie, but he liked having someone placing bets personally for him at the big races.”
This didn’t make any sense. I had never known Pop to bet on anything. Then Arnie said, “Your Pop and I used to go to the track on Mondays, when his shop was closed.”
It was as though he was telling me about a stranger.
“Please let me know if your mother needs anything.” Arnie put his hand on my shoulder. “Your father was a great guy, and he’s going to be missed.”
Two of Pop’s regulars stepped up to me after Arnie walked to the other side of the room. “There was none better than you father,” one of the men said. The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I could not understand or hear what anyone said to me. My head was spinning. It felt as though I was falling into a pit. It was a terrible day.
Mom nearly passed out in the car as we drove back from the cemetery. There were a few old friends of the family, who in their own depression over Pop’s death, made things worse with their sad faces and crying. I had never thought too much about death, until now. I was not prepared for this, and I knew I’d never stop missing Pop.
Mom had retired from teaching school two years earlier, and now there was no place she had to be each day. She would not get out of her housecoat. She sat in the kitchen for hours looking out the window. Or she took long naps. She no longer went out with her friends during the day. After much talking, she agreed to enroll in classes in a senior center during the day. She went, saying, “It won’t make any difference. Things will never be the same again.”
I knew what she meant. There was an ache and a profound emptiness in my life. And I could not stop thinking about Pop’s secret horse racing bets. I couldn’t understand why he never told us. I thought I knew him. Now that he was gone, I not only missed him, I felt confused and left out. So, one Monday, instead of going to work, I went to the racetrack. It was not premeditated. I just did it. The weather forecast had promised rain, but there were no clouds anywhere. The sky looked a freshly polished bright blue, and as I drove out to the racetrack, I felt excited.
I parked my car and walked through the entrance gate of the Belmont Racetrack. I could not believe how many people were at the racetrack on a weekday. The strange thing was that many of the men looked like Pop. Several men even had the same kind of jacket Pop used to wear. I felt spooked and a little out of place. I was about to leave when someone called out to me, “Hey, how you doing?” It was Arnie. He came up to me, shook my hand and asked, “How have you been? How’s your mother? I meant to stop by. I just don’t seem to find the time to socialize. What’re you doing here?”
“I thought I’d get a look at horse racing. I’ve never been to a track before.”
“Well, I’m glad I ran into you. The horses aren’t so good today, but it’s a pretty day to watch them run. Your Pop would sometimes sit and watch and wouldn’t bet at all. Said he had to get the ‘feeling’ before he would bet. He wasn’t like some of the guys here who bet on anything, even on how many times they’ll lose during the day.” Arnie was holding betting slips in his hand. He fanned them out and began counting them.
“How do you bet?” I asked.
“You fill out one of these slips with the horse and race you want, take it to the window, give them money, then it’s up to the horse. That’s it. Nothing fancy. You got a horse you like?”
“I don’t know anything about horses. I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“Well, let’s get your feet wet,” Arnie said. He walked me over to one of the betting windows. He marked a couple forms, placed two twenty dollar bills on top of the forms and slid them through the window. “That’s all there is to it. Now let’s see what these horse can do.”
“As a matter of fact, there is one of his favorites running in the ninth race. Her name is Runs Pretty.”
I looked up the ninth race. Runs Pretty was favored to win. “What makes her so good?” I asked.
“Your Pop liked her mother and grandfather. So, when Runs Pretty started to race, he went down to the track to get a closer look at her. He said she looked like a winner, that she had what they call the ‘eye of the eagle.’”
“Pop was really into the horses, wasn’t he?” I said and felt a deep sadness.
“Why don’t you bet on Runs Pretty? You got plenty of time,” Arnie said. He handed me a betting form. I carefully made my mark so there would be no mistaking what horse I wanted.
When I finished marking the form, I asked, “How much did Pop usually bet?”
“He never made any bet more than twenty bucks. Said he didn’t like to lose more than a couple haircuts at a time. That was his measuring stick, I guess. We all do something to keep from betting all our money when we come to the track. I’m sure he would have put twenty on Runs Pretty.”
I took a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet, handed it to the man behind the window. This bet was different from the one I’d made earlier. There was a strange sensation pulsing in my hand as I pushed the betting slip through the window. For a moment I wanted to take the money back. I wanted run form the racetrack even though I could feel myself slipping deeper into Pop’s secret world. I hesitated for a moment and then took the betting stub from the cashier. Arnie watched me. Our eyes met. We said nothing.
Arnie and I walked out onto the platform to view the track. The day was still bright and the eighth race was just finishing. The other races I had bet on with Arnie’s recommendations had all lost. I had only bet a couple bucks on those races. They had not been very exciting. When the ninth race began, I expected to have the same experience.
Yet, as the horses readied for the ninth race, my heartbeat quicken. I asked Arnie which horse was Runs Pretty. He pointed her out to me, number six. She was a long legged, sleek brown beauty. The other horses were also brown, but there was something different about this horse. She looked majestic and proud, with her head held high. Her shiny coat sparkled in the afternoon sun. I could see why Pop liked this horse. Arnie handed me a pair of binoculars, and I took a closer look at her.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she,” I said. I did not expect Arnie to answer me. It was as though the words slipped out in a sigh.
Once the horses were in the starting gate and settled down, a bell sounded. The horses took off with a startling fast gallop. I looked through the binoculars and located number six. Runs Pretty stretched her legs in a stride that demonstrated her power. She was beautiful to watch.
“Go! Go!” I said. At first it was like a thought, or a wish for her to win, to win for Pop. Within seconds my voice became louder, and I was shouting with the crowd. As she raced down the track with her powerful stride, I found myself screaming, “Go Runs Pretty. Go!” She was magnificent and the louder I shouted, the faster she ran. She was going to win the race. She was a horse length ahead of the rest of the pack, and her power was not letting up. Runs Pretty was not running, she was flying.
My heart was racing with her. I was breathless as she came into the stretch. The blood pounded in my ears. I shouted as loud as I could. Runs Petty’s sleek brown body stretched with unbelievable majesty and her powerful strides took her over the finish line, the winner!
The jockey slowed Runs Pretty to a joyous trot and then he stood up in the stirrups, and it looked as though Runs Pretty was dancing for us as we cheered her on. “You were right, Pop,” I thought as I watched her circling the field in a triumphant prance.
I was exhausted. It was as though I had run the race myself.
“She’s some thriller, isn’t she?” Arnie said. “I’m glad you got to see her perform.”
We walked to the betting window. Collecting the money from my bet I felt the cold sweat on my back. Arnie gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Well, you did good today, kid. Want to stick around for some more?”
I shook Arnie’s hand. “No, I think I had enough for one day. Maybe I’ll see you again out here.”
“Maybe you will,” he responded.
I walked to the parking lot feeling confused. I was both sad and elated. The sky had begun to turn gray. It looked as though the rain that had been promised would come after all. A chilly breeze ruffled my shirt. I shivered. Goose flesh covered the back of my neck like a collar. I was alone in the parking lot, yet I felt cramped and crowded, and I was having difficulty breathing. Then tears began to flood my eyes. I had a lump in my throat, and I felt as though I wanted to gag. By the time I reached the car, tears were streaming down my face. I wanted Pop to be with me. I missed him. I no longer cared that he had not told me about his horse racing buddies. I just wanted him with me. I cried for a while, then dried my eyes, put the key into the ignition and started the car. I drove through the parking lot feeling weak, and the lump in my throat felt huge as I tried to swallow it down. Then I remembered the beautiful race Runs Pretty had won and I thought, “Pop, you would have been proud of her today.”
I drove out on to the expressway as the rain began to hit my windshield.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.