SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT THE RACES

Joan Stephens


Slowly the wispy fog of sleep receded as Vincent opened his eyes to a bright sunny afternoon. Languidly he stretched, then cautiously rose to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, careful not to disrupt the sleep of his bed-companion. After the vigorous night he and Catherine had spent loving each other until they were exhausted, he didnít want to disturb her. She needed her rest.

Ah, the joy of waking up to sunshine never failed to enthrall him, and he breathed in the sun-warmed air, drawing it deeply into his lungs. He wondered what it was about air that was heated by the sun that made it smell so wonderfully different. He took another deep draught of air as a pair of soft arms snaked around him.

"Good morning," a drowsy voice whispered against his bare back. The soft flow of her breath made goose pimples rise on his skin.

"Good morning? My dear," he drawled, "it is afternoon, 1:11 to be exact."

"Do you have to be somewhere special?" she asked, a contented smile in her voice.

"No. No, I donít. Iím where I want to be" She squeezed him tightly. "Did you sleep well?" he inquired.

Her cheek moved against his back as she nodded, saying, "I di . . ." Quickly she changed her words to, "I slept like a log," when she felt him begin to tense up. Since his illness and her supposed death, the mention of the word death or its like could throw a pall of gloom over him that took her best efforts to lighten. "And you?" she asked lightly.

"I slept like a log also. And there were no dreams."

"All of our dreams have come true, Vincent. We donít need to dream any more." Her stomach rumbled loud and long. She giggled in embarrassment "I think my stomach is trying to tell me itís hungry, are you?"

Quickly he spun around, catching her unaware, and before she knew it, he had her pinned to the mattress. "Yes, ravenous but first, I want a kiss, and then I will let you cook breakfast for me."

"I thought maybe you were hungry for me," she pouted.

"Later, my love. We have all weekend, you know."

Releasing her, he beat her to the bathroom. When he emerged, she was nowhere to be found. Noises from the kitchen area told him she was busy fixing their brunch. After he was dressed, he meandered into the kitchen and was promptly handed a fork. "Watch the bacon, please," she said and hurried toward the bathroom.

*

Leaning back in his chair, replete from the delicious large quiche Catherine had whipped up from eggs, bacon, cheese, and spinach, he let out a great sigh. She had proudly informed him that this was one dish that she could cook to perfection, and he had to agree with her; it was delicious. He sighed contentedly, thankful that he had no demanding task waiting for him. The way he felt now, he wouldnít be able to do it.

"Go on, Vincent; Iíll clean up. Go and vegetate in the living room. Maybe you can find something interesting on TV."

Coming up behind her with a plate and cup in hand, he reached around her to set them on the counter. He nibbled on her ear, and she did a little dance as shivers ran down her spine. "Stop that," she squealed. "If I break a dish, Iíll make you pay for it."

He spread his hands widely. "I have no money. How would I pay for it?" He grinned impudently at her.

"Oh, Iíd think of something," she answered in the same manner. "Now go. Let me get the dishes done." She pushed him in the direction of the living room.

With feigned resignation, he slowly wandered into the other roomĖhe didnít really want to do the dishes, anyway--and picked up the remote. To the sound of clattering dishes, he started, as most men, to channel surf. Dismayed at what was being shown on the various channels, he was about to shut the TV off when he chanced upon a channel airing a horse race, not flat racing but the kind called harness racing. "Beautiful," he murmured.

Coming from the kitchen, Catherine had heard him. "I know you think Iím beautiful, but youíre going to give me a big head if youíre not careful," she quipped with a laugh.

Smiling, he glanced over his shoulder at her and, taking her hand, pulled her around the end of the couch to sit beside him. "Sorry, my dear, but this time I meant the horses."

"Oh! Pacers!" she exclaimed, seeing the horses pacing around the track. "Arenít they lovely?"

It was a rhetorical question, requiring no answer and he gave none.

She continued, "My great-grandfather had a portrait of Dan Patch in his den. He was a great harness racing enthusiast."

"Dan Patch?"

"Yes, he is the most famous pacer that ever lived. He could beat a regular race horse, and he set the world pacing record of 1:55 1/4 for a mile that lasted until 1938. He was never beaten and had to race against the clock as no one would run their horses against him."

Closely watching the horses, Vincent asked, "Why do they call it pacing?"

She leaned back into the corner of the sofa and proceeded to educate him, sounding as if she had memorized the information. "Harness racing horses are called Standardbreds and are grouped into two divisions: those that trot, and those that pace. Pacers move their legs laterally: right front and right hind, then left front and left hind striking the ground at the same time, and usually, but not always, wear Ďpacing hobbles,í while trotters move their legs diagonally: right front and left hind, then left front and right hind striking the ground simultaneously. Trotters race with trotters and pacers with pacers. The majority of races are pacing races as they comprise 80% of the harness racers in North America." Enthusiastically, she pulled her legs under her and watched the unfolding horse race.

"Where did you learn so much about harness racing?" Vincent asked.

"Horse racing of any kind has been called the sport of kings. My great-grandfather was a wealthy man and could afford to dabble in racing. He owned a few pacers that Dan Patch defeated handily. Naturally, my grandfather learned about harness racing from him and passed the love of it onto my father. But my father preferred the trotters to the pacers. We would go to DuQuoin, Illinois for the Hambletonian whenever my dad could find the time. It is held on the first Saturday of August, and I was out of school; so, I could go with him. It was easier on us when it moved to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Then we went every year. Itís so exciting and beautiful to see those horses trotting around the race track. Itís always amazed me that they can run almost as fast as regular race horses. You wouldnít think that they could."

"It sounds as if you inherited your ancestorsí love of harness racing," he said, smiling. His Catherine was so complicated; almost every day he learned something new about her. He never would have imagined that she loved horse racing.

"Oh, I have. I love to watch them racing around the oval track, their legs moving like pistons. And the sound as their hooves strike the ground is thrilling; itís almost like drumming. I havenít had much time lately to go to the track, but when I do, itís because of the beauty of the racing horses not the betting." Then she had what she thought was a brilliant idea, "Vincent, letís place bets with each other. That would be so much fun."

He nodded, captured by her exuberance. "What would we use to bet with?" he asked, a glimmer of an idea coming to him.

"I think Iíve got some chips or maybe some match sticks somewhere in the apartment."

"I have a better idea," he said smugly.

"What?"

"Kisses and hugs."

"Oh, Vincent," she clapped her hands gaily, "thatís perfect."

For the rest of the afternoon, they watched the races, betting against each other. Whatever method he used, he refused to divulge to Catherine and won most of the bets handily. When the TV was finally turned off because the races were over, and they were hungry again but not for food, Catherine owed him several hundred kisses and around a thousand hugs. Not a bad day of betting, she thought as she imagined all the places she could redeem her debt.

*

Just before Vincent had turned off the TV, a picture of Dan Patch had been shown on the screen as the announcer gave a brief history of harness racing and the importance of good breeding. Along with Hambletonian 10, Dan Patch was a fertile stud and many of the current horses could trace their ancestry directly to him.

Catherine said, "That picture is very similar to the portrait of Dan Patch that hangs proudly in my dadís den in his house. It was handed down from my great-grandfather to my grandfather and then to my dad." Excitedly, she turned to grab Vincentís hands. "Oh, Vincent, I just had a wonderful thought, I want you to have the portrait."

"No, Catherine," he demurred. "It belongs in your family."

"But you are my family, Vincent. I have no other. It goes to you to be hung Below where I know it will be safe." The finality in her voice convinced him that it would be useless to argue with her, and he graciously bowed his head as he accepted her gift.

Two weeks later the portrait of the great Dan Patch hung beside Kristopherís painting of the two lovers in Vincentís chamber, another tangible sign of her love for him.

Fini