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Authors: Michael Lewis

Home Game (10 page)

BOOK: Home Game
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THE LAST TIME
I'd visited the fairgrounds in New Orleans was the spring of 1977, when I was sixteen years old. A classmate of mine had a gambling debt of $8,000 that he couldn't pay off—$8,000 being the equivalent today of roughly twenty-seven grand, real money for a high school junior back then. In what seemed at the time like a sensible strategy, he hocked the coin collection given to him at birth by his grandparents and came up with $2,000 cash. This he handed to me, along with instructions to go to the fairgrounds and lay it all on Albo Berry to show in the sixth. His nerves couldn't take it, he said, and besides, he had math class. Albo Berry was racing on a school day, during seventh and eighth period, when all I had was film history—which could be skipped safely. And so I grabbed another friend and drove to the fairgrounds to lay two grand on Albo Berry to show.

Probably there was some law forbidding minors from betting on horses, but it wasn't taken any more seriously than the other laws in New Orleans that separated children from the grown-up world. So long as you didn't make the enablers feel as if you were going to attract the wrong sort of attention, they let you do pretty much what you wanted. Two grand was attention-getting, however, and we decided the only safe way to get it down on Albo Berry was in small, childish chunks. The moment Albo Berry's race was announced we each took $1,000 and dashed around madly, placing $5 bets. We wound up with four hundred tickets, but we got it all down, then took a seat in the grandstand to watch the race.

They were already off; a bunch of horses had broken from the pack, Albo Berry not among them. Indeed, for the longest time Albo Berry went unmentioned. It was as if he existed only in a dream. But then, as if he knew what was at stake, he made his move. Coming hard on the outside, he passed all but two other horses. By a nose, Albo Berry showed. We spent half an hour running around collecting what came to several thousand dollars in small bills. Armloads of cash made us conspicuous, and so we made quickly for the car. Only then did a grown-up—the guard in the parking lot—take notice. We were a step too fast for him. He peered into the car window as we whizzed past, and my friend heaved all the money up into the air, so that, for that moment, the inside of the car looked like a ticker-tape parade. We made it back to school just in time for baseball practice.

Now, for the first time in thirty years, I'm back at the fairgrounds, with a seven-year-old daughter holding one hand and a four-year-old holding the other. I hadn't planned to teach my children how to bet on the ponies on this trip. But my brother lives down the block from the racetrack, and the three of us went to visit him for lunch, and one thing led to another. Before you could say “trifecta,” we had them on our shoulders and were walking over to the races. Just one race, I told them, and then we'd leave. For old times' sake. They might learn something.

“You promise we can we bet real money?” asks Quinn.

“Yeah, Daddy,” says Dixie, “can we bet real money?”

“You can each make one small bet,” I say judiciously.

“You'll have to make it for us,” says Quinn knowingly, “'cause we're too little.”

Through the turnstiles we plunge and make for the viewing area to decide which horse to back. But before we do, we bump into Al Stall, who'd been a year behind me in school and who has, it turns out, spent most of his time since then training racehorses. I haven't seen him since high school, but it feels like yesterday, and he ushers the kids into the space reserved for horses. He wants them to see Winsky, a sleek, tan, four-year-old mare, his horse in the race. As they inspect the animal, the jockey appears, followed by Winsky's owners, and so they inspect them, too. They listen as Al talks a little bit about his horse, the favorite. Al doesn't sound worried. Al doesn't look worried. Al, truth to tell, looks as if his horse has already won.

“I want to bet on Winsky,” says Quinn firmly.

“Me, too!” says Dixie.

“If we win, you girls have to join us in the winner's circle!” says the owner.

We rush out to lay some dough on Winsky. “Daddy, what's the circle?” asks Dixie, but I'm too distracted to answer. They've replaced old tellers with new betting machines. It's now more complicated for a forty-six-year-old man to place two $5 bets on a horse to win than it was thirty years ago for a sixteen-year-old to lay two grand on a horse to show. I waste ten bucks printing out two erroneous tickets before finally getting my hands on tickets for Winsky to win. Grabbing them from me, the girls race outside to watch their horse up close, from the rail. The weather is clear, the track fast. As the bell rings and the horses bolt from the gate, I wonder:
This is what fathers are for? To take children to the places they aren't supposed to go, so that they can do the things children aren't supposed to do? If Mama's the law, I'm the blind eye.

For roughly fifty-one weeks a year, I'm a bit player in my children's moral education. This week is the exception, when we visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. For seven days I'm more or less in charge and use them to cultivate the aspects of their characters that they'll need to make it in the modern world: guile, greed, charm, and a deep appreciation that what you know is less important than who you know. Mardi Gras might just as well have been created to teach small children how to compete in the more ferocious sectors of our nation's economy. Beads, in the brief moment they fly through the air, become so valuable that grown men will trample one another to get them and young women will disrobe. Three hours later they're worthless again, but that's not the point. The point is how to get as many of them as possible.

Last year, when she was six, Quinn draped the beads she caught around her neck. This year she takes what she catches and squirrels it away furtively in a camouflaged Army duffel bag beside her. “If they see you have lots of loot they won't throw you anything,” she explains hurriedly, and then resumes her quest for more beads. Dixie is only four, but even she seems to be coming along nicely. As I haul home a fifty-pound sack full of beads, she says, “Daddy, you want me to tell you why they gave me so many things? 'Cause I was making a sad face.” Every small child in America should be flown to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Those who excel should be offered jobs by Goldman Sachs selling bonds. Those who fail should be taken to the racetrack, to see if they are perhaps better suited to trading.

The race starts, a mile and forty yards. There is no drama to it. Winsky, on the inside, takes the lead and never surrenders it. She wins so easily that, if I were one of the other horses, I might just canter back to my stable and shoot myself. My daughters leap around: They won! “How much did we win, Daddy?” they ask but then are distracted by their new best friends, Winsky's owners, trainer, and jockey, who guide them into the winner's circle. They pose for a group photo, Quinn and Dixie front and center, as a man with a television camera races back and forth filming them from every possible angle, beaming their smiles into every offtrack betting parlor in the land. Quinn sees the camera and waves.

Twenty-two minutes after they strolled into the fairgrounds, they're back in their car seats, waving $5 bills and looking for something to argue about. The experience has struck neither of them as noteworthy. The problem with lucking out with your children is that your children don't appreciate their luck—and the lucky feeling is more than half of the pleasure. You go to all this trouble to get them an education, and they promptly forget the lessons. On the drive home I explain to them that it isn't common for two little girls to walk into a racetrack in the middle of the day for a single horse race and wind up in the winner's circle, holding winning tickets, with the horse's jockey on one arm and the horse's owner on the other. Not to mention getting serious screen time on every OTB network. It takes some effort, but by the time we arrive home, each little girl has been convinced she has something worth saying about her field trip—only it isn't the same thing. Dixie, running to the back of the house to find her mother, squeals, “Mama, I made five dollars at the round field!” Quinn races up the stairs, finds her grandmother, and shouts, “Nana, we were on national TV!”

I'D DRIVEN AN
hour from home to give a talk, and was up on a stage with my cell phone off, when Tabitha left three messages. In the first, she said Walker was having trouble breathing and so she was taking him to the doctor; in the second, she was on her way from the doctor's office to the emergency room; in the third, she was on the emergency-room pay phone, either crying or trying not to cry. “He has RSV,” she said mysteriously, and added that he was strapped to a gurney and waiting for an ambulance to take him to a place that handled infants with RSV, whatever that was. Her cell phone wouldn't work there, she'd been told, and there was no number on which I could reach her.

And so I found myself doing eighty-five across the San Mateo Bridge, toting up in my mind how little I'd done in my son's eleven weeks on earth to keep him alive. Seventy-six nights and I'd spent zero in the same room with him, unless you counted the night of his birth, and the few times I stayed up until midnight to feed him a bottle of pumped breast milk before handing him over to his mother. Eating was another thing he'd done almost entirely without me: eight times a day, or more than six hundred daddyless meals in total. His diaper needed changing about as often as he ate, yet I'd done that seven times, and remembered each event. He slept sixteen hours a day, leaving eight in which he needed to be tended. Roughly three of those went to feeding and another to bathing and changing clothes—two more of his activities I'd managed to avoid entirely. That left him just four hours a day of what might be called discretionary leisure, or about three hundred hours total, of which I'd occupied no more than thirty.

Those were the raw stats: They shocked even me. No matter how you spun them, they suggested a truly awesome paternal neglect. (
Seven out of six hundred diapers!
) It had to be some kind of record, at least in the modern era of fatherhood. The achievement was probably in some small part due to what might be politely called an attitude problem. When asked to take the baby, even for just a few minutes, I instantly become a corporate executive sentenced to a long jail term. I race around the house cleaning up my affairs, wondering what needs to be done before I'm removed from society. But the larger part of my neglect arose from changes in the structure of our family life, brought about by the addition of a third child. Once a collectivist farm, we now had more in common with a manufacturing enterprise, beginning with a ruthlessly efficient division of labor. Mama took care of the baby; Daddy took care of everyone else, or paid other people to do it for him. Family productivity remained stable and, amazingly, Mama didn't complain about the arrangement. Many times in the past eleven weeks, I expected to be chastised for doing so little but instead found myself appreciated for doing anything at all. On those rare occasions, I was no longer a father doing his duty but an assembly line worker who has rushed down the conveyor belt to rescue a fellow worker who has fallen behind. A company hero. Worker of the month.

On this afternoon, the assembly line finally ground to a halt, its gears gummed up with paternal guilt. It took ninety minutes to get home, drop the girls with our endlessly generous neighbors, and speed back to the hospital. There I find Walker with two tubes up his nose, another in his left foot, and wires taped to his chest. Dried blood stains the blanket by his feet, where nurses have tried and failed to insert an IV drip. He looks bad, but his mother looks worse. She hasn't slept properly in months, and she's spent the last five hours watching this baby she's been caring for poked and prodded with needles and strapped down on gurneys. Four different people had offered her four different explanations of RSV, but the hardest piece of information she'd come away with was that she should expect Walker to be in the hospital for at least a week. “Don't worry,” she says, reading my mind. “I'll spend the nights with him.”

Thirty minutes later the door closes behind her, and she's gone. It's just him and me, for the first time, really. Except for his sad little wheezing sounds and the beeping of the machine that measures the amount of oxygen in his blood, the room is silent.

RSV, it turns out, stands for respiratory syncytial virus. From the point of view of Berkeley's infants, it might as well be the bubonic plague. The hospital floor has twenty-eight beds, and twenty-five of them are occupied by infants with RSV, who share one other trait in common: older siblings in school. School-aged children are the rats of our time. After a day of happily swapping germs with their peers, my children apparently returned home with what probably felt to them like a mild cold, and kissed their baby brother—who promptly lost his ability to breathe. There's little that medicine can do for him except attach him to a machine that measures the oxygen in his blood, and, if he's about to suffocate, attach him to an artificial respirator.

My job as his attendant is to decide when he's about to suffocate. Over his bed is a black box that blinks bright red digits, like a radar gun. One hundred is a perfect score. Under ninety and the box starts to beep, and I'm meant to call a nurse to suction the mucus from his nose and mouth. For an hour or so, his number is a reassuring ninety-four, but then it plummets, and I call a nurse. Twenty minutes later it happens again, and then again and again. It's about six at night when at length he is finally able to breathe properly, and falls asleep. That's when the phone rings. I didn't even know there was a phone, but there it is, howling, right beside his ear. He wakes up and begins to cry. I pick it up. It's a woman who says she's from the hospital's “financial counseling department.” The department has checked our health insurance, she says, and discovered that we have a hundred-dollar deductible.

“So?” I say. Walker's now trying to holler. Only he has no voice, so the cries emerge as tiny gasps.

“How do you want to pay?” she asks.

“Just send it to me,” I say.

“We typically collect before you leave the hospital,” she says.

“Can't you just stick it in the mail?” I ask.

“I'll send over by courier,” she says.

Forty minutes later the patient is soothed and sleeping again when in charges a nurse. “Where's Mama?” she asks loudly. Walker wakes up and begins to cry. The nurse tsk-tsks around him until he is inconsolable and then finally says, “There should be more fathers like you.” “There are!” I want to say, but before I can, she's gone, and I'm working to get him back to sleep.

Thirty minutes later the courier bangs on the door, with the bill, waking him all over again. And so it goes, for the next twenty-four hours. Bill collectors, nurses, doctors, interns, floor cleaners, linen changers: As soon as he's recovered from one of their visits and fallen back to sleep, another bursts into the room and disturbs him all over again. Each time he wakes, he cries, and each time he cries, he generates mucus, and each time he generates mucus, he begins to wheeze and his radar-gun readings plummet. The odd thing about this is that the doctors all admit
that there is nothing they can do for him.
He's in the hospital only so he can be near an artificial respirator. But the hospital seems only to increase the likelihood that he'll need an artificial respirator. Such is the state of our health-care system: They keep you from dying, but somehow leave you feeling you're getting the raw end of the deal. Asking politely for peace and quiet does no good; the nurses change every four minutes, and the new one never has any idea what the old one did or didn't do. After the fifteenth time he's awakened, I decide that it's time for a show of paternal authority. I make a sign:

 

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB.

I'M SLEEPING.

THANK YOU.

WALKER.

 

I tape it to one side of the door, and drag the chair that doubles as a bed against the other, so that no one can enter without climbing over it, and me. Then I hunker down, like some Montana survivalist, and wait for the enemy. The first assault comes about ten o'clock that night: a new nurse.

“Can I help you?” I say curtly.

“I just want to look at him.”

“Why?”

“We're supposed to,” she says—which is to say that even she knows she serves no good purpose other than to collect evidence for any future lawsuit.

“Nope,” I say.

And she leaves!

I repel several more assaults until, finally, word must have spread that there's a total asshole guarding the little boy in Room 5426, because we find ourselves well and truly alone. I change his diapers and feed him and suction the mucus from his nose. I notice for the first time that he has my hands and feet. I study the little heart-shaped birthmark on the back of his head. I discover that if I hold him to my chest and hum against the back of his neck, he falls right to sleep. Tabitha comes and offers to take over, but the truth is I don't want to leave: He feels like my jurisdiction. After every new child, I learn the same lesson, grudgingly: If you want to feel the way you're meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It's only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.

And he gets better, and better. On the third day, he's hitting one hundred on the radar gun, and seems almost himself. At six o'clock that morning, an intern—a student who is there for no reason other than to satisfy his curiosity—catches me off guard in the bathroom. But I hear a stir. I bound out to discover this child-doctor bent over my son, preparing to apply cold metal to sleeping flesh.

“What do you think you're doing?” I snap at him.

“Can I listen to his breathing?” he asks. He's not even a doctor. He's a tourist.

“No!” I boom, Shrek-like. I haven't slept in two days and I'm in no mood. Still, it comes out a more menacing sound than I intended. The poor kid actually trots out the door. Then I look down at Walker and, unless I'm mistaken, he's laughing. He's got tubes coming out of every orifice, and he's having a ball. We're just two guys in a foxhole, defending ourselves against repeated, ceaseless assaults from the hospital staff.

“How you doin', buddy?” I say.

“Coo!” he says, and smiles. It's a big sloppy grin. It's then that the doctor arrives, with good news. She points to the black box over his head—his number flashes between ninety-four and ninety-six—and says, “He's the strongest on the floor.” My first thought:
There are twenty-four other kids with the same thing and they're all more likely to die than he is, and…since no one ever heard of twenty-five kids dying in a children's hospital…he's not going to die.
My second thought:
He's winning the RSV tourney!
I look down at him, proudly. He smiles again. I'm hooked.

BOOK: Home Game
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