Jul 052017
 

 

The 5th Race

I forgot to tell you this, but it’s incredibly important. Her grandfather was Joseph Malta, one of the two hangmen for the Nuremberg executions. She would take me to his house for dinner when we were working doubles, and we’d watch him bumble around the kitchen, serving cucumber sandwiches with Earl Grey, the razor blade cucumbers forgotten on the cutting board. I never asked about his past, but it seemed to dangle in the air, straining with its own weight.

After the hangings, he moved to Tallahassee, where he returned to work as a floor sander and lived in a bungalow with no hot water. He didn’t care about my parents or my career prospects or my intentions with his granddaughter, who—even from across the table—I could hear grinding her teeth. He only cared about the dogs. Again and again, I would tell him that I didn’t know, had never actually seen a race since that was the easiest time to muck the kennels. But his granddaughter, I said, was allowed into the track’s inner circle and watched the hounds wheel the corner for their final sprint home.

He ignored her and leaned towards me. “This world,” he whispered, “is not fit for man nor beast.”

At seventeen, I could hardly be called a man—could hardly be called much of anything. But since his granddaughter was in her early twenties, perhaps he assumed I was too. Or perhaps he had seen such horrors by the time he turned seventeen that there wasn’t much growing up for him left. Or perhaps I wasn’t the man in that saying at all.

After wishing him goodbye, we biked to the Presbyterian parking lot and blew tendrils of pale smoke into each other’s hair. Across the lot, three girls sang the ghostly singsong of double-dutch.

“I want to see fireworks,” she said, pausing for a coughing fit. “I need to see something explode.”

I held my breath. “We could put a pear in the microwave,” I replied on the exhale. Behind her, the girls accelerated their tempo until the rope snapped with speed.

 

By the time we returned to the track, the veterinarian was waiting. “You know,” he told her, tapping his watch, “vet techs are a dime a dozen. Six months and they churn you out like butter.”

“A bit of a mixed metaphor,” I said, to which he told me to go fulfill myself sexually.

I watched her follow him to the kennels. She had all the trappings of beauty but was actually quite ugly. Yes, she was thin, had distinguished features, with skin so soft and pale you’d paint your bathroom that shade. But she was also anemic, had a brutal bone structure, and skin so white it was as if light no longer touched her.

I checked in with my own boss, who was dipping each of his rings into a paper cup filled with vinegar. At this time, he’d either just gotten parole or was just about to break it—I forget which. But I don’t forget the small seam of kindness running through him, a seam that the world was bent on exploiting.

“Did you talk about the trials?” he asked, rubbing each ring with a rag until the gold burned. He asked me this after every dinner, and after every dinner I’d respond with the negative.

He torqued each ring onto its finger—including his thumb—and then pointed at his computer. On his screen were grey-scale photos of dead men on wooden planks, rose petals of blood strewn over their faces.

“It says here the trapdoors were too small. Each man dropped and fell face-first into the wooden sides.” He brought one of his scarred and shined hands to his face and lightly slapped his cheekbone.

“Do you have a pear I could borrow?”

 

I was scouring the bathrooms, buffing the hand dryers so slick there wasn’t any need for me to polish the mirrors, when my walkie-talkie beckoned me to the operating room. The OR doubled as where the vet inspected each dog before a race, checking heart rate, joint movement, and for any signs of doping. The check was state law but never taken seriously. More often than not, he’d get his tech to fit each dog for a wire muzzle and forge his signature on the government form.

The operating room was empty, save her. She was washing her hands in the sink. “I didn’t find a pear,” I said, “but I got—”

She turned and revealed her smock to be covered by vomit. She smiled.

Earlier that summer, she’d adopted some eastern religion, one with uncountable gods with uncountable arms. “The scriptures say,” she’d informed me, “that the moment this world achieves perfection, we will no longer need heaven. And heaven will cease to exist.”

“And what?” I’d asked. “The End of Times?”

She’d seemed bemused as she shook her head. “Much worse.” But then her smile backtracked into a frown. “Much, much worse.”

In the operating room, she shimmied out of her smock, dripping vomit onto the tile.

“What’d you give him?” I asked.

“Three tablespoons of laxative.” She dragged a finger through the brown-green puddle on the stainless-steel table. “This isn’t even the start of it.”

A white greyhound named God Speed started racing a couple years prior, and since he was only sixty pounds he was expected to caboose every race. But instead, he won them all. Nine races a year, one every other week in summer, for two full seasons. This was his last year, and he’d won four races already. There were only five left.

I opened a fresh package of rags. “Don’t you think you’ve gone a bit far?”

She shook her head. “The perfect season, the perfect career. The perfect dog. It cannot happen.”

God Speed was racing in the evening’s nine o’clock slot. A track is 565 yards long, and a quick hound can lap that inside thirty seconds.

As we scrubbed the operating room spotless, the overhead speakers popped on. The announcer (a man who was currently headlining in Tallahassee Theater’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar!) began his colour commentary. I couldn’t understand any of it, just the rising crescendo of his voice until he was screaming into the microphone and the crowd turned feverish with love.

“God Speed!” he yelled. “God Speed!”

The operating room smelled like bleach, like the very end of time. She buried her face into her latex gloves, and I peeled my boss’s hard boiled egg. “All I want,” she whispered, “is to save the world.”

 

That night, our heartbeats turned into ticker tape as we biked to the wolf sanctuary in Tallahassee’s northern hills. As usual, we never saw any wolves, but in the stretch of her flashlight, we caught their eyes, orbiting like planets before blinking to black. We slept spooned up on the human side of the fence and awoke beside a coiled imprint in the dewed grass.

***

The 6th Race

The week of the sixth race was the week I urged her to phone in sick, but she said destiny was depending on her.

As I hosed down the kennels, I heard the click of nails on concrete. I turned around but didn’t see anything. I had unplugged the overhead speakers to give us some quiet, and the only noise was the distant crowd and water trickling into the drain. I dipped my face into the hose’s metally flow.

I heard the nails once more and spun around—again, then again, then again. On a dry patch of concrete, the flowers of paw prints.

“Do you see these too?” I asked, but the kennels responded by saying nothing. Through the slit of the above window, a wind picked up. I closed my eyes and let the breeze whisk the water off my face.

“Why are you crying?”

The vet was standing in front of me.

“It’s the hose,” I said, kinking its flow.

“Do you know where she is?”

I shook my head.

“Well, when was the last time you saw her?” His voice was so slow that I felt the seconds thicken.

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, tell her,” he said, “that God Speed had peanut butter smeared all over his gums—” he pulled back his lip with one hand and pointed to his gum line with the other “—and he could not stop licking.”

I ran my tongue over my own teeth and found them all solid.

“It is a miracle,” he continued, “that he still won. Tell her—”

“Do you see these?” I asked, pointing at the paw prints.

He looked down. “See what?” I pointed harder. “See what? Your footprints?”

My eyes widened with otherworldly wonder. “May the saints save us,” I said, but he just checked his watch, spat on the concrete, and left.

She was curled in the back kennel. “Wake up,” I told her. “The dogs are coming.” Her tongue had slugged out her mouth. I rolled her head upright, her face checkered from the chainlink. “They’re almost here. Wake up.” How many times does our world end? “Wake up, wake up.”

And she did.

***

The 7th Race

The sore on her jaw had opened again, and the weeping red now caught the chandelier light like a ruby. Her foot was jittery on my chair as her fingers thrummed her thighs, her whole body squirming out from under itself.

But Joseph Malta didn’t notice. He was dangling a tea bag above his Earl Grey. He fidgeted with the paper tag, and the bag slowly rotated on its string, rusty water dripping from its face.

“He made the drop too short,” my boss told me. “The fall’s supposed to snap your neck, but they didn’t fall far enough. So they dangled. Strangling.” He tapped his screen with his pinky ring. “One guy, Jerlitz Fruster, took thirty minutes—thirty minutes!—before he finally passed out so they could just shoot him.”

I sat on the chair beside him and saw he was watching a grainy video of the trial’s final moments. I rested my head on his shoulder and breathed in his lilac cologne. And as the British judge read the verdicts—the pronouncement of the coming plunges—I confided to him that history was too cruel for my liking.

“We need to be reminded,” he said, restarting the video, “reminded of the sixty million dollars lost.”

I sat upright. “That’s it? Seems low.”

He clicked around on his computer. “Maybe it was lives. Sixty million lives.”

My head back on his shoulder: “That seems better.”

 

Constellations of cigarette butts were scattered around the parking lot ashtray, and I swept them towards the storm drain. She crept behind me and put her hands over my eyes.

“What the fuck’s on your fingers?” I said. I couldn’t pry open my eyelids, and when I did, the parking lot’s lights had been smudged with celluloid.

“Vaseline,” she said. “I’m testing it.”

As I rubbed the thick light out of my eyes, she left for the operating room. When sight returned to me, I looked down to my pile of cigarettes and saw she’d nicked the best ones.

After God Speed raced blind to his seventh win of the season, she decided to not get sad but get happy.

Behind the kennels, not a human soul around, the floodlight tapping with insects. On the other side of the corrugated steel, the dogs smelled us and started to whine.

We stared into one another’s eyes and, giggling uncontrollably, took turns slapping each other in the face. Gradually, our limbs dropped to black like banks of lights in a warehouse. When we could no longer lift our arms, we started swinging from the loose socket.

The whines turned into barks which turned into yelps. She hit me with a dead-fish fist, and my right eye swelled shut. In response, I corkscrewed my body, torquing it as far as my spine allowed, and let my arm soar through the air and land hard across her mouth. A tetherball of red arced in the lamplight, and the kennels screamed as the dogs threw themselves against the wire.

Her face uprighted. Her eyes wild with happiness. Her teeth and lips clown-faced with blood.

***

The 8th Race

I had been mopping the concession all afternoon before my boss pointed out there wasn’t any water in my bucket. I was shocked by how dry and smooth the yellow plastic was. “It’s like the skin on her heel,” I told him as I stroked the basin. He nodded slowly, his face full of pity.

I collected my “Caution: Wet Floor” signs and wheeled the bucket towards the tap in the bathroom. In the women’s washroom, she jabbed her fingers into my ribs.

“Don’t do that!” I said, spinning around. “You’ll pop my lungs.”

From her breast pocket, she produced two white pills.

“They’re not pills,” she corrected. “They’re Q-tip tops.” She took the cotton swabs and, holding my chin, slid them into my nostrils.

“Is this supposed to be fun?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “it’s supposed to be hard to breathe.” She smiled. “Hard to race.”

“But I can use, like, my mouth.” In the bathroom’s interrogating light, her face crumpled. The speakers crackled on for the nine o’clock showing.

You know, I still don’t understand the thrill of the race, perhaps because I’ve still never watched one. But I know that the dogs keep chasing the lure well beyond the finish, and there’s a perfect pain in that.

The announcer was the voice of Christ. And he told us that we were special and that it was a wonderful time to be alive. Because he told us that God Speed had shattered the track record by a full quarter second.

***

The 9th Race

We pedalled past the city’s cage of light pollution. My mind was full of wolves, but hers was someplace else.

Earlier that evening, my boss told me about the elementary school gymnasium. “I mean, they did it right there. Where kids had played badminton, had eaten lunch, learned to dance. Afterwards, they burned the building to the ground.” He noticed the clock and left to get an early seat for God Speed’s career-closing race. “I’ll empty the garbages for you on my way,” he said, leaving me alone in his office. And as I emptied his wallet, I believed I would never see him again. I also believed the garbages would be the last nice thing he’d ever do for somebody. But when I ran into him decades later in a bar in Saskatoon, I was incorrect on both counts. He introduced me to his wife, a bottle-blonde who had pen-palled him letters, and when I asked them for money he gave me one of his rings. “My finger’s too fat for it anyways,” he said to his wife’s scowling objection.

When I entered the OR, a scalpel was on the table, the blade shining in the middle of a dark puddle, the bright centre of a blossom.

She didn’t make me ask. “I cut his hind paws. Right across the pad.” Her red velvet hands held my cheeks. In the corners of my mouth, I could taste the iron of the dog’s heart. “Why are you crying?”

 

Halfway to the wolf sanctuary, she skidded her bike onto the shoulder by a roadside payphone. The small screen blinked 8:59, and we held hands until the digits switched to 9:00. In thirty seconds, destiny would be decided.

Out beneath us in shimmering Tallahassee, I could almost see the race unfold. The slips swinging open, the lure throttling along the rail, the cameras flashing, and then the sightline of the final turn, lips brandished white, tongues hung through wire muzzles, eyes so desperate with desire it is all they know. And while they do not realize it, the finish line approaches.

9:01.

That was also the day Joseph Malta had spilled boiling water on himself. I’d thrust his hands into the sink and opened both taps to cascade cold water. And as I stroked an ice cube along each of his tender fingers that once held a rope which held the world, I looked over my shoulder.

If I told you that in that moment I loved her, would you believe me? At the kitchen table, eyes shut, letting the evening light cut between the venetians and fall straight through her.

“This world is not fit for man nor beast.”

9:02.

She was shaking with relief. “I’ll call the track,” she said, “to see what he placed. Maybe third, or even last.” But picking up the phone, her face sunk to shadow. “The line’s dead.”

I turned to Tallahassee. The uncountable streetlights above the uncountable lives beneath them glowed like all of heaven’s haloes.

My hand back in hers: “Look.”

We watched the lights of our city, street by street, flicker to black.

—Richard Kelly Kemick

 

Richard Kelly Kemick is an award-winning Canadian writer. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run (2016, Goose Lane Editions), was included as one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. His poetry, prose, and criticism have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada and the United States, most recently in The WalrusMaisonneuve, The Fiddlehead, and Tin House. His work has won national awards, including a National Magazine gold medal, and has been accepted into Best Canadian Essays 2016, among other Canadian and British anthologies. Richard lives in Calgary. His website is www.richardkemick.com.

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