Summary

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The narrator is a nineteen-year-old boy whose life revolves around his job as a swipe at a local racetrack. Though it is a menial job with no future, the young man brags to the reader about it, describing it in a sort of homespun lyricism that purportedly shows his genuine feelings about his career among horses, jockeys, and trainers. Significantly, his best friend and fellow worker is a black man, Burt, and the young man boasts of the good life that they lead, traveling from track to track tending the horses. What the reader infers from all this is that the swipe’s protestations are clearly part of a deep-seated dissatisfaction with his life. In narrating his “adventures” at the track, for example, the swipe remarks on the college men in the grandstand, who “put on airs” and think that they are superior because of their education. However, the narrator himself does precisely the same thing. One payday, he walks into a bar, orders a drink and expensive cigars, and spurns a well-dressed man with a Windsor tie and a cane who is standing near him and whom he accuses of “putting on airs.”

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It is the narrator’s detestation of the false front and his own use of it that is at the heart of the story. Sitting in the grandstand, the narrator meets Wilbur Wessen and his sister, Lucy. The Wessens take a liking to the swipe, and he in turn becomes attracted to Lucy. He is impressed with her breeding, her charm, and her gentleness, and in an impetuous moment he introduces himself as Walter Mathers, the son of the owner of a noted racehorse.

Later that evening the narrator and Miss Lucy go off to a quiet spot by the lake, and the young man describes his feelings, revealing a sensitivity and gentleness that belie the demeaning crudity of his life as a swipe. He learns that she and her brother are leaving soon by train, and he realizes then that he has lost her. By lying to her, giving her a false identity, he has cut off any possibility of her writing to him and of his being honest with her. He is hurt all the more by his realization that she genuinely cares for him, not because of his name or supposed wealth, but for himself.

At the end, Miss Lucy leaves, and the swipe has tears in his eyes, hating himself, convinced that he will never see her again and that he has been a fool.

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Themes