Excerpts from Grace, A Novel

 

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The Following is from the Prologue and Chapter One of Grace:

PROLOGUE

 

Two Asian teenagers boys found Grace’s body around five am Monday morning.  They had been fishing with their father near the makeshift pier down the hill from Golden Gate race track, when they noticed something tangled among the wooden posts that support the pier.  One boy lowered himself into the water.  He saw a body, submerged, unearthly white from the cold waters of the bay, blonde hair tendrilled with seaweed.  They ran to tell their father.  A white woman, they kept repeating.

That’s how Joey told me the story, later, when I found the courage to ask.  A confused babble of voices, excitement and horror intermixed.  Hands gesticulating.  They had reminded him of kids he had seen in Vietnam.

Time has altered the details.  She would appear to me that way in dreams through the years that followed.  Sometimes I would awake in terror, seeing her body floating among the pilings.  Later memory softened the image.  She would have been rocked to the shore by the waves, passed beyond the violence of her murder.  I was trying so hard in those years to take something from her death, something I could live by.

That day, August 7, 1972, cast its shadow over the rest of my life.  I was twenty-three and had begun working at the race track that summer.  I met Grace working there.  Life at the track was exciting to me then, with an edge of seediness which I mistook for glamour.  Grace too, despite her beauty, had a raw edge about her.  I was intrigued by her combination of toughness and vulnerability.

That particular Monday comes back to me as I write: the cordon of police cars at the bottom of the hill, the cops and plainclothes detectives running back and forth, shouting instructions to each other and herding away the groups of on-lookers that formed and reformed in clusters at the edge of their yellow marking tape.  I felt an electrical tension in the air, a sense of fear masked by nervous chatter.  I remember flashes of my emotions: a touch of nausea, a distracted sense that something awful was taking place, a grinding progression which I could not stop.

Police were everywhere: shouting out orders, talking on walkie talkies, pushing onlookers aside.  They paid attention only to those of us who wore Golden Gates Fields uniforms, asking questions about what we might have seen or heard.  A black security guard moved too close to the yellow tape and was shoved aside by a large white cop.  The two began swearing at one another.  Suddenly the black employee was handcuffed and pushed in the back of a police car.  A light-skinned black cop ran over to the car.  He was talking to the white cop through the window.

“Time to get outta here,” a man next to me said.  I realized it was Freddie Corster, a young, nervous guy who was a hot walker for the trainers.  “Come on,” he said, grabbing my arm.  “The police are freaking out.”

“Who was it?’ I asked.  I had gotten a glimpse of the body, a shape under a blanket closely guarded by the police.  “Someone who works here?”

“They aren’t saying," he answered.  He kept hold of my forearm with his thin fingers and wrenched me away from the scene.  “They keep asking about a tattoo on the left knee.”

“Tattoo?”  I repeated.

“Grace had a tattoo on her knee,” Freddie muttered.  “Let’s get outta here.”

I let him pull me up the hill toward the low-slung buildings of the race track.  He was sweating and his fingers dug into my arm.

“How do you know that, Freddie?” I asked.

“Oh boy.  Shit’s gonna hit the fan.”

“Did Grace have a tattoo on her knee?”  I asked.  My voice sounded high-pitched, almost hysterical.

“Stop asking me!” he shouted.  “Jesus Christ.  Whoever thought it would go this far?”

We had reached the clubhouse and Freddie ran off toward the office where we signed in for work.  I could still feel the imprint of his thin fingers, biting into my arm like steel wires.  I rubbed my wrist.

I had known Grace little over a month.  She was six years older than I was—a woman of experience in my eyes.

This story covers that period in my life.  It began a month before the murder and wound to an inadequate resolution fourteen months later.

Writing this story, twenty some years later, has forced me to relive a period I wanted to forget.  Not all the discoveries I made that year were painful, although many were painful enough.  But the memories of those blue-washed mornings, driving up a fog-strewn hill toward a view of a bay that stretched toward infinity, has stayed with me always.

I had known Grace Neville.  She stood like a signpost in my life, a warning.  She was the woman I wished to, then feared to become.  Although this story tells more about me than I would like, the book is for her.

I

 

“Get up to the Turf Club and relieve Grace Neville,” Beatrice Barlow, my supervisor, snapped.  “She needs a break.”  Beatrice was a thin-lipped woman who seemed constantly on edge.

“I’ve never met Grace,” I said.  Beatrice looked at me like I was stupid.

George Mooney, her boss, interrupted from the back room, where he sat with a perpetual cigar.  “Easy to spot Grace.  Grace is a looker.”  George was a big, florid-faced Irishman.  He rarely spoke except to mutter orders to Beatrice.  None of us knew exactly what he did.

I took the elevator to the third floor of the clubhouse.  The Turf Club occupied the whole top floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator, a woman bounded up the staircase across from me.  She reminded me of a lioness, energetic, graceful, full of energy and the joy of life, full-breasted, with the body of a dancer. 

“I’m Grace,” she said.  Her voice was husky.  Grace was a beauty.  Her face was pale, with delicate, fine features, under a cap of blonde hair. 

“Hi, I’m Leah.  Beatrice sent me up to relieve you.”

Thank God,” she said.  “I could use some relief.”

“She wants you to work Mainline.”

“The bitch.  She knows I hate Mainline.  Come on with me to the little girl’s room.”

I followed her to the ladies’ room.  Grace had a strong back and a neat indentation to her waist.  Her round butt filled out her slacks.  “This woman loves to use her body,” I thought.

Behind us came sounds of laughter, glasses clinking.  The loudspeaker announced four minutes left to post.

The women’s bathroom was empty, clean, smelling of disinfectant.  Grace sank into a chair in front of the large mirrors, examined her image in the mirror.  Certainly she liked what she saw—the delicate jaw line, the long throat, the high cheekbones.  Only her eyes conveyed a certain sadness, deep set, with slightly hooded lids.  She pulled out a cigarette and lit it.  Her hands shook slightly.

“I hate going to Mainline.”

“Oh, I really like it,” I said.  Mainline was my favorite floor at the track, with its melting pot of African-Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and lower-class whites.

“I know some of the guys who hang around down there.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Know in the biblical way,” she said.  She laughed, a dry, barking sound.  “You married?”

“No,” I said.

“You’ve escaped then,” she said.  She took a long drag on her cigarette.  “Although every now and then you do meet someone worth the trouble.”

“Have you?”

“Not lately,” she said.  “Unlucky with men.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“My astrologer told me why.  Too many planets in flux.”

“You believe that stuff?”  I asked.

“You gotta believe something,” said Grace, thoughtfully.  She inhaled.  “Leo with my moon in Scorpio.  But too many planets in flux.  From the moment I was conceived,” she said.  “Which means forever, I guess.”

She finished her cigarette, tossed it, and turned to the mirror as if to a lover.  She pulled out a small cosmetic bag, full of brushes and vivid colors, and proceeded to outline her lips, filling them in a deep scarlet.  She blotted her lips slowly.  Grace Neville surveyed herself with obvious satisfaction.

“Think I can handle ‘em now,” she said.  She lifted her head.  “Come on,” she said.  “Let’s get out of here and give ‘em hell.”

Grace Neville shone with a patina of glamour.  She exuded a worldliness I felt I could never achieve.  I could not imagine how a woman like Grace could have any trouble with men.

Grace and I were pari-mutuel clerks at the track.  We stood behind the windows on Mainline and helped the patrons purchase their tickets, accepting their money and making change.  After the race had started, we would total the number of tickets sold and cash received and forward this to our boss, Beatrice Barlow, for counting.  When the race was declared official, those holding winning tickets could come see us and get cashed out.

My first two months at the track felt like a party held everyday.  The clerks  came onto the floor during their breaks, gossiping about each other’s marriages and affairs in places like Walnut Creek or Vallejo.  People of different races and nationalities flowed around me, intent on wins and losses.  I quickly learned the various forms of bets—the quiniela, the perfecta, the trifecta, the superfecta.   Sometimes a security guard or another mutuel clerk would give me tips on the horses, and sometimes they hinted at the darker stuff—drug use, race-fixing. 

It was totally different from my life as a Cal student.  My classmates at Berkeley could not understand my fascination with the race track.  “Doesn’t the noise drive you crazy?” “Don’t you find it boring?”

I found it exciting.  The track suited me.  If I was a misfit, I was surrounded by other misfits.  An obsession with gambling equalizes gamblers in the same way alcohol levels alcoholics.  Surgeons, security guards, bankers, delivery truck drivers—all mingled in the rough camaraderie of the track.  The tellers, the security guards, even the patrons reminded me of the people I had grown up with, working class people who had gone on to become TV repairmen or cops, like my cousin Joey.

My mother had died when I was ten.  My father had remarried, started a new family.  It had been a relief to leave upstate New York for the University of Michigan.  After two years there, I took a Greyhound bus to Berkeley, California, drawn by all the myths and excitement coming out of the Bay Area.  I found a room in a household of other students and worked the kinds of jobs available to young people with no specific skills, talents, or family connections.  Nurse’s aide in a psychiatric institution, assembly line worker in a candy factory, housecleaner, babysitter.  For a while I trained as an emergency medical technician, or EMT.  I was pleased when I was accepted into UC Berkeley as a California resident after a year.  Tuition was low enough that I could support myself in school while working part-time.

My closest friend was a Japanese student, Yoshi Ito.  He was studying political science at Cal with an emphasis on international relations.  I had been his English tutor when I first arrived in Berkeley.  Yoshi and I shared a communal house on Russell Street with Paul Cohen and Carol Sweet.  On June 13, 1971, my twenty-second birthday, the New York Times had published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers.  On June 17, 1972, a few days past my twenty-third birthday, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

Since arriving in Berkeley I felt more connected to national events.  Carol bought a black-and-white television set at a garage sale, and the four of us followed national events on the evening news during our communal dinners.  We sat up late talking about the Pentagon Papers and about the Watergate break-in.  Paul opined that Daniel Ellsberg’s leak didn’t tell us anything antiwar activists hadn’t known for years, but he thought the Watergate break-in might have longer reaching implications.  I was excited to be part of these political discussions, but I offered no opinions.

Besides my three roommates, I had few friends.  I was ready for new, colorful people in my life, people like Grace, people who moved in the big universe outside the confines of my narrow little world.

 

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