Excerpt from WhistleSof’WhenY’Fall
If depression possessed favorite keys tonight, they were B-sharp and F-flat, the shuffle of mottled bare feet with little arch as they transported Jacobo Belcuore’s body across the bare floor from window to austere desk, the gently warped plank of pine that spanned two unmatched file cabinets. A splinter nipped the soiled cuffs of his pajama top sleeves as he lifted the water-stained desk blotter, also warped, and slid a large monthly wall calendar forward.
October fourth. This month’s pinup was Citation, Triple Crown winner of 1948. Jacobo Belcuore flipped the back sheet forward to September’s thoroughbred, Man o’ War, and smiled broadly at the month’s clutter, seventeen green ballpoint Xs in each daily squares. Then he flipped another sheet forward to August. Secretariat strode across yet another set of Xs. Thirty-one in all. Turquoise felt tip marker this time. He flipped backward to peek at November. Cigar crossing the line at Belmont. Not his final race, but his final win. He stroked the chestnut’s rump, Jerry Bailey’s silks, and then fingered the number 5.
That Saturday, September fourteenth, he’d taken the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station to Belmont Raceway. Betting, handicapping, they were secondary. He’d gone for inspiration. And the peace. He always recaptured peace and beauty at the track, even among its restrained disorder –ships that had failed to come to port, ripped into pieces and littering the grounds; assemblages of foreign tongues competing with the announcer’s disembodied voice; turf so green it was hallucinatory; the resplendence and dignity of thoroughbreds; the ascendancy that symbiosis of man — and now woman — and animal cultivated.
That was also the Saturday on which a three-year-old, whose name Jake has since forgotten and who’d been shipped from Canada, had pulled up to the line and then broken down. He’d not seen the actual moment when the filly, a half ton at perhaps thirty-six miles an hour, twelve thousand pounds of force on his cannon bone, caved left and pitched her jockey forward. He heard only the collective moan of spectators, track workers, and media people, some springing to their feet as if charged with electrical currents, some twisting away with constricted faces and respiration, men shielding the eyes of their children, women burying heads in each others’ sunburned necks. No need to look. He knew. It was every horse lover’s apprehension. But in spite of his fear, he’d looked anyway, lured to death as he was.
The thoroughbred’s world was quickly corralled by vets on Belmont’s payroll, camera people and photographers too stunned to roll or shoot film — though immune paparazzi sprang into action — grooms, pony girls and “equestrophiles,” while the tangled jockey was lifted from the ground and borne away by stretcher. The bay had been adamant that she would not go down again, standing aslant on three good legs, rearing up on two, caving forward again on one bad leg, hobbling in circles on three, whinnying, determined, eyes growing large while fright and pain coalesced into puffs of warm vapor that rose from flexing nostrils and were made to looked like ascending spirits in the frigid spring air.
He’d watched with fascination as well as dread. The insides of his throat clung together. Don’t look Don’tlook but he couldn’t stop himself, enchanted by horse’s struggle to stand and remain standing no matter what, moved by her need to do what he’d been bred to RunRunRun do. He wanted to capture that moment. Life struggling to be. He wanted to juxtapose it with the next moment he knew to be inevitable. Life in submission.
He locked closed his eyelids and saw it. Life succumbing giving way caving in breaking down. It was an act to be imprinted on his death-obsessed brain whether he witnessed it or not, to bedevil him for days weeks, yet he continued to flog himself with the image, to view from behind closed eyelids until the horse went down again in spite of himself on that finely hewn front leg; perhaps the distal end of the cannon bone in the foreleg, its shaft white and bare in the sunlight, jutting; the hoof and lower pastern of the anklebone hanging loosely, its few veins corrupted beyond hope; those traitorous limbs that genes had both gifted and cursed him with; until the proud and powerful gait that would have been, would be no more. A pony girl would take the reins of his bridle. She’d place her delicately callused palm against his neck to steady him. She’d kiss his the cooling nose in spite of the condensed life-force that rose from it. The horse ambulance would arrive. The tarp would go up. Breaths would be gripped even closer.
“Why?” A child behind him.
“He took a bad step,” the parent had said. It was the humane thing to do, the parent went on, without explaining, as his own father had once explained to him, that horses have limited circulation to the lower legs, that if the few blood vessels are severely damaged they leave no conduits for antibiotics and so pave the way for gangrene, or that a thousand pound horse sleeps standing up, or that it must have four legs to walk on, otherwise the leg opposite the weakened one becomes overloaded and then the horse develops laminitis, the ailment that ended Secretariat’s stud days or, as he believed, that there was no such thing as a bad step, only traffic jams on the track, overextended and exhausted horses, inflammation and micro fractures masked and aided by steroid use. And owner greed. The only bad step any horse had ever taken was the first one out of the starting gate. He would’ve given the little girl the lesson his own father had given him so many years ago, when Jacobo Belcuore Senior’d returned home from Aqueduct Stables and Sunnyside Farm smelling of leather, liniment and unowned grief.
Pressure in his head had mounted when he squeezed his lids tighter. Time was as compressed as his eyeballs. He knew the rest by heart. Two large syringes of cartoon proportions. 100cc’s of succinylcholine to ease the ailing filly into pre-death sleep, followed by the purple barbiturate, both into the jugular. She would sigh, perhaps, liberating a final phantom through nostrils with a soft and trembling snort, collapse immediately, be eased to the turf by those who witnessed, perhaps another jockey or his own groom, probably on his left side. Cable wire around the massive neck, two three times maybe, seemed a desecration of this highbred and magnificent animal only three years from foal, to tow him into the horse ambulance with a winch. Jake’s own snort released smaller phantoms from his quivering nostrils too, fragmented and frosty.
So, that was the end of life. A tarp. A couple of needles. A piece of wire. And if you were lucky, a kiss from a pretty girl with a blond ponytail. If you were lucky.
When he opened his eyes, he saw two young women in front of him. They were sharing a single frayed tissue.
He’d not cried, but held grief in his belly. It pushed against his gut and gurgled like gas. Cigar’s later victory pushed nudged the scene from his mind for the rest of the afternoon. Until the ride back to Manhattan, that is.
He’d not been able to stop his talk of Cigar’s victory, even though his seat companion, a middle-aged redhead dressed and made up like an ex-showgirl, who was more than friendly when she stopped at his row and sat next to him, had been stunned into semi-consciousness by the volume of information and the intensity and speed with which he’d spoken. It grew more oppressive when she tried to veer the conversation — his monologue, really — toward the afternoon’s tragedy. The more he talked, and the faster he talked, the less he would have to think.
He was looking at the calendar. He’d not been able to remember the filly’s name until this very moment: Cryptic Solution. And wasn’t life cryptic. And death too. And didn’t solutions elude you. Here now and in a moment gone. No more. If you blinked too slowly, the person standing next to you would vanish. Or you yourself. Poof!
He remembered now how everything he’d seen that day had guided him to that which he’d wanted to forget that day: the woman on the train, her name was Charlotte Strets; a phrase on a billboard said como sí; he’d even thought of Casey Stengel. Where’d that come from? Ss hanging from the awful low-slung hooks of Cs were everywhere that Saturday and for Saturdays to come. That’s how his mind worked. It grabbed all things that were irrelevant and imbued them with more meaning than they were intended to absorb or reflect.
Turquoise Xs running wet. The tears he’d staved off for months now made their visitation, along with Cryptic’s cry, as dreadful as a Canadian wind across the night wilderness. Death was sad and exciting. Exotic. God! His fingers moved by habit to type words on the keyboard in his head. shift Sometimes spacebar he spacebar revolted spacebar even spacebar himself period
He quickly flipped calendar pages and then studied October. Nearly two months since he’d rejected his medication. Two months and four days. Two months four days six and a half hours. Controlled but not too controlled, free but not anarchist. So far so good. No symptoms. Nothing to worry about. He loved to prove the establishment wrong, any establishment, political, academic, medical. Whatever . . . He marked a green X across tonight’s date and then returned to his sanctuary, single bed by night and, on his bad days, the penal breadth of his world.
As he fell asleep (or was he falling asleep and, why did one fall asleep?) he was shaken by the sensation of ascension, or being lifted, floating, or hovering, hovering above his bed in a holding pattern parallel to his own body. If he were asleep, well, yes, a dream, but if he were not, what? He performed a graceful rotation for a better view of his physical form, a lump of immobile flesh whose hands protected its penis in mimicked repose. Or death.
He was shocked by what was presented to him. Mirrors had always offered another perception, patronizing, slightly dark, swarthy, some would have called it, a burst of black healthy hair that, at thirty-eight, retained its gloss, dark brows and lashes, and the Belcuore badge, coat of arms, really, Roman nose strong, lean and prominent and the Mediterranean lips, full but not too full and dark, white ethnic dark. But what? But now but now he was ashen, the lips a darker gray, the hair dull, and if no longer black, what color, then?