I am cleaning my catch at the water’s edge, kneeling on a flat stone the size of a car hood. Bluegill. Perch. Working on the last one of the batch. I punch the point of my pocket knife blade through the fish’s skull. End his suffering. I slit open his belly, scoop out the pearly innards and pitch them into the lake.
I don’t know it yet, but this is my brother’s last day on earth.
And here I am, fishing.
I scrape scales from the slippery skin. All together a half dozen keepers. Not bad. I rinse the gutted fish in the gentle waves lapping against the rock. Gary Hacking and his dad are packing up. We’ve caught our limit and we’re preparing to head home.
It is a bit of a puzzlement to me why I am here with them in the first place. Gary is a couple of years older than I am and quiet, hardly says a thing. He is not a friend of mine. He and his parents live up the hill from us, at the end of the block. He’s an only child. When I walk to elementary school in the morning I always see him at the junior high bus stop, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a two-tone jacket, beige and brown. He stands apart from the other kids. Yesterday, out of the blue, his father invited me to join them today on this excursion to Creve Coeur Lake.
We are coming up on the last week of school and I have the uncomfortable suspicion that I am being recruited to be Gary’s summer friend. Why else am I here with these people? I’m eleven and this does not sit well with me.
Mr. Hacking bundles our fish in Reynolds Wrap and stashes them in the cooler, then lifts it into the trunk of the car. As we decouple the rods and stow them in back, he says he’s heard that I’m interested in the war. World War II. That’s true. But how does he know?
“I’ve got something you might like to see,” he says.
He digs through a small cardboard box in the trunk. “Here,” he says, and drops a grenade into my outstretched hands.
“Holy cow!” I say, recoiling for a split second, but hanging on to the thing.
It is a genuine United States Army hand grenade which, for some mysterious reason, has been painted powder blue. It’s the real McCoy. Pin, spoon, dimpled iron casting. It feels heavy and serious. Mr. Hacking explains that the explosive charge has been removed. It’s a dud.
While we drive home, I sit in the back seat, rolling the grenade from palm to palm. Gary is dozing up front, his head tapping against the passenger window. Behind the wheel, his dad is silent, but I keep catching his eyes on me in the rearview mirror. I feel like I must be doing something wrong and set the grenade next to me on the seat.
“Home,” Mr. Hacking says as we pull up next to their house, a half-hour drive from the lake. He pokes Gary on the shoulder and says, “Home.” Gary jumps and says, “Huh?”
Home is Wismer Road in St. Ann, a St. Louis suburb of small post-war, two- and three-bedroom brick houses. We live in a rental halfway down the hill from the Hackings. Ours is two-bedroom with Mom, Dad, and Pat in one and me in the other. Teri sleeps in the tiny, doorless dining room, off the kitchen.
Over the years, when she chooses to, Teri will tell me about conversations she’d overheard between Mom and Dad at the kitchen table. Some of those talks she will keep to herself well into middle age.
We unload the gear from the trunk and Mr. Hacking carries the rods and tackle box into the house. He offers to share the fish but I decline, saying that we didn’t eat fish, which is not entirely true. We often have frozen Bird’s Eye.
Gary, still sleepy, leans against the front fender, wiping his specs with his shirt tail, eyelids flagging.
Then Gary’s father tells me I can keep the grenade.
I am overjoyed. I thank him for that, thank him for the fishing trip. I’m still not sure why this outing has happened, but I like to fish despite feeling awkward around the Hackings.
I head down the hill, happy. I hold my new possession to my nose and sniff. Behind the residue of dirt, earthworms and fish scales on my fingertips, there is the iron essence of deadly intent. It thrills me.
I study the grenade, intuiting how, upon detonation, the shell would fracture along the grooves, spewing shrapnel into pieces the size of Double Bubble gum pads. I am engrossed in this relic of the war and don’t look up until I hear the clunk-clunk of heavy doors closing in front of me. There is an ambulance in our driveway. One man in white throws the bolt securing the rear doors then joins his partner who is already in the driver’s seat.
The ambulance pulls out slowly, crunching gravel, no lights, no siren.
Teri sees me coming down the hill. She is the center of attention within a knot of neighbor kids her age, seven and eight. She dashes my way, her entourage trailing behind. Out of breath when she reaches me, she says, “Pat died, Mike. Pat’s dead.”
I am suddenly underwater. I watch my sister’s mouth move, see the other kids looking at me from above the surface, their faces distorted, their voices muffled. I can’t hear what they are saying. I have no air supply.
I need space. I need to breathe. I bat my arms and run, sprinting for the house. Dad catches me before I can dive through the front door.
“Stop,” he says.
I try to duck around him but he has me by the arm.
I flail at him.
“Stop,” he says.
He says, “Patty’s gone.”
I look up at him, my father. There is a weight bearing down upon him that I have never seen before. And this scares me.
“She needs some time.”
He turns me around and tells me, “Please, go play with your sister.” He steps behind the screen door, latches it and disappears into the house.
Play with my sister? Play?
Teri and her friends are waiting a few steps away. I walk past them.
“Where are you going?” Teri calls after me.
“I’m just going.” She starts to follow but I put up my hand, No.
Downhill from our place is the Teehan house. I cross their yard and walk to the barren baseball field at the Lutheran church where Wismer kids often gather to play ball or race bicycles. The field is deserted. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, the blue grenade still in my hand.
My brother, Patrick Lawrence Keefe, is dead.
Two and a half years old, a very sick child and yet I had never doubted that he would be with us forever. That was what my mother believed. I knew that for a fact. By God, she was going to keep him alive. Damn the doctors. She knew more than they did. Hadn’t she already proven them fools when they told her he’d be lucky to live six months?
With all my might, I heave the grenade into the sky. It comes down with a thud and a puff of dust a yard short of the batter’s box. I trudge over and pick it up. Why is it painted blue?
Up the block I can see Teri’s crowd running around in the Bayless’s driveway. Uphill neighbors. I can’t figure out what the kids are doing. Playing Tag maybe. It doesn’t seem right to me. But I don’t know what’s right, certainly not what I’m doing.
I loft the grenade again, this time out towards the shortstop position. When it hits the ground I make a soft explosion sound, gritting my teeth and puffing my cheeks. I realize I must sound like a six year old.
Back and forth I traipse, pitching the blue grenade every which way, round and round the infield until the sun begins to set, and my shoulder aches.
A late summer evening, three months after Pat died, Dad decides it’s time for a family outing, an excursion to Cahokia Downs on the other side of the river. He and mom are avid horse race fans. When he asks if she’s ready to lay down some bets, she says no, but encourages the family to go on without her.
“Are you sure you’ll be OK?” he asks her.
“I’ll be fine,” she says.
I’m not surprised that she declines. She’s turned him down on any number of invitations, even to simply take a drive out in the country for an hour.
Before the three of us leave, he sits on the sofa next to mom with a tip sheet on his lap and manages to sweet talk a Quinella pick out of her. There is a rabbit’s foot in her hand and she gives it a squeeze, winking at us kids. Teri and I give her a peck on the cheek and dash out to the car.
We motor across the bridge into East St. Louis while Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peggy Lee and Teresa Brewer serenade us from Dad’s favorite station at the lower end of the radio dial.
A mile from Cahokia, we can see the glow of its lights on the horizon, Disneyland for gamblers. My pulse kicks up a notch. I give the Daily Racing Form a last review and pass it over to Teri. She hands it back without looking. Horse selection to her is more a matter of feeling. She has to see the animal first. She reacts to a jockey’s silks, their patterns and color schemes. She also taps into certain vibrations coming to her from mysterious orbits beyond my comprehension. Mom and Teri both have some kind of gift that way. They’ve never claimed to be psychic. But what else would you call it?
The traffic piles up as we approach the racetrack. We turn into the gravel lot, stones popping in the wheel wells. An attendant flags us through and directs us to nose in next to a pickup that has an oil barrel barbecue pit welded to the truck bed. Dad starts to switch off the ignition but Teri stops him so she can listen to the last chorus of Rag Mop. R-A-G-G, M-O-P-P, Rag Mop!
I grab the Form and a paper sack filled with baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread with mustard and butter; one for me with mayonnaise only. Dad threw them together in the kitchen just before we left, each one wrapped in waxed paper. Teri and I bound out of the car and start to race for the gate. Dad stops us. “Hold up, kids.” He locks the car and heads to the right, away from the entrance. We follow him along the white fence that surrounds the track. He whistles one of his nonsense melodies. As the fence begins to bend, following the contours of the dirt oval inside, he stops and looks back toward the gate. We are now out of sight of the admission-paying public.
“I’m going to boost you up, Beanie Boy,” he says to me. “Then you help your sister over.”
“We’re going to climb the fence?” I ask, astonished.
“Neato,” says Teri.
Dad sets the binoculars — “blockears” as Teri and I call them — on the grass, then laces his fingers into a stirrup. I hand the bag and Racing Form to my sister and mount the fence. Straddling the crossbar, I cinch my heels against the planks for balance and brace myself as dad lifts Teri. I wrestle her over the top while she protests, “I can do it! I can do it!” Her legs pinwheel as I lower her to the ground. I pass all our gear to Teri. Then I drop down next to her while dad scrambles over.
I look around, embarrassed, sure that we’ve been spotted. But there is no one around, nobody to nail us and throw us out.
The grandstand is nearly full and brightly illuminated against the last lick of orange at the sky’s edge. Along the track, every thirty yards or so, stanchions rise to support banks of floodlights, clouded with moths. Teri seems energized by our unorthodox entry. I keep swiveling my head expecting a policeman to collar us.
“Ten minutes to post time,” the PA announces.
“We better hurry,” dad says. “You have any idea on the Double?”
“I want to see the horses,” Teri says.
“I know who I like in the second race, Dad,” I say. “This one is dropping in class to a fifteen thousand claimer. She’s been in a couple stakes races and her speed rating is 83.”
“Ogallala Sue. I know. Hinajosa’s aboard. I was leaning that way for awhile myself.”
“What do you think now, Dad?” Teri asks.
He taps the side of his head with his index finger. He’s not saying. “So, what do you two have for me?”
“I need to see the horses,” Teri says, more insistent.
We reach the paddock just as the thoroughbreds are prancing onto the track. Teri takes serious note of the horses’ hoof dances and lolling eyeballs. Then she sees a gray she knows, one of her favorites. “Push-My-Toe! I didn’t know he was in this race!”
“I gave you the Form,” I say, annoyed.
Dad leaves us at the rail as he goes to the window to place our bets. A two-dollar Daily Double wager for Teri and me on Push-My-Toe in the first and Ogallala Sue in the second. No telling how much or on which entries Dad has invested his money, or whether he’s laid down bills yet on mom’s Quinella.
When he returns, the horses are sashaying in circles around the gate, waiting to be led into their individual starting cages. He hands Teri our pari-mutuel ticket. We hike up into the stands and find an empty stretch of seats twenty rows back and fifty yards short of the finish line. Behind us sit a half-dozen people with identical body shapes, thin up top but bottom heavy, low centers of gravity. The men among them drink beer from paper cups and smoke cigars while the women drag on an endless train of menthol filters. I hate the smell. I’m used to dad’s Camels.
Behind the tobacco, I pick up the rich, loamy odor of the turf, recently turned and watered.
A bugle sounds the Call to Post.
Track attendants, dressed in white, lead the horses into the starting gate in order, beginning with the inside lane. The mounts shimmy and stall, back off, shy away, but are finally coaxed into their appropriate slots. When they are all in place, there are two or three seconds of silence. Then the bell rings, the gates burst open and the field bolts. Crops flail against chestnut flanks, roan and gray. The beasts dash for the rail, mud flying at crazy angles. We, in the stands, are on our feet, screaming, our voices collecting into a great roar.
The announcer calls the race over the PA system. “Red Buttons out by a length.” The animal mob flies by our place in the stands and flashes by the first furlong pole. It is too early to come to any conclusions about the race. Teri and I are veteran enough to know not to get too excited at this point. Anything can happen. A horse might lead wire-to-wire. Or a jock might hold his ride back for three-quarters of the race, measuring the field, taking inventory of his horse’s wind and strength, deciding when the moment is right to make a whip-frenzied charge for the money, only to fall short by a nose. We all know that it’s the final turn and the stretch run that will tell the story — payoff or bust.
Steadily, Push-My-Toe works his way up through the pack. This is his custom. Teri and I are on the balls of our feet, bouncing. I have doubts about her pick. Is he fresh? Has he been raced too much, trained too hard? But Teri, well short of ten years old, knows more about this one. I trust her instincts.
The pack appears tightly bunched rounding the last turn. I know this is an illusion, a foreshortening that seems to draw the horses together. Sure enough, as they come down the stretch, the pack stretches like taffy.
I leap up on my seat for a better view, whapping the Racing Form on my thigh. “Push-My-Toe, Push-My-Toe!” And right there in front of us is a muscular, gray creature, ghostly and rhythmic, making for the wire. Teri’s horse takes the honors going away. At long odds, no less.
The folks behind us grumble and rip Daily Double tickets into confetti.
To Teri, the outcome was inevitable. Her expression is serene. This was preordained in her mind. I don’t understand her methods. I consider myself a young man of science and I doubt there is a scientific explanation for what she does. I know how an atomic pile is assembled. I once checked out a text from the bookmobile that contained helpful pictures. I understand Bernoulli’s Principle, the basic tenet in the theory of aerodynamics. My sixth grade science project was based on Bernoulli and earned a blue ribbon. I understand the workings of the V-2 rocket. Werner von Braun’s face is familiar to me. The universe is a place that can be divined, reduced to fundamental equations. The Racing Form offers the raw numbers that can be weighed and compared and I can work with that. What I come up with, however, is generally what the handicappers on the street recommend: favorites, not outsiders like Push-My-Toe.
And so, Ogallala Sue leaves the gate at 7-2. She paces the second race and, in a photo finish, is shown to have triumphed by a nose. We have a winning ticket.
Dad is airborne. “My kids picked the Double!” The people behind us offer uniformly blank expressions. “My kids picked the Double!” Dad shouts again. One of the women goes into a hacking fit.
When the race is declared official and the numbers are flashed on the tote board, Teri and I grab each other, hopping as if on pogo sticks. On a two dollar ticket, the Daily Double — Push-My-Toe in the first race and Ogallala Sue in the second — pays $309. Dad is already on his way to the cashier.
We stay for the full slate of racing without further luck. Dad doesn’t say anything about Mom’s Quinella. We’d have heard if there’d been good news.
On our way home, we stop at Trio Burger for vanilla shakes and onion rings. A celebration. “Three hundred and nine dollars!” Everybody is hungry and our bag of baloney sandwiches was left, abandoned, behind my seat at Cahokia.
“Three hundred and nine dollars!”
When we walk through the front door, Teri calls out, “Mom, we won the Double!”
I spot a Ruby Port wine bottle lying next to the couch, a third of its contents spilled out on the floor. Dad jolts for the bedroom. We hear mom retching. He helps her across the hall to the bathroom where she continues to be sick.
“What’s wrong with her?” Teri asks me. I shrug my shoulders.
Dad stays with mom until she has emptied her stomach, then helps her back to bed. He comes out into the living room where Teri and I are waiting, anxious.
“She’s going to be fine,” he says.
In his open palm lies an empty prescription drug container.
A native of Santa Rosa, California, Mike Keefe grew up in St. Louis and attended the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri. After a break that included service in the United States Marine Corps, Keefe transferred to UMKC where he earned a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics. (’73, ’74)
While at UMKC he drew political cartoons for the U-News. He was lured away from math by The Denver Post in 1975 and spent the next 36 years as a contributing member of the newspaper’s editorial board. In 2011, Mike Keefe won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.
Throughout the nineties he was a weekly contributor to USA Today and a regular on America Online. Nationally syndicated, his cartoons have appeared in Time, Newsweek, Business Week, US News and World Report, The New York Times, The Washington Post and hundreds of newspapers across the country.
Keefe served as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and is a former John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Among other honors, he’s won the National Headliner’s Award, Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award, The Best of the West Journalism Contest and the Fischetti Cartoon Competition. He is married with two grown children and plays guitar regularly with oldies rock bands.
His cartoons can be viewed online at www.intoon.com