Andy Plattner

Hot Springs

As I was look­ing over my pro­gram, I heard a woman’s voice say my name. I took a sec­ond before I said, “Catherine.” Then, I looked up. “This is my friend Darren,” she said. The man stand­ing next to her nod­ded. Beyond the panes of the glassed-in grand­stand, win­ter sun­light bright­ened the dingy white rails of the rac­ing oval. This was the sec­ond day of the meet. The day before, I’d seen Catherine–whose nick­name was Chick when I’d been dat­ing her–sitting with this guy.

I had Denice Bejarano with me and I kept away from them. Today I was by myself and I want­ed to sit clos­er. A year and a half ago, when Chick and I were shar­ing a motel room in Lafayette, Louisiana, she stole three grand from me. She took the mon­ey and split, left me a note that said she’d gone to Memphis to get an abor­tion. But it was all smoke. I didn’t want to raise a fam­i­ly. I would have dri­ven her to Memphis myself.

I said, “You doing any good?”

Darren looked mid-for­ties, old­er than her by a decade. Tall man with gray at his tem­ples. Chick was tall, too, and she wore a snug dress with a green and blue pat­tern. Maybe she wasn’t work­ing on the back­stretch any more. She took his arm and they smiled at one anoth­er. “I’m the horse­play­er,” she said. Their hands were clean of rings. “How about you?” she said.

Start of a meet, I’m just try­ing to see what the trends are.”

Of course,” she said.

I held over my pro­gram. “Here, mark it for me.” I was smil­ing, I didn’t know if Darren under­stood. Chick hes­i­tat­ed, then she took the pro­gram and began to look through the pages. The third race was com­ing up.

She turned to check the elec­tron­ic odds board, which was out in the infield. The grass there was kha­ki and dry and the dog­wood trees along the back­stretch were not yet in bloom. “I do have a cou­ple of hors­es I like,” she said. “Pen, sweet­heart.” I knew that she was not talk­ing to me, so I didn’t move. Darren tapped at his waist. She reached for his shirt pock­et.

Chick wrote on a page of the pro­gram. “I work at the barns back there,” I said to Darren. “Assistant fore­man. We just shipped in to Arkansas from New Mexico.” I under­stood that Chick was lis­ten­ing. I wasn’t assis­tant any­thing. I was a groom for a train­er named Forster who’d just run out on a bunch of bills in Albuquerque. I shipped to Hot Springs with Denice,  a woman I knew just well enough. She had been mar­ried to the same guy for twen­ty years, but it had bro­ken up. Back in the Q, she worked at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, though she had recent­ly lost her job there. At night, she went to some of the same bars I did. We got along well, espe­cial­ly at night, and one of the things she said she liked about me was that I was not a “bag­gage guy” and that I seemed like a bit of a badass. On a lark, she decid­ed to try Hot Springs. But, she hedged her bets. She was keep­ing up the rent on the apart­ment she had back in Albuquerque.

Maybe you ought to be giv­ing tips to us,” Darren said, though there had been a long moment where no one had said a word. Darren didn’t look com­plete­ly stu­pid, per­haps he fig­ured I want­ed some­thing. I prob­a­bly looked like a bot­tom feed­er to him.

The hors­es we have … ” I said. Then, I stopped and I shook my head once, which I thought Chick could see from the cor­ner of her eye. “Probably going to be a long win­ter.” It didn’t hurt to acknowl­edge it, not right then.

Chick closed the pro­gram, held it over to me. She recapped the pen and stuck it in Darren’s shirt pock­et. He looked hap­py about some­thing. Chick wore more make-up than I remem­bered and she seemed calm.  I opened the pro­gram, nod­ded my head, turned a page, then anoth­er. “I’ll keep an eye on these,” I said.

No promis­es,” she said. “Right, Darren?”

Not at this place,” he said. I glanced in his direc­tion then. He didn’t appear to be a race­track­er, I guessed he might be a horse own­er. They were clue­less, only in a dif­fer­ent way. He and I watched one anoth­er and I couldn’t tell what she had told him or what she had need­ed to. I under­stood this was as close as they want­ed me to be. Maybe they were in love.

No,” I said. “Not here.” In the pro­gram, where the hors­es for the sixth race were list­ed, Chick had writ­ten a phone num­ber. I closed the pro­gram, waved it, said, “Advice is always wel­come.”

We want­ed to say hi,” she said. “Didn’t want you to think I didn’t know you.”

Good luck,” he said.

Good luck,” I said.

Chick twid­dled her fin­gers in my direc­tion, took his arm, and they turned and moved along. They must’ve gone to a beer stand or the oys­ter bar near the track gift shop because they did not return to their box seats for a time. I focused on the races, though I hadn’t brought enough cash to play in a mean­ing­ful way. I hadn’t shipped over here with much. In the past, I had worked for big­ger sta­bles, though I was just a num­ber there. I had ideas about cer­tain hors­es, but I couldn’t get my supe­ri­ors to lis­ten. Those out­fits always paid on time. The guy I worked for now, he gave us our wages in cash–when he had it. He was always open to sug­ges­tions, had said as much to me. I guessed there was a vari­ety of ways that could’ve been inter­pret­ed, but I knew if I could spot an angle, we all would ben­e­fit. Chick and Darren returned to their box right after the fifth and I stayed for one more race. I didn’t catch either of them look­ing my way again.

I didn’t feel like hang­ing around for the fea­ture. My con­cen­tra­tion wasn’t what it need­ed to be and besides there were plen­ty of race days ahead. I stood up, walked down to the ground floor lev­el and out through the turn­stiles for my trusty Chevy Celebrity. I turned on the radio, already had it tuned to a clas­sic rock station–not that there were a lot of options–and drove up the road a mile to my motel, the Cottonland Arms. I pulled into the slip right out­side the room, stuck my key into the knob, turned it, opened the door, saw Denice stand­ing at the mir­ror over the sink at the far end of the room. She was just out of the show­er, wore a tow­el around her head and anoth­er around her tor­so. She must’ve heard me pull up because she didn’t turn, sim­ply watched me in the mir­ror. The Celeb’s engine did have a ping–it made me think of the gui­tar intro for “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. In the trash­bas­ket by the TV stand, there was an emp­ty can of Raid, which I hoped had done its job. Yesterday, we’d seen a spi­der in the room. It  crawled out from under the bed right after I returned from my morn­ing shift. It was small­er than the palm of my hand and it was a pret­ty nasty look­ing thing. I dropped a phone book on it. Denice want­ed to com­plain to the man­ag­er. I told her this would be a waste of time and instead we drove around until we found a can of Raid strong enough to kill scor­pi­ons. I dropped her off at a bar close to our motel, then went to spray our room. A room like this always took some break­ing in. I blast­ed every­thing, the base of the walls, the cor­ners, the thresh­old of the door.

Just across from the foot of the bed was a bureau with a rec­tan­gu­lar mir­ror hang­ing above it. Motel rooms gen­er­al­ly have lights that are too bright and there are too many mir­rors over­all but there’s noth­ing you can do about it. I watched my reflec­tion in this one as I said, “Saw an old friend who owes me a few thou­sand. I think they’re good for it.”

Really.”

I shrugged. “Yeah,” I said. “I caught ‘em at a good time it looks like.”

Them?”

Her. The one I was kind of watch­ing yes­ter­day.”

Denice did not say any­thing.

I said, “I think that’s the key to every­thing, just catch­ing peo­ple at the right time.” I took out my cell phone, con­sult­ed the num­ber Chick had writ­ten in my rac­ing pro­gram. I texted her: can we talk. Denice sat down next to me and I held up the pro­gram, point­ed to the num­ber. She had tak­en the tow­el from her head. She had curly, brown-gray hair and it was wet and metal­lic-look­ing now. The skin under her col­lar­bones was freck­led and faint­ly wrin­kled. Chick prob­a­bly had giv­en me the num­ber of a local dia­per ser­vice. I didn’t say this–a bad joke, even if it would be lost on Denice. “Maybe a bail bonds­man,” I said.

How does a woman come to owe you a few thou­sand, slick?”

I said, “The short answer is that we weren’t right for each oth­er.”

You guys are charg­ing a fee for that now?”

She wait­ed until I had a decent hit at the track, then picked me clean. Closest thing she’d ever get to alimo­ny, that’s for sure. What would you do, let her off the hook? If it will impress you, I will.”

Denice said, “You need the mon­ey?”

I could use it.”

In a moment, she said, ”Make her pay.” Her voice was pret­ty qui­et, though.

I said, “You get the clock radio to work?” I checked the mir­ror, the radio was behind me. The dig­i­tal clock was dark.

Somebody must’ve spilled some­thing on it. I called the front desk, the guy said he didn’t have any extras.”

We pay by the month,” I said. “Outside of new sheets and tow­els, we’re on an island. Anyway, got a great place picked out for din­ner,” I said, and leaned into her. I ran the back of my hand along her hip and the tow­el felt coarse.

Denice looked at my hand and I took it away. She said, “Please, fetch me a clock radio. I’m not like you. I need an alarm. Go. Try please.”

I stood, “Okay, okay. I’ll be in the lob­by.”

When I was out­side, I closed the door behind me, walked up the side­walk. At the track, it was close to the time for the fea­ture. The bet­ter, more reli­able hors­es ran in the fea­ture and if you weren’t try­ing to make up for big loss­es ear­li­er on the card, it was usu­al­ly a man­age­able race. The night­cap, the race after that, was when the rid­ers occa­sion­al­ly played their games. They held hors­es, let the crazy long­shots win. The hors­es in the last race were usu­al­ly run­ning for the cheap­est purse of the day and they were wild­ly unre­li­able ones to start with. That tri I hit in Lafayette–the mon­ey Chick swiped–that was from a Saturday night­cap. Basically I just hand­i­capped the race upside down, searched for any rea­son in the world to play the out­siders. Sometimes you got lucky when you looked at things that way. Chick had stayed away from the races that day, or more specif­i­cal­ly away from me, and when I came back to our room, she was sit­ting up, watch­ing TV. I tossed the pile of mon­ey onto the bed, want­ed her to feel bet­ter about every­thing. Later, after she was gone, I under­stood I’d prac­ti­cal­ly dared her to steal it.

The motel lob­by was adja­cent to the reg­is­tra­tion area and the lob­by had a knock-off brand flat screen and counter with a cof­fee pot they kept full. I went right to the rack that had all the pam­phlets about local attrac­tions and restau­rants. Some adver­tised min­er­al baths and mas­sages and then I found one from McLenden’s Barbecue on Central Avenue, which declared itself “Good Enough for the President of the United States.” I mem­o­rized the address, went over to make myself a cup of cof­fee, sat on the couch and looked at the soc­cer game play­ing on the TV, which was turned down low. No one was behind the reg­is­tra­tion counter but in a minute I heard muf­fled laugh­ter com­ing from the closed door back there. The guy who ran the Cottonland prob­a­bly lived here, had a wife and so on. Beyond that door, there might have been all kinds of hall­ways and hid­den rooms, maybe it was like a whole house. I fan­ta­sized about own­ing a motel myself some­day. But there would be so many rooms to keep track of. One thing I did know for sure about a motel room was that if you were liv­ing in one with some­one else you need­ed to give them space. I’d seen Denice in and out of her clothes plen­ty already, but that had lit­tle to do with pri­va­cy. Sometimes a room did not feel big enough to me. It pro­duced a gar­den-vari­ety pan­ic. The feel­ing always fad­ed. A motel room had every­thing and when it was time to go, there was nev­er a lot to keep you there. I heard a tap­ping at the win­dow that looked out to the street. It was Denice in a sky-blue blouse and jeans. Her hair had big curls and fell to her shoul­ders. “Where’s my radio?” she said, her breath fog­ging a place on the glass.

I gave her a thumbs up.

 

**

 

At the bar­be­cue place, we were seat­ed at a table for two and on the wall above us was a col­or 8x10 of Bill and Hillary Clinton, each of them tilt­ing a full plat­ter towards the cam­era. Denice and I were look­ing at the pho­to when the wait­ress arrived and Denice ges­tured in its direc­tion, said, “Do a lot of peo­ple just point to the pic­ture and say, ‘I’ll have what they’re hav­ing?’”

The wait­ress, an old­er woman, had a pen­cil stick­ing out from above one ear. She said, “Actually, yes.”

And beer,” I said, indi­cat­ing to Denice and myself.

I can do that for you,” the wait­ress said.

The plat­ters of food were just like the pho­to: bar­be­cue, beans, mac-cheese and cole slaw; every­thing touch­ing every­thing. We ate with­out say­ing much. My cell went off and then I was glad to sit back. It was the num­ber I’d texted and Chick’s voice said, “Look, you can’t fol­low me around like that.”

I didn’t feel like defend­ing myself, not with Denice there.

Chick said, “Where are you?”

McClenden’s,” I said. “This place is full of win­ners.” My eyes went to Denice. I point­ed to the phone, then made an imag­i­nary dol­lar sign in the air. “So, look,” I said.

Play nice,” Chick said.

I thought for a sec­ond, then I said, “Exactly.” Denice was not as far along with her plat­ter, had just cleaned out her cole slaw.

Chick said, “I want to make things straight. I’ve got five hun­dred in my purse, I’ll bring it to you tomor­row. Not at the track, though.”

It’s more than that, Chick,” I said. “You know it.” Denice held her fork over her bar­be­cue. She mouthed the word Chick?

The restau­rant was noisy. I thought Chick said, “You want­ed me to have all of it. You prac­ti­cal­ly threw it on me …”

I’m with a shaky out­fit, man. I already told you.” I didn’t hear any­thing from her. I looked at my food. “Hey,” I said.

I’ll bring what I can,” Chick said. “After that, when you see me com­ing, you got­ta duck, you have to run for cov­er. I like this guy I’m with.”

Who, Darren?”

I’m already halfway tempt­ed to tell him what’s going on. You can just deal with him.”

Darren looked like his scrap­ping-over-a-woman days were behind him. But I didn’t say this. “I’m stay­ing at the Cottonland,” I said. “Room six­teen. How about noon tomor­row?” I glanced at Denice.

Settled. Bye.”

I kept the phone by my ear after Chick hung up. I thought of some­thing to say into it, some­thing that might make it appear like I was in con­trol of all this. Finally, I just said, “Okay, see ya.” I closed my phone, set it by my plat­ter. “Still in nego­ti­a­tion.”

Chick?” Denice said. “Her name is Chick?”

Nickname.”

What’s yours? Fella?”

I was called Ace in high school.”

I bet you were.”

What about you?” I was anx­ious to change the sub­ject. “Nickname-wise, I mean.”

Denice had her elbows on the table. The ques­tion seemed to catch her off guard and her thoughts seemed to be mov­ing around. She’d been a teacher but with me she usu­al­ly had more ques­tions than any­thing. The whole Chick episode felt a lit­tle unwel­come just then. Denice’s arms were in front of her and her chin rest­ed on her fold­ed hands. “On-Your-Knees-Denees,” she said. “I gave my first hum­mer when I was like four­teen years old.” Her expres­sion was thought­ful. “I went away to col­lege, so I got to start all over again. Nickname-wise.”

You turned out good, though,” I said.

Oh?”

You wound up work­ing at a col­lege.”

She watched me for a sec­ond. In a moment, her expres­sion seemed sym­pa­thet­ic. “You still like Girl or what­ev­er her name is, don’t you? Don’t be a dick. Just tell the truth.” I didn’t say any­thing and she seemed to be sat­is­fied. “I’m still in love with my ex hus­band,” she said. She tried to sound mat­ter of fact. “Kind of.” Her eyes went to the condi­ments at the mid­dle of our table. Bottles of Tabasco, ketchup, Worchestershire, mini-jalapenos. She looked direct­ly at me then. “But he knows that.” I nod­ded. “You’re going to let her off easy,” she said.

I’m not going to just fol­low her around the whole meet­ing,” I said. I opened my palms. My arms were on either side of my plate. “Look, tomorrow’s the last of it,” I said.

She brought her arms down in a moment. She picked up her fork. “You shouldn’t make those kind of promis­es,” she said.

Denice didn’t eat half of what was on her plate and I won­dered if she might be in the mood for some­thing else. When we got back to the room, she went to the bath­room and I turned off the lights in the room, had the TV set going with the sound down. She had a black ted­dy she liked to wear, but she hadn’t unpacked that yet. When she came out of the bath­room, the light from the TV gave a mauve col­or to her nude body. I felt woozy and she seemed like a holo­gram in a way. She faced the mir­ror with her hands on her hips and I guessed what she could see best was what was behind her. Her voice said, “I don’t feel like doing it in the bed, tonight, okay?”

Okay.”

Turn off that god­damn TV. You don’t know me and you don’t know my name. I want you to lie on the floor and I don’t want you to say a thing.”

All right.”

Come over here.”

I laid on the floor and it was easy to con­cen­trate on her at first. My hands were flat on the car­pet but then I could not help but think about that spi­der from the day before. I placed my hands on her shoul­ders and I said in a whis­per, “Come on, fin­ish this.” When we climbed into bed, she didn’t ask if any­thing was up with me and I was glad she didn’t because I was start­ing to feel a lit­tle unlucky.

At four a.m., I awak­ened with­out an alarm and turned on the light on the night­stand. I went to the lit­tle bureau beyond the foot of the bed, took out my work clothes and changed in the bath­room. I turned off the night­stand light before I left. Denice did not stir. I closed the door as qui­et­ly as pos­si­ble, turned the knob in my hand to make sure the lock was firm. I drove for the track under the inky night sky, passed the sil­hou­ettes of fran­chise busi­ness signs. Hot Springs was a race­track town, but horse rac­ing was a dying sport and I always had to be care­ful about my expec­ta­tions. The track was at the cen­ter of things and beyond it, in the direc­tion we’d come from, were the resort hotels, the old bath hous­es. The big hotels were the emp­ti­est ones, we could tell that when we drove in.

 

**

 

By the time I fin­ished my morn­ing shift at the barn, the sky was pale blue but the air was still pret­ty cold. I pulled into the park­ing slip right out­side our room, turned off the Celeb, walked to the door, took off my boots and held them by the ankles as I put my key into the knob. The bed was made and there was a piece of paper sit­ting right there on the mid­dle of it. It was from a motel pad because at the top was the Cottonland’s logo, a sun either ris­ing or set­ting beyond a line of moun­tains, which I guessed were the Caddos or the Blue Ouachitas. I thought it might be a kiss-off from Denice and it took a sec­ond for my eyes to focus. Took a walk. Probably be back after a while. I tried to think of how mad she was, if I could tell some­thing about that from the hand­writ­ing. Just sim­ple, print­ed let­ters, like I wouldn’t be able to under­stand any­thing else. I took a bath, sat upright for a time, even though the water wasn’t hot enough and the tub was too small for me to keep my legs straight. I didn’t feel par­tic­u­lar­ly clean after all of this.

I put on nice clothes, a brown west­ern-cut shirt and blue jeans, and I was sit­ting in the chair at the lit­tle table for two near the door where there came a knock. It was before noon, I knew that. It was Chick, in a dark-blue wool jack­et and jeans. She held her hands in the pock­ets of her jack­et and beyond my car was a blue Saab, a dri­ver behind the wheel. The dri­ver was Darren and he faced straight ahead. Chick and I looked at one anoth­er for a sec­ond. “Here,” she said and she held over a fold­ed stack of bills that was not three grand. “Take it.” She kept her eyes on my face. Chick said, “I told him every­thing. He kind of laughed about it.” My eyes went out to Darren again. He con­tin­ued to look straight ahead. “You got to stay away from us,” she said. She stood on her toes, looked past my shoul­der. The bed was made, no one else was here. She cut her eyes to me. “I got out at the right time. You can’t deny that.”

I wasn’t going to. “What kind of place do you have?” I said. She didn’t say any­thing. “What’s he do?” I said.

A syn­di­cate man­ag­er. A bunch of doc­tors in Maryland have a string of hors­es down here.” She shrugged. “He helps find the best races for them. I met him last fall. We’re down here for the win­ter.” I thought about tak­ing her by the arm, pulling her into the room and clos­ing the door. I want­ed to talk to her. Maybe if that was just anoth­er groom wait­ing in the car for her, I would have done just that. I felt the mon­ey in my hand.

We okay?” she said. I didn’t say any­thing and she said, “I knew you’d be grate­ful.” She had a look in her eye then, like she was supe­ri­or and sor­row­ful all at once. “See ya,” she said. Hands in pock­ets, she turned and walked past my Celeb for the Saab. She got in on the pas­sen­ger side and they drove off. I closed the door, stepped back and count­ed the bills. Five hun­dred bucks. I count­ed it again, want­ed to feel indig­nant. A few days ago, I couldn’t have pre­dict­ed that I would even see Chick here, let alone get any­thing out of her.

Grateful. That stuck in my throat. I guessed she want­ed me to hate her just a lit­tle. I had this mon­ey in my hand and I want­ed to feel all right about it. I was not unhap­py with my life, you wouldn’t hear me com­plain­ing about it. Grateful sim­ply wasn’t a word I thought of fre­quent­ly. At some point, I sat down on the edge of the bed and I might have stayed there for a lit­tle while. I guessed that one obvi­ous truth was that I’d felt more for Chick than I’d ever cared to admit. I thought of the time I’d thrown the mon­ey on the bed the way I had when we had been shar­ing a room togeth­er. That should have been a good moment in my life. It only had told the truth about some­thing.             I did not want to be sit­ting on the bed feel­ing defeat­ed so I clicked on the TV, flipped chan­nels for a minute, then turned it off again. I went to the bath­room counter, brushed my teeth, combed my hair with my hand, then pulled on my boots and stepped out­side. I start­ed the Celeb, dialed Denice to see where she might be, and when she answered there was the sound of the wind blow­ing. Cars were going by, too, I could hear as much. There weren’t any side­walks along our stretch of high­way and I said, “Let me pick you up right now.”

Hang a right leav­ing the motel lot,” her voice said. “You can’t miss me.” I drove for a minute and there were busi­ness signs, tele­phone poles, a sandy-look­ing sky. She was walk­ing on the shoul­der, away from our motel. I had to pull past her and then I wait­ed. She wore her brown-and-black checked jack­et and her hair was blow­ing all around. She got in on the pas­sen­ger side and and I had dropped my hands from the wheel. “I got five hun­dred,” I said.

Her expres­sion didn’t reveal much. “Let me see it,” she said. When I held over the mon­ey it felt, just for a sec­ond, like we had been in on a scheme togeth­er. “Hundreds,” she said. “You know what that means don’t you?” Cars swooshed past us and the Celeb rocked. “She had more.”

Nothing is real­ly on the books, you know?” I said. “That’s the prob­lem.” I thought she would say some­thing to this and was glad she didn’t. I glanced at the side mir­ror, decid­ed to pull out.

Oh, I real­ly don’t feel like going to the track today,” Denice said.

We were head­ed in that direc­tion, and I said, “I don’t real­ly feel like it, either.”

Bullshit,” she said. “Here.” She held the mon­ey back over to me. My first instinct was to say Take some­thing for your­self but Denice was not a race­track­er. I put it in my pock­et. I won­dered if I should ask about where she was walk­ing to or what she had been think­ing about. Traffic slowed as we neared the track and she kept her eyes in the direc­tion of the brick grand­stand.

When we were past that, I said, “We can hang a right on Route 12, dri­ve to Little Rock. See the Clinton Museum.”

She shrugged. “I don’t vote.”

We were already head­ing in the direc­tion of the old­er down­town area, for the places that once offered min­er­al baths and now had his­tor­i­cal signs in front of them. I said, “I think a cou­ple of the hotels up there still have open spas. Pretty sure the Hot Springs Resort does.” Denice seemed to be curi­ous about the bath hous­es we passed. It had warmed up a lit­tle, was ear­ly after­noon now. We had passed these old spas on our way in but we had been search­ing for our motel then. We were at a red light. I said, “Let me treat you.”

What would I have to do?” she said.

I shrugged. “Nothing. The Hot Springs Resort is right up here.” It was a huge resort hotel with a gran­ite fac­ing and a  dozen floors. A bronze-like dome was on top. It had to be the biggest hotel in Arkansas. She didn’t say any­thing and we aimed in that direc­tion. When we pulled into the hotel’s half-cir­cle dri­ve­way, I wheeled us to the entrance and a valet appeared, a young black guy in a loose-look­ing maroon jack­et. He held the door for Denice and she did not get out of the car. I said, “The baths are open, right?”

Yes,” he said. “Second floor.”

Go on,” I said to her. She seemed hes­i­tant for some rea­son. She had her hands fold­ed and she held them in her lap. “I’ll park the car and then I’ll go up there and wait for you.”

You’re not going to get one?”

Maybe I will,” I said. “They’ll take care of you.” The kid who’d opened the door for her seemed cau­tious about some­thing. “Here,” I said, and wig­gled the mon­ey back out of my pock­et. I gave her a hun­dred. I nod­ded to the kid, said, “I’ll get you when I come back. Go on now,” I said.

As she walked for the glass doors of the hotel entrance, the kid stayed one step ahead of her. He held the door for her and I decid­ed to get going. I could have let him park the car but then when we came out of the baths he’d have to bring it back for me. I’d have to tip him twice and I didn’t want to act like a big shot like that.

Farther down the street there was metered park­ing and I had some change at the bot­tom of cup hold­er. When I walked into the lob­by of the Hot Springs Resort, the kid was there, stand­ing at the reg­is­tra­tion desk, talk­ing to the guy work­ing behind the counter. The lob­by was mas­sive. The floors were made of mar­ble and over to the right was a cock­tail lounge with sofas and a bar counter with a half-dozen stools in front of it. Behind the counter, a frost­ed mir­ror went all the way to the ceil­ing. The ele­va­tors were far­ther down. I took one up, stepped out on the sec­ond floor onto a red-car­pet­ed hall­way and fol­lowed a sign, made a right, went all the way to the end of anoth­er hall­way. I opened a door at the end of it, and stepped into a wait­ing room area where the chairs had leatherette seats and backs, chrome arms and legs. Right away, I thought of the bar­ber shop my old man had tak­en me to, back when I still had some­one telling me what to do. A large woman with short red hair sat behind a counter and I said, “I’m just gonna wait for my friend. She came in here a few min­utes ago, I think.” The walls were white. Near the woman, white tow­els were stacked on room-ser­vice carts. “What are they going to do to her back there?” I said. The woman blinked, then she point­ed to a brochure on the counter. “Oh,” I said. “Okay.”

I took a chair in the wait­ing area, read about the 100-degree baths, how hot packs were applied to “par­tic­u­lar­ly stress­ful areas” and so on. Following a show­er was an option­al full-body Swedish mas­sage. I hoped that Denice got that. We had not been here long, and I guessed she didn’t have a pos­i­tive view of Hot Springs as yet. If she could hang around until spring, she’d see how pret­ty the back­stretch was when the dog­woods were in bloom. At the end of the meet was Arkansas Derby week and the stands would real­ly be rock­ing.

I could’ve been back there get­ting a mas­sage, too, that wasn’t lost on me, but what­ev­er that would’ve cost would’ve meant that much less in my pock­et when I went to the races. Playing the hors­es influ­enced the way I looked at mon­ey and how it could work for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t deserve some­thing good like a hot springs bath and a mas­sage, it’s just I didn’t see how it could change any­thing. That was the way I tend­ed to look at life’s lux­u­ries. It might seem like a sad out­look from a dis­tance and one day, when my luck turned for good, I prob­baly would take a dif­fer­ent view. But there was no sense in fool­ing myself until then.

My eyes closed at one point because I was think­ing of things so intent­ly and I felt a bit tired, too. I felt some­thing close to my face. It was Denice. Her face was free of make-up and she looked sym­pa­thet­ic. She had her hair tied back and had on the clothes she’d worn when she’d been walk­ing along the high­way. Over her right fore­arm was her brown-and-black checked jack­et, but there was also a fold­ed white cot­ton robe. “Ready?” she said.

Time?” I said. I stood up too fast and she helped to bal­ance me.

Yep.” She waved in the direc­tion of the lady behind the counter. “Bye, Marcy,” she said.

Goodbye,” the lady said.

Denice and I walked down the hall­way and I said, “You steal­ing that robe?”

Complimentary,” she said.

I touched the call but­ton for the ele­va­tor and felt like ask­ing her about the bath and the mas­sage. She could talk about it when she want­ed. We rode the ele­va­tor down and once we were out in the lob­by, she tucked the fold­ed robe between her knees and start­ed to pull on her coat. “I can hold that,” I said, but then she had her jack­et on and the bunched-up white robe was tucked under her arm like a foot­ball. “We’re over here,” I said and we began to walk up the side­walk. Once we were in the Celeb, she sat in the pas­sen­ger seat, let out an exhale, leaned over and kissed my cheek. I thought she was going to say thanks but then I was glad she didn’t. It was the mid­dle of the after­noon and there was the faintest of blue in the sky.

She seemed to be study­ing my pro­file. Then, she dipped her head, picked at the belt of the robe. “I heard a cou­ple of the atten­dants talk­ing about hors­es,” she said. “Like the two horse in the eighth race today or some­thing. Just a cou­ple of old gals. They said a train­er had been in there ear­li­er. Just first drop me off at the motel …” she said. The robe was in her lap and her arms were fold­ed over it.

Sure,” I said. I start­ed the car, made a U-turn right there on Central and we drove past the resort. The sky was sil­very and the sun was at our backs as we rode down Central Avenue. I thought of myself in a huge porce­lain bath­tub, my arms hang­ing off the sides. I thought of atten­dants stand­ing there, wait­ing with fold­ed tow­els. I swal­lowed, I felt like say­ing some­thing pos­i­tive about my future, but for some rea­son I couldn’t. My eyes went to the robe she held onto, and, after a sec­ond, she dropped her arm more to her side.

Go on, you can touch it,” she said.

Just for luck,” I said. I want­ed to show her I wasn’t afraid of any­thing. I moved my hand over the top sec­tion of the robe. It was soft, pleas­ant.

Tough guy,” she said.

Right,” I said, though my voice was pret­ty qui­et. I just tried to think of some­thing pos­i­tive then. I would be at the track soon. Even if I didn’t feel like I was going to win any­thing, some­times it was best to just go on and go.

~

Andy Plattner’s nov­el, Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey, will be avail­able in October from Dzanc BooksHe has new short sto­ries forth­com­ing in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review.