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.
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.
"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.
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.