A lot of people talk about how cruel they are, dog races, but when I was a kid my neighbors had this white greyhound named Alabama and that dog loved to run. It was all he wanted to do, like it was the only thing worth living for, the thing he was made for, and at the track when they release the mechanical bunny and the dogs come flying out of the gates, they are all legs and speed and purpose, and I really think they are loving it, would rather be doing this than anything else.
My best friend Nathan and I used to go to the races all the time. I remember one night we were the only ones there other than a couple of old men sitting in the bleachers and spitting sunflower seeds between their feet. I fished a race book out of the trash and took the pen from behind Nathan’s ear to circle the names I’d cheer for: Smoke ‘Em Out and Hustle Up Honey and Not Your Babe.
When the first race started, Nathan hung his elbows over the fence, foot propped on the bottom slat. I stood beside him and pumped my fists in the air, my girl Not Your Babe starting at dead last but then passing the fifth dog, the fourth, gaining on the third and the second until finally she was neck and neck with the hound in the lead and I was screaming, “Run, baby, RUN!” and as they flew around for the final lap she closed the distance and took first. I screamed and wolf whistled and cheered and even Nathan couldn’t help grinning and clapping his hands.
“I told you I should have bet on her,” I said.
“They wouldn’t have let you.”
“Sure, they would.”
He pushed his ball cap up his forehead as he said, “You have to be eighteen, Josie.”
“You really think they check IDs here?” I spread my arms wide, taking in the dingy metal risers and flickering florescent lights, and he just shrugged.
“We’ll come for your birthday,” he said. “You can bet your heart away.”
“Smoking while I do it, too.”
“Sure. You got it. I can’t imagine a better time.”
My birthday was a couple months later and it was my golden: eighteen on the eighteenth of May. I invited Nathan over for dinner and he talked with my dad out by the grill while Mom fixed the hamburger toppings and I chopped up a watermelon. She was chattering about nothing, smiling too much and acting overly cheerful, because that morning she’d gotten on me for not inviting anybody but Nathan. “Eighteen, Josie,” she’d said. “You should be having a party. You should have invited all your friends from school.”
I’d just shrugged and said none of them were my friends, not really, and besides, Nathan and I were going to the dog races and no one else would want to go. That made her pretty mad and even though I told her she could come, her and Dad both, she was snappy at me all day and now she was trying to make up for it, since it was my birthday after all. When Nathan carried in the tray of burgers, she gave him a big smile and Dad said, “Eat up time,” something I’d said as a kid, and we all laughed.
The burgers were perfect, red and juicy in the middle, and the corn on the cob was charred just right. After dinner Dad cleared away the dishes and Mom stuck candles in the cake, eighteen of them, and they sang to me, Dad with his loud bass, Mom throwing in some harmony, and Nathan’s voice off-pitch and still cracking like it had since he was thirteen. As I sucked in a big breath I looked at each of them, all watching me and waiting, cheeks pink and shiny and Nathan’s red hair tousled and crazy, and only worse when he ran his hand through it and grinned at me. I blew out the candles.
The cake was funfetti, the same thing my mom had been making my whole life, and I pinched her elbow and asked if she thought I’d ever grow out of it. I was only teasing her, but she got offended and said she thought it was still my favorite, but what did she know, she was only my mother, and I said, “You ready, Nathan?”
To which Mom said, not really a question, “Are you sure you don’t want to go another night? We could play games, it’s been a while since we did that, and it’s already getting late.”
“It’s eight o’clock.”
“It’s sad not to be with you on your birthday.”
I licked frosting off my finger. “We’ve been together all day. And I told you, you can come.”
“Oh honey, I know you don’t really want your old parents gallivanting around town with you.”
“True, we’ll probably have more fun without you,” I said. “Nobody to keep us from smoking and drinking, maybe placing a bet or two.”
Nathan looked at me like he couldn’t believe I was talking to my mom like that, and she just shook her head and Dad said, “You need to clean up before you go.”
“It’s my birthday.”
“I’ll clean up tonight, Clint, I don’t mind,” Mom said.
“No. It’s Jolene’s night.”
He’d had his hair cut the day before, a military buzz, and I swear he always got stricter right after a trip to the barber.
“We’re not the army, Dad. We don’t always have to stick to the schedule,” I said, but I collected everyone’s plates and rinsed them before loading the dishwasher, just like Dad was forever telling me to. Nathan helped and it didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to get it all done. Mom followed us to the door.
“Be safe,” she said. “Don’t stay out too late. You may be an adult now but you still have school in the morning.”
We said yes ma’am and cut across the front lawn, and she called after us, “Jolene, try to behave yourself.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Turner,” Nathan said, “I’ll keep her on the straight and narrow.”
He bumped me with his shoulder and I rolled my eyes and Mom waved at us as we hopped into Nathan’s Corolla and rolled down the street.
“Do you have to drive like a grandma tonight?” I said, and Nathan gunned it, hit at least fifty before slamming on his brakes at the next stop sign. I smiled and shook my head.
We stopped at the Food Mart on the corner to buy cigarettes and when the pimply kid behind the counter didn’t even ask for my ID I handed it to him anyway, made sure he checked the date. “See?” I said. “Today’s my golden birthday. Eighteen on the eighteenth.”
He just shrugged and handed me the pack of Lucky Strikes.
It was a Monday, we always seemed to end up at the races on weeknights, and there weren’t many people at the track. Maybe there never were. I hadn’t once seen anybody close to our age, that’s for sure, and when I went up to place a bet the man behind the counter gawked at me. He had gray hair pulled back in a low ponytail and a gold hoop in his left ear.
“Can we look at the race book first?” Nathan asked, and when the man handed him one Nathan flattened it on the counter and we both pored over the stats, me caring more about the poetry of the names than actual run times, Nathan trying to do the math, figure the odds.
“Rosebud Rodeo,” I said. “That’s the one.”
“It doesn’t look like she’s had a lot of wins.”
“Tonight’s the night.” I fished my wallet out of my bag and handed a dollar to the man. “On number seven, please.”
He tipped his chin, the barest acknowledgement, and I flashed him a big smile and grabbed Nathan’s arm and pulled him toward the track. My favorite part was the dogs coming out of the gate, that initial blast of speed, every hound moving so fast they were all a blur and you could hardly tell one from the next until they started finding their strides, some falling back and others surging ahead.
Rosebud Rodeo was a brindle with white paws, her jersey cherry red. A real beauty. She started in the outside lane, and she was running wide from the start. It was clear she didn’t stand a chance, but I jumped up and down and waved my fists and screamed my throat sore hollering her name. “Come on, Rodeo, run baby, run!”
She came in dead last. For some reason that struck me as the funniest thing and I started laughing and couldn’t stop and Nathan just stood there and shook his head at me until I’d been laughing so long, barely able to breathe and tears streaming down my cheeks, that he started up too and then we really lost it, didn’t stop until they announced the next race and Nathan said, “Luck like that, we better place another bet.” And I could hardly believe it, he loped back to the ponytail man and put two dollars on Hallelujah Chorus, who turned out to be a sleek black dog with a silver snout behind the muzzle, and something of a limp. He came in fifth.
“We make ‘em lose, huh?” I said.
“I guess this is why they warn against gambling: it’s bad for the dogs,” Nathan said. He stepped back to the bleachers and I stretched out next to him, elbows on the bench behind me, the metal cool against my skin. The risers were covered, but the track was open air and a cool breeze blew over us.
“Hey, the cigarettes!” I said, sitting up straight.
“What’d you do with them?”
I checked my pockets. “I must have left them in the car.”
“Want me to get them?”
“We can just go.” It was probably ten o’clock and people were starting to filter out. Above the stadium lights the sky was inky black and not a star to be seen.
We strode out to the car and found the Lucky Strikes on the dash. The parking lot was huge, like when they built this place they figured it was going to be a prime attraction, and the dim lights cast yellow circles in neat rows along the white painted lines. We lounged against the front bumper and I pinched a cigarette from the pack and tried to act like I knew what I was doing, though I’d never smoked before, and when I finally got it lit and inhaled, I coughed so hard that Nathan pounded my back. He wouldn’t smoke.
It tasted like paper and was too hot in my mouth, but when I finished the first I lit a second. I could hear music coming from the track, or maybe I just thought I could, and I dipped my shoulders and swayed my hips to the beat. I was starting to get jittery, my hands shaking a little and my heartbeat too fast. I lifted my face and let the smoke float from between my lips and twist and twirl toward the lights. I hoped I looked like a flapper from the twenties or maybe even a little bit like Ponyboy Curtis. I wished I had a leather jacket.
I lit a third and walked up and down a parking spot stripe, toe to heel like I was on a balance beam. Nathan sat on the hood and watched me.
“I’m ready to get out of here,” I said, dropping the cigarette butt and toeing the embers into the cement. I was really buzzed, and so filled up with energy that I drummed my hands against my thighs and paced in tight circles, still sort of dancing to the music I wasn’t sure I could hear.
“Let’s go then.”
“Not here here, Florida here, living with my parents here.”
Nathan pulled off his hat and draped it over his knee. “Your parents are great, Josie.”
“My dad treats me like I’m still a little kid. And my mom is driving me crazy. She’s so clingy.”
“She’s probably just getting sad about you leaving.”
I poked the corner of the Lucky Strikes pack into the palm of my hand. “It’s soon, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” He slid off his car and stood on the tip of the white line. “Yeah, it’s soon.”
“Let’s go to the beach.”
“It’s late. I told your mom I’d have you home.”
“The train tracks, then. Play a little chicken.”
“Nope. I am not watching you die on your birthday.”
He sighed. “Sure.” He took the cigarettes from my hand and tossed them on top of the car. “To that bush and back,” he said.
We dropped to our hands side by side on the white line, one leg bent and the other straight back in a runner’s stance, and Nathan said, “On your mark, get set, go!” and we took off across the lot. He was half a foot taller than me, with ridiculously long legs, and even though he ran with his arms flailing out to the sides, he passed me in a split second and was so far ahead right from the start I didn’t stand a chance, same as poor ole Rosie Rodeo. I wanted to run like one of those greyhounds, just sprint and sprint until I knew nothing but the pavement beneath me and each strike of my foot, but my heart was beating so fast and my breath coming so heavy, burning with cigarette smoke and my stomach churning, that I dropped to my back in the middle of the parking lot and lay with arms and legs splayed. I stared up at the starless sky. Nathan circled back and plopped down beside me.
“I’m not sure I like smoking,” I said. I was wheezing and I felt like I might puke.
“Probably not a habit you should start up.”
I pushed onto my elbows. “Thanks for running with me.”
“Thanks for letting me win.”
“Yeah, it was a real sacrifice.”
“Let’s get you home,” he said, and he grabbed both my hands and hauled me to my feet. We plodded to his little gray sedan and listened to A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor with the News from Lake Woebegone, until we pulled up to my house and he shut off the stereo and I just kept sitting there, looking at the shadows the front oak cast over the lawn.
After a while Nathan, maybe trying to hurry me up, said, “What’re you thinking about?”
“Wyoming’s really far away.”
He let out a big breath that puffed his cheeks and kind of flapped his lips. “2,271 miles,” he said.
“You looked it up?”
“Got to train all those homing pigeons.”
I started to open the door, then let my hand fall to my lap. “You ever wish you were going away for college, too? I don’t mean Wyoming, just somewhere, anywhere.”
“I like it here.”
“You always have.”
Both of his hands rested on the steering wheel and he tapped his fingers against it and said, “Just watch, you’re going to be so cold up there in the far north you won’t make it through half a winter. You’ll come crawling back to us.”
“Not a chance.” I opened the door. “See you in the morning, Nathan.”
“Don’t be late,” he said.
“Who, me?” I shut the door with my foot and circled around to the back of the house. My hair reeked of smoke and I tied it in a bun before slipping inside. I tiptoed through the dark living room toward the bathroom and I was totally quiet until I stubbed my toe against the recliner and muttered, “Shit.”
The light flicked on. Dad sat on the couch, his legs crossed, folded hands resting on his knee. “Jolene.”
“Dad! What’re you doing sitting in the dark?”
“I don’t have a curfew.”
I dropped into the recliner.
He uncrossed his legs. “You upset your mother.”
“I told her she could come with us.”
“Josie, you plow through life like a bull in a china shop, and sometimes you need to slow down and think about other people.”
My mouth was dry and I licked my lips. They tasted like salt and stale smoke.
Dad folded his arms over his chest. “You need to apologize to your mother.”
“For what, Dad? Not having more friends? Not making y’all throw me some big party?”
“For being disrespectful.”
I yanked out the ponytail holder and my hair fell around my shoulders. Dad must have smelled the Lucky Strikes, but he didn’t say anything, just stared at me until I kind of shrugged my shoulders, sort of nodded my head.
“You have school in the morning,” he said. “Get to bed.”
I opened my mouth to tell him I wasn’t a child and didn’t need him to tuck me in at night, but instead I muttered, “Sleep well,” and tramped to the bathroom.
While I was brushing my teeth I tried to work myself up, get real mad and frustrated with my parents, but instead I got an ache in the pit of my stomach, thinking how soon I’d be going away, and how very far. There was only a week left of school, and then summer packed with babysitting and housecleaning and any other odd job I could get my hands on, and then I would be gone like one of those greyhounds, fresh out of the gate and running like it could save their lives, and I thought how I’d place a losing bet on Rosebud Rodeo any day, just to watch the power of her muscles as they bunched up and sprang out and the way she pulled forward with her head, leaning her whole body into it, and how you knew she was giving it her whole heart, everything she had, and she wasn’t going to slow down, not ever, not for anybody or anything.