The weekend I came home, I took you to the track.
“Familiar stimuli,” Mom said, channeling your neurologist. She was the one who had suggested I take the train home from the city.
“You should really visit your grandfather,” she had said when she called, which she and I both knew was code for you not having long to live. “Before…the semester starts.”
What she didn’t know was that I had been waiting tables instead of finishing my degree, running around Brooklyn with a fellow Philosophy dropout who one day decided she no longer believed in school, money, having long hair—our poverty, once romantic, now just poverty. I was just taking some time off, I told myself. From college. But more and more it felt like from life.
“Where are we going?” you asked, gazing gratefully at the trees rushing past the car, as though it were your first time seeing them.
“To watch the horses race,” I told you, like you used to tell me.
“That’s wonderful. I’m so excited, I don’t know what to do.”
It was my first time hearing you speak for a while, and it was clear that the dementia had worsened. Although a Brooklyn accent still bled from your words, I couldn’t detect a lick of your token irony. You were being completely sincere.
I pushed you in your wheelchair through the turnstiles, just like you used to do to me in my stroller. Cigar smoke and horseshit. The smell of the grounds hadn’t changed since I was last there, with you, as a boy. Everything else was different. Even the living quarters for the backstretch workers—mostly Latino migrants—seemed smaller. I used to point and ask you about them.
“Think of it as like summer camp,” you would say, holding my hand and ushering me along.
One groomer sat sunken on a lawn chair in front of a cabin, his wide-brimmed hat covering his face. A boy snapped a photo. I wheeled you inside.
I got us some sausage, pepper, and onion subs as we waited for the first race’s odds to adjust, just as you taught me. The subs you used to make were better, and for twelve bucks I expected more sausage.
“Isn’t this sub good?” I asked.
“Very good,” you said, taking a bite.
“Isn’t this beer good?” I asked.
“Very good,” you said, taking a sip. Your hand trembled as you brought the cup down from your mouth and I dabbed your lips with a napkin.
We won nothing all day and they scratched the horses whose names you liked, but you didn’t seem to mind. To you, each race was the first one, and you were having a pleasant enough time just being there. At one point, I was placing our bets and when I turned back around, you were examining a box of Cracker Jack.
“Look what I bought,” you said, holding it up.
“You picked that out yourself?” I asked, opening it for you. You nodded proudly.
Eventually, your hands got sticky, so I took you to wash them. I gave you a dollar to put in the jar of the bathroom attendant, who tipped his hat. You then dropped in the Cracker Jack prize—a riddle on a piece of paper—which you had folded and placed in your breast pocket after finding, and he tipped his hat again.
We watched the last race from the finish line—our little tradition. The August sun was setting over the clubhouse turn and I couldn’t help but think of fall. I wrapped your blanket tighter around your thighs. Our horse trotted by and I pointed him out to you.
“Beautiful,” you said. He joined the others at the starting gate across the infield and there was that moment just before the little doors flung open when all the horses bobbed their heads restlessly, as if they knew what was coming, and I could feel it in the bottom of my stomach, the anticipation that for the next minute and ten seconds if the pace was fast anything could happen, and the world would seem so rich and boundless and good, and I thought about what you told me the last time we were there, years ago. You were recounting your young adulthood.
“The city is no place for a boy. You go there after high school and you come out a man. Then, you go home. The city is not home. This,” you had said, gesturing up at the open sky, “is home.” And you were the example, moving upstate with a wife, a doctorate from Columbia, and eight years as professor of Psychology at Fordham.
The bell rang and the horses shot forward and I turned to you and said:
“Grandpa. I’ve been in the city for the last three years.”
“I don’t know if I’m going back.”
“God bless you,” you said, stroking the loose skin at your neck and smiling and nodding at the horizon, as though you had some secret you couldn’t share with me.
I thought you were no longer you at all until later, in the parking lot, when you squeezed my arm as I was moving you from your wheelchair into the car. Patting the back of my hand, you looked at me and said:
“Thank you for spending time with me today.”
At your funeral, it rained. Favorable conditions for a long shot. Everyone said I looked the same, hadn’t changed a bit, it was as if I had never even left. They lowered you deeper and deeper into the ground, and I thought about what you said when we pulled away from the track, together for the last time.
“Where are we going?” you asked, your head tilted to the side. I could have said anything and you would have smiled at the possibility of it all.
“Home,” I said, and for a moment there I envied you.
“Homecoming” by Chris Nelson appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Chris Nelson is a writer.