A Trip to Aqueduct

The day after I turned ten, my mother took me to my first horse race at Aqueduct. Hitting the regular numbers didn’t pay as well as the horses, and sometimes when Mama had an itch to gamble she couldn’t wait on the numbers man, Mr. Sheyanne, to come around. Besides which, she whispered to me one time as Mr. Sheyanne walked out of our apartment, “Gotta give him a tip every time I win. The more you win, the more you tip.”

Later I learned that a tip is for service. Since Mr. Sheyanne did all the work, somebody had to pay him. Sometimes it was Maggie Mae, my mama, and sometimes it was someone else. But anyone who hit was supposed to tip the numbers man for all his picking up and delivering, plus the fact that the police might get him. When I found that out, I thought Mr. Sheyanne was a pretty smart man being that he got money from almost everybody on Ashford Street, in Brooklyn, where we lived. Numbers were a big deal on our block. People paid their bills with the winnings, brought school clothes in the fall, and sometimes got a Christmas hit which meant their kids had presents under the tree.

I paid close attention when Mr. Sheyanne came around after learning about tips. There was a way you could look at somebody without them even knowing, especially if you were a kid. His clothes were generally raggedy and dirty, and the way his hands shook when he counted money made me want to reach out and do the counting for him, kinda like when somebody stutters and you want to finish their sentences. Mr. Sheyanne didn’t seem no different than the other five or so men that lived on our block. He had a little apartment in Miz Bettina’s basement and was prone to drink a bit on Saturday night and wander through the block singing. Sometimes he directed traffic on Sutter Avenue, the big four lane street that along with Belmont, sandwiched Ashford, our block.

Mr. Sheyanne didn’t look like the type of person that got tips all over the place. He was old and stinky with a belly that hung over his waistband and a big hole in the front of his mouth where a tooth should have been. Mind you, he always had a cigarette hanging from his upper lip that plugged up the hole and sometimes got stuck there if he wasn’t paying attention. But other than that, he didn’t look nothing like I expected a rich man to look. Maybe he saved his money and hid it under his mattress. I wasn’t sure, but figured I’d find out by and by. Answers come when you’re not looking for them.

On February 12, the day after my birthday, although I didn’t feel like going to the racetrack, Mama did, and when Mama got a notion to do a thing it was best to go along. She said I didn’t have to go to school that day and told me skipping school every once in a while wouldn’t hurt me because I was so smart. I knew she was lying. At ten I was already hip to her ways, but I didn’t want her heavy hands to come into contact with my soft bottom. So I zipped my mouth shut.

It was cold, even for February, and I remember wearing my fake fur blue coat with white mittens and a white wool cap. Mama fussed about the wool cap. She said wool breaks your hair off. But it was the only one I had. She pulled the collar of my coat up to the point where my ears were covered and reached into the back of her closet for a raggedy scarf, and wound it around the bottom half of my face. When she finished dressing me, she pulled on her knee high black boots, her overcoat, and a hat. We headed into the wind, and walked the six blocks to the A train on Shepherd Avenue.

We had to walk past P.S. 158, my old elementary school, and Mama made sure to walk quick-like because she was supposed to be at work. She was a para-professional and helped kids learn to read and do math assisting the teacher in the class. She also brought those kids underwear at Christmas and sometimes shoes. She said they were poorer than us and we were supposed to help people because we had more.

On the way to the subway, the streets were almost deserted except for a few stray dogs who stayed away from us and a couple of men nodding off at the corners. We were careful about walking past the men, and Mama clutched me close and her big pocketbook even closer. The streets were dirty with litter, and garbage cans were overflowing in yards. We passed burned out buildings colored with graffiti tags and curse words that I read and mouthed to myself.

Mama was excited to be going to the track. The wind whipped most of her words away and I had to strain to hear her, but there was no mistaking how she felt. Her body leaned forward in anticipation, pulling me along at a much faster pace than she normally walked. We were close to running and still she talked, her words, puffs of white cotton from her lips. Oh, she was excited!

She said our day at the track was a big secret. I nodded. Mostly you didn’t have to say anything to hold a conversation with Mama. All you needed to do was nod every so often and look as if you are listening.

On this day though, my being quiet made her uncomfortable. The way she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to ask me if I heard her, if I was paying attention, made me know how she felt. I did that with lots of folks. Made them uncomfortable, because I had learned to not talk a lot. My Aunt Dee-Dee said that just because God gave you a mouth didn’t mean you always had to spill the beans and let people know for sure that you had a brain. “Keep ‘em guessing,” she’d say, tilting her apple round head close to me while landing a smacking kiss on my cheek.

——————-

When Mama was at her worst and talking about how she didn’t understand why I wasn’t outside and running around like the other kids on the block and why was I always reading or looking off into space, Aunt Dee-Dee would step in. She would meet Mama eye to eye and shake her head, making her thick eyebrows come together and seem strict, like a teacher in school.

“Now stop that Maggie Mae. You don’t have no good cause to be fussing at this here child for bein’ quiet. You need to be proud that she smart an’ all.”
“I am proud Dee-Dee. But sometimes I can’t stand the way she stares at me. Get over here, girl.”

She held me by the shoulders and searched. Her brown, almond shaped eyes, tilted up at the corners, made you think of an amber colored cat’s eyes. Mine, Daddy called “muddy brown” in disgust and asked Mama if she was sure that I was their baby. But that was just his put on because everybody said that I had his look stamped all up and down.

I favored my Daddy. He had a sweet bow mouth that I inherited and a quiet disposition. He was dark skinned, broad shouldered, and real skinny except for his stomach, which stuck out big. Mama would tease him and say that it was because of all of the beer he drank and Daddy would hang his head as if he was ashamed. But then he would go on and get another beer and pop the can open and chug it down quickly. He would drink in the white tee shirt he wore to work, his green uniform top discarded on the sofa as soon as he got home. He held his head back, legs apart, if standing, with the ends of his tee shirt coming out of his pants and stretched wide across his belly, while he drank the Pabst Blue Ribbon down like it was a glass of water, without once taking his lips from the can.

“All gone,” he’d say, belching loudly and hold the can out to Mama or me, letting us know with a nod whether or not he wanted another. I always ran and got him one more. But it depended on Mama. She might bring him another herself if it was early. Maybe tell him that one was enough. Whatever she said, he went along with. Daddy was not fussy. As far as he was concerned Mama was the boss.

——————-

On our way to the track that day, I think we had to change trains somewhere. I didn’t pay close attention because I was dreaming. My biggest pleasures in life were dreaming and reading books. I couldn’t jump rope, couldn’t play jacks as well as the other girls and, to top things off, my boobs were growing and no one else had any. When it was time to get off the train, my mother had to grab me by the arm and she shook me hard.

“You can’t be looking like that, all around, like you don’t hear me. People’ll think you’re crazy.”

I didn’t know what she meant. I was just thinking how it would be someday when I was happy. Maybe I’d stared too hard in someone’s direction. But the mood Mama was in let me know that it would be best for me to start paying attention. Especially after the shake, which meant that a thump wasn’t too far behind.

“Yes’m,” I nodded and took her hand when she turned to walk towards the escalators leading to the track.

There were lots of people going to the track that day. And they were all taller than me and in a rush to get there. Mama was heavy, with big arms and shoulders, even though she was short. Bundled in her overcoat, she was round all over and she took her time to walk, breathing hard and loud all the while. We paused at the bottom of the escalator before her thick fingers grabbed the railing and she hauled herself and me onto a step. There was a man trying to get past us, but Mama ignored him and kept her hand tightly fastened about mine. He finally gave up and sighed, patting his foot hard on the escalator step.

She glanced down at me at one point and smiled, an absentminded kind of smile, like she was thinking of something else. And I was glad. Maybe she wasn’t annoyed at me anymore for whatever I had done on the train. Or didn’t do. It was hard to tell with Mama.

When we reached the gate to pay, the old white man in the booth looked Mama over. She had given him a card.

“You don’t look like no veteran.”

“Well I got this here card and it say I gets a Veteran’s Discount.”

Mama had this look on her face that was bits and parts of different things. She was a little frightened of the man but she wanted to fight too if he didn’t do what she wanted him to do. And she was disgusted. Here she was with proof, the little white card she gave him, and he still didn’t believe her. If we had been at home, she would have been cursing. All she did was to hold my hand though, squeezing it so tight that I wanted to snatch it away. Finally, the man looked up again. He handed the card back.

“I’ll let you go through this time, but don’t try this again. You ain’t no veteran.” His voice was raspy with an edge to it, like he didn’t like Mama. I wondered how this could be so when he had never met her before. In his booth I noticed a pack of Kool cigarettes. The same kind that Daddy smoked. But that had to be the only similarity from the little I could see of this man. He was fat with skin the color of over-ripe oranges and had a brown shirt on, whose collar was frayed. I tried not to notice the small white flecks that rode his shoulders where his stringy hair touched. Even at ten, I knew that inside that booth and under that brown shirt there was a bad smell that couldn’t ever be washed away.

Mama held her head up and took the change and the card the man shoved her way and we went into Aqueduct.

Inside, the floor was dirty. There were brown tables and chairs and the air was full of cigarette and cigar smoke. Short fat white men waddled in front of me with pregnant looking bellies. And to a one, or so it seemed to my young eyes, they had cigars clenched between their teeth. The smoke drifted down to my nose and made tears run down my eyes. My throat began to hurt. I was tired and hot.

Mama bet on the first race and it was hard not to feel the excitement in the huge room with lots of people standing and the men behind cages who took bets. There were long lines at first, but the nearer it came to race time the shorter the lines became. It was as if someone came along with a broom and swept everyone out at the same time.
If I had not been excited before, seeing the jockeys in their bright silk shirts did move my heart. All the colors–blues, reds, yellows. And the horses, standing and pawing the ground and then running so fast once the gates were open. I stood on one leg, hopping up and down to get a better view during the first race. When the horses rushed out of the blocks, I couldn’t help but jump myself and lean forward, trying to see if our horse was going to make it and if we were going to be big winners.

But for some reason I did not want Mama to know that I liked this part. I didn’t want her thinking that taking me out of school for this was no big deal. So even though I was excited for the second and third races that followed, I tried not to show it. I moved when she moved and followed her to the little window to bet but did not speak unless she spoke to me and then gave only the required response, “Yes’m” or “No’m.”

Mama bet on every race in all different ways. She explained what “exacta” meant and things like win, place and show. I was careful to look interested. But when she explained the “odds” I wondered why we were at the horse races in the first place. It didn’t seem to me that you could make big money unless you had a lot of money to begin with. But I kept following her to the window, as she placed her bets, and then back outside to watch the horses. After four races I was ready to go home.

Mama had a copy of Big Red. She said it told her what horses to pick so that she could win. I tried to see if anyone else had Big Red. I couldn’t tell. And I wondered how good Big Red could be when she lost the first four times.

For lunch she bought me a frank with sauerkraut and mustard with a Coca-Cola. There was a man standing alongside us who puffed a cigar in between bites of his hamburger and made me not want to finish my food. I spilled mustard on the front of my fake fur blue coat because I had to hold it draped over my arm.

Even though I was standing right next to the smoking man, I could have sworn that he did not see me. He didn’t glance down or smile at me once. No one looked at me at all during the whole time I was at Aqueduct. I wondered if children were allowed there. I didn’t see any others.

By the end of the day, I had the rhythm of the place figured out–the back and forth movement to the window to place bets, the excitement right before the horses took off, the shared groan at the finish. Everyone looked for the winning bettors and studied them out the corners of their eyes, trying to see if they had any help. If you were a loud winner, people got real close and even asked what system you used. I saw Mama almost do that with one man, but she was shy when it came to white people and didn’t really know how to talk to them unless they worked with her at P.S. 158. So she let him go and started concentrating hard on Big Red, only looking up to make sure I hadn’t wandered away. She didn’t say anything to me from the sixth to the ninth race, but I was content.

It was a relief when Mama finally won. She smiled big and caught my hand to squeeze. On the way home, she gave me ten dollars to go to the Woolworth’s on Pitkin Avenue to buy anything I wanted. I smiled then too.

***

Bonnie Glover lives in Florida. She is the author of two previous novels, THE MIDDLE SISTER (2005, One World Ballantine) and GOING DOWN SOUTH (2008, One World Ballantine). A TRIP TO AQUEDUCT is an excerpt from a new autobiographical work.

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§ 8 Responses to “A Trip to Aqueduct”

  • Ruthie Berman says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this short story. The writing flowed with description that gave me a sense of connection to the daughter and what was happening in her life. I also grew up in the very same neighborhood .
    Kudos to the writer for such an enjoyable real life story.

  • Carol E Mayse says:

    As someone who also grew up in East New York, I can vouch for the authenticity of the places and the times. As usual Ms. Glover took me right along for the ride. Impatiently waiting for the next book.

  • Laurick Ingram says:

    Some of my best memories of my mother are the harmless conspiracies she let me in on, like playing numbers at Mr. Robert’s house. Good story Bonnie G.

  • Craig Glover says:

    Well-done!

  • Corrinne Farner says:

    A wonderful slice of life, beautifully depicted. I came to know much about two characters and their world in a very short space of time and well-chosen words. I hope to see more of their lives in the near future. Very well done!

  • Kim Sharp says:

    I was drawn in by this story from the beginning and engaged to the end. I wanted Mama to win at the races and felt her desperation. I so love her precocious daughter already.
    Bonnie Glover, I can’t wait to read more!

  • Donna Penn Towns says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this story. The author’s subtle nuances depicting everyday behavior make ir so realistic and relatable. I am looking forward to reading more from her.

  • Barbara Ahearn says:

    The author has a way if making characters familiar very quickly. She shows who they are through their thoughts and actions. I feel like I’m right there in the scene. Beautifully done!

§ Leave a Reply

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