Back in high school, December 26th was the most exciting day of the year because that is the day that Santa Anita Racetrack opens their winter meeting.
And they give out free calendars with racehorse pictures in them.
It was a yearly ritual. Mike, Kathy and I would hop into Bruce’s old green Chevelle with the dented grill and the one hubcap early, early in the morning because we had to get to the track before the calendars ran out. Besides, there were a few stops to make on the way. First, Keystone Liquor store to buy a Racing Form. Bruce was the best at actually reading a Racing Form. The rest of us would mostly hold it up in front of our faces and nod knowingly.
Then a stop at Butcher Block Meats to get some deli sandwiches for the long trip to Arcadia. Bruce always had to get turkey and avocado. I always tried to talk him out of the avocado, but he was insistent. And, granted, I hated avocados at that time (I have since seen the error of my ways), but my reasons were valid. Because every year Bruce would get a turkey and avocado sandwich and every year he would drop avocado in his lap while he was driving. Then I, because I was sitting shotgun, would have to try and retrieve it.
It went something like this:
Bruce: (Munch, munch, munch) Oops.
Me: Did you drop the avocado again?
Bruce: No, I think it was some of the turkey. And the bottom slice of bread. (Bends his head to look.)
Me: No, no, watch the road. I’ll get it. (Probing in his lap for slippery and, at that time, despised avocado.)
Bruce: That’s not part of the sandwich!
Meanwhile, Mike would be in the backseat perusing the horses for the first race. Just in case we actually got there in time for the first race. “Who are you going to vote for?”
“Bet,” Kathy would correct him. “Bet on the horses.”
Everyone laughs, including Mike.
“But, really, who are you going to vote for?”
Mike never did quite figure out the difference between horse racing and elections.
By the time we got the voting and the avocados figured out, we would be exiting the freeway in Rosemead. This was the most perilous part of the trip. Because Rosemead is full of…Rosemeadians.
Now I’m sure most of the residents of Rosemead are fine, upstanding citizens. I even met a lady from Rosemead once and she was great.
Rosemeadians are another matter altogether.
You see, one year, on our way to Santa Anita, we noticed that the trees in Rosemead had been recently pruned. Not just trimmed, but chopped to within an inch of their lives. Just trunks sticking up with amputated limbs a foot long here and there. Now why on earth would you cut back those poor trees so severely?
It follows that there must have been something living in those trees that the people of Rosemead wanted to keep an eye on. Some kind of fearsome, top-knotted creatures with foot long toenails and roses growing under their armpits.
Okay, never mind.
Anyway, we’d make it through Rosemead alive, get our calendars and spend the rest of the day losing money. None of us were actually old enough to bet, but Bruce had an awesome mustache (he’d had a mustache since eighth grade. Well, almost a mustache. He got an A for effort anyway.) He’d make his wagers in the offhand bored way that long time horseplayers do and no one ever carded him.
The deal was that whoever won the most money had to buy dinner for the rest of us. Since we hardly ever won enough to break even, we usually relied on Bruce to have an emergency twenty hidden in his shoe. We’d stop at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, ironically back in Rosemead, on the way home and relive the day over hot fudge sundaes, dreaming of the next year when we were going to win big.
But time passes.
Santa Anita opened Monday, just as it always does. They gave out calendars, just as they always do, but we weren’t there. Bruce and Mike are both gone now and I haven’t seen Kathy in years.
I don’t know why Christmas stories are always so bittersweet. Maybe it’s the time of year, when life is ebbing and hoping for renewal. Maybe it’s because good times can’t last forever. Whatever it is, it’s tough writing stories about dead people.
Bruce, Mike, Merry Day After Christmas, wherever you are. Mr. Commons won the Malibu Stakes on Opening Day.
He was the one I was voting for.