We went to the track before I went to camp. Every summer I shipped out to a Jewish camp on a lake, had my Jewish friends, my Jewish life, my Jewish girl, Talia. At home, we were unreligious. If anything, we were a little Christian, with the tree in December, the egg hunt in April, the Eggos. We were one of the few Jewish families in town and rather than the scarcity bringing us closer, it brought us a certain spiritual sleepiness. My going to camp every summer was our most Jewish tradition. This would be my last year as counsellor. My mother suggested that I spend some quality time with my brother before I left. I wouldn’t see him for six glorious weeks. I was eager for this reprieve. It was the only time I felt like I got free from myself. I was ready to appease my parents in any way, lest they keep me home. When I asked Alex what he wanted to do, he told me: the track.
“What do you know about the track?” I asked.
“I go there all the time,” he said. “With my friends.”
Alex was fourteen. I was a few years older. The track was no place for kids. It was a tired-out venue that welcomed the worst of the city: alcoholics, addicts, estranged gamblers and divorcées, drunk college kids dressed in khakis and sunhats pretending this was Kentucky. The homeless roamed the grounds, browsing the litter and hoping to find a winner in the dirt. I’d been once, as part of a misassembled teenage clique, before I was recognized and cast out. That time, I’d spotted some needles beneath the bleachers and pointed them out to a few blonde prepsters who’d hoisted them by the plungers and dangled them over my head. Still, the track had charm – the backdrop of snow-dipped mountains, the big northern sunsets, the perfume of thoroughbred manure and beer. But it wasn’t a place I wanted to take my brother.
Yet, we saddled into the car and buckled up.
My brother was an expert on false histories, all things useless and untrue, and he shared his betting strategy on the drive over. He said that horse racing began in China shortly before it was discovered in Old Greece and Egypt, and that the Chinese had a long-established connection with the animals, that the bond was in their blood. He told me about the royal races of the Zhou Dynasty, how the Chinese had a nose for the track, how they could separate the winners from the rest. They studied the horses’ eyes, their gaits, their scents, and knew. It was instinctual. You could see these men standing outside the paddock, their noses up and their hands clasped behind their backs, staring, sniffing. All you have to do was follow them to the window, turn your ear, and put five bucks on whatever they told to the clerk. Win big.
“You can’t say that,” I said to the rear mirror.
“It’s a compliment,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you think it’s compliment,” I told him. “It’s not for you to decide.”
“You’re a downer.” Alex crossed his arms. He stared at the passing cars from the backseat. He always rode in the back when I drove, said it was safer. “You know that driving slow is more dangerous than driving fast?”
I said nothing and stepped on it a little. It’s true that we were cruising under the limit. Cars behind us tapped horns and high beams, made moves. But I was responsible.
Alex was the type who never had trouble with types. He had friends of all ages and stripes, which in our town meant wealthy white kids with nannies from all over the world. They called him Wyman, which is my name too, though nobody called me that. Last term, a rumor passed that Wyman had hooked up with a girl in my year. I didn’t buy the gossip, but even if it wasn’t true, it was true in a deeper sense. It could’ve, might’ve, ought’ve happened. Maybe in some alternate history it did. But I was stuck in this one, with my Roman nose and asymmetric body hair. Alex had received our mother’s nose, our father’s soft athleticism and height. He was unlike me in almost all manners. Of course, I cared for him in a brotherly way, which is to say I hated him tenderly.During dinners, he’d talk school, classes, sing his woodworking teacher’s praises, poke fun at the good ones who despised him, like sweet old Ms. Leilla and her wandering eye. That adventurous orb saw right through him. My parents’ orbs were blind to the world, to history, or maybe just to Alex.
At the track, we bought a program and waited for the next race to begin. It was a Thursday evening, the crowd a regular mix, plus a few misdirected tourists, unemployed university kids back for summer thrills. The sky was summer grey, clouds packed with wet heat. My mind was on tomorrow’s bus ride, the bunks, the old ping-pong table and Talia.
“Did you know male horses are called colts until they’re five. Then they’re just called horses,” my brother said.
“No,” I said.
“And female horses are called fillies until they’re four. Then they’re called mares.”
“And did you know that all horses are born in January?”
“That can’t be true,” I said.
We found a quiet spot near the fence and observed a few races for practice, or maybe for fun. It was hard to tell with Alex. Everything was a competition. We watched the horses dig into the dirt and Alex made little bets, predictions right after they became obvious. “Four’s going to pull ahead,” he’d say, or “Eight can’t sustain that pace,” or “Five bucks says seven wins” a few strides from the finish line. I didn’t take the other side. I didn’t care enough about winning, or maybe I had too much to lose. My brother would dangle any victory over me, like those prepsters and their needles. I said something about saving my money for university, and watched my brother roll his eyes. Then he folded up the program, smacked it against his thigh like an enormous jockey. “Get it, seven. Pull, pull. Get clear, baby!”
“Told you,” he’d say, after he was right. Or, “You should’ve bet,” when he was wrong.
It was lose-lose.
Win-win, if you were Wyman.
We moved to the paddock to assess the horses. They entered the ring and made a small, courtly lap on leash. I opened the program and read through invented names. I Dig That, Exterminator, Maximus Decimus Meridius, No True Scotsman, Hyperbolize, Not Yet, Exactly So.
When I looked back up, my brother was staring at an elderly Chinese man. This fellow was stooped by the gate with a curved spine and a baseball cap, hands deep in corduroy pockets. My brother was captivated. He watched him watch the horses. I could see what was happening and grew uneasy. “Let’s keep moving,” I said. Alex waved me off. The horses completed their laps. When the man left for the ticket window, Alex elbowed me in the ribs. “Come on,” he said.
We followed him into the line. A group of wasted college kids amassed behind us, their breaths on our necks. Alex didn’t seem to notice. He was focused on the old man, his white hair and wrinkled cheek. My brother whispered, “He knows.” When the man moved to the window, Alex watched his lips and listened. We were called up a moment later and my brother told me what to say.
“Race five. Ten dollar trifecta on thirteen, nine, and four.”
The clerk asked to see some ID. I flashed her my fake one, summoned whatever slim stock of confidence I had in reserve. She printed the ticket.
The sun was beginning to set behind the mountains. Alex and I secured a viewing spot near the finish line. The old Chinese man stood along the fence with his ticket folded between crossed fingers. My brother looked toward the track, the dirt and pink sky. “You’re going to camp tomorrow,” he said.
“Aren’t you a little old?”
“I’m a counsellor.”
“What do you do there all day?”
Alex had never been to camp and I didn’t want him to start now. He had his local friends, his freedom to keep him occupied. “Nothing special,” I said. “You just make sure no one drowns and lead evening prayers.”
“Do you have any girlfriends there?”
I had my Talia, but I didn’t mention it. I was afraid of our worlds meshing, mangling, even in the wispy realm of talk. It seemed like it’d curse something.
“If I went to camp, I’d have lots of girlfriends,” Alex said.
“How about you go camp and get one, then?” I bluffed.
“I’m not Jewish,” he said.
“Yes you are.”
“All right,” I said. “You’re not.”
My brother paused, gazed at the mountains. “The Jews killed Jesus,” he said, after a moment. “They murdered him. I can’t be a part of that.”
I looked at him, perplexed. The horses trotted toward the starting gate. “Who told you that?”
He shrugged. “Everyone knows.”
I don’t know why I had a reaction to this. I didn’t care about my roots, my history, but at that moment I felt like the sole defender of my people. I guess I pictured some sneering prep kid telling Alex how his ancestors nailed Jesus up, prodded his guts with spears, how he came from a long line of murderers, God-killers. I felt protective of something I couldn’t name, and remembered what our old camp rabbi had said, a few years back, during one of his special sermons. He’d stood in front of the campfire and announced he was about to share a story that most people didn’t know. He was going to expel an age-old myth, a lie that had plagued our people for centuries. I remembered his wiry beard and huge eyebrows, all that wrinkled poise. I was at the edge of my foldable chair, hungry for this ancient secret, this historic misunderstanding. He leaned forward over the fire and, in the voice of a man who shared a workplace with God, told us that the Jews didn’t kill Christ. The Romans did it. The Romans were in charge of the crucifixions. They murdered him for political reasons. He was a threat to Caesar, to the empire. They didn’t like everyone going around calling him the King of the Jews.
That rabbi was gone now, and the camp had a younger, progressive one who played the guitar. But even at thirteen, I remember hearing this account and feeling relieved, even giddy, for an exoneration of a guilt I didn’t know I had. I remember this giddiness lasting for a minute, enjoying a great communal reprieve, and then, a little later, thinking: I bet that’s not how the Romans would tell it.
Still, I relayed this story to Alex now. It felt like my duty. I was carrying our old rabbi’s torch, his ancient gossip.
“Really? Is that true?” my brother said. His eyes were narrow, but I could see that he wanted to believe.
“It’s true,” I said.
“That’s really how it happened?”
He stood there, soaking up the story. The patrons crowded the fence and we were surrounded by elbows and beer. A shot fired and the gates opened. Ten horses sprinted out, legs kicking up dirt, muscles gleaming in the late day sun. They ran a furlong or two and torqued into the first bend. It was a brutal sport. They had flogged these animals into the ground a thousand years ago – Egypt, China, wherever – and we flogged them into the ground them here, now. History was brutal all over, full of floggings and crucifixions and misunderstandings. My brother smacked the program against his thigh. “Hit ‘em. Get clear, nine. Get ‘em, four. Take him home.” Our numbers came around the bend, flirting around the lead. Tiny riders leaned forward, whipping their beasts to the finish, and my heart quickened. On the screen, the numbers appeared: nine, four, thirteen. My brother fist-pumped, war-cried and smacked me on the back. I couldn’t hold back a grin. We traded high fives with a few other neighboring victors. The losers scraped their tickets and moaned. I looked for the Chinese man, hoping to cast him a silent salute. But I didn’t see him. Maybe he was already collecting his winnings. We went to the ticket counter to get ours.
“Not a winner,” said the lady at the window. She pointed to our ticket. “They finished nine-four-thirteen. You have thirteen-nine-four.”
“That’s the same thing,” my brother said.
“The order’s wrong. You didn’t box it. It has to read nine-four-thirteen. Yours reads thirteen-nine-four.”
That was true.
“What’s the difference?” my brother asked.
“Around four hundred dollars.”
On the drive home, Alex rested his forehead on the window. The ride may have been quiet, but adrenaline was still splashing in my ears. My brain knew that we’d lost, but my body was still hopeful. I tried to savor the feeling, wait out the truth, like I was back in the camp chair, over a crackling fire, listening to an old rabbi tell us that we were innocent. The truth was beside the point – the point was belief. In the backseat, my brother complained.
“You must have told her wrong,” he said. “Or she entered it wrong.”
“Could be,” I said.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “Someone screwed up.”
The next day I left for camp. I shed my usual afflictions and picked up where I’d left off with Talia, which earned me a lot of respect amongst the campers.Talia had lost her boyish thinness and grown more beautiful over the year. This was my last summer of counselling before I aged out. I didn’t know it then, but it was the end of my youth. Next year I scrubbed dishes like everyone else, then went to university. Now I wear dress shirts five days a week, slave around an office. But that summer, I made the most of my time at the top. I lead prayers and dominated the ping-pong table. I even gave mouth-to-mouth to a kid who thought he could swim but sank. Alex stayed home with his friends. I have no idea what they did. Maybe they got lucky, or stirred gossip, or discovered themselves. I didn’t care. For a summer, I was King of the Jews.