Every week, I'll excerpt a handful of stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that I urge you to read for one reason or another. Send any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica, two year olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for a purse of four thousand dollars. They were moving slowly down the backstretch toward the gate, some of them cantering, others walking, and in the press box they had stopped their working or their kidding to watch, most of them interested in one horse.
"Air Lift," Jim Roach said. "Full brother of Assault."
Assault, who won the triple crown ... making this one too, by Bold Venture, himself a Derby winner, out of Igual, herself by the great Equipoise ... Great names in the breeding line ... and now the little guy making his first start, perhaps the start of another great career.
They were off well, although Air Lift was fifth. They were moving toward the first turn, and now Air Lift was fourth. They were going into the turn, and now Air Lift was starting to go, third perhaps, when suddenly he slowed, a horse stopping, and below in the stands you could hear a sudden cry, as the rest left him, still trying to run but limping, his jockey — Dave Gorman — half falling, half sliding off.
"He broke a leg!" somebody, holding binoculars to his eyes, shouted in the press box. "He broke a leg!"
Down below they were roaring for the rest, coming down the stretch now, but in the infield men were running toward the turn, running toward the colt and the boy standing beside him, alone. There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance.
"Gorman was crying like a baby," one of them, coming out of the jockey room, said. "He said he must have stepped in a hole, but you should have seen him crying."
"It's his left front ankle," Dr. J.G. Catlett, the veterinarian, was saying. "It's a compound fracture; and I'm waiting for confirmation from Mr. Hirsch to destroy him."
He was standing outside one of the stables beyond the backstretch, and he had just put in a call to Kentucky where Max Hirsch, the trainer, and Robert Kleber, the owner, are attending the yearling sales.
"When will you do it?" one of them said.
"Right as soon as I can," the doctor said. "As soon as I get confirmation. If it was an ordinary horse I'd done it right there."
He walked across the road and around another barn to where they had the horse. The horse was still in the van, about twenty stable hands in dungarees and sweat-stained shirts, bare-headed or wearing old caps, standing around quietly and watching with Dr. M.A. Gilman, the assistant veterinarian.
"We might as well get him out of the van," Catlett said, "before we give him the novocaine. It'll be a little better out in the air."
The boy in the van with the colt led him out then, the colt limping, tossing his head a little, the blood running down and covering his left foreleg. When they saw him, standing there outside the van now, the boy holding him, they started talking softly.
"Full brother of Assault." ... "It don't make no difference now. He's done." ... "But damn, what a grand little horse." ... "Aint he a horse?"
"It's a funny thing," Catlett said. "All the cripples that go out, they never break a leg. It always happens to a good-legged horse."
A man, gray-haired and rather stout, wearing brown slacks and a blue shirt, walked up.
"Then I better not send for the wagon yet?" the man said.
"No," Catlett said. "Of course, you might just as well. Max Hirsch may say no, but I doubt it."
"I don't know," the man said.
"There'd be time in the morning," Catlett said.
"But in this hot weather—" the man said.
They had sponged off the colt, after they had given him the shot to deaden the pain, and now he stood, feeding quietly from some hay they had placed at his feet. In the distance you could hear the roar of the crowd in the grandstand, but beyond it and above it you could hear thunder and see the occasional flash of lightning.
When Catlett came back the next time he was hurrying, nodding his head and waving his hands. Now the thunder was louder, the flashes of lightning brighter, and now rain was starting to fall.
"All right," he said, shouting to Gilman. "Max Hirsch talked to Mr. Kleberg. We've got the confirmation."
They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.
"Aw ——" someone said.
That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.
Our eyes would meet, the voice reads from Ebert's journal, unspoken words were between us, but we never spoke openly about his problems or his prognosis. That's how he wanted it, and that was his right.
Gene Siskel taped his last show, and within a week or two he was dead. Ebert had lost half his identity.
He scrolls down to the entry's final paragraph.
We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled "Best Enemies." It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.
Ebert keeps scrolling down. Below his journal he had embedded video of his first show alone, the balcony seat empty across the aisle. It was a tribute, in three parts. He wants to watch them now, because he wants to remember, but at the bottom of the page there are only three big black squares. In the middle of the squares, white type reads: "Content deleted. This video is no longer available because it has been deleted." Ebert leans into the screen, trying to figure out what's happened. He looks across at Chaz. The top half of his face turns red, and his eyes well up again, but this time, it's not sadness surfacing. He's shaking. It's anger.
Chaz looks over his shoulder at the screen. "Those fu—" she says, catching herself.
They think it's Disney again — that they've taken down the videos. Terms-of-use violation.
This time, the anger lasts long enough for Ebert to write it down. He opens a new page in his text-to-speech program, a blank white sheet. He types in capital letters, stabbing at the keys with his delicate, trembling hands: MY TRIBUTE, appears behind the cursor in the top left corner. ON THE FIRST SHOW AFTER HIS DEATH. But Ebert doesn't press the button that fires up the speakers. He presses a different button, a button that makes the words bigger. He presses the button again and again and again, the words growing bigger and bigger and bigger until they become too big to fit the screen, now they're just letters, but he keeps hitting the button, bigger and bigger still, now just shapes and angles, just geometry filling the white screen with black like the three squares. Roger Ebert is shaking, his entire body is shaking, and he's still hitting the button, bang, bang, bang, and he's shouting now. He's standing outside on the street corner and he's arching his back and he's shouting at the top of his lungs.
"Junior Johnson Has Left the Building," by Charles P. Pierce (from GQ, 1996; anthologized in Sports Guy)
Suggested readers: NASCAR fans, revanchists
NASCAR — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — has always sold itself as a sport of the common man and, moreover, of the common southerner. But it is no more populist than is the PGA Tour, and it is no more southern than the National Hockey League is Canadian. It trades on both these things, and it profits greatly in the process, but it is not of these things. Not anymore. Not in the way it was when Bill France was cutting sharp deals with every shitkicker pol, from county commissioners all the way up to his good friend the Guv'nah. It was Alabama's George Corley Wallace himself who gave France the land to build Talladega Motor Speedway so that France's cars could race each other someplace besides Daytona. France obliged by raising gobs of money for Wallace's various attempts to make himself our national gauleiter. (In 1972, with Wallace shot half-dead and George McGovern as the Democratic presidential nominee, Bill France shrugged off his party loyalties and raised money for Nixon.) Bill France was a one-man Southern Strategy.
From its founding, NASCAR was suffused with the backlash ethos of the 1970s — ambitious people in every field realizing there was money and power to be had in Wallace's astonishing discovery that (in many ways) the whole country was southern. When the Guv'nah cracked that great secret of the American demographic code, Bill France's sport was already there on the track, idling heavily. Today, wildly popular and ludicrously profitable, it is nothing like it pretends to be. It is corporate connivance dressed up as populist celebration, careful contrivance masquerading as raucous authenticity. It has become, in short, simply another American sport, and the distance it has traveled is that same distance that got us from Huey Long to Newt Gingrich, from William Faulkner to John Grisham and from Patsy Cline to Shania Twain. How you feel about that pretty much depends on how much you like Gingrich's thinking, Grisham's writing and whatever it is that Shania Twain does besides looking like the most popular lap dancer in Dogpatch.
"True romance," by Jack Hitt (from Salon.com, 1998)
Suggested readers: Lovers
Perhaps the simple answer is that this was a guy who loved his gal. It's a hard concept, admittedly, to wrap one's mind around since such a plain and boyish explanation flies in the face of Clinton's conniving reputation for "using everybody." (A preposterous accusation, by the way, since presidents are Darwinianly selected for such behavior. Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, Roosevelt — famous users all.) Of course the rashness of the Christmas presents is nothing compared to the insanity of the entire affair. It was initiated after the Paula Jones lawsuit was green-lighted. Hubris? Or maybe enchantment.
The full list of presents, as it has accumulated from leaks out of the grand jury, holds other clues. Consider the joke sunglasses. That's right, one of the presents Monica received from the Leader of the Free World was a pair of joke sunglasses. Silly, goofy, sure. But just who do we feel most comfortable being silly and goofy with? Here, visualize this: Clinton giving joke sunglasses to Hillary. Hard to bring that little mind picture into focus, isn't it?
Clinton gave Monica a "souvenir from Radio City Music Hall" when he was there to celebrate his 50th birthday party. So he's giving her presents from milestone events in his life, thus suggesting that, for him, she participates in them. He shares with Monica the solemnity of his office (a signed copy of a State of the Union address) but also gives her something hinting of future vacations (a Martha's Vineyard Black Dog bag). One gift was as romantically straightforward as it gets: a box of chocolates.
Then there are the books, which hint of a deep but spiritual kind of Eros between them. Clinton gave Monica "Leaves of Grass." Let's just put aside the easy fellatrix jokes ("I Sing the Body Electric") and think about what this particular book means to a man of Clinton's generation. Metaphorically, it's about the beauty of rollicking carnality when it yearns to defy death, a book that signifies the elevation of old-fashioned lusty monkey-love as a plaintive reach toward immortality. For a liberal-arts dilettante like Clinton, "Leaves of Grass" is the book that yokes the sacred and the profane into meaningful union. It's what you give your lover before you move on to a Henry Miller novel or James Joyce's letters to Nora from the winter of 1909.
And what is the book Monica gave Bill — Nicholson Baker's phone-sex tour de force "Vox" — but a Gen X attempt at signaling the same complex of spiritual longings bound up in physical desire? Yet, the differences are interesting. "Leaves" is hopeful, even defiant, while "Vox" has an almost tragic quality to it, an acknowledgment that the real world will never allow the couple's profanity to bloom into holiness. The book ends with the woman hanging up the phone because "I have to put a load of towels in the laundry." (Knowing now of the DNA-stained dress, one wonders if Monica ever finished the book.)