But They Can’t Make You Drink
Go on Tuesdays when the lot is almost empty. Park in the back and switch off your car radio. Hear the wind muffle the PA, the static hiss of scratches and changes to the card. Take in the panorama from there: PORTLAND MEADOWS pulsing through 100 feet of orange light, the I-5 corridor, Motel 6, Baxter’s Auto Parts and of course, the galloping neon horse.
Wad a few twenties in your stained Levi’s. Leave your jacket and enter the rain. Pull open the door and heed the collage of Americana: acrylic jockeys in faded silks, a hundred faces waning before timeless post parades. Find yourself alone on the paddock’s North end, and watch the horses circle. Catalog every step, the rough procession of quivering flanks. Study the horses. Scour the form.
Study them again. Lean against the chain-link fence. Eavesdrop. As the trainer instructs the jockey, scribble in a pocket notebook. Use your hand if you need more room. Smell the sawdust, manure, sweat. Watch steam rise from ragged manes. Inhale deeply and disassociate. Spencer Fair, 1993-necking with Heather Flynn on the makeshift Ferris wheel.
Go on Tuesdays and gamble just because. Start at two bucks a race. Make impossible bets. Straight Exactas and Trifectas only. Exit through the bar from that Carver story and drift to the corner of the track. Admire the bugle player-white scraggly pants shoved into puckered boots, crimson blazer reflected in his golden horn. Hear the first call ricochet off the empty grandstand and play a random hunch just before the bell.
Trace your horse through the first three furlongs. Think of your favorite symphony-Liszt maybe, and play that in your head. Or better, the last song on the tape she gave you-the one that had to be played with the windows down, even in December. Bum a cigarette from the guy in sweatpants and Trailblazers hat. Feel the tobacco rummage through your body. Let it take you back to the bed of your Ford—thrum of crickets and rustle of denim.
Keep telling yourself just because. Just because the grandstand hasn’t been filled in years and might be the showroom of a future IKEA. Just because it’s not so goddamned polished and curated. This is not your beautiful life. But imperfection and dirt. Pageantry and spectacle and primitive: a last dance between man and beast, sweet triumph and holy despair.
Run to the wire as the fillies fade down the homestretch. Past the hipsters with their Derby Hats and Instagram stories. Past the drunks cursing at outdoor TVs. This is not a sideshow. This is your territory. You, reckless, unbroken and stampeding through an otherwise dreary Tuesday afternoon.
A farm kid and Fulbright Scholar, Arlo Voorhees sells cars in Portland, Oregon. Y’all can find his poems, essays and translations in new issues of The Moth, Confrontation, DIAGRAM, Panel, The Buckman Journal and 1859.