So there I am, sitting out on the porch blowing smoke at the mosquitoes and watching the dawn fill in mouse gray under a low sky that's heavy odds for rain. I decide to pull the filly in from pasture and ride early, before this weather hits. Anyone watching would have laughed, to see an ex-jock stuffing his jeans into his boot tops to ride, at four in the morning, of his own free will. And don't ask me why, either, since I'd already done what I set out to do, to be first to get on her, for the hell of it. (We all make these personal bets with ourselves, right? There's the you in the starting gate--and also the you up in the grandstands, watching.)
Nobody's paying me. Nobody knows. The filly is done, she's ready, and wherever she goes on to race, under whatever name, I'll always have the satisfaction of knowing who broke Yvette. But now I'm aware that it's getting to be like a craving. That morning ride, that smooth reaching canter through the swishing grass, over the rise to the river and back. That three-beat rhythm, hauling the air down deep in your lungs where there hasn't been any for a while. Clears my mind. I find I can't work right later without it.
I'm discussing all this with myself, talking out loud for the dog's sake, while heading down to fetch my saddle. (This saddle I keep oiled, wrapped, and bagged. It's a Pariani won off a French kid at Calder. By far the best thing I ever owned.) I'm telling myself maybe today should be the last ride, because you've got to come down off a high sometime. And I don't want it to be the day that eighteen-wheeler ten-horse rolls in, collecting for Saratoga. I like to keep control.
The good-for-nothing dog bellies down, whisking the cool barn floor with his tail, while I heft the saddle up to balance on my off shoulder. Then he strolls ahead down the track between the paddocks, dumb and happy like it's the first day of creation. Maybe somewhere outside the movies there's a dog with a sixth sense, but it's not him. The sky's shifting from steel to lead. Toward the end, the dog and me break into a trot because the blackflies are hitting us like kamikazes--they always do before a rain.
What I see first is the two gray fillies (which belong to Mr. Columbus now) hugged up to the fence, jigging and nickering. Yvette, nowhere in sight, is smarter. She'll race them to the grain tub, but only when it's worth her while.
I unlatch the safety chain and let myself in, whistling for her and scanning the pine growth for that flash of shiny copper. Those other two fillies are lathered up, which is too bad but not uncommon before a storm, spooking and rearing, and the dog is plastered against my knees. He's been horse-kicked before.
"Masker, move your butt." I hang my tack on the fence and light another smoke, against the bugs. "You girls chill down, now. Take it easy." Still no copper in all that heavy green. So maybe she's lying down somewhere, which is good for them, get all that weight off those precious legs. Even so, horsemen have morbid imaginations, and that's a heart- lurching moment, when you find one lying down.
I walk into the pine scrub. The two fillies don't follow. I'm braced for her to come crashing out of the trees any second, all snorty and unbalanced, playing her catch-me game.
The dog disappears.
There's a clearing in the trees, a soft pine-needled dust bowl that the yearlings have hollowed out from rolling. They feel safe in there.
She's lying down.
I start babbling. Soothing, pleading to her. She's alive--I know that because her eye is clear and flickers wider to me. Then the flies settle back. There is a sound through the grove like a machine idling--that's the flies that cover her like a ragged black sheet. When they shift I see her wounds. All her coat is mudded and sweaty except for those fresh pink bubbles over her chest and flank and legs, kept open by the flies.
From nowhere the dog belly-scrapes toward us, whining.
As I run up the hill the rain starts slamming down, and I think that's good, it'll cool her some, because her breath on my hand had felt scorching hot, burning like fever.
In the barn I scrabble through boxes and along shelves looking for the needle and the Banamine, knocking everything down as I go. That Banamine is a hell of a painkiller. I know--there was a time after the fall I used it myself. I find the gauze, the yellow salve, but no needle.
"Joey? You taking a fit here?" Nate's sleep-slurry growl, behind me. "What are you doing?"
I turn around. I don't know what I'm doing. I want to shoot the filly full of drugs to stop her hurting. To get her up--lead her away--hide her. Before anyone sees.
"She's down," I say. "Buckshot. She's real bad." Nate's big hands go up to cover his face. Then I expect him to swing at me but he hits the wall instead, hard enough to shake the planking.
Then he goes out, to get the gun.
I run after him. "We can save her," I say.
Nate shoves me off. "Not if she's as bad as you're saying. I'm taking it down with me."
"Listen, Nate--hey, I've seen terrible-looking situations at the track, much worse--she's worth a lot still--you could save her for breeding, for--"
"Get off of me, Joey! Get out of here!"
In the kitchen we're still both screaming, in whispers. Nate's rooting in what I call the Columbus drawer, where he stores the gun. The uncashed check lies underneath. He says, "She's not even insured. Loss-of-use is twelve percent. Who can afford--who are they kidding?" He squeezes up the check. The gun, greasy, slips in his right hand. He works the safety catch back and forth. "What you can do," he says, "is stay and watch out for Dorry."
"Don't go down there, Nate. Please. Let me."
The rain's roaring so loud in the gutters that I'm not sure he even hears. I'd been holding my mind away from Dorry. She isn't down yet, but there's nothing like drumming morning rain to sink a person deeper into sleep. Now I picture her, standing on the bottom stair, barefoot, with her downward smile and blue, blue eyes, asking: Joey, where's Nate? Is anything the matter?
I catch the screen door in my good hand as Nate dives out. He sees me coming and pushes me back, not too hard, but I slip on the wet slanted porch and scrape down the steps on my back, a dumb comedy fall. Nate doesn't notice. He is ten strides ahead, loping through the rain like a giant black rat, soaked through already.
I get up. I run, skidding and pumping for air. Flash pains in my arm. Nearly nothing left. I watch Nate outdistance me, bobbing down the hill, fading into the wash of rain between us.
I imagine me tackling Nate, who is twice my size, and how that gun might explode between us.
I imagine him slowing up to the fence, out of breath like me--and the filly ankling up to him out of the rain. Alert and shining. Refreshed by the rain.
Then I picture my saddle hanging close by on the fence. Soaked and rain-black. Plain ruined. My own dumb fault.
Other than that saddle, I hadn't much more than a bagful to pack. I crept back into the house, tracking mud everywhere. And then I was gone, heading for the main road before Dorry finished singing in the shower and before any sound rose up from the paddocks, other than the rain and cracking wind.
There's a rhythm to the circuit: Aqueduct, Pimlico, Philly, Oak Lawn, Calder, Hialeah. Once I started moving, hitching with night shippers and rolling through the back sheds and honky-tonks, nothing could stop me. I moved fast, trying to catch up with whatever nearly got away from me while I spent one whole long summer buried smack in the middle of the suburban dream. Or somebody's dream, anyway.
Money came easier, once I demonstrated to a few hard-up trainers that even one-handed I could stick to the backs of their rambunctious ponies for the morning breeze. Can't kick at ten bucks a ride, that's half a C-note before breakfast. I keep enough to place a little now and then--for profit, not gambling. Only when I know what's going down.
I never went back there.
They paid me nothing.
The first month or so I'd sometimes get the urge to call. Tempted, the way you want a drink you sure don't need. Generally, I was high already and it was way past midnight, when they'd be inclined either to rip the phone off the wall or ignore it. I'd be sloshing from bar to bar in Baltimore, or New Orleans, checking the tender company for one with something I could pin my imagination on, and picturing them-- curled up in their bedroom over the kitchen. I saw moonlight in the kitchen, the way it looked when I came down for my shift. I saw the dog flopped against the screen door and the table with mugs set out for morning: mine said "Just Horsing Around" and had a chip right where your lip hits.
If I called and no one answered--if they were gone from there--
I didn't want to know.
By December I was in Ocala, busier than a flea in a flophouse, working the sales preps for a change of pace. Now Ocala, with its swamps and retirement camps and over-all racing fever, isn't exactly where you'd expect to find Christmas, but suddenly the traffic lights blossomed silver stars and every saloon had a plastic evergreen or a piñata and played "White Christmas" till your head banged. They did a parade with drum majorettes chased by Disney floats. Santa dumped candy on the black kids who sat on curbstones diving for Tootsie Rolls, kept in line by mounted police. Then everybody disappeared indoors, even though the sun was still shining.
I felt low. Hoofed around town for a while, looking at the fancy stuff--seventy-dollar Stetsons and crocodile belts--in the locked-up shops. Booting candy into sewers. Squinting into ground-floor windows at the blinking trees all shivery with tinsel and, even more colorful, the gigantic TVs playing the football game. Wondering what they were doing. I tried to smell snow, and ice. To see Nate chipping out the porch steps and scattering stove ash over ice humps all the way to the barn so Dorry wouldn't slip and break her neck when she went down before their own dinner, lugging buckets of apples for the mares, who stomped and whinnied when they heard her coming, then stood still, almost grateful, while she buckled on extra blankets against the cold.
Across an empty parking lot, at the far end of a mall, I found one drugstore open. Nobody inside, even the cashier was hiding somewhere. Fat crepe-paper bells hanging from the ceiling shook in the blast from the air conditioner. The row of grandstand racks for greeting cards was almost empty, too. I took my time and finally picked one that looked right for her: a little boy riding a rocking horse, waving a candy cane. Dorry's not particularly religious. I anchored two bucks on the soda-fountain counter under the sugar shaker and borrowed a Bic from the display and just sat there, trying to come up with what to say.
Finally, all I did was sign it: "Howdy Pardner, Have a Merry Christmas--Joey."
Printing their full names, that street and town, made me feel better than I had all day. I put my motel address up in the corner but crossed it out again, because by the time they answered I would probably have moved on. That wasn't the only reason. Then I reconsidered, with that same irrational jolt you get a heartbeat after you place a bet. But it would look too dumb, crossed out and written in again below. I held the envelope up against the light, to see if I could make out my own address beneath the lines.
No stamp on me, of course. I looked around for one of those coin machines and then hollered for the clerk. No answer. I went back out to where the heat was rolling across the parking lot in waves. My mood was slipping. Even the bars were chained up tight, and by the time I reached Silver Springs Boulevard I knew I wasn't going to send that card. The envelope felt strange and stiff. It bothered me. On the next corner I opened my fingers to let it slide down a sewer grate, out of sight, along with all the wasted candy and other junk.
I never wrote again. Nor heard. But last week, while working a grooming gig up here at Rockingham, I happen to look out of the stall and it's Mr. Columbus passing by, nosing through the shed. I reflect a minute before calling out his name. At first he doesn't know me. Then he gives me the smile, warm as paste diamonds.
"Joey boy! I'll be dipped. You old son of a bitch!" He doesn't take my hand, which is covered with hoof oil. "Looking good, Joey. You come back north for the season?" Then he wants to know do I recommend the chances of the horse I'm rubbing down. I shrug. I don't figure I owe him much advice.
We shoot the breeze about this and that. Winners, losers, owners, breeders. "Old Nate and Dorry," he suddenly says. "You remember them."
"Those two're still hanging in there, Joey."
"They got a promising colt, foaled early March. Exact same bloodlines as that bay filly--you remember."
"But a genuine prospect now, this colt. Hell of a fighter. We're all hoping. We'll see. Hey Joey--you hear what I'm saying, with this colt?"
Summer Sale? Could be. You bet.
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