When the breakfast Astrojet out of La Guardia was 20 minutes from Louisville, Fred Collyer took out a block of printed forms and began to write his expenses: "Cab fare to airport, $15." No matter that a neighbor had given him a ride; a little imagination in the expense department earned him half as much again (untaxed) as the Star paid him for his Monday racing column. "Refreshments on journey, $5," he wrote. "Entertaining for the purposes of obtaining information, $6.50."
To justify that last entry he ordered a second bourbon from the stewardess and lifted it in a silent good-luck gesture to a man sleeping across the aisle, the owner of a third-rate filly that had bucked her shins two weeks ago.
Another Kentucky Derby. His mind flickered like the scratched print of an old movie over the days ahead. The same slog out to the barns in the mornings, the same endless raking over of past form, searching for a hint of the future. The same inconclusive workouts at the track, the same slanderous rumors, same gossip, same stupid jocks, same stupid trainers shooting off their stupid mouths.
The bright burning enthusiasm that had carved out his syndicated byline was long gone. The lift of the spirit to the big occasion, the flair for sensing a story where no one else did, the sharp instinct that sorted truth from camouflage, all these he had had. All had left him. In their place lay plains of boredom and perpetual cynical tiredness. Instead of exclusives he gave his paper rehashes of other turf writers' ideas, and a couple of times recently he had failed to do even that. He was 46. He drank.
In his functional office the sports editor of the Star pursed his lips over Fred Collyer's account of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and wondered if he had been wise to send Collyer to the Derby. The guy, he thought regretfully, was washed up. He thought that before long he would have to let Fred go, that probably he should have started looking around for a replacement that day months back when Fred first turned up in the office too fuddled to hit the right keys on his typewriter. But the guy had had everything, he thought. A true journalist's nose for a story, and a gift for putting it across so vividly that the words jumped right off the page and kicked you in the brain.
Nowadays all that was left was a reputation and an echo; the technique still marched shakily on but the personality behind it was drowning. Twice in the past six weeks Fred had been incapable of writing a story. Each time when he had not phoned, they had written a column in the office and stuck the Collyer name on it, but two missed deadlines were one more than forgivable. Three, and it would be all over.
I did warn him, thought the sports editor. I told him to be sure to turn in a good one this time. A sizzler, like he used to. I told him to make this Derby piece one of his greats.
Fred Collyer checked into the motel room that the newspaper had reserved for him and drank three quick midmorning stiffeners from the bottle he had brought along in his briefcase. He shoved the sports editor's warning to the back of his mind because he was still sure that drunk or sober he could outwrite any other man in the business, given a story that was worth the trouble.
He took a taxi out to Churchill Downs. "Cab fare, $4.50," he wrote on the way, and paid the driver $2.75. With three days to go to the Derby the racetrack looked clean, fresh and expectant. Brilliant red tulips in tidy columns pointed their petals uniformly to the blue sky, and patches of green grass glowed like shampooed rugs. Without noticing them, Fred Collyer took the elevator to the roof and trudged up the last windy steps to the huge glass-fronted pressroom that ran along the top of the stands. Inside, a few men sat at the rows of typewriters knocking out the next day's news, and a few more stood outside on the balcony watching the first race, but most were engaged in the day's serious business, which was banter.
Fred Collyer poured himself a beer at the bar and carried it over to his numbered place, exchanging hi-yas with the faces he saw on the circuit from Saratoga to Hialeah to Hollywood Park. Living on the move in hotels, and altogether rootless since Sylvie got fed up with his absences and his drinking and took the kids back to mom in Nebraska, he looked upon pressrooms as home. He felt relaxed in them, assured of respect. He was unaware that the admiration he once inspired was fading into tolerant pity.