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Vol. 2, No. 1

The Summer Sale Yearling
by Kai Maristed

~

That night Mr. Columbus turns up, without warning, bringing a bottle of red wine.
      We talk about what to do if it happens again. The cops were less than interested, says Nate. Mr. Columbus asks why we didn't hear nothing. If there was shooting, after all. Where were those dogs? (One of the dogs is slobbering over Mr. Columbus's Italian calfskin loafer, which he yanks away.)
      "Nights, we bring them in," Nate says. "That road out there? It's growing up to be a highway. Listen." We hear the windows rattle. Mr. Columbus nods.
      Dorry looks guilty, or simmering mad. It's hard to read her expression. "I went down to the barn to check that mare at midnight. She wasn't ready. So I came back to sleep, the whole five hours."
      "We all sleep pretty hard," I volunteer.
      Mr. Columbus pops a shrimp in his mouth. We watch him chew. "Well, my personal advice is, better put the dogs back out. Wouldn't want to see anything happen, for Christ's sake--your horses turning nervy--"
      Dorry nods. It's like a nursery around her place, the animals are that mellow.
      "Wouldn't want anything to happen here--specially not to that nice bay filly." Then Mr. Columbus pours everyone a swallow and starts in again about the filly, and pretty soon, being a tactful person, I leave the room.

 

~

I have a hard time sleeping that night, partly because I've got a wine headache and partly because of an idea I can't shake loose. About the filly, who I call to myself Yvette, even though you're not supposed to name a Sale yearling. (That's also my favorite name for a woman: Yvette.) She's learned some education. I've got her bit-rigged and saddled, and lunging and trotting on the line with a ground-eating powerful stride. For Sale purposes she'll be more than ready. But now I keep picturing how it would be to swing up into that saddle. Before she goes, I want to ride her.
      And meanwhile, Nate's lamebrain dogs are so excited to be out loose that they're yapping their heads off till dawn.

 

~

By the end of June every mare has foaled safely and all of us, people and horses, are dragging around in the pit of a heat wave. Dorry's letting the horses out to graze at night, when the bugs aren't so fierce.
      Daybreak is still tolerable. First I put the coffee on in a kitchen where the clutter is crazier than ever, because Dorry's signed herself up with some kind of mail-order business in painted plaster figurines, and they're all over the place and break if you look at them cross-eyed. Which I do. They're all five, six inches high, pouty pink-cheeked kids sitting on daisies or toadstools, some with music boxes inside. "My pin money," Dorry says, which means cash. But running her fingers over these Woolworth dolls for cracks or chips, she says, "Oh Joey, isn't this one adorable?" It's a side of her I wouldn't expect.
      So I weasel my coffee out from between the cherubs and take it outside to the slanty porch where the sun is cool as a lemon and the dew is sparkling on Dorry's yellow roses, and I feel great, really hopeful and strong, like a boy starting out on an adventure with a home behind him. The dogs come snaking up to remind me that they're starving, and I dole out biscuits before we set off to bring in Yvette and work her.
      The filly is coming along real good. I've got her partly backed, which is to say she lets me haul myself up to lie across the saddle limp as a sack, while she worms around to sniff my pockets for treats. She hasn't flipped out yet but you can't ever predict yearlings. Easy does it. I'm figuring this business out, one-handed, as I go along. And in private. I tell myself, why should they mind, let's just see how far we get, step by step--but I'm lying. They could tell me to quit. She's not mine.
      On the fifth of July, my routine changes.
      I recall the date because of the racket from the night before. We'd tossed out extra hay to help settle the horses but that was all we could do, except lie awake in the heat and explosions and rockets' red glare, gritting our teeth, trying to block out pictures of noise-crazed mares kicking their own foals in panic.
      At first light I get up, feeling too lousy even to work Yvette.
      I sense a difference, as soon as the screen door slams behind me. The silence. Only one bird whistles, asking itself a question. Cardboard firework shells and crepe paper, blown in overnight, litter the driveway. The brindle dog looks like he's sleeping under red, white, and blue streamers, but those dogs are always up and running once I come out.
      He's dead. I lift his head, which hardly bends.
      I sit down next to him, right in the dust, thinking. Pretending to myself that I'm thinking. Watching brown ants march over the upturned pad of his foot. Funny, how quick the ants know.
      The other dog noses my bad arm. When we hear explosions starting up again, from far back across the river, he starts quivering and whining. It's okay now, I tell him. It's over. That's nothing but the tag end of the party.

 

~

I'm dreading the moment with Dorry. But she is quiet, looking at the dog, while her mouth turns down hard and starts to quiver. Then she says something about a shovel, and turns and walks toward the barn, slowly, like a person wading through water. It's Nate who scares me. He yanks the dog over, rubs and prods with his hands, pries open the jaw. "This dog wasn't sick. Wasn't hit by a car either. This dog was poisoned." He stands up. "Horses all acting normal, I suppose? You finish the chores already?"
      I just look up at him.
      "Well damn it, Joey, go find out!"
      I keep staring, until he breaks it off. "Okay. Okay! I don't mean anything's your fault." He slaps his neck. It's hot already and the barn flies are starting to bite. "Know what, Joey? We could use a gun."

 

~

Nate gets the gun that same evening--from Mr. Columbus, it turns out. I'm not exactly surprised, given the trainer's broad range of connections. But I've never felt much security in living under the same roof with a gun.
      It's not a social call. Mr. Columbus gives Nate a few pointers on loading before he hurries out. That's when we notice the white envelope tucked under the trainer's beer glass. Probably a bill for services, I say. Frowning, Nate tries to shove the gun down into his belt, which makes me swallow hard. Then he hands it to Dorry instead and rips open the short edge of the bill.
      "Shit. That motherfucker."
      This kind of language is new, from him.
      Dorry asks, "What's the problem? What is it?"
      Nate looks like he's smelled something putrid. He lets a yellow scrap flutter onto the table. "A check," he says, as if he inhaled bug spray. I laugh, and then I can't stop laughing, because it's the same face Mr. Columbus made when he said, "cash." I'm making a spectacle of myself, I know, but it's been a long day.
      Dorry rescues the check and reads aloud, extra cool, blowing out smoke, "Eighteen thousand dollars."
      I stop laughing. Eighteen grand, after all. Certain money. No prep, no hassle, no commission, no risk, no Summer Sale--and no glory.
      "I suppose," says Nate scratching under his chin, "we could try cashing it. Long as we've got her. First see if it's good."
      "No way," rasps Dorry. "The filly's worth more."
      It's true. She has to be. The check's the proof.

 

~

For the next couple of weeks we take turns at night, keeping watch. Nate can't stop talking about was it merely accidents, or the kind of destructive crazies the world's full of, or has someone specific got it in for us. But nothing much happens, and it's end of July now, with Sale week at the end of August. Not long to go, so we're working on Yvette in earnest, upping her grain to the limit, keeping her in days out of the bleaching sun, grooming the copper coat till our backs ache. We all feel like once she's shipped out to Saratoga, the trouble will be over. Superstition, I guess. Mr. Columbus has his streak of superstition, too: he buys two yearlings, both nothing to threaten your blood pressure, from Nate and Dorry, as if the filly's magic might rub off.
      Early mornings, I'm riding her. Nothing reckless. A slow, balanced canter by the river, on springy turf. She's so young, but strong and smart--she neck-reins natural as a track pony. To be riding again...I don't know how to describe it. I'm amazed how it all comes back.
      Dorry's real pleased about Yvette's condition. How she's muscling up, shoulder and gaskin. After a day in the stall, she's hard to hold.
      But the extra work and watches are grinding me down. By lunchtime, I'm crawling. I think about taking a vacation, after the Sale of course. But where would I go?
      My shift runs from three a.m. till five thirty. I chose that watch because I don't want anyone else around in the early morning: only me and Yvette.
      Waking up is hell. I can't face coffee at three a.m. But the cool deep-of-night air helps, and I don't mind hunkering down with the dog on the porch, with a flashlight and a smoke and a copy of the Racing Form. Nothing else either--though Nate and I argued, I won. No way did I want that gun with me.
      At first I was jumpy. There's traffic out on the road and even people on foot at that ungodly hour. I grow ears like a bat. I hear cars pulling in and out of the neighbors' driveways, late parties. Kids camping in backyard tents, hooting and whispering. I hear the housewife next door, crying like she's been up all night. But nothing happens. Not for weeks.

 

~

Dorry takes the second watch. Her tiredness only shows in a shadow under her eyes, like she'd rubbed there by mistake with cigarette ash. One night I wake up late, hustle into the bathroom--the light's left on but the door's wide open--and she's still in there, sitting on the edge of the tub in her jeans and shirt, reading.
      "Guess I already showed you this." She smiles, reaching up the catalog. Shy.
      Because she wants me to, I look at the page again. It's the consignment list for Saratoga. Each animal by hip number, birth date, sire, dam...and owner and breeder. There's names you'd recognize off the bat, such as Highcliff Farm, Mrs. Paxson, and Mrs. Du Pont. And there's her name. Same bold print.
      "Go," I say suddenly.
      "What?"
      "Go. You and Nate both go. It's only four hours. Straight out the Pike, up the Northway." I'm seeing all the colors of Saratoga--the flags and fountains and flowerbeds. How all racetracks used to be, they say. There's champagne and live music under a green-striped auction tent, and Dorry sparkling and laughing, dressed to kill.
      "We can't." Her eyes sweep through me like she's seeing another place, too. "Come on, Joey. That's not in the cards."
      "Don't be so damn mulish! What's the matter with you?" I won't give back her catalog, even though she makes a grab for it. "What makes you think, if you let yourself have some fun, the world's going to end?"
      There's a sound outside like paper crumpling. The open window vibrates a little. We look at each other, questioning. "Heat lightning," Dorry says.
      "Truck," I say. Then I tell her, softer, "I can handle things here. For the couple of days."
      "Joey--" This time she gets hold of my hand, the other, useless hand I tend to forget about. For a second she rubs it, lightly. Then she leans forward, pressing my hand against her forehead.
      Looking down on the real Dorry, her faded hair and faded shirt and the strong curved shoulders, I suddenly catch a glimpse of my mother. The way she looked when I left. Young, I can see now. Long time ago. I shiver, because they are nothing alike.
      "You're missing your sleep, Dorry. I'm going down now. Think about what I said?"
      "Sure. I promise. See me thinking?" Her smile is back. Her eyes are darker than normal. She lets go of my hand gradually, taking care so it doesn't just fall.

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