My father got me the job at Hialeah Racetrack. What was he thinking?
I had to wear a one-piece swimsuit and high-heeled pumps. A wide green ribbon, pinned diagonally from shoulder strap to hip, announced I was Miss Kelly Citation Tire 1965. I’d been hired to hand out promotional pamphlets for new tires.
At first I tottered like a colt in the shiny white pumps I’d bought to wear to interviews. There’d been no interview for this job. My father and the tire store manager, Al Brown, were lodge brothers in the Knights of Pythias. Daddy was really pleased with himself; he’d sold Al a life insurance plan and snagged me a job.
“It’ll be a piece of cake,” he’d assured me. “You walk around, you make forty bucks.”
Al drove me to the track in his Lincoln Continental. He was a little younger than my father, his hair a mat of tight gray curls, square-jawed face deeply tanned. I’d met him a few years before at a Pythian family picnic. His wife was tall and thin with breasts like giant grapefruits, and they had a chubby little girl who’d played horseshoes with my father.
Al kept looking at me as if trying to figure something out. I wore a shapeless floral print muumuu over the swimsuit. It was what I put over my costume every night for the drive to and from my shift at the Tiki.
“Maybe this is a crazy idea,” he said.
The opening day crowd at the track pressed through the gates and swelled toward the betting windows, parting before me like a stream around a rock. For a long moment, I couldn’t move or speak. I was the only person in a swimsuit at Hialeah Racetrack. What if I dumped the flyers and hailed a cab?
What had Al told me to say?
“Hi!” I trilled. “Here’s a special offer for y’all.”
That worked alright until a guy in checkered Bermudas and a black t-shirt stretched over his paunch leered, “Anything else on offer, babe?” Then I switched to: “Hi, here’s a real deal on tires for y’all.”
It didn’t matter what I said. Men took the flyers automatically.
Some women went out of their way to avoid me; most seemed startled or amused. A wrinkled redhead in tight toreadors grabbed several, her ruby nails like claws. “I don’t have a car,” she murmured, “I’ll take these for my boyfriend.”
I glided through the crowd, head held high, smiling graciously. Princess Grace Kelly Citation Tire. It wasn’t a bad gig, after all.
When the supply of flyers was gone, I walked over to the snack bar to get more from Al. The crowd was thinning now. People either looked me over or tried not to look. Without the stack of paper in hand, I felt self-conscious again. The pumps hurt my feet.
Al looked up from the racing form. “How’d it go, sweetheart?”
“They snapped ‘em all up.”
“I knew it. Sit down, sit down. Take a break.”
I dropped into a chair, grateful to be off my feet. The plastic stuck to the back of my thighs. Now Al was looking me over, just like everyone else.
“Dave was right. You’re a babe.”
“My father told you I’m a babe?”
He reconsidered. “Aw, not exactly. He said you look good in a swimsuit.”
I shivered. “Boy, it’s cold in here.” I pulled the muumuu out of the bag I’d left with Al and draped it over my shoulders. Then I took out my compact and checked my make-up in the mirror.
“Are you really 21, Nora?”
“Would my father lie to you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” I said a little crossly, eyeing my reflection. No matter what I did with mascara and lipstick, I still had a round baby face.
I was the youngest cocktail waitress at the Tiki. The skirt of my sarong hugged my hips just below the navel and fell to mid-thigh, with a slit to show more thigh as I moved; the top piece was a cheap bra covered in the same fabric. Although my mother wasn’t convinced the job was respectable, she had helped me sew the costume.
My station was at the bar facing the front entrance. Small fluorescent lights behind the bar made my earrings glitter.
“Aloha,” I’d say, greeting everyone who came in with a cheery smile.
“Aloha,” they’d chorus in passing.
The bar was rarely busy, even weekends when a hula troupe performed in the main dining room. I felt like an animated figurehead at the prow of a ship, alluring and only occasionally useful, until late at night when the serious drinkers staggered in from shows in the big hotels. They were usually conventioneers, suits on a binge. Sometimes I picked up extra tips by posing with customers out on the floor, their arms draped around my shoulders or waist. The cigarette girl who doubled as photographer whispered instructions in my ear. “He won’t bite you. Sit on his knee.”
Once, my parents came to the Tiki for dinner with their friends Betty and Leo Roth, and had their picture taken with me. “Sweet Leilani and the Gang,” my father wrote on the border of the Polaroid print, which he pasted into the family album.
Al went off to buy us coffee. While he was gone, I looked at his racing form. I liked the names of the horses: Sir Bontempi, Desert Moon, Celestial Jade, Finnegan’s Whiskers, Lucky Redhead. Miss Kelly Citation could be a horse’s name.
My father used to read the racing news every day. I was a little girl then and we lived behind our grocery store. The store was often quiet. Supermarkets were opening nearby and we had ever fewer customers. Daddy would open the newspaper to the sports section, pen in hand.
I remember looking up at him behind the counter, smiling down at me. I’d just discovered words can be spelled.
“Spell sugar,” I demanded. “Spell eggs. Tea.”
“Enough!” he said finally.
He came around the meat cooler and picked me up and deposited me on a large burlap sack of sugar. Then he folded the newspaper and put it on my knees and pointed to the columns where horses’ names were listed.
“Try to spell the names of the horsies,” he said.
I didn’t know, until my mother told me, that for several years my father ran a bookie business out of the grocery store. Customers placed their bets while picking up a pack of cigarettes or a ham sandwich.
During those years my mother worried he’d be caught and put in jail. Or that her family would get wind of it. The idea of her parents finding out struck terror in her heart.
“He had to bribe the cop on our beat with a ham every Christmas,” she said. “I was miserable when we had the store.”
I was still living at home because I couldn’t afford both college tuition and rent. Sometimes I’d go out after my shift at the Tiki and listen to music or eat breakfast on the 79th Street Causeway in the middle of the night. Even on my nights off I’d get home quite late, slipping into my room before anyone was awake. One night I didn’t make it in until after dawn.
I had been in bed with my boyfriend Thunder. He was not the kind of boyfriend I’d introduce to my parents, so they didn’t know he existed. I didn’t even know his real name. His glossy black hair was longer than mine, his eyes as green and impenetrable as the swamp. The sinewy arms holding me were tattooed with snakes that wrapped around and swallowed their tails. Thunder’s gig, trapping water moccasins in the Everglades to sell to pet stores, excited and frightened me. He was a man of few words, and sometimes I imagined my own words ricocheting around inside his head like ping pong balls. Yet he was a gentler and more experienced lover than any previous boyfriend. His skin felt like something I could sink into.
A pet gecko lived in the house where Thunder rented a room. It made loud gek gek gek sounds on and off through the night; maybe it was lonesome. The gecko woke me up that morning. Gek gek gek.
I gunned my car down hushed thoroughfares. A pale blob of sun had just cleared the horizon. Dew glistened on the cut grass and hibiscus bushes outside our house. The windows were all dark. I unlocked and opened the front door quietly.
My father was sitting in the Florida room next to the fake rubber tree plant, arms folded over his chest. He was dressed for work in lime checked slacks and a white shirt, his thinning hair damp from the morning shower, face freshly shaved.
“Good morning, Daddio,” I said.
He managed a thin smile. Calling him “Daddio” was his idea, not mine. He wanted to be a cool, with-it dad.
“Where were you all night?”
“At a jazz club.”
“All night?” he persisted. He stared at me, eyes bulging, and his face got bright pink suddenly.
“Clubs don’t stay open all night,” he snapped.
“This one does,” I improvised. “They locked the doors, the band wailed, and we boogied the night away.”
He took a deep breath and spoke slowly with that penetrating gaze that was worse than being slapped.
“I don’t really want to know what you were up to, but as long as you’re under my roof, I’m asking you to come home at a decent hour.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I fumed. “I’m 21 years old. And believe me, I’m moving out of here as soon as I possibly can.”
“You’re behaving like a tramp,” he spat.
I stormed down the hall to my room and shut the door and fell on the bed.
Within reach of my bed was a bookcase my father had custom built for me because the room was too small for standard sized shelving. When I was younger, he’d hide my weekly allowance between or inside the books and I’d have to hunt for it.
I looked at the book spines and put my face in a pillow and cried, soundlessly. After a while, I grew drowsy. I must have fallen asleep.
Three men in suits came into the room and sat on barstools next to my bed, drinking and talking: blah blah blah. It was shadowy at first, then daylight streamed through the window. I struggled to wake up, but could still see them clearly. They were standing now and clinking the ice in their glasses. Irritated, I wondered why my mother had let them into the house. “Leave me alone,” I pleaded.
My mother opened the door cautiously.
“Who are you talking to” she asked.
I sat up in bed and looked around, astonished. It had been so real.
“Don’t mind what your father says, Nora. He’s just worried about you.”
“What about you? Were you worried?”
There were dark circles under her eyes. She shrugged. “I trust you,” she said.
The next day, my father acted as though nothing had happened. Presto, once again he was the cool Daddio who didn’t want to lose his little girl. And didn’t want to know he already had. Maybe he got me the job at the track to make up for our quarrel.
He didn’t go to Hialeah the day I was Miss Kelly Citation Tire. I think he didn’t want to see his daughter parading unprotected and half naked through that mob. He rarely went to the track, anyway. He’d rather bet on cards than horses. In fact, he was something of a card shark and we’d all go out to dinner whenever he won big.
Even though he didn’t go, he tipped off his friends, who stopped to talk with me, people I’d known since I was a gawky, tongue-tied adolescent. Betty Roth laughed when she read the ribbon. “Aren’t you glad they didn’t make you wear a tire, dear?”
Al bought me a glazed doughnut with the coffee and watched while I wolfed it down.
“So how many boyfriends do you have, Nora?”
“One’s plenty for me.”
“You like him a lot, huh?”
“What’s he like?”
“Tall, dark and handsome.”
“Well, he’s an older man. He’s twenty-eight.”
Al looked a little startled. A bell rang. He checked his watch.
“Next shift,” he said. I took off the muumuu, gathered the flyers and stood up.
“Once more after this, Nora, they should all be gone. Say, you want to watch a race?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve never seen one.”
“Let’s make it race number seven. Around four o’clock.”
Al placed bets for both of us. I didn’t want to, but he insisted on lending me a five spot.
“If you lose, I don’t want it back. If you win, you owe me five. A deal?”
“Okay, now you choose from these three here that I’ve circled.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I began.
“Doesn’t matter. Just pick one. Beginner’s luck, right?”
So I chose the name I liked best, Birdland Blue.
Al grunted and took off for the betting windows.
I had slipped the muumuu on and I’d have kicked off the heels and gone barefoot, but the floor was sticky with gum and spilled soda and beer. There were heaps of paper everywhere — torn tickets and some of our pastel fliers.
Our seats were halfway up the grandstand. It was a sweltering, muggy afternoon. I tugged at the muumuu until it slipped down my shoulders.
“I’ll be ready for a swim when this is over,” I said. “Which horse is ours?”
Al leaned over to point and his arm brushed my breasts. I edged away from him, hoping it had been unintended. He was in pretty good shape for an old guy, but he was married. And he was my father’s friend, wasn’t he?
The horses were off and running. “Go Birdland, go!” I shouted. I had no idea which horse was Birdland Blue, but it didn’t matter. It was like going to a football game, where I had only the fuzziest notion of how the game was played, but could howl there with impunity. I really did feel like roaring. I’d just smiled about a thousand phony smiles and I was tired of being nice to drunks every night.
“Rahhhhr Birdland,” I growled. Everyone was standing and yelling now.
“It’s Birdland Blue under the wire,” the announcer cried. “Birdland Blue by a head, at five to one.”
“Yowser!” Al shouted. “You did it, sweetheart!”
I jumped up and down, I was so excited. I gave Al a quick hug.
He grabbed me and hugged back. Then he pressed himself closer. Damn, the man was hard. He tried to kiss me with his tongue. I squirmed and pushed him away.
“Sorry,” he said. “A guy’s gotta try, right?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh, I think you do.”
“You have a daughter, don’t you?” I asked.
“What about it? You’re not my daughter.”
“And a wife?”
He shrugged and looked at his watch. “You just made an extra 20 bucks, kiddo. I made a pretty good haul myself. So thanks for the good luck. No hard feelings, okay? Can’t win ‘em all.”
Al drove me to my car, which was parked at the tire store. He gave me a check for forty dollars, a twenty dollar bill and his business card. “Call me if you change your mind, doll,” he said.
Asshole, I thought, and drove off.
I tore the card in half and tossed it out the window. But that didn’t erase the bad feeling. I thought Al might know something about me now. His embrace had, briefly, aroused me. Recalling it made me a little sick.
Then I thought about the extra twenty in my wallet. My parents were only going to hear the good news. I would take them out to dinner with my winnings. Daddio would be proud. That’s my girl, he’d say.
Jo-Anne Rosen’s work has appeared in Other Voices, The Florida Review, FlashQuake, A Room of One’s Own, The Summerset Review, Prick of the Spindle and other journals. She is a freelance book and website designer, living in Petaluma, California. She also edits and publishes an online chapbook of fiction, memoir and poetry atwww.echapbook.com.