In addition to being a lifelong gambler, my father fancied himself as something of a horse-racing historian. He owned a number of books about racing history, and he studied them primarily when we were on the road or when he was between jobs. He occasionally interrupted my homework time if there was something he wanted me to see, and I did like the pictures of any race on a sloppy track, the way the powerful photography held the mass of hard-running horses in place. One Christmas he bought me a used hardcover book called A History of Horse Racing in America. It must have been on sale because the binding was worn and the cover itself was put on backwards; when you opened it, you were already at the end. And the pages were upside down. You had to flip the whole thing over, and then it all made sense.
At one point in our lives my parents and I lived in a little town outside Tampa called Ibor City. Prior to that we had been in Birmingham, Alabama, which had been an unlucky place. It was my mother's idea that we try a new town, and they decided on a place close to Tampa, where there was a horse track, something my father preferred to the dogs. That's all there was in Birmingham—dogs and dog-racing. What I mean by this is that we knew he would never quit gambling. This was what my mother must have liked about him the most. Anyway, after we moved near Tampa, things began to look up. My father found a job as a parking valet at Burgundy's Italian Restaurant. My mother got a job, too. She worked inventory, counted boxes at a rubber-band factory in Ibor City. She took a bus to work; they both did. Then, out of nowhere, he had one of the biggest scores of his life. My father bet $600 to win on some 17-1 shot named Bowl Game that came in for him at Tampa Downs. A $600 bet was huge for us, so my father had been either very confident or very desperate. With part of the [End Page 505] proceeds, he bought an old goat of a car, a maroon Eldorado, from an ex-jockey named Sandy Paultz.
My parents, whose names were Lyle and Eleanor Moynahan, split up on any number of occasions; and, not long after he bought the Eldo, he left again. He went to Jacksonville, wound up as a waiter at a popular Mexican restaurant. He liked jobs that involved tips. From Jacksonville he called for us to join him, and after a while we did. When I was seventeen, I flew the coop myself, heading for Louisville to join a horse stable, and this was where my own complications began. I didn't see my parents as much after that, though I guessed they settled down some. For years they would stay together in a little apartment in St. Augustine, where each of them waited tables. Just south of there was a simulcast parlor where my father could bet on horse races from all across the country.
About two weeks after he had driven the Eldo home for the first time, my father returned to our little apartment soon after eleven, which was usual. He wore his red valet's vest. My mother and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV, David Letterman talking with Isabella Rossellini. I was almost thirteen, and the couch was a fold-out bed where I slept. My mother liked for him to see that we were both waiting. Maybe for him to see that he was worth waiting for. He needed to be reassured of so many things, though I have learned since that this is not exceptional with gamblers.
My father closed the door and stood near the doorway for a time. "Go get your book, Denny," he said. "Your history . . ."
I was already on my feet. I knew what he meant. I used their room for studying, when I actually studied. The TV was too big a distraction, and...