Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Devil Cats & Horse Racing

I grew up in Salem, NH. The only thing Salem was famous for, other than not being the Salem where they burned witches, was the race track. Rockingham Park was a huge piece of land right in the middle of town. Surrounded by chain link, it was the on again, off again home of a large community of nomadic horse race people.

This curious group of dream chasers came from all over the world. Many lived on the track, sleeping in tiny, dark tack rooms, thick with the musty smell of equine. Some stayed in hotel rooms, mobile homes or in the many studio apartments that surrounded the track.

When we were kids, my parents would park the car along the fence where we would watch dusty men feed & groom these magnificent animals. They'd clip those tired creatures, slick with sweat, to what we called the merry-go-round, where they'd walk in listless circles as they cooled down and dried off after a race. We would eat ice cream & wish we could work there some day.

Decades later, I found myself living in a studio apartment next to the track. I could look out of my kitchen window, through the chain link fence and onto the same scene I watched as a child. The place was tiny - one room with a kitchenette that included a refrigerator too small to hold even a six pack or box-o-wine. It had character - floors that sloped in an easterly direction, a stain on the ceiling shaped like Texas, a shower stall the size of a small coffin. Me and my little life fit in there, but just barely. On summer days, I would throw open the windows and the rich scent of horses & hay would waft in on the breeze.

At that time, I was attending community college full time and waiting tables at a local restaurant & bar. Life was a simple routine of classes, study, work and hangovers. One night, one of my regulars approached me at the end of my shift. A cute transplant from Philadelphia, he needed a favor - just this one and he would owe me forever. Watch his cat for two weeks while he was in Florida. I like cats. I said ok.

I don't remember what Nicky called his cat, but I called him Devil Cat. In the short time he was with me, he pretty much destroyed my house - literally pulling down curtains and knocking pictures off the walls. Devil cat was an outdoor cat. He reacted to being kept inside like I was running a prison camp, making a mad dash for the door every time I came and went. Keeping him inside was a fricken nightmare.

So, it's a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning. I'm getting ready for work. I open the windows, feed the cat and hit the shower. When I emerge the first thing I notice are the kitchen curtains fluttering in the breeze. Then I see that the screen is gone. So is the fricken cat.

I run outside. I'm in my bathrobe. I have a towel on my head. He's sitting on the other side of a fence that has got to be, what, six feet tall? I cannot believe this. I want to kill this cat and stuff him down Nicky's throat. I walk along the fence calling him in my most soothing & comforting voice. I am starting to feel crazy woman coming on.

I reach the back corner of the fence. There is no fricken way around it. The only way I'm getting that cat is to go over it. As if by cue, there is actually a cut log lying the in grass and a cinder block on the other side of the fence. The decision is made. I'm goin' over.

Ok, so why I don't go in the house and put on clothes before I do this - I can't say. I forge ahead. Throw the towel on the grass. Start climbing & somehow make it over the top. As I jump to the ground, I don't see my bathrobe catch the top of the fence. When I hit the ground, it is literally torn from me. I am standing on the other side of the fence, on racetrack property, completely naked.

I look around. The yard is empty except for one small, dark man standing in a sunny doorway, holding a rake. I let out a shriek and start yanking on my robe - it is not coming down. Horrified, I look back at the man. A friend has joined him - he shades his eyes & smiles. I feel like I'm in a bad movie - I cannot believe this is happening. I turn my bare white ass to them, drag the cinder block over, climb up and free my robe. Let me tell you this - when you're standing outside naked in front of strangers, you cannot cover up fast enough. Unbelievably, Devil Cat walks right over to me. I pick him up, wanting to squeeze him until his eyes bug out, climb onto the cinder block and throw him over the fence.

I don't remember much about the return climb. What I do remember is that Nicky never did come for Devil Cat. Ever. I heard he'd moved back to Philly. I moved to Vermont, where being naked outside was both common and legal. Devil Cat moved in with my neighbor, Shirley.

The men in the yard that day? They've probably returned to a land where the sun bakes the earth dry & the nights are cold and quiet except for the sounds of their horses. They'll tell stories of their years on the road, of races won and lost and of the all people they'd met. And they'll smile when they tell the story about the naked woman in Salem, New Hampshire.