FOREST ARTHUR ORMES
I was sitting in the track kitchen as usual when he entered.
“Jonathan Vanderdecken,” he said, thrusting forth his hand as he sat down at my table.
“Reverend Peter Kruger,” I replied, grasping his hand and squeezing hard.
Vanderdecken had a hell of a grip even for a padre like me.
When he told me he was a trainer, I asked: “How long?”
“Too long,” he quipped.
He mentioned some of the tracks where he had trained – Gulf Stream, The Fairgrounds, Tampa, Monmouth, Oak Lawn, Canterbury, Remington, along with the class tracks of Saratoga, Belmont, Pimlico and Churchill Downs. When he started talking about Mountaineer, I figured he had been to most every track in the country.
I remained in the alert but relaxed posture of the racetrack chaplain who had heard a thousand different stories about a thousand different lives and now anticipated one more. Vanderdecken stared back at me. Finally, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a crumpled white envelope. He removed a single white sheet of paper.
“Read it,” he ordered, thrusting the paper at me and keeping the envelope.
“I’ve known you less than five minutes….”
“Out loud,” he interrupted.
“…and you want me to read your personal letter?”
“I’ve been working on this letter for thirty years, Padre,” Vanderdecken responded. “As chaplain of Hickory Downs Racetrack, your position gives you an automatic personal relationship with me. Spiritually, you are honor- bound to minister to me.”
“I’ll read your letter, if it will help you emotionally.”
“You have a little of the shrink in you?”
“Part of my training. If it offends….”
“No offense taken, Reverend.”
He nodded to the paper in my hand, and I began to read from the few hand-written lines.
“’To my wife, Ruth,’” I began.
“You think it starts out too formal?” he asked.
“ Yes, perhaps….”
“Dearest Ruth!” I suggested.
“Very good,” he answered.
“Dearest Ruth,” I pronounced. “My exit from your life was inexcusable. I wouldn’t blame you if you ripped this letter to shreds, then tossed the fragments to the cold Midwest wind. They would catch me, you know, those fragments.”
I stopped here.
“That’s all I’ve written,” he said.
Slowly, he raised the envelope and placed it directly in front of my vision so that I could not miss the address on it.
c/o Orchard Hill Cemetery
5700 N. Blackwood Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60660
“How long?” I asked.
“Thirty years,” he answered.
A strange malady, I thought. Beyond my training and ability.
“Is there some relief you hope to get by writing a letter…to your dead wife?”
Vanderdecken stared silently back at me.
“Why… so important to get the words right?” I persisted.
“You’ve done a lot of pastoral counseling over the years, haven’t you.”
“Forty years… here and Lincoln Meadows.”
“I know,” he answered.
“What do you know?”
Vanderdecken’s eyes glowed momentarily before returning to a solemn stare.
“This little… date between us, padre. It’s been on the agenda for a long time.”
“You’ve been planning to meet me here in the kitchen… to talk?”
“Talk is what they pass on about you at the other tracks. How you’ve tried to get the racetracks in this state to institute a swing groom position so regular grooms can get a day off. You fought for better sanitary conditions. They told me about the new dorms the feds ordered the track to build for families at Lincoln Meadows? That was you took them to court.”
“The old ones were deplorable! The only way to get them to….”
“… until, finally,” he continued, “the president of Hickory Downs labeled you an “insurrectionist.” He restricted your ministry to the kitchen on Sunday evenings — indefinitely. Lincoln Meadows won’t even allow you on their track. For the past seven years, you have entered this kitchen on Sundays at exactly six o’clock, taken a seat and waited for racetrackers like me to sit at your table and begin their stories.”
“I don’t know where you got your talk from, but I consider what I did a way of … praising God.”
“To this day, if you are caught on the track outside the perimeters set by Hickory Downs president, you will be arrested and barred from the racetrack… forever. Lincoln Meadows has your mug shot hanging up in every guard shack inside the backstretch. Reverend Kruger,” he said, leaning forward: “How can you endure… forever?“
“Why, Vanderdecken, does the forever part of my… exclusion… trigger so much of your attention?”
“It connects us.”
“Connects us! How?”
“One saint, exiled forever; one damnation, cursed forever.”
“I’m no saint,” I said, and then leaned toward him.
“Why, Vanderdecken, do you think… cursed and damned…forever?”
“I don’t think it, Reverend. “
“You’re talking to an ordained minister. If you think you are damned, then you are equally … ‘honor-bound’ … to explain.“
He turned his head and looked around the near-empty kitchen. One man sat at the table in front of the cash register, three beer cans lined in front of him. Two men sat three tables away in front of the television which was showing the afternoon football game. Out of deference to my weekly presence, Vince, the owner of the kitchen who was sitting at the cash register, had turned the volume to mute.
“First you must tell me something about you.”
“Seems like others have told you enough about me already.”
“Can I ask or not!”
“I enter this track kitchen and spot an aging chaplain sitting here at six o’clock in the evening. ‘This man should be at home with his wife,’ I tell myself. ‘Unless he’s widowed like me, or divorced.’ “
“I’ve been divorced twenty one years,” I said to him.
“Why is it important that you know?”
“Knowing a little about you… maybe… will help tell a little about me.”
“If I had saved that extra ‘praise’ I gave to God, if I had saved some of it for my wife, I might not be the divorced preacher sitting across from you tonight.”
“Your divorce, Reverend….. Was that part of the praise?”
“You know it wasn’t.”
“You gave too much to God?”
“And when she left, God wasn’t enough?”
“What do you mean?”
“You needed a little extra help.”
“Go ahead. Finish,” I said.
“You wear a fading red nose on your face, Reverend.’
“Yes, ‘the little extra help’ after my divorce.”
“Seven years drinking.”
“And how long sober?”
“Fourteen years….as of today.”
“The quitting didn’t get her back?”
“She had gotten used to living alone.”
“You gave too much to God, so God took your wife and you spent seven years in the fog.”
“Fourteen years sober offers space and time to heal.”
“You have not re-married?”
“I’ve gotten used to living alone.”
I paused, and then said: “Vanderdecken. As personal as they were, I just answered your questions. Now, if you don’t mind my saying, I have the impression you and God are not on good terms. If you want to tell me about it, I won’t judge you.”
“Judge not, least thou be judged?”
“I can’t say I won’t try to argue God’s case. But I won’t judge.”
Vanderdecken breathed in deeply.
“Thirty years ago, when I was hitting my peak as a trainer, I had a horse named Shumen’s Wind. He was the kind of horse every trainer dreams about. My wife and I lived in a modest three bedroom house just a few miles from this racetrack. I had been racing locally here at Hickory Downs, then shipping out at the end of the year and not returning until the summer meet at Lincoln Meadows.”
“A friendly question for you?”
“Forty years I worked these tracks. I knew the trainer of Secretariat as well as his exercise rider and groom. I was blessing a trainer’s horse in barn 26 when Perillo raced his last horse. I’ve met most every trainer ever worked these tracks. Forty years and I don’t remember seeing you.”
“Friendly fire?” he commented.
“I don’t remember you. And it bothers me.”
“If I told you… we just happened to miss each other through the years?”
“I’d say, ‘You can’t bullshit me.’”
“And I’d say, ‘I don’t need to bullshit you.’”
“The end of November arrives,” he resumed. “ My wife pleads with me not to ship to the Fairgrounds. I was going to hit the winter circuit early that year, Christmas or no Christmas. I wouldn’t be back until next November. From the Fairgrounds to Tampa, shipping up to Saratoga. Get some wins and move up. I had this plan. Start winning allowances, then the stakes, then move up and move up again after that. I had the horse. The experience. The skill. The determination as well as the bitterness.”
“I had been assistant trainer to Charlie Geroulous for five years and before that had groomed for Perillo himself. I had been the one who convinced Geroulous to go long with Formal Occasion. He took my advice and won the Breeders. The Breeders, padre! Do you know what that means!”
“Of course you do! And you know how much he made? “
“By the value of today’s coin? I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
“You know what he gave me? “
I shook my head.
“I practically got him to the Breeder’s Cup – almost a million dollar race at the time — and he puts a hundred dollar bill in my hand… like he was tipping a bus boy!”
“A gyp, trainer. I know.”
“No you don’t know. You can’t. ‘All those years working for men half the trainer I am,’ I told my wife at the time. ‘This is my chance, Ruth. Not only do I train the horse. I own him! Now is my time.’
“‘It’s your wife and children’s time, too, Jonathan,’ she said. ‘Christian and Peter have never known a father home on week-ends. God, you even go to the barn on Christmas morning. How long to wait before they get their father! Peter can’t even concentrate enough to graduate with his class. Christian’s already running wild and she’s only fifteen. I’m working four days a week helping to pay for feed, vet and shoeing plus the mortgage. For God’s sake, just for once can’t you put us before the horses!’
“‘Damn your God’s sake,’ I answered. ‘I’ve been on the shit end of a long stick all my life. Leaving home at sixteen and on the racetrack since.’
“’You don’t have to keep living that part of your life,’ my wife answered me. ‘You can choose… happiness.’
“’I’ve been putting money into the pockets of self-promoters who are afraid to get mud on their boots and calluses on their soft hands. Racing is all I know, Ruth. I got no other place to go. No other choice.’
“‘How much longer before your family has to be that ‘other choice, Jonathan? In God’s name how long do we have to wait?’
‘‘’Until I win. For eternity if necessary!’ I answered. ‘Tell that to your shit-end-of-the-stick God!’”
Vanderdecken breathed deeply, took off his black stocking cap and ran his fingers through his gray hair, then looked over at me.
“That, Reverend, was the curse I perpetrated upon my wife and family. Today… my wife… long buried. My daughter… last I heard … was hooked on heroin and prostituting in St. Louis. My son… getting monthly disability checks and living in Section 8 housing. The psychiatrists have him on three different medications for bi-polar disorder and depression. Once every three months Peter stops taking his meds and goes on a bender. Then all over again he starts the task of stabilizing himself. In His cruel way, God has passed the sins of the father onto the children. Over and over again for poor Peter…. and purgatory for poor Christian. And all because they were guilty of nothing more than getting born my children.”
He paused a few moments.
“Every seven years I ship to Hickory Downs. Every seven years I visit Peter, then drive past the small house where Ruth and I lived as husband and wife, mother and father. Every seven years, I work on that God-forsaken letter addressed to Orchard Hill Cemetery. Three sentences, the result.”
Vanderdecken lowered his head.
“Three sentences,” he repeated.
“Can I ask….” I began.
“I understand you’ve lost your wife. Your children are….”
“…. cursed and dammed like their father.”
“What I don’t understand…. I don’t understand the curse and damnation.”
“Every Sunday… whatever track I’m training at … every Sunday I go to church.”
Vanderdecken smiled momentarily before resuming the solemn expression which seemed permanently molded upon his face.
“Vanderdecken, “ I said, staring back at him. “How did your wife die?”
“After our children escaped the nest into the purgatory of mental illness, addiction and prostitution, my wife killed herself. It took them a week to hunt me down out east to tell me… she was dead.”
Vanderdecken stared straight past me as he said: “I killed her, Reverend. All this evening, you’ve been talking to a wife-murderer.”
“You may feel responsible, but you did not kill your wife. You owe neither her, nor God, this torturing penance. Are you going to go on racing your shoe-string stable of horses forever? Until you drop dead in some lonely tackroom? Or let the loneliness drive you insane?”
“My story’s not finished, padre. I know you preachers like to stand in the pulpit and neatly break everything into chapter and verse.”
“My pulpit, Vanderdecken, is this kitchen.”
“The reason I attend church, Reverend – insane as it may strike you — is to find another woman who would be faithful like my Ruth. If I could find one woman willing to wait an eternity for this curse sitting in front of you, then I would be released from the damnation of my unending chase.”
Now it was me who remained silent.
“Still no judgment, padre? No accusations? No condemnations? ‘You’re going to do the same thing again to another innocent woman!’ Why don’t you say that.”
“I promised no judgment.”
“Churches are a nice place to meet widows. Whenever I go out with them…. By the fourth or fifth date, after I’ve told them I am looking for a woman who possesses the courage to wait for me, they ask: ‘How long?’ ‘Until I win my one big, race,’ I answer. ‘Forever, if necessary.’ Each time, every one of them responds with the same words: ‘My God! To die, waiting? Never!’”
“Imagine how a woman whose known you for only a few weeks would feel when she heard the words: ‘Marry me. And wait forever,’” I said.
“You think I’m crazy.”
“I promised no judgment.”
“How Christian of you not to play the secular shrink.”
“Listen to me, will you?”
“Are you going to offer me your expertise on how to marry and stay married to a faithful wife full of devotion?”
“I haven’t judged you. Don’t judge me.”
“The kind of commitment you expect,” I continued, “only grows after years together. And then… only a chance for it. Shipping to God-knows-where and then coming into town on some kind of old testament schedule every seven years! That is crazy. And you’ve been doing it to yourself for decades! You’ll go on chasing the kind of devotion you seek…..”
“Forever. Say it, Reverend. For — ever.”
“No woman would answer yes to a man asking her such a question — except one suffering from the same kind of delusion afflicting you.”
“’After declaring he won’t judge, the shrink inside the preacher can’t help but put a label on me. ‘He’s mental.’ That’s what you’re thinking.”
“I know I’m a strange one. I don’t deny it. But you know what?”
“You forgot something.”
“I found Ruth. Ruth was not a delusion.”
“You know what, Vanderdecken?”
“We both forgot something.”
“What, padre? “
”Something as clear and simple as a child’s laughter.”
“Says the padre inside the shrink.”
“If you take the time and get lucky enough to marry, maybe, after years together, you might find the kind of love you are seeking.
“It is my salvation.”
“It’s not salvation, Vanderdecken. It’s human sacrifice. Your wife fell under it. Mine escaped.”
Vanderdecken stared up at the wooden lady positioned over us. The lady had been taken off the bow of a wrecked ship, then wired to the wooden beams supporting the roof of the track kitchen. She stood in simple dress with an aging but handsome face.
“All these years, traveling the circuit, and now a broken down, exiled padre seeks to comfort me by putting on his shrink’s cap and declaring….”
“Your horse will never get the big win, and you know it!” I interrupted. “ You’ll always be chasing it. Forty years on the racetrack. I’ve seen it. Over and over. I recognize it. You are just its… extreme example.”
Vanderdecken allowed a few moments to pass, then looked at me and smiled.
“When I passed through town seven years ago, I sat down on the ground and fell asleep against a tree next to Ruth’s grave. It was a beautiful October afternoon. Indian summer. A policeman’s flashlight woke me up in the darkness. Do you know what I said to him?”
“I pointed toward Ruth’s gravestone. ‘I’m visiting my wife, officer,’ I said. When I explained how I am in town once every seven years and that this was the only chance I have to visit Ruth, the officer was kind of enough to give me a pass with the warning not to fall asleep among the dead after the gates to their resting place are closed.
“Later, as I was driving back to my cheap motel, I thought: ‘Imagine. One small dispensation from a city cop with more forgiveness than your God who has cursed me to a life of pulling a trailer up and down and across expressways and highways for an eternity of thirds and fourths and, when He is feeling particularly cruel, a case of seconditiss for weeks and weeks. From Lone Star up to Remington across to Saratoga down to Gulfstream and Tampa, taking a shot now and then over at Canterbury before hitting the big ones at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont. Not one Win allowed for Jonathan Vanderdecken. Seconds, thirds, fourths…on and on without end. That, Reverend, is the blessing your God has bestowed upon me. ”
Vanderdecken again lowered his head. He seemed to shrink before my eyes, collapsing from an aging, robust, tall man into a shriveled, inert, emaciated being. I could see the stubble on his chin. Along with his unwashed hair, it made him look like one of the unshaven homeless exiles from the nearby shuttered mental hospital.
I sat there, trying to organize my thoughts in order to offer some kind of sustenance to the sliver of hope his unexpected appearance presented.
“Vanderdecken…” I began.
Before I could pronounce my first sentence, he suddenly came to life, rose from his chair, walked to the exit doors and disappeared. I hurried after him, pushed the glass doors to the kitchen open and stepped outside to the parking lot. The truck and trailer which I had seen parked along barn D when I had entered the kitchen, the name Shumen’s Folly painted on its side, was gone. Heedless of the restrictions placed on me, I circled to the dirt road in back of the kitchen and looked down the shedrow barns. I could see no sign of Vanderdecken anywhere. The man had disappeared.
“Vanderdecken!” I said out loud. “Vanderdecken!” I shouted.
I stood there for a few minutes. I told myself that he must have parked his truck and trailer in the parking lot alongside Calumet Avenue, then gone to tend to his horses in his assigned barn. When I called the Horsemen’s Association Monday morning to find out what barn and stalls he had been assigned, the secretary told me he had shipped out the previous night. When I asked her to check where he had shipped, she answered that the destination line on the sheet was blank.
Forest Arthur Ormes’ stories have appeared in past issues of Amazing Stories Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Long Story and North Dakota Quarterly. He worked for two decades as a bi-lingual licensed therapist and addictions counselor, serving the horsemen and women of the Chicago-area racetracks. Many of his stories take place in this setting. He and his wife, along with two dogs and five cats, divide their time between residences on the southwest edge of Chicago, and small homestead in central Kansas.