“We should have taken her to the merry-go-round,” Cassie said, shifting the baby higher on her hip. “This isn’t right.”
Isaac pointed at the oval of grass ringed by the dirt track. “The horses go round and round here too,” he said. “Besides, she’s six months old and doesn’t know the difference.”
Hannah fussed and Cassie popped a bottle in her mouth. “It’s not the same. It’s a race track.”
“You said you wanted to get out,” he said. “And you didn’t want to go to the park because you go there all the time, and on the weekends you feel like the mothers judge you, and you don’t feel as smart and brilliant as them because they work for law firms and write grants for nonprofits, and on weekdays their international nannies look down on you because you can’t afford to pay someone to take your child to the park.”
“You’re impossible,” she said. “We can barely keep her in diapers and you want to come here. Every time you go to the men’s room I worry. Why would you come here when you say you’ve stopped?”
“I love the horses, and I promise you I haven’t put any money down today,” he said.
“I wish I could bet on that,” she said.
“But they have a pony ride,” Isaac said. “Where else is she going to get to ride a pony?”
Hannah stood, coat and hat on backwards, having dressed herself, sobbing at the door.
“It’s your fault she loves horses so much,” Cassie said. “Most fathers take their kid to the zoo or the state fair. You take yours to the race track.”
“It’s family day,” Isaac said. “Why don’t we all go?”
“Family day?” Cassie sighed. “I know the economy is bad, but luring families to the race track? It’s bad enough when you gamble the money away. Don’t ask me to come and watch.” She scooped up Hannah, stripped off her outerwear and took her to the sink to wash away the tears and mucus. “It’s okay,” Cassie said. “Let’s clean you up before you go ride the ponies with daddy. I’ll see you when you get back.”
“What’ll everyone think?” Cassie said.
“They’ll think about how much Hannah likes horses and how this is a horse-themed birthday party.”
“At the race track,” Cassie said.
“In the family section, at the race track,” Isaac said. “Yes.”
Cassie packed paper plates, cups, napkins and forks into shopping bags. She counted the five fingers on her right hand and four on her left before bending to recount the nine favor bags in the cardboard box.
Isaac pulled juice boxes from the refrigerator and laid them over the ice and beer. If they stopped him, they stopped him.
“Hannah,” he called, “ready for your party?”
She tore down the hall riding her broomstick pony and almost knocked the decorated quarter sheet cake from his hands.
“And they’re off!” she said.
“You said the doctor said Hannah put on too much weight this last year, and I should get her out,” he said, “and not let her sit in front of the TV. They have a climbing wall and a jumping house now—all free—not like what they charge everywhere else.”
“She’s nine,” Cassie said. “And it’s still a race track. People smoke and drink and bet on horses.”
“Look,” Isaac said, “there’s nothing in the settlement that says I have to clear our destination with you.”
“It’s a bad habit,” she said. “An addiction.”
“We’ve been through this,” he said. “I’m going to my meetings and checking in with my sponsor. I took all the parenting classes you got the judge to throw at me. I just want to spend some time with Hannah. She likes it at the track. And I’m okay. I’m not gambling. I’m sending you your check, aren’t I? And yes, it’s a race track. The horses run around and around, and afterwards I ask her if she wouldn’t like to run around, and we go blow off energy. You should see how fast she runs. That kid runs to win, not just place or show.”
“Are we going to go around this again?” he said.
“She’s got breasts if you haven’t noticed,” Cassie said.
“It’s March,” he said, “and presumably you’ll send her with a coat?”
“Funny,” she said. “She’ll be what, a hundred feet from that huge room with all the old creepers staring at the off track betting screens?”
“We never go in there.”
“Don’t forget to check her homework.”
“Oh, I will,” he said. “She’s a real whizz at math. You should see her with the racing form. ‘Lies, pure lies,’ she says. And even though I’ve taught her to be skeptical whenever she handicaps a horse, a race, the rest of her life, I still catch her cheering for the long shot sometimes, you know. Just like you used to.”
“You’re calling because you think a later curfew is a good idea?” Cassie said. “How’s she supposed to get to the stable in the morning with a later curfew?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “she’ll get there.” “When is she supposed to study?”
“She can do this.”
“Where is Hannah?” she said.
“She’s out, and she’ll be back by midnight.”
“When is she supposed to sleep?
“She’ll be fine,” he said.
“That money should have gone for college, not a horse,” Cassie said.
“She’s crazy about the horse.”
“What happens when she’s 18 and betting on her own, Isaac,” she said, “what then?”
“It’s not like that,” he said.
“What’s the horse going to do for her future?”
“Make her happy.”
“Is the horse going to get her a job? Pay the bills?”
“You’re the one who told her no more betting,” he said. “And it’s not like that.”
“Oh? What’s it like then?” she said. “It’s wrong, and how do you know she’s not out at the track?”
“Track’s closed,” he said. “Goodnight, Cassie.”
“It’s been a while,” Isaac said. “How are you? How’s Marty?”
“I’m fine, he’s fine,” Cassie said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “So Hannah’s serious about this one.”
“Like the last one,” she laughed. “The one who broke her heart.”
“Makes her smart,” he said. “She’s not the sentimental type to play the same horse when the better bet’s elsewhere.”
“You know,” she said, “I like this one too. He’s got his head on straight.”
“Yeah,” he said. “The two of them were talking about how you have to run the horses clockwise to keep them strong on both sides. I heard he wants to take her to his uncle’s place. They have horses.”
“Plenty of horses,” Isaac said looking around the vineyard.
“But no track,” Cassie said. She raised her glass.
“They cater events there, but Hannah said no.” He laughed and sipped sparkling water to the best man’s toast.
“She’s a great kid,” she said.
“The track wasn’t the worse thing,” he said.
Cassie shook her head. “Horses, oenology. Whatever makes her happy.”
Isaac turned to her; there was something in her look, but the sharp clink of silverware on glass pulled everyone’s attention to the happy couple. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said quietly, “but I still go to the track. Not to bet, but to remember when we were a family.”
Cameras flashed. Everyone smiled.
“A photo finish,” Cassie said.
“Yes,” Isaac said as they raised glasses again to Hannah and her groom, “a race well run.”