Mike Keefe’s award-winning retrospective on life’s most difficult times, part 2

Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Keefe of Denver, Colorado, is a baby boomer with a gift. Not only was he the longtime editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post and a frequent contributor to USA Today among others, but he is gifted with the talent of a creative writer. Yesterday, BoomerCafé published Part I of Mike’s short story, Blue Grenade, which was both touching and true. Today, Part II of the piece that just won the 2014 Non-Fiction award at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

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.

Mike Keefe as a child  in 1948 with his parents.

Mike Keefe as a child in 1948 with his parents.

“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.

race_horsesDad 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.

Cahokia Downs … long ago.

Cahokia Downs … long ago.

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.

Mike Keefe, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post and award winning writer.

Mike Keefe, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post and award winning writer.

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.


  1. Potent penmanship. Isn’t it a blessing that your life has spanned from those
    times to where you are now? This is barely a nibble of family history stories.
    Maybe I should venture in! Better yet, you should write your memoir.

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