All around the cavernous room of the Cal-Expo off-track betting,
TVs blare simulcast as the crowd in jeans and sloppy sweatshirts
treks to the betting windows, trampling an autumn’s worth of losing tickets.
The old man doesn’t miss the emerald grass and red geraniums,
the women with big hats at Churchill Downs. He never tasted a mint julep
as the mahogany horses stepped out like carved statues.
And he doesn’t mind the smell of stale beer or the damp cold
that seeps through his jacket and stiffens his already stiff hands.
He’s spent weeks lying on his bed in the board and care
waiting for this moment when Zenyatta, the mare who never lost a race,
called in The Times “the coolest horse in the world,”
goes for twenty out of twenty. So the only question is who to place,
who to show, to make a trifecta that will bring back the days
when he skipped out on grinding afternoons at the dry cleaner’s,
sweating at the mangle, saturated with solvent fumes,
as he bagged woollen coats and linen dresses and the jockeys’ silks—
gleaming pinks, buttercup yellows, and aquamarines.
When they picked up their colors, they slipped him tips on who was hot,
and he’d escape to the track at Aqueduct to see those myths of muscle,
flanks quivering, flashing their tails. And now and then he’d score,
gather up the family and head to Chinatown for lobster with black bean-sauce.
Once he even took them to Lancaster to see the Amish in their buggies,
their aprons and little white hats. But you could write the story
of all the paychecks fed like hay to the horses.
And he’ll lose this one, too. In the final stretch,
Blame, a homebred chestnut colt in the lead.
Mike Smith up on Zenyatta closing hard, going to the whip.

More by Ellen Bass

Basket of Figs

Bring me your pain, love. Spread 
it out like fine rugs, silk sashes, 
warm eggs, cinnamon
and cloves in burlap sacks. Show me

the detail, the intricate embroidery 
on the collar, tiny shell buttons, 
the hem stitched the way you were taught,
pricking just a thread, almost invisible.

Unclasp it like jewels, the gold 
still hot from your body. Empty 
your basket of figs. Spill your wine.

That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it, 
cradling it on my tongue like the slick 
seed of pomegranate. I would lift it

tenderly, as a great animal might 
carry a small one in the private 
cave of the mouth.

Eating the Bones

The women in my family
strip the succulent
flesh from broiled chicken,
scrape the drumstick clean;
bite off the cartilage chew the gristle, 
crush the porous swellings
at the ends of each slender baton.
With strong molars
they split the tibia, sucking out
the dense marrow. 
They use up love, they swallow 
every dark grain,
so at the end there's nothing left,
a scant pile of splinters
on the empty white plate.

Waiting for Rain

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking. Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse.
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.