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My Father Bets on My Mother’s Horse
MOTHER, PATTI, AND I crept up the back porch stairs, reluctant to confront
the lion in his den. We paused, and my mother put on a brave smile
and crossed her fingers.
“You don’t mind going in the back door?” I whispered
“Nah,” she said. “We’re all in this together
My mother opened the door and immediately called
out brightly, “Hello-ho-ho! We’re ho-ho-home!”
We made our way to the living room, where we found
my father slumped in his favorite chair, staring blankly in the direction
of the television set, where an episode of “Video Rangers” was underway.
This was a locally produced half-hour adventure serial set on a spaceship
somewhere in another galaxy sometime in the future. It was a kids’
show, but my father never missed an episode. The production values
were poor; the budget was tiny; the actors were comically inept.
(The television picture was, of course, black and white, since color television
would not be commercially available at a price that a family with my family’s
budget could afford for years, but color would not have improved “Video
Rangers.”) Apparently, my father had been sitting in his chair since
he got home from work, waiting for his dinner, consoling himself
with beer. Several empty cans were on the table beside him, and he
was drinking another one. Also on the table were a bag that had held
pork rinds, the heel of a wedge of cheese he had found in the refrigerator,
and a jar of pickled cherry peppers. He burped and poked around in
the jar, chasing the last of the pickled peppers.
“I’ll bet you thought we’d never get here,” said
My father scowled. “Where the hell have you
two been all this—” he began, and then he turned from the television set
and caught sight of Patti, who had entered the room after my mother, followed
in turn by me.
My father’s eyes popped—really, just like the eyes
of a cartoon lecher—at least I recall that they did. He blinked,
he licked his lips, and, in my memory, his eyes were bloodshot, bulging,
and moist with desire.
Patti put her hands behind her back, brought her
knees together, and bent forward at the waist, playing at being sweet and
shy. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Patti. Peter’s friend.”
She fluttered her lashes and added, “Ella’s friend.”
“Isn’t she cute?” asked my mother.
She reached into the bag of wrapped clamburgers,
pulled one out, and tossed it to my father, as if she were flinging a steak
into a cage. Startled from his fixation on Patti, he caught it.
“Hey—” he began, but then, smelling the burger,
he smiled and finished with, “—mmm, clamburgers.”
A few minutes later we were all eating and, halfheartedly,
watching “Video Rangers.” The dialogue was murmurous and mostly unintelligible,
though it rose and fell as the actors overplayed or underplayed their parts,
and now and then a word or phrase emerged whole and comprehensible: “anti-gravity
drive,” “creatures from another world,” “sabotage,” “the ship.”
My mother, suddenly eager, said, “That reminds me—Porky
White is investing in a new business.”
“What?” said my father. “What reminded
“Huh? Oh. ‘The ship.’ One of them
said something about ‘the ship.’”
My father drew his brows together and scrutinized
my mother’s expression. Then, suspiciously and, it seemed to me,
enviously, asked, “What sort of new business?”
“Elegant Excursions?” He was mystified.
“It’s going to be a ship—well, a boat—that takes
people on excursions. Cruises to Hargrove and back. On the
bay. In the moonlight.”
“Oh, no, no. Hors d’oeuvres. Canapes.
Little sandwiches on colored bread.”
My father seemed to recognize a theme. “What?”
“He’s going to work up a kind of clam spread.
Cream cheese and chopped clams.”
“Don’t tell me: the clam spread will come in colors,
“What a good idea, Bert!”
“Oh, yeah. I wonder where I got it.”
We all ate in silence for a moment. My mother
was uneasy. I could see that she was searching for a way to take
the conversation where she wanted it to go.
“You know,” she said, “you’ve got to hand it to
“Do I? Why?”
“Well, he’s really making a success of that clam
“Luck. Just luck. Dumb luck, in Porky’s
“He just happened to get into the clam-bar business
at the right time.”
“I don’t think there has ever been a right time
for getting into the clam-bar business.”
“Sure there is. There’s a right time for everything.
And Porky just happened to start his clam bar at the right time, just before
the clam fad hit.”
“The clam fad?”
“Sure. Clams are the cat’s pajamas now—or
whatever it is kids say.” He turned to Patti and with an attempt at an
attractive smile asked, “What do you say when something’s the cat’s pajamas—you
“A pump. Or a blow—” She caught herself about
to say “job” and stopped.
“—blow—” She looked to me for help.
“Torch,” I said, suddenly inspired. “A blowtorch.”
“Blowtorch,” said my father, trying it out.
“Clams are a blowtorch—”
“A real blowtorch,” I said, improvising,
showing him how. “Clams are a real blowtorch now.”
“Clams are a real blowtorch now,” he said, doing
his best to imitate me.
“You’ve got it Mr. Leroy,” said Patti.
“A real blowtorch! Look at us. We’re
the proof of it. We’re all eating clamburgers. Q. E. D., right
“I guess so.”
My father looked at what remained of his second
clamburger, sneered at it, and said, as if he were cursing, “Luck.
Dumb luck.” He chewed. “It’s just a matter of being in the
right place at the right time.” He swallowed. “And for some
reason that I will never understand, Chester White, Chester White,
who wasn’t even in the right line when they were handing the brains
out, has developed a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”
He opened another can of beer and took a long swallow. Shaking his
head, he said, “The son of a bitch—pardon my French—the son of a gun is
a lucky son of a bitch.” He took another swallow. “Some people
have luck, and some do not. He’s got it.” Another swallow.
“I wish I did.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to
get some of it to rub off on us?” said my mother, dreamily, as if she couldn’t
for the life of her think of a way to accomplish such a thing.
My father gave her a dismissive look and sucked
at his beer. Through the foam on his lips, he said, “Pffff.”
“I was trying to remember what it is you say about
getting a ride on somebody else’s luck. How does it go, Bert?”
“Bet on his horse.”
“Oh, yes. That’s right.” She sighed,
as if she couldn’t quite see how any of us might get a ride on Porky’s
luck. She took a bite of her clamburger and shot a look at Patti,
“Gee, I might have an idea,” she said. She
seemed ready to go on, but then she shrugged, bestowed on my father her
famous pout, and said, “But it’s probably stupid.”
My father grinned like a boy and waggled his finger
at Patti. “An idea is like a little bird, young lady,” he said.
“You’ve got to give it a push out of the nest and see if it can fly.”
He pantomimed this, for Patti’s benefit, and my
mother, Patti, and I managed somehow not to laugh.
“Well, okay,” said Patti, as if suddenly shy in
the face of such wisdom. Then, with a here-goes-nothing expression,
she pantomimed a fluttering little bird and said, “I was just thinking
that maybe we could get a ride on Porky’s luck if we—oh, I don’t know—if
we asked him for jobs or something like that.”
“That’s very good,” said my father, with an indulgent
smile. Pantomiming again he said, “Let’s see it fly.”
Patti obliged him and fluttered her little hands.
My father locked his thumbs and made his hands flap as if they were the
wings of a bird of prey, and suddenly his hands swooped down on Patti’s
and grabbed them.
“Aw, gee, Patti,” he said, almost brutally.
“It didn’t get very far. I think a nasty old crow got it.”
Patti almost looked as if she might apologize.
“It was too little and too weak,” my father continued.
“Let’s try something bigger and stronger.” He made another fledgling
fly and said, “Suppose we invest in Elegant Excursions, too!”
My mother, Patti, and I gasped as if astonished
by the temerity of this suggestion.
“Oh, Bert,” said my mother, “that sounds risky.”
“Ella, you don’t know anything about it. I’m
going to put in as much as Porky puts in. There’s no reason why he
should make all the money.” With a wink at Patti, he said, “I’m going
to bet on Porky’s horse.”
Patti smiled winningly, but when my father turned
aside to reach for his beer, she rolled her eyes and sneered.
MY MOTHER pulled her old car to a stop at Patti’s house. She said,
as mothers will, or did, “Peter, see Patti to the door.”
Patti and I walked to the door.
On the front steps, before Patti went in, she called
to my mother, “Good night, Ella!” and then, to me, in a whisper, she said,
“Listen, Peter, I think you might be right about the paternity issue.
You’re too nice a guy to be the son of a—a nasty old crow. Let’s
try the experiment again, okay?
“Well, okay,” I said, trying to seem blasé.
“Sure. If you want.”