SARATOGA SPRINGS was stoic as the Statue of Liberty with Grace Kelly’s face and the body of Bettie Page. That’s the way Belly O’Leary thought of his town, like she was a woman in a Greek robe, to be revered. He stared out the big tinted front window of the Greyhound bus as it hobbled north on Route 9, down the long line of motels that sat hungry all winter and grew fat with tourists in the summer. They were fat now. August. Cars streamed out the little roundabouts and bled onto the highway.
August changed the face of Saratoga, from Grace Kelly to something a little brassier. Kim Novak, maybe, or any of the girls on the Alberto Vargas cards his father used to keep hidden in his sock drawer. For one month a year, she was a woman with a bad dye job and too much makeup, and this was the town he was coming home to in 2001; this was the lady welcoming him back.
Only he didn’t recognize her. Where once green fields graced the sides of the highway, glass-box office buildings now rose like the great pyramids. Traffic and strip malls and smog choked the last promising stretches of hillside that used to hug the town.
The closer he got to home, the sicker he felt. A moan rumbled in his solar plexus. He recognized it as heartache. He was returning two years early to his hometown, four instead of six, his sentence commuted for good behavior—something he’d never been accused of in his life. He worried now he was back too soon. The town wasn’t ready for him. He’d walk in on her with another man. He’d catch her in a lie.
For four years he’d kept quiet in a cinder-block cell, waiting to hear from his old mistress, Loretta, waiting for word from their colleagues at the New York Racing Association. They’d advised him not to talk. They’d sent Loretta to the courtroom to remind him, quietly, with a hand pressing gently on his shoulder, that two of his three remaining daughters still lived in this town. Loretta with her lips twisted into that sideways life-threatening smile, walking off with his unmarked $172,000 stashed in her fake Hermès Kelly bag.
He half imagined her waiting for him, his midwestern princess, at the bus station now, opening her arms to him, opening the sack of cash, pulling out from her cleavage a shiny gold key to a small office at the back of City Hall, where the NYRA boys and the Republican chairman would offer him cigars and checks bubbling with zeroes and shake his hand for not giving up their names. But he only wanted to see Loretta in his fantasies.
The bus pulled up to Springway Diner and squeaked to a stop. He sat there, in seat 3C, the other passengers milling about, collecting their things, getting up to stretch as the driver turned off the engine and announced a twenty-minute rest before continuing on to Montreal. He sat there and thought about what the prison doctor had told him after his release physical: no salt or cigarettes or alcohol, nothing that might raise his blood pressure. He wanted all of those things now, anything to calm the erratic beating of his heart, to lengthen his short breath. His hands shook. Only two other times in his life had he been this nervous, so nervous it burned, it was something that had to be doused: at his wedding and then, twenty years later, at his third daughter’s funeral. Both those times, and now, he just wanted the moment to melt away, to have already happened. He wanted to turn around and see the hard times behind him.
He stepped off the bus into a blast of heat that surrounded him like an embrace. He’d left a dewy, cool Pennsylvania that morning for this: a thick stew of atmosphere, the air heavy and wet, and he was at that moment so very tired. Across the street from the bus stop were new stores and crummy old motels with new paint jobs and the road sparkled with new, dark tar. His oldest daughter, Nora, was not waiting for him. No one was. He looked at the strangers and tourists loitering on the concrete outside: Who the hell are all you people and what have you done with my town?
This used to be a twenty-four-day town, Belly thought. He remembered the queer quiet just before the racetrack opened each summer, the whole town preparing for the rain, the reign, of tourists to descend. It was like that every year: upscale specialty shops selling fancy linens and New Age chachkas and glossy horse paintings bloomed on Broadway, only to wither once track season ended. But now, since he’d been away, the racetrack stayed open almost twice as long, reaching back into July and stretching all the way to Labor Day. A season of horse racing straddled the town, scarring it up for the rest of the year, just like what they used to say in AA: one foot in tomorrow, one foot in yesterday, and you’re pissing all over today.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the air-conditioned paradise of the perfectly preserved Springway Diner, to wait for Nora. The same greasy red booths, the same metallic wallpaper with flowers of orange and brown. The walls were plastered with black-and-white photographs of the grumpy old Greek who owned the place standing with celebrities—Liza Minnelli, Bob Dylan, some short guy with huge glasses Belly recognized but could not recall—who passed through on their way to SPAC, the performing arts center in the state park. In every picture, they held up a big white cake with strawberries dotting the top, the Greek’s smile wide and white as the frosting. In every picture, the same Greek and the same white cake, and it seemed like this was the only thing in Saratoga that had not changed: cake.
He realized now this would not be easy. The whole time he was in, he just wanted to be out; the whole time he was away, he just wanted to be home, but now he stood on the horrible bridge between his two worlds, stretching like a big grin between his old town and what it had become. He stepped into the bathroom and checked himself in the mirror. A face returned his gaze, a countenance surprisingly unchanged, just grayer, somehow, the skin looser around the curve of his jaws. Someday, he realized, jowls would swing at his neck, but for now, for now, he could pass. The fifteen-hundred-some nights spent in a cell with two other men, in a pod with three other cells—the stress of all that time hadn’t surfaced. He put his hands in his pockets and did something he hadn’t done since the days of high school dances: he winked at himself. He watched the lid close over one icy-blue eye, watched his right side grow dark, then lifted the lid and let the light back in. He decided he could pass for forty-five of his fifty-nine years, and he nodded at himself and stepped out.
He made his way back toward the door, looking over the counter at the desserts for the big white cake, but he saw only the same sorry pies they’d always carried. They looked like home, those crushed-in tops and browned meringue, and he decided to buy one for Nora and the kids, if they ever showed up to retrieve him. That seemed like the right thing to do in a situation like this. He had no one to ask.
The waitress met him at the counter. “Can I get one of those pies?” he asked her. She was a fine-looking woman, or girl; he couldn’t remember what you were supposed to call them anymore.
“Which?” she said, and he didn’t know one from the other so he just said, “Lemon,” and she took it down from the display and wrapped it in a pink box.
“It’s eight seventy-five,” she said, not looking at him.
He had one crisp twenty-dollar bill and a couple of ones crumpled in his pocket: all his money in the world. He would buy something for his family first, then he would get himself something he’d been waiting four years to wrap his fingers around. “Give me that lighter,” he said. He’d been scrounging for matches for four years, and with the power of lightning in his hand, the weight of change in his pocket, he was half Thor, half Donald Trump, sans combover. “And some Newports,” he added. It would be great to even have a box top after all those smuggled-in soft packs with the cigarettes smooshed.
“What color?” she asked, and he pointed to the red lighter.
He flicked and flicked, but he could not light the thing.
“Hey, miss, I think this lighter’s broken.”
The waitress turned around from the society section of the Saratogian and took the lighter from him. She pushed a microscopic lever on the back and rolled the gear till it lit. “Childproof,” she said, handing it back to him.
Belly took it from her, but he just stood there holding it in his hand.
“You just get off the bus?” she asked, finally looking straight at him as she rolled a penny between her fingers. Her nails were an inch long, painted with palm trees, and she’d written “cat food” on the back of her hand with a ballpoint pen.
“Where you from?”
She was staring at him now, all the youth of her taking in his age.
“I’m from here. I’ve been gone four years. I just came back from Pennsylvania.”
“Prison,” he said, watching her. She didn’t even flinch.
A little flash erupted in the general area of her eyes, some curl around her brows and raising of the lids that made him think he’d been recognized. “Well, since you’ve been in, they made these new childproof lighters with these little buttons and stuff you have to push.” She took the lighter back, her nails lightly scratching his fingers, showed him the tiny piece of metal. “But you can get rid of it.” She pressed her thumb against it, and off popped the lever. She handed it back to him, circumcised.
He looked at her. She might still be in her twenties if he was lucky. Her name tag said “Maybelline.”
“Named after the Chuck Berry song?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “The makeup company.”
Maybelline didn’t look too bad. Lots of orange hair, curlied up and shiny, like copper. And her skin was kind of coppery, too, all metallic with goop. He looked at all that orange on her and thought about the business Nora used to have on Caroline Street, Everything Pumpkin, that sold food and clothes and anything orange. Maybelline could have been a mannequin there.
“You work here long?” he asked, shuffling his feet a little. He’d been wearing jail shoes—Velcro-and-canvas sneakers—these four years, and his cowboy boots weighed about a million pounds, mashing up his toes at the pointy fronts.
“Not too long.” She took out a straw, unwrapped its white paper shroud. “I used to work at the Stewart’s on Route 50 but things got kind of slow, so I came to work here.” Then she took the straw between her lips, blew air through it, nibbled on it with her teeth.
She smiled and he turned to look behind him, but no one was there.
She said, “That’s what I thought,” and she reached out to shake his hand, wrapped her soft fingers around his callused knuckles, and let them remain just a second too long. Her fingertips were cold and the rest of her hand was warm and kind of clammy: he could incubate there. Something could grow.
How do you know, he wondered, how do you tell if the woman wants you or is just playing with you or if that’s just how she is? He was so out of practice, all his flirting skills dormant and foreign, but he kept looking at her, and she kept looking back at him, and he thought, Maybe, maybe. He looked at her orange-tinted lips and thought, Maybe.
He packed the Newports, peeled open the wrapper, and popped open the top and offered her one, and when she took it, he said, “You want to go out sometime?”
She nodded. “Sure.”
“You want to go out tonight, maybe?”
Finally, that stinging feeling of nervousness began to float away.
“What time do you get off?”
“Six,” she said, tossing the straw in the wastebasket.
He asked her if Ruffian’s was still open and held his breath while she rolled her eyes back to search her memory, and when she said, “I guess it’s there,” he exhaled.
“Maybelline,” he said, “I will meet you there at six.” She handed him her phone number on the back of a Springway Diner business card. He tried not to smile, but a big dumb grin erupted on his face. He thought of that one dead tooth, that brown bicuspid poking from the side of his mouth, and he hoped she couldn’t see it. She sashayed back to work, and he watched her ass move in acid-wash jeans, and he changed his mind: everything would be fine, easy as pie.