The first time you meet Nate and Dorry you might take them for losers, trash even. Nate wears old T-shirts and butt-ripped jeans, and he talks country. You'd notice his hammy, scarred hands. Dorry's hair looks like it was hacked off with a dull cleaver and she never puts lipstick on her mouth, which is wide but downturned in a sour expression that is neither her fault nor her nature. She was in a serious car crash once, and her jaw got set back wrong.
Their house wouldn't shake your opinion. A no-frills farmhouse, nearly invisible from the road, more like a shack compared to the barn behind it. Streaky weathered siding they've been meaning to paint since the day they bought the place, right? Meanwhile, since that day all the acreage around their place has been divvied up into little parcels that sprouted split-levels, fake brick fronts and emerald chem-lawn. Pools and barbecues and basketball hoops. Your developers love doing pasture land: no trees to knock down.
Their driveway's got knee-deep ruts with dogs and cats snoozing in them. The porch slants, so if you drop something it rolls right off, and inside's the same, floors all warped and hilly. You walk directly into the cluttered kitchen. Then the living room: squashy bucket chairs, a woodstove, stand-up ashtray...poor.
You'd be wrong about them.
The way I met Nate and Dorry was when Mr. Columbus drove me over to check out a Summer Sale yearling. He wasn't buying my time, but it was May with the grass coming up juicy and I would have given any amount of expert advice free for a chance to get out of the city. (I don't drive, since my last fall at Suffolk. I'm a jockey. I was.) We bounce so hard over those ruts that I grab the dashboard of his truck with my good hand to keep from damaging the ceiling. Mr. Columbus guns past the house and jams on the brakes in front of the barn. Despite two bristling dogs, we climb out.
The barn sliders are open. Inside I see oak-paneled stalls, brass nameplates, bug zappers, a wash stall with hot running water. An equine palace. Spit and polish.
I say something, surprised.
"Keep your trap shut, Joey," says Mr. Columbus. "Don't embarrass me. My friends here're sitting on forty acres, straight down to the river. Know what this property is worth?" He says, "proptee."
I'm no banker, but I risk a guess.
"Times three," says Mr. Columbus.
We are looking downhill toward the far paddocks, where a short burly guy is moving horses around, a couple at a time, with that low-headed deliberateness that keeps even thoroughbreds calm. I wonder if he doesn't hear his dogs yapping. Then he starts latching up the gates, drifting closer, still leading one animal that dances sideways on the end of a loose shank.
"So." Mr. Columbus stands taller. Boots a hound. Fluffs out his yellow-and-pink striped tie. "Best behavior, Joey. You're about to meet a lady."
I take him to mean the filly marching up, which is an eyeful. Bright bay, slick as a copper penny, with a rump like a cartwheel and a sweet little dished face. Not that they run with their heads, you'll say--but I go for refinement. Shows the blood.
Then I'm confused. The guy has wide hips, slopey shoulders, and broomtail hair. And earrings.
"Hiya, Columbus! Been waiting long?" The dogs roll and squeal, manic with joy. "Ginger, Masker! Will you fools please hush up?" The person hands the lead shank to Mr. Columbus, in order to shake out and light a cigarette. The voice grinds like permanent bronchitis. The eyes are blue, and they crinkle at me, sparkling through the smoke.
"Huu, huu," soothes Mr. Columbus, snapping the shank. The filly objects to him, or maybe to his tie. "Dorry, you don't mind I brought someone along--kid used to work for me--huu now, baby, easy--"
"I'm Joey. Hi." I smile, partly to show that word "kid" doesn't get to me, and stick out my good hand. She takes it, with the exact right pressure. Up close, she's the same height I am.
"Nice to meet you--" Then we both jump sideways, grabbing for the filly, who's rearing up and away like a helium balloon. We each snag a piece of halter and bring her back to earth. "Shoot!" Dorry laughs. "Dippy little dame." She trots the filly out in a tight balanced circle. "Well, Columbus? Is this the baby? Was this worth us waiting for?"
Mr. Columbus, nursing his rope burn, judges the movement. Among a few other activities, he is a horse trainer. Not the only trainer whose reputation is as much a mystery to me as the miracles at Lourdes. "Yeah," says Mr. Columbus. "I like her okay. Best you've bred so far. Joey?"
I nod, hard.
Dorry squares up the filly, strokes her, whisks away a fly. "You think--Summer Sale for this one? Saratoga?" She looks at the ground, shyly.
"Hmm." The trainer strings it out, his confidence returning. "She's what, fifteen hands? Deep barrel. Big step. You've got three months to prep her, Dorry. Pack some muscle on. Work her."
"Saratoga? Columbus, are you sure?"
"Nothing's sure, Dorry. This is horses."
When she smiles, her mouth turns down even further. "I can't wait to tell him. We knew it." She's talking to herself, burbling with excitement. "When I tell Nate--he knew what we've got, right from the foaling. Oh c'mon, gorgeous, walk on--" Ears pricked, cool as a Triple Crown entry, the filly ankles along behind her, into the barn.
"Betcha wish you still had two arms to ride that one," says Mr. Columbus.
"`You can't ride every horse, you can't kiss every woman--'"
"Shh! What're you, a philosopher?"
Mr. Columbus hesitates, rubs his nose, heads for the truck, and then dives into the barn. I can guess why. He would like a piece of the animal. She has that look, that jazzed-up, running-machine, watch-me look. I hear her inside, pawing the floor and jigging, rat-tat, over the buzz of voices. Raw yearling--no manners at all, yet.
I light a smoke, which I can manage with one hand, even in the wind.
What a place to find her.
Down the hill mares and foals and yearlings are spooking at nothing, infecting each other. Tails flagged up, flying and bucking. Thunder of little hooves. I laugh, watching--you don't get to see them frisk like that around the Suffolk sheds.
Then I freeze for the second it takes to realize that the attack is just noise: heavy-metal rock blasting from behind a high thick hedge. Voices crack. Bodies plop into invisible water. Puff of grill smoke.
A soda can sails over the bushes and ricochets.
"What the hell--?" Rushing out of the barn, Mr. Columbus pulls up to glare at the hedge. "Hey, turn it down! Damn punks! Okay. Not my cruddy neighbors. We're outta here. Joey!" I follow him to the truck. We slam both doors. He sighs.
"Problem?" I have to shout. We roll up our windows.
"Yeah. No. My God, she's a stubborn--" Then Dorry steps out into the light, picks up the can, lobs it back where it came from, and waves at us. Mr. Columbus waves back through the closed window, with a fake sugary smile that I've seen on him before.
It wasn't that she wouldn't sell. It was that her price notion was way out of line, he explained on the long drive back to town. Plus, she wouldn't so much as blow her nose without the say-so of Nate, who, Mr. Columbus knew from experience, was a tight-ass bean counter. Plus--Dorry wanted cash. (He coughed the word out like a chicken bone.) That was the stupidest part, he said, and that they ought to cut a deal in the first place, because Dorry and Nate had a screw loose on the subject of cash. Aborigines, finance-wise: they owned the whole farm outright, no mortgage. They paid cash to the feed supplier, for Christ's sake. Talk about risk! Every single penny tied up in those horses, in the stud fee on that one yearling, really, which was why they could never afford a vacation or even to hire somebody to help with all the work around there, which Dorry did most of anyway since Nate was driving a truck all day to earn cash.
He felt sorry for them. Without a professional individual to bring her out, that filly would rot. Coming from a no-name scratch-dirt farm.
"Well I liked her," I said.
"Meaning who? Dorry, or her horse?"
No debt. That's one thing that separates Nate and Dorry from the rest. No credit, either. Rebels! I pulled my cap down and acted asleep, so Mr. Columbus wouldn't have anyone left to make fun of them to.
I got their number off Mr. Columbus's books, because he had trained some animals for them in the past, low claimers that barely broke even. Since the smash-up, I was always scrounging for work. Networking. I waited two days to call.
"Hyello." Her raspy voice cuts into the first ring. I beat around the bush for a while, asking after the filly and so forth. Dorry catches on. I explain that I'm not looking for much in wage, more like room and board in exchange for part-time. (I can't work taxable anyway, or I lose my disability.) Before she has to ask, I say: "Don't worry about the arm. Some jobs go slower but I get up early."
"That'd be a major change, around here," she says. "Someone else living in. I have to warn you, we smoke. I tried the gum but all it did was give me a buzz."
"I know you don't know much about me yet but--"
"Sounds tempting. Might make sense. You let me talk to Nate."
I never met anyone so married. As if they were married for three hundred years. You can't imagine either of them, ever, fooling with anybody else. They even look alike, with the same brown wrinkled faces. For Dorry, Nate is the King, a hired-on trucker who happens to see through the world's crap with some kind of stupendous intelligence. (There's truth to that. The man reads, and he's got even more feisty cockeyed opinions than I do.) And Nate treats this chain-smoking, skew-faced wife of his like the Princess, he brings home little surprises--smoked salmon, fresh shrimps--she can't resist. (Once I was moved in, they'd yell upstairs for me to come share. We'd huddle at the rickety kitchen table, washing down the goodies with cold beer.) What Dorry doesn't know is that Nate is saving up for her heart's desire: a snazzy computer that punches out race results, breeding records, whatever. All the big farms have this. And though Nate doesn't hurry, he never stops: five thirty a.m. he's helping with the morning chores, evenings it's back to the pitchfork, and weekends he creosotes fences and fixes whatever needs fixing. Does most of the shoeing. No wonder the house isn't painted.
I study them. If I ever get married--big if--it should be like that.
I can't figure their accents. Not Boston. Midwest, maybe? One morning, while we're injecting a dose of Banamine into this overdue broodmare who's behaving colicky, I ask her.
"City kids," says Dorry. "Nate and me grew up in Albany. But we've lived a lot of places. Moving wherever the money looked better, not that it always was. Nate's versatile. There's not much he can't handle."
I have to laugh. Albany--some city.
Dorry eases the twitch off the mare's nose. (Most horses don't need twitching, but this mare has a human-style fear of needles.) "We're not moving again," she says. "That's over. I'd rather eat feed corn than ever pay rent again. Now we've got ground of our own under us. Something to make something out of. You know, Joey. Isn't that pretty much what everybody wants?" She says this dry and offhanded, but her blue eyes are wide and soft, drifting toward the filly's stall, even though it's empty--all the yearlings out to play.
In only the past week, I've shooed two real estate sharks off the premises. They're tromping the lot lines in sharp heels and clanking jewelry, spreading perfume and promising the moon. They're worse than track touts, but certain ideas have crossed my mind. "Well, I expect if you ever did decide to sell--"
"No way!" She leans down to check the mare's udder. "She's waxing up good now, hmm? Won't be long now. Joey, I tell you: smart people don't sell land. We never had land before, neither of us. Nor in our families. And I tell you: we wouldn't have it again, if we sold. You can hardly buy farmland anymore."
She's shrewd. She's already looked into that.
"Yeah. Things change fast," I say.
And then trouble starts.
The first sign appears the next morning. I'm walking down to feed breakfast and every animal is muttering or banging in its stall, each according to its own degree of desperation. Makes you feel like the most important guy in the universe. I stop in front of the barn to grind out my smoke, and that's where I see glass. All over the place: sparkling green slivers. The more I look, the more I see. I pick one up: a piece of beer bottle, the imported stuff, not your normal Bud.
Inside the barn, the Attica Uprising is in full swing, so I proceed to toss out hay. Then I buzz up to the house: alarm.
Dorry comes flying down in her bathrobe and untied sneakers; Nate's still buttoning his shirt. They're ready for action. They think it's the foaling, at last.
Dorry can be great in a crisis. Not squeamish. Dead quiet and quick to act. But now, picking up the glass, she cuts her thumb and I look away from her face, which is folding up as if she can't help but blubber.
Nate is bullshit. He's going to call the cops. Kill the delinquent bastards.
"What makes you sure it's kids?" I ask.
"Look." He holds out his hand. "BB guns." Two pellets roll like dice on his palm.
After an hour, we've finally cleared away enough to lead the horses out--but extra careful. Watching every step.
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