Helena Pantsis (writer). Vivian Li (graphics)
Dad owned greyhounds. Seven or eight of them at any one time, dogs of every coat and colour, lithe and sleek and treading air. We’d bond by the racetrack, throwing peanut shells under metal benches and stomping down hard on wet concrete. He was manic, hands trembling and teeth chattering, believing everything was a good omen and a lucky night. “I’ve got a good feeling tonight,” he’d say, and I’d feel it too, mainly because I was with him, and we felt so alive.
I remember the races, standing by the side of the track and yelling, sputtering, flicking peanut induced sweats from the bones of our wrists. Dad had the money ready and
in hand, making bets on the races in between the ones in which his own dogs ran. Sometimes he’d ask me to pick the numbers, and I’d pick five numbers from the
air, feeling towards them using instinct or sheer magnetism, and he’d rough my hair and smile.
“Who’s the favourite tonight, Gus?” he’d ask the man behind the counter, and he’d say something like “thirteen’s in with a good chance. He’s good with the dry conditions.”
Then Dad’d look at me, and I’d look at him, and he’d ask “who’s coming dead last?” and Gus’d say something like “number five’s got a dodgy hip. Think she’ll be down easy.” Then dad’d press a golden coin into the palm of my hand, debossing the queen’s head by the soft of my skin, and he’d smile and say “alright, who’s got your bet?” But he’d already know, so he’d say “two dollars on Five to win for the kid here.” And I’d grin wide, holding close to Dad’s side and keeping eyes peeled for my underdog.
I wasn’t allowed to touch Dad’s dogs. They were affection starved, and it made them tough and keen-eyed. Dad got his dogs from a backyard breeder. The mother greyhound was old then, lying on her side with her nipples ripe and her litter bounding, children ripped away to lead lives hard on their knees. They were deals under the table, discounted when we’d bundle and take home three or four at a time. I only saw the dogs as pups, keeping them at home for the weeks before we’d vaccinate them, then Dad’d have them taken to the trainer, and I’d never see them again but in flight. And they did fly, bounding across the grass and maintaining height by the curve of their outstretched backs, made mythical and unreal by their unceasing movement. My dog always at the back, charging and fighting to maintain speed. They were breathtaking, defying gravity as their legs became wings clapping in and downwards against each other and the earth.
After the last race we’d stop by Chinatown, eating Yum Cha at the Flower Drum down Little Bourke Street. Dad loved the sesame prawns, and even though it was late and
bedtime was hours ago, he’d let me have a pineapple fritter for dessert. He’d say “if we can’t treat ourselves then life’s just wasting time,” but Mum’d still get mad when he’d bring me back home past 1am. When they separated I only got to see the dogs once a month. They grew faster in broken time. And when the court-ordered psychologist asked who I wanted to live with after the divorce, I said “my dad,” but he had to move back in with Nan and Pop, which didn’t bode well for him in his fight for custody. Mum never held a grudge. I was young, she said, and didn’t understand the underdog never wins. But I knew that already, it’s why I kept my eyes always trained on the back of a crowd, and why I wanted the things I knew I couldn’t have.