Rustic North

Suffolk Downs Racetrack, East Boston

Logan Airport sits on the water’s edge, and the planes departing north and west glide low over East Boston. They loom, casting bird-shaped shadows as they screech above Broad Sound and across the Atlantic. They slip above the streets and the townhouses; over Revere Beach, where brazen seagulls steal roast beef sandwiches from the fingers of sunburned locals; above the thirty-five-foot-tall Madonna perched atop Orient Heights; above the pizzerias and taquerias; and above the skeletal horses orbiting the racetrack.

At Suffolk Downs, the turnstiles are pointless, because admission is free. You walk through them and into an echoing room with stadium seating where light filters through the long windows in rays. No one sits there. It would feel like a library, if it weren’t for the bugle call and the announcer crackling through the loudspeaker.

Outside, spectators sit at picnic tables. The hooves clap the dirt. The horses kick up dust as they heave by, their knees and ankles and haunches and lungs all beating the same rhythm. Their manes are cropped short and some wear war masks to limit distractions and intimidate their rivals. The ones who have been traded many times want to win, crave victory like a hunger. When the start gun pops, they focus on the horizon, as if that will bring it to them faster. They stare ahead, as if they could ride off in a straight line instead of a loop, as if today fate will reward them, and they will jump the fence and swim in the ocean. As if their hooves could flatten into flippers and they could try gliding. As if they could stop kicking and give in to the current.

At the end of the race, each horse tastes the sour metal from the bit on the back of its tongue. They shudder and shake their heads. They try to toss off their masks.

They have names like The Salty Prospector and Iron Lung and Daddy Loves You. But their fans only know them by their numbers.

“I tell ya, Governor, I got a tip that Nine’s gonna win. Nine, or Seven.” Petey pushes his square glasses up his nose and points to his battered racing form with a number two pencil.

“That right, Petey?”

“Though, looking at the chart here, Four and Five look pretty good, too. And Two.”

The governor, an old regular, lights a Marlboro and points it at Petey. “You’re a tout.”

“Me?”

“You. You think half the horses are gonna finish first.”

Petey wanders back to the edge of the track when the bugles start. He lifts the binoculars strung around his neck to his eyes. Sometimes, when he watches the horses pass, he thinks he could do a better job of being a horse than they do. Maybe he’d even be better at being a horse than he is at being human. If he could just hop onto the track, he is sure he could outrun all of them. He would win, especially if he knew fifteen dollars was riding on it. The desire manifests in sudden reflexive jerks of his elbows, as though he is watching a prizefight. He barks when the race beats by.

“C’mon, Number Seven! Come on!”

But he is drowned out by all the others. “Hey, Nine, speed it up, I got good money on ya!” “Move, Ten! Get in there!” “Attaboy, attaboy! Go, go, go!”

The governor watches him. He stubs out his cigarette and mutters to himself that Suffolk’s become “a no-good, second rate dump dive.” The horses that run here are all bone. You can count their ribs. They’re another breed down in Sarasota. Haunches you could bite into, and they wouldn’t feel a thing, that’s how strong they were. Another breed.

There was a waitress in Sarasota. He’d gone down in late August of ’73 and met her at a casino there. He lost touch with her about a month after he got back home. He still thinks about her sometimes, when he’s listening to music and he needs someone to get sentimental about, or when he’s standing in line to place a bet. Sometimes, when a voice croons on his car radio, he thinks about taking I-95 all the way down the coast.

The Simulcast room is filled with monitors broadcasting different races and with older men who are either retired or broke, poring over their stacks of receipts, poring over the neat piles in front of them. The room feels like a sweatshop and smells of cigarettes.

They might win, or lose, or break even. There is always a ritual to it, and sometimes that can be comforting, like communion or morning coffee. Sometimes, it is claustrophobic. But they keep coming, going through the turnstile, to the betting window, and back out in a loop.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.