It was comical. Kind of. Mac the Elder would saunter through the door everyday around the same time and everyone at the bar would turn and call out his name. It was hard not to like the old guy. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. And he always went and said greeted everybody he knew. Sometimes that was a lot of people.
“Charlie, how ya doin? How’s that wife of yours and her varicose veins?
“Tommy, Tommy, what do ya know, huh? Those White Sox of yours having a good year yet?”
“Mary, Mary, love of my life! Where have you been all my life?”
He liked to flirt with the waitresses; but it was all in harmless fun. Sometimes he laid it on pretty thick, but the girls never paid it any mind; it was sort of a right of passage to new waitresses to have her ass grabbed by Mac the Elder. If there’s an advantage to being an old man, it’s that you can get away with doing shit that a younger man couldn’t. The last guy I saw playing grab ass with one of the waitresses here got kicked out. But Mac was safe. Everybody knew Mac and Mac knew them.
Once he made the rounds, he’d take his seat next to the brain trust and settle down to the business at hand: the horses. Rico and Bob were usually there before him, and they updated him on their success or failure. Mac the Elder made his bets carefully, and always in small amounts. Sometimes he’d go in on a bet with one of the brain trust, but mostly he made dime superfecta bets. His system was numerological. He only picked horses whose odds could be divided into prime numbers. For example, if a horse had three to one odds, he’d probably pick it. If the horse had a jaunty walk, that was one more reason. “The trick to gambling,” I overheard him say once, “is not to get in too far. It’s all in good fun, see? Just go into it thinking you’re gonna relax, keep your numbers small, small, small. Have fun. That way, when you lose, it’s not a big deal. I’m never out more than six bucks.”
He was always conscious of the time; he usually had a bag from the nearby grocery store with him – a bottle of milk or orange juice or something from the meat counter. That was his excuse to get out of the house. Mac was retired and sitting pretty; but he didn’t want to be one of those retirees who loafed around waiting to die. He’d made some smart investments back when the markets were good and the economy wasn’t in the toilet, and he was still trying to use his money to make more money. It wasn’t because he needed it, he said. No. “It’s something to do,” he said. “Besides, with the way my kid spends it, it’s any wonder I have anything at all.”
Mac the Younger was his son. Of course, Mac the Elder was in his seventies, so the Mac the Younger was really more like Mac the middle-aged. He’d come in all the time, drink expensive drinks and lay out more money on the horses than he had. Once I overheard Mac the Elder telling Sammy that he had to pay to get Mac the Younger’s electricity turned back on. “And he works!” Elder Mac grumbled. “You’d think he would know how to take care of things by now.”
This day in particular, he was talking up a trip he was taking out to California. “I’ll be gone a couple three days,” he told Ted and Rico. “Going out to visit my daughter and her family.”
That was the first I’d ever heard him mention somebody besides his son. Apparently was the daughter was well married – she’d landed herself an architect in San Fernando, had a few kids. They had a nice house. Their oldest daughter was graduating from high school. Mac the Younger wasn’t going, apparently. There was some bad blood between the siblings (I’d heard Mac the Younger drone on about it once) and it was better if the brother offered his congratulations long distance.
“You’re going to have to get along without me for a few days, fellas,” he said and laughed. He was walking around the bar again, talking to people. He could only sit for so long, even when he was watching the horses run. He came around to me. “Hey, there,” he said. “I see you in here all the time and I know we’ve talked a few times. I’m Mac.” He extended his hand and slapped me on the back.
We hadn’t talked so much as he had talked at me once or twice. I shook his hand and told him my name. He decided take that as a sign that he could sit and talk to me.
“So what do you do?” he asked.
“I drink,” I said.
He laughed. Mac always liked a joke, even when there wasn’t one. “No, no. I mean your job. Your work. What do you do?”
“My last job was in a warehouse,” I said, “but that didn’t work out. I have high hopes of finding some other degrading occupation in the near future.”
“I worked for thirty-five years,” he said. “And now I pretty much do what I want. I was a pilot – you know, flew the big passenger jets.”
“Sounds like interesting work.”
“It could be,” he said. “I was gone a lot, you know, but, heh, that’s not always a bad thing. Now I’m home all the time and my wife doesn’t know what do with me.”
I bet. “It’s a good thing you come here, then,” I said. “Nothing holds a marriage together like frequent trips to the bar.”
Mac laughed again. “You’re not married, I guess?”
“No,” I said. “Haven’t found anybody who wants to live the posh lifestyle I live.”
“Women, you know,” he said in a confidential tone, “all they want is a little security. Whether they work themselves or whether they stay home. It’s all about security.”
“I can see that.”
Mac fell silent for a split second. “My son, he works,” he went on. “He’s some kind of supervisor over at the university.”
“Good for him.”
“Yeah. It should be,” he shook his head. “So, you ever watch the horses?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You ever play? You know, bet?”
“When I can afford to lose,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said. “Most people, you know, they make the mistake of putting more into it than they have. And you know you can’t ever really win that way.”
No one ever really wins. “Yeah. But I do like to watch them run. They’re beautful animals.”
“What about the dogs?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t like the dog races. They treat those dogs like shit. The horses, at least, when they’re done racing the go out to kiddie farms and carry five year old around, or they’re put out to stud. Dogs get used until they’re used up.”
My answer must’ve surprised Mac. The look on his face suggested that he was going through the script in his head to find the appropriate response. “Yeah, well,” he backpedaled a little, “I see what you mean. But what I was going to tell you was that the odds are usually better and so is the pay out. You can put down LESS and walk away with MORE.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I did okay today. Won one, lost one. That’s probably as good as it’s going to get.”
“You never know,” I said. “That’s why they call it gambling.”
He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “That’s true, that’s true.” He took a few breathes. “Well, you probably heard, I’m going out of town for a few days.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I heard something about it.”
“It’ll be nice to see my daughter and her family,” he said. “My granddaughter’s going to college in the fall. San Diego State. It’s not the BEST school… but it’s school.”
“Very true,” I said. “Does she know what she’s going to study?”
“I think she’s going to be a teacher.”
I nodded. “Worthy occupation.”
Mac nodded. “Yeah. I think so. I’m just glad she’s not one of these kids who wants to go to school to ‘find herself’ or whatever. She’d got a plan.”
“Yeah,” he went on. “You know, and I don’t mean anything by this…” he paused and looked around to make sure someone wasn’t around who might be offended, “… but too many people are just wandering around doing NOTHING. You know? Back in my day, you went out and got a job and that was it.”
I didn’t answer. He didn’t really give me the space.
“But she’s got a plan. She’s smart. Got a solid head on her shoulders. Good parents.”
“My son,” he went on, “he was married once. But it didn’t work out. I told him before he married her that she wasn’t ,ah, right in the HEAD, you know? I mean, she was NICE enough and all that. But she was just kinda FLAKY, you know?” He used his hands to illustrate flaky. “I mean, the woman had two college degrees and she wanted to go back and get a third. Don’t get me wrong,” he looked around again, “education is a great thing. My granddaughter’s going to get an education. But so is DOING something. And all Joyce – that was her name, Joyce – all she wanted to do was go to school and make little clay pots in the shape of people’s heads. I mean, that kind of thing is fine when you’re in elementary school… but she was a grown woman!”
“Yeah,” I said. “That must’ve been rough.” Go away now. My tone was sarcastic. Either he didn’t notice it or he chose to ignore it.
“It was.” He nodded over to Mac the Younger, who was pouring over a racing program and drinking some cocktail with an umbrella in it. “I told him he should get married again. You know, it’ll settle him down. If he finds the right woman, of course.”
Sure, I thought. It’s worked out so well for you. “Maybe some people shouldn’t get married,” I said. “Maybe some people weren’t meant to.”
Mac looked shocked. “What do you mean?”
“Look around here sometime,” I said. “Half the guys who hang out here are divorced. Most of the rest are married, but they come here to get away from their wives and bitch about them. Maybe if they hadn’t gotten married, they wouldn’t feel the need to get away. They could do whatever they wanted and not have to worry about how somebody at home is going to respond.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mac said. “But that’s just how it is. Just ‘cause you complain doesn’t mean you don’t love them. It’s just – I’ve been married for almost 40 years, and I can tell you, it can be tough sometimes, but I’d rather be married than not.”
“But that’s you,” I said. “Maybe your son just shouldn’t get married. I think it takes a temperament, you know? Some people got it. Some people don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with NOT having it.”
Mac shook his head. “Ah, I guess,” he spat out. “Things used to be different,” he said. “Used to be, there wasn’t any question about it.”
And used to be, people used horse drawn carriages to get around and candle sticks to see at night. “I guess things change,” I said.
“I guess they do.” He stood up, slapped my shoulder again, and shook my hand. “Nice talking to you,” he said.
“Take care, Mac,” I said. “Safe travels. Enjoy California.”
He wandered back over to his seat between Mac the Younger and the brain trust. I looked up at the TV looking down at me from on top of the bar. The races at Santa Anita were pushing ahead in spite of an unseasonable rain that had made the track a little muddy. A few minutes later, Mac the Elder grabbed his grocery bag from the freezer behind the bar, said a few goodbyes and grabbed a few of the waitress’s asses. One of them, a new girl with porcelain white skin, read hair, and distinctive features, jumped, squealed, then turned around like she was about to hit him. One of the other girls came over, though, and Mac, ever the gentleman, raised his hand and smiled apologetically. The red head shook her head, but appeared to accept the apology. Then he left without looking at me.