By SEAN BERNARD
Living with Ricky is fine. The things you accept—they’re small things. Like the way he kicks off his shoes in the hallway at the end of the workday, leaving them there for you to nearly break your ankle on when you have to pee in the middle of the night. He has a point: if you know you’re going to trip on them, why don’t you just move them? Or also how he’ll fall asleep after work on Fridays—you both get off at five, but he always gets home first and somehow has time to be on his third Corona when you walk into the apartment, and he’s sitting in the yellow beanbag chair, half-asleep with an Angels game on, remote tucked safely under his leg. He’s happy to wake up early Saturday morning after you’ve talked the night before about sleeping in together, the weekend being the only real chance you get to wake up with him slowly, to lie in bed in that half-drowsing state that’s exactly how you’d spend your whole life if only someone would, you know, create a job for that, a job where pajamas were the uniform, a bed the office, and being snoozy and not really worrying about the clanging outside world was the main task at hand—those mornings, while you’re drooling into your pillow, Ricky will yank on his sponsor-laden clothes and go bicycling. Leaving you to wake up alone. Which isn’t so bad, but then he’ll call around noon asking you to pick him up at the local craft brewery as he’s had too many to bike home. That’s responsible, though. Calling you.
He’s a nice guy, Ricky—cheerful and funny. He knows lots of jokes. He does good celebrity impressions, though sometimes it’s hard for you to tell which celebrities—you’re bad with celebrities—and then he gets a little annoyed. He’s fine in bed. The girls from work like him. Your parents think it’s funny how he’ll just take the phone from you and start talking to them about their lives— now, some days, your father would rather talk to Ricky than to you. How’s the Rickster? your father will say. Is the Rickster around?
All those small things—they’re more you being annoyed. None of it should bother you as much as it does.
Especially not the way he calls his uncle “the Kid.”
You first met the Kid last January when he spent two nights at your apartment. He was passing through Los Angeles on a sort of midlife-crisis-finding-himself road trip. He was driving the American West; he started at home in Reno, drove up to Seattle, passed all the way down the coasts of Oregon and California in a rented convertible Mustang. Which sounded wonderful—two years in L.A. and you still haven’t made the drive up the coast. But the Kid wasn’t having it. What the hell! he said. It’s pissin’ cold here! I have to keep the rooftop on! Over dinner at a local burger place he complained about the famous sea lions—they smelled like shit. He complained about the fancy restaurant in Big Sur that Ricky had recommended to him because you’d recommended it to Ricky after you saw it in the Sunday travel section. That place, the Kid said, dipping a bundle of fries into your ramekin of ranch, was a bunch of overpriced California hippyshit. Ten-dollar fig preserves? Who’s even heard of fig preserves? He complained about the roads being washed out north of Santa Cruz. He complained about not seeing any whales. While you were driving, you mean? you asked. Of course while he was driving, doof, Ricky said. The Kid kept complaining. As he moved on to Los Angeles in particular, you stopped listening and watched the TV on the wall behind them. There was a fire somewhere in a part of the city you didn’t know—which was most parts of the city. You didn’t know Los Angeles then, and you still don’t know it now. The plan was to move here the fall after college with your dorm-mate because she insisted it’d be great, she already had headshots, and the two of you came out in summer and stayed in Pasadena, went apartment shopping, signed a lease and put down deposits, then each went home—you to New Mexico, she to Oregon—to gather your things. To start your new life. The day before you arrived in L.A.—you were staying at a motel in Tucson—your dorm-mate called and sobbingly said she just couldn’t, she’d had this crucial mental breakthrough, she totally needed to go to grad school in Boston after all. You stared at the paneling on the motel wall. And you. What did you totally need? What could you totally do? Go home to your parents?
But the Kid was right: Los Angeles is sort of terrible. It’s confusing. It’s hot. It’s impersonal. You always feel lonely. You were happy when you met Ricky at the whiskey bar that time with the girls from work—he was chipper, he liked you out of them all, probably because you’re younger and prettier, but you’re not that young, that pretty. You went on nice dates, and it didn’t seem so strange when he asked to move in—it’d been over a month, almost—but still, over a year later, you still feel lonely, still you don’t feel like you belong in this city. But you try hard not to complain. No one likes a complainer.
After the dinner during his visit last year, the three of you stayed up drinking—mostly the Kid and Ricky. Sitting on the apartment’s cramped back porch, the two men’s voices wheaty with old stories. The time Ricky “borrowed” his girlfriend’s car to drive to Las Vegas and the Kid had to bail him out of jail. Stayed in that town a bit longer than I expected! Remember that pink lady? said the Kid, knee-slap laughing, and Ricky, also laughing. Neither elaborating. You sat there, quiet and uncertain, even when the neighbor woman peeked over the fence, her face tight with anger. It’s late, she said, thin-lipped. Staring at you. You only nodded, meekly. It’s hardly late at all! Want a beer? said the Kid. Laughing as she frowned and retreated, slamming her door. Ricky grinned, too. She’s a bitch, he said. She gets mad at everything. She gets mad when I play Xbox too loud. Ignore her. And the Kid did ignore her, and he kept on, returning to the horrors of Los Angeles. He compared it to the other places he’d been on his trip. Seattle: so vibrant! The Oregon coast: way better! Ashland—there was a city. You grew defensive. It’s not that bad here, you said. There’s beaches. The Chinese food is great (which you’d only read about). And the culture. They have an opera here, you know.
Opera, the Kid said, shaking his head at Ricky. She’s coming at me with opera.
In the kitchen, Ricky took you aside. Don’t be such an asshole, he said. Stop giving him a hard time, his wife just died. And this was mostly true—that was the reason for the Kid’s road trip, though technically she’d died two years prior. Still: you felt crummy. You have that tendency of picking at people’s flaws, of dwelling on them too long. So the next morning you went to the store and bought flour and eggs and baked for Ricky and the Kid, and so what if the Kid said the cupcakes were dry? At least you tried. At least Ricky said he liked them.
Now the Kid is in town for a job interview—he’s asked his firm about transferring to their Los Angeles office. He’s arriving this morning, Sunday, the day before the interview, and it’s been left to you to come up with a plan to entertain the Kid. He wants to move here? you say to Ricky in the bathroom this morning. He can’t hate it that bad.
What are you talking about? He loves L.A., Ricky says, his mouth a mess of toothpaste foam.
Instead of disagreeing, you ask, Why is the Kid named “the Kid,” anyway?
Ricky laughs. Seriously? He’s the catcher on his softball team, obviously.
And twenty minutes later the Kid has arrived, the uncle and nephew have hugged, and the Kid has brought with him breakfast burritos, an admittedly thoughtful gesture. You three eat in the apartment’s tiny living room. The Kid eyes you. So, Tourist Bureau. He grins. What grand ways has Los Angeles changed? Can we spend all day in traffic? Get mugged in the LBC?
You smile back. Because you do have an idea. And it’s a great idea.
You’re taking them to Santa Anita Park.
The two men are actually excited on the freeway drive. You go to the horse races? Ricky says, shaking his head. I had no idea you went to the horse races! That’s awesome.
Cheers! the Kid says, and he reaches from the back and they tap their beers. The Kid settles back in his seat. I love three things in life, says the Kid. Beer, bicycling, and—he glances at you in the rearview, a quick flick of the eyes. Well, I better not say.
At the racetrack it’s perfect: the day is perfect. The weather is perfect. You arrive before the first of the day’s eight races. You each get beers from the bar, and the Kid flirts with the redhead bartender who looks like she could be seventeen as she slides the three filled glasses, cowboy-style, down the counter. You know what you’re doing, lady! Ricky says, laughing. I do, she agrees, I know things, and the three of you go to your shaded box that looks out on the wide dirt track and the mountains beyond. You try to explain how to read the programs, how to tell which horses are the best bet. Race Eight, the Kid cries. Look at Race Eight!
You flip to the last page. One of the favorites—maybe the second- or third-best in the field—is named Feliza Navidad. The Kid nods. That’s it. I’m betting on that race. That horse. Right now. And he stands and strides back to the betting area behind the stands.
You look at Ricky, who’s staring at the program uncertainly. You tell him that you thought the Kid’s wife’s name was Felicia—not Feliza. Ricky sighs. What’s wrong with you? Yes, her name was Felicia. Aunt Filly. But come on, he says, close enough, right?
You blush and gulp your beer, and despite your nag, the day goes well: because of your suggestions, all three of you win on the first race. Ricky and the Kid toast you admiringly: who knew you had such gambling depths? They go back to the bar to refill your drinks—they insist, you’re the race-master, besides, they tell you, the lines are long—and later, after the fifth race, when all three of you are up over a hundred dollars, they bring you the track’s famous pastrami sandwich, your very favorite thing to eat in L.A.
You munch on pickles and peppered beef and sauerkraut and mustard, and you are happy. So happy. Because you love Santa Anita. After you first moved to Los Angeles, one of the women at the office had free tickets through her husband, and four of you came on a Saturday. The women wore funny hats and got drunk and took pictures of each other. You wore a baseball hat and read up in advance on horse-betting. You made three hundred dollars. You came back alone a week later. It wasn’t the money or the betting that mattered—sometimes you won, sometimes you lost—it was just the place. Santa Anita. The cordial employees in their green uniforms, plucked from another century. The elegant trumpeter walking the stands between races, taking his spot on the track to play that wonderful song announcing the next go-round. The enormous mountains in the near distance. The quiet. The calm. It was your respite. The only real thing you had in Los Angeles.
You stopped coming just after you met Ricky—partially because of your last time here, and partially because you told yourself he might not like it. Or maybe you didn’t want to share it with him. Maybe you didn’t want to tell him how, in an early race, a horse stumbled and fell as it came around the last turn. Maybe he would have laughed at how sensitive you were about the scene. How everyone stood, breath held, and watched the fallen horse. In the box beside you, a little girl, maybe twelve, shook her head grimly. What happens, Michaela? her little brother asked, tugging at her elbow. What happens to the horsey?
They take it to a holding pen and kill it, the sister said.
You felt yourself pale as the little boy started crying. Why? he cried. Why?
The sister smirked at him. What good’s a horse that can’t walk, dummy?
You left early that day.
But today: it’s good to be back. Ricky and the Kid are cheerful. The sun is warm. Everyone is smiling. After the seventh race, you head into the grandstand to use the restroom. On your return, the bartender gives you a little wave. You walk over and see that there are no lines. Hon, she says, her voice steady as she wipes down the counter, you cannot trust that man.
This is the feeling of happiness draining away. You know it all too well.
Your body clenches. You want to ask: Which man? The Kid, or Ricky?
But not nearly as much as you don’t want to ask.
She sees your face, pours you a beer, slides it over. On the house, okay? she says.
You thank her with a nod and return stiffly to the box. You’re just in time for the last race. Just in time for Feliza Navidad. You sit sullenly as the two men lean forward. They watch the horses being led out, the Kid pointing and smiling at the stupid animal onto which he’s projected his dead wife. You think small, mean thoughts about the Kid. About Ricky. Stupid grown-up boys. How they meander dumbly through the world and how for some reason the world lets them. How you let them. Who are you that you’re here, going along, not doing a thing to stop it?
Ricky puts a wandering hand on your leg, his fingers dancing a little—he’s drunk—and you push him away.
This gets his attention. What’s your problem? he says.
You just nod at the track. The trumpeter trumpets. The race is about to begin.
Go, Felicia! the Kid shouts. Go, Felicia!
And, as the P.A. announcer says, the horses are off. A good race develops: one jockey takes his horse out fast and builds a two-lengths’ lead halfway around the track, but the stronger horses, the calmer jockeys, let the lead horse run its energy out. By the second turn, the lead is gassed and the three favorites have separated from the group. They churn ahead, jostling for position. Feliza Navidad is caught between the two others as they plunge into the final turn. It’s neck and neck. The Kid is beside himself, screaming. Ricky is clapping. You sit very still and to you alone it’s no surprise when, just before the finish, Feliza Navidad trips and falls.
Oh no! the Kid shouts. Oh no!
He and Ricky watch, ashen-faced, as trainers run onto the track. The horse wobbles to its feet, falls to the ground. A flatbed truck drives out. Men circle the horse, considering it, hands on their hips. One trainer bends and touches its leg. He shakes his head, and they carefully load it onto the truck bed and drive away. Come on, guys, you say. We can check, you say. We can see if the horse is all right. You put your hand on the Kid’s shoulder. It’s Felicia, after all.
Ricky says, She’d want that, Uncle Jack. She would.
I know she would, Rick-Rick, the Kid says. His eyes are damp. I know she would.
They follow you: you are in charge. As the three of you walk toward the paddock, a lightness settles over you. A deep and profound calm. The Kid strains past you. Ricky does at first, but then he lags—you see him checking his cell phone and smiling. You slow your pace and amble behind both men until they pause, and you direct them to a no-entry door. They push in and watch through a gap in a fence as several serious-looking officials gather around the silent, knee-bent horse. The Kid and Ricky lean against the fence, feeling terrible for the poor animal. It’s unfair, they say, it was just trying to run a race, is all. You linger behind them. They don’t know what’s about to happen. They can’t see what’s coming. And even though you do know, you don’t, in the moment, realize—and you won’t for a fairly long time—that it’s this moment that will change you. This act of cruelty, of vengeance, of spiteful justice. Years from now you’ll look back and think: I was really living with that idiot Ricky? The Rickster? And I spent my free time with men like the Kid? You’ll think, What was wrong with me that I was that small a person? What made me so weak, so passive? And, sure, it’ll be a quiet life that you lead, but it’ll be better: you’ll have made it your own, a life that doesn’t make you feel, every day, meager and voiceless.
It’s now. This moment. You and Ricky and the Kid, standing outside the fence. The two men gazing down sadly, still not realizing how horrible it will be, not understanding that in seconds one of the officials will produce a rifle and raise it to the horse’s head and he’ll fire it and the horse will slump over. In that gap before the shot rings out, you feel whole, and not a shadow of remorse. Because you know exactly what good is a horse that can’t walk.
Sean Bernard is the author of the novel Studies in the Hereafter and the collection Desert sonorous, which received the 2014 Juniper Prize for Fiction. His fiction has appeared most recently in Crazyhorse and Western Humanities Review, and he runs the creative writing program at the University of La Verne.