NEW YORK, December 31, 2013 — I ran into this guy I had not seen in quite some time and we got to talking about the horses, as what else is there to talk about? So after all the bad news, like the chumps and bums who’d left us over the past year, we switched to something pleasant, like our pal Schnaz. Turned out, from this guy, that Schnaz likewise left us for the big racetrack in the sky.
Even that brought us a smile because up there Schnaz was probably still trying to make a buck.
So I remembered the last time I saw Schnaz. It was in the dining room at the track. He had asked me if I could read French. Not much, I confessed, but enough to give it a try. Schnaz said that years ago he got a letter from France and never got around to having it explained to him, as it was written in French, so next time he’d bring it with him. He had no relatives in France, no horses either, so what could it be?
Now Schnaz was what people call a racetrack degenerate He was an ordinary guy. You can guess why he was called Schnaz. He was always around, around the track, but nobody knew exactly what he did. Sometimes he was out front selling tout sheets. Sometimes he was in the backstretch hanging around the agents, the jockeys and the trainers. He was always hustling, but never a hustler. Just an old-timer trying to get by.
Nobody knew where he came from. Nobody knew his name. It certainly was not Schnaz. But he resembled another old-timer, Jimmy Durante, so that was close enough. Schnaz had no friends, from what we could tell. He did have pals. That is what he called you, “Hey pal.”
He was a good guy.
Was he married? Did he have kids? Nobody asked and he never told. What did he do when he was younger? Did he do anything? Was he ever young?
He was just a guy. There are millions of them. They are all over the racetrack. You become friends, pals, when it is about a horse that won for you or lost for you. You commiserate. You shoulda, woulda, coulda. You do not delve into a man’s past, except to ask if he’d had better luck with the horses the day before. That passes for conversation among horseplayers. It is ritual.
We never spoke much throughout the years, except for, “Hey, pal, got a good thing in the ninth?”
Maybe it was Schnaz who laughed that particular day about all the old ladies in the neighborhood that used to snub him because he was a “gambler” but are now lined up round the block for lottery tickets.
I am not sure. Maybe it wasn’t Schnaz. I think it was.
But then came that day when he brought that letter from France. We were up in the dining room. He was not dressed properly but it was Schnaz. So it was okay.
“There you are,” he said. “Got anything?”
“Nothing good,” I said.
So he said, “See you around, pal.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What about that letter?”
He thought for a moment. “Oh yeah.” He reached into a pocket and took out a crumpled envelope. I opened it and started reading.
“Mean anything?” he asked.
The letter was all in French, of course, and the letterhead said, “National de la Legion d’honneur.”
“They want you in France,” I said, deciphering the words as best I could – words like World War II, and courage beyond the call of duty.
“What did I do?” Schnaz asked, confused but unconcerned. “Is it a bill?”
“No, but it is something overdue. Says here you won France’s highest military award, their version of our medal of honor. “
“Schnaz, all this time — and you never told anybody? They want you over there to pick up your award directly from the French president himself.”
“I ain’t going no place, pal,” said Schnaz. “Who ya like next race?”
The latest from Jack Engelhard, bonus edition Slot Attendant: A Novel About A Novelist
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