Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gin Juleps on a Saturday 

I sat on the back porch of my parents' Westchester home watching my forearms turn pink in the spring sun. It was the first Saturday in May and the house was full of guests for the annual Kentucky Derby party. Beside me, on a slight wicker chair my mother had purchased at an auction in the Catskills, sat Katherine with restless legs stretching out from within her Imitation of Christ tennis whites talking about how she financed the sixth-year of her undergraduate education. I closed my eyes and felt the heat of the sun against their lids, and smelled the bourbon and mint and burnt nicotine in the air.

“I raffled off a motorcycle. A 1946 Indian. A classic. The tickets were beautiful. Works of art really. Each had a full color picture of the Indian, and the picture was taken in the badlands of South Dakota. There was not a man alive who wouldn’t see himself riding through that weird landscape past herds of semi-wild buffalo toward a rally in Stirges. We sold close to two thousand tickets, at five dollars a piece,” Katherine said.

“Fantastic. Where did you get the bike?”

“You have too little imagination, MT. There was no bike. There never was a bike. Or, rather, the bike exists, the picture was real, but I never had such a beautiful thing to raffle off.”

“Weren’t you worried you would get caught?”

“I never worry about such things. Who could catch me? Only the winner. He was the only injured party, and the only person who needed to be told that he could not have the bike. I gave him his five dollars back, and thus made him whole. What else could he ask for? This drink is fantastic, by the way.”

I had declined the mint juleps, on the grounds that they had too much sugar for anyone raised north of the Mason-Dixon line to tolerate, and so we were drinking a cocktail of my own invention. It was simply a dry gin-and-tonic with a bit of mint crushed into the bottom of the glass. It was to the northern shore of the Long Island Sound what a mint julep is to Kentucky or a Mojito is to Cuba.

“Glad you like it,” I replied. Before settling on these, we had tried to match the day with various drinks. And when I say various drinks I am giving away the Rosetta Stone of my life. “How do you have the nerve for your scams?”

“I have a secret defense--I am interested in life.”

“Of course. So am I, but…”

“You are interested in a person, not in life. What is the phrase? ‘A respecter of men.’ And people leave us—they die, they graduate, they move to Los Angeles. Our search for divinity runs aground the shitty little mortality of others. In short, other people are a constant disappointment. I am interested in the greenness of mint, and sharpness of tonic. Every drink ends with an empty glass or half-melted ice but I have discovered the immortality of life itself, of creation, if you will.”

Katherine shook her empty glass. I took the glass from her hand and walked into the house. Behind the bar was Danny Red, a huge boulder of a man who had been serving drinks at this party for a dozen years. He poured me a pair of the drinks. “I’m thinking of calling these Stingers. After the things that wasps have,” he said.

In the next room the gamblers were lined up to place bets with my brother, who played the bookie of the party. The odds were calculated on lap-top computer, and Patrick took the bets and handed the bettor a slip of paper with numbers indicating the size of the bet, the number of the horse and the win-place-or-show outcome. Although this was a social event, the guests took the placing of bets very seriously. Even more so the collection of their winnings when they picked the right horse. I did not envy my brother this task.

My responsibility at the party was much simpler. I ran the pools. There were two five-dollar pools and two two-dollar pools. The lettered tickets were sold by pretty girls as the guests passed through the Doric columns at the top of the front steps to my parents' house. You didn’t know which horse you were going to get but the odds were good: for a five-dollar ticket you stood to win ninety dollars in an eighteen horse race. And for most people, betting blind was not much more of a handicap than betting ignorantly on a horse they chose. After all the tickets were sold, we revealed which letters corresponded to which horses.

I held the money after the tickets were bought and before the race was run. It amounted to two-hundred and fifty-two dollars. I watched the bets being placed, and thought about Katherine and about Katherine’s legs and about the way Katherine always had money but never worked for it. Someday she would marry someone fabulously rich and then he would die and she would spend years in court battling his progeny from his first marriage, and each day in court she would wear a different, stunning outfit. This was one fate for her, but I was beginning to imagine others.

I cooled my throat with the mint-blanched gin and walked in front of the betting table. “I will take two hundred and fifty-two dollars on Smarty Jones to win,” I told Patrick. Smarty Jones was from Philadelphia, and no horse from Pennsylvania had ever won the Derby. This meant that Pennsylvania was due. The soundness of this logic was proved last year when Funny Cide won, claiming the roses for New York for the first time. My brother looked at me incredulously. He knew where the money I was betting had come from. “This is what is called leverage,” I told him. “Simple financial leverage. I owe this money, true, but those debts don’t come due until the race is won. At which point I will have won far more from you. You will learn this if you ever go to business school.”

He scribbled the numbers on my ticket beside a large W. I didn’t tell Patrick the other thing I knew. I had bought a pool ticket with the letter ‘O’ which turned out to be the ticket for Smarty Jones. I was placing all my eggs in one basket, counting my chickens before they hatched, preferring the dozen in the bush to the one in hand. The wisdom of the world was against me.

I won’t try to build suspense about the race because everyone knows who won on Saturday, with Smarty Jones surging ahead over the sloppy track and beating out pacesetter Lion Heart. It was a good race, and I had made a good bet. The odds were good even though Smarty Jones was a favorite, and my leveraged gamble put a good piece of cash into my pockets.

After the race I looked for Katherine to tell her how things had turned out. The spot on the porch where we had spent the afternoon was taken by Dan Red and his sister, busily chatting about a guest who had been discovered passed-out in the bathroom. Katherine had already left with a few of the other guests for late dinner party in Manhattan. She had left a note with the simple message: “Congrats on your winning. Sorry I had to run. xoxoxo--Kat.” Despite my daring bet, I was still a respecter of persons.

[Note: As you may have noticed, this was written after last year's Kentucky Derby. I had a lucky streak again this year, which I'll hopefully get around to writing about later this week.]