The rocking horse winner

by Trey Nosrac

Most mornings find me at McDonald’s or Panera, just me and my iPad tented on a table, the daily edition of the New York Times on the screen. My solitary breakfast routine makes eavesdropping on conversations at nearby tables possible. Occasionally, the topics are interesting.

Regular groups begin to drift into McDonald’s beginning at 8. They dive into their McMuffin sandwiches, Big Breakfasts and senior coffees (with free refills) at two tables in front of the glass wall separating the dining area from the children’s playroom. This morning, COVID fears and a heavy snowfall thinned their ranks. Only two gentlemen made the scene, my favorite two. I knew their backgrounds from previous mornings of listening in on their conversations.

The professor, I never caught his last name, is a retired American Literature instructor with Albert Einstein hair. His breakfast friends refer to him as Professor Point due to his habit of bouncing his index finger off the tabletop when he gets wound up and has a point to get across. The professor points constantly.

Rocco Risko, an elfin figure nearing 90, looks, talks, walks and dresses like he is on his way to audition for the role of Harry the Horse, the crook and gambler in Guys and Dolls. Rocco retired from working at horse racing backstretches across America.

On this wintery COVID morning, I pushed the record app on my cell phone.

“Americans who read serious literature were a minority when I taught and it worsens daily. Those electronic devices are ruining minds.”

“I started reading race programs in the back row of Saint Barnabas Elementary and never lost the habit. If you stacked every racing program I studied side by side, whoa baby, they would be thicker than 50 of those Encyclopedia Britannica sets they used to sell door to door.”

“Didn’t you ever read books?”

“Comic books. You might not know this professor, but in the ’60s, certain comic books, like Tom Swift or Classics Illustrated, had a lot of words.”

“I’m speaking about literature, real books.”

“No, you are pontificating like a hoity-toity smart-ass talking down to a classroom of rich kids.”

“Sorry, I get passionate about books.”

“No problem. Passion is good. One of the nuns at Saint Barnabas, sister Grace, loaned me a copy of Black Beauty in the sixth grade. She told me to read it and then explain to the class what it was all about. It looked like too many words, so I went to the movie, you know, the one with Elizabeth Taylor.”

“Elizabeth Taylor was not in Black Beauty. She was in National Velvet.”

“Really, huh? That explains why my review didn’t go over big.”

“Did you read any other classic books?”

“As a teenager, I got kicked by a horse. While recuperating, my Aunt Zelda left me the whale book, Moby Dick, to kill time. I struggled through a few pages, put it down and slogged some more. I gave it the old college try for three days. The book did not stick. Now the movie Jaws, I loved that.”

“Each term for 27 years, it was my task to convince students that the classic books on the college curriculum were not “pieces of s – – t.” I strove mightily to turn minds toward an appreciation of literature. How often did I succeed, you ask?”

“I ain’t asking nothin.”

“Who can say? Most college students don’t admit classes teach them anything. However, I believe I planted seeds concerning the fine authors that America has produced.”

“I read sales catalogs about harness racing yearlings. I can read them all night and all day and sales catalogs can be as thick as family bibles. Those pages stick in my head like flypaper.”

“Horses racing? That reminds me of one of my favorite American short stories, The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence, written in 1926, in Harper’s Bazaar and subsequently, in Lawrence’s collected stories. It’s been made into movies and plays. None can hold a candle to the written word.”

“Why do writers use initials, like H.G. Wells, the science fiction guy?”

“I don’t know. I never considered that excellent question: E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.D. Salinger.”

“If I ever write a book, I’m going with B.S. Risko.”

The Rocking-Horse Winner is about a boy named Paul. His family is middle class, always complaining about needing money. Young Paul secretly provides funds. He does this by riding his rocking horse until he enters a trance-like state, where he can ‘predict’ the horse’s name that will win the next big horse race. He does this often, winning significant sums of money. His Uncle Oscar, who learns about the rocking horse trick, prods him to continue. Eventually, however, Paul rides his rocking horse with such fury that he collapses and upon hearing the news that he has won a large fortune from his latest horse race bet, Paul dies.”

“Whoa, professor, what a downer. Who in the hell wants to read a book like that?”

“Literature opens the minds. People use their imagination to interpret a story like this. Is this a horror story? Is it about family relationships? Most interpretations of this story are that if you expend all your energy trying to make money, it will destroy you.”

“Or maybe the moral of this big deal story is that the kid should have stuck to picking winners using the racing program.”