“You best hold her tight now, Willie. This ain’t no joke. Don’t you let her move.”
Willie grabbed hold of the bridle with his left hand, his fingers interlocking so tightly around the horse’s red cheek straps his knuckles turned white. He let his right hand glide over the top of her nose and up to her ears before resting it uneasily at the base of her charcoal mane, then leaned his face in close to hers and pulled upward on the bridle, steadying her as he pushed her head and nose towards the stall’s rotting rafters. The dappled skin of her neck pulled taut, exposing a straw-sized vein that protruded from her chin and down the center of her neck to her speckled chest.
“You got her?” Hogg asked again with hurry in his voice.
Willie wiped sweat from his forehead with his t-shirt sleeve, pulled up on the bridle once more, and readjusted his grip under her mane. “Yeah, I got her. Just do it already.”
The needle went in easy, and once Hogg was certain the horse was steady, he pulled out the plug of the syringe half a centimeter until horse’s blood trickled down the needle, tingeing the medicine red. He pushed the plunger back up the syringe’s narrow shaft until all the fluid disappeared, then removed the needle from the vein. The horse jostled her head backwards and picked up her left hoof as if shooing flies.
Willie eased his grip a bit to let the horse’s head and neck move freely about. As he patted her head, more for his own comfort than hers, he gave her a good look-over. Her muscles twitched in spasms. “This is all normal, right?” he asked Hogg, who was wrapping the needle and syringe in a blue bandana. “I mean, her twitching like that. That’s what she’s supposed to do, isn’t it?”
Hogg didn’t look up. Instead, he bent down and placed the blue bandana back inside the tackle box among the medicine vials and wrapping tape, then closed the lid. “There ain’t no such thing as ‘normal’ or ‘supposed to’ with horses,” Hogg said. “They’re like people. They all react different. But yeah, I guess you could call it normal. That’s what she does—what she’s doing. Twitching like that. She knows it’s about time. She’s just getting herself ready. Shakin’ out the nerves and all.”
Willie leaned in close to the spinning blades of the box fan perched above the stall’s warped two by four walls, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath—a breath so deep his lungs almost felt cool in his chest despite the heat. If the horse in the next stall hadn’t started gnawing at the boards that barely kept the two stalls separate, he might could’ve stood in front of that box fan all day.
“Quit it, now,” Willie said, slapping at the board with his palm. The horse nudged the wood again with his nose, then backed away.
“Don’t you go lettin your nerves get to you, Willie. She can sense it,” Hogg said before opening the door to the stall. His red shirt had turned maroon from sweat and appeared to cling unwillingly to the stretched skin of his belly. “This is a big race she’s got coming up, and don’t you nor the guy ridin her want her to get up there in the starting gates all jittery. Now take her out and walk her around a bit. Get her blood flowin right. I’ll be back in a bit.” With that, Hogg walked off—past the barn stalls and the small crowds of people gathered around them, leaving Willie to tend to the horse on his own.
What started as a tiff between Willie’s father Steve and his Uncle J had, in the past year, escalated into complete and utter estrangement. Because Steve never mentioned Uncle J—except when he cursed him or when he cursed Willie for associating with him—and because Uncle J never mentioned Steve—unless he, too, was doing some kind of cussing—Willie knew little about the animosity between his father and uncle. What he did know, he learned in pieces from Hogg, Uncle J’s farmhand for some twenty odd years. According to Hogg, Uncle J had run into financial trouble and, in fear of losing the farm, went to the bank and asked Steve for a loan, which Steve denied. That was all Willie knew.
Two days before the start of the Dansby Derby, the last horse race of the season, Barb and Steve’s frustration with Willie hit its peak. They were sitting around the dinner table—Willie, Barb, and Steve—each one of them tense and reticent, and each refusing to glance in the others’ direction. Silence at the dinner table was not uncommon, but this night was particularly quiet: the forks didn’t scrape the plates, the ice didn’t loosen and clank against the side of the glass tea pitcher, and the dry toast didn’t crunch when one or the other of them took a bite.
“It’s just not Christian,” Barb said, unable to endure the quiet any longer. She took another piece of toast from the basket.
Without the slightest acknowledgement of what his mother had said, Willie kept stabbing the green beans on his plate, eating them one at a time.
Willie, Uncle J, and Hogg had been prepping Blue Lady, the fastest three-year-old at the farm, for the Dansby Derby all year. Even though they had raced over six horses throughout the season, the Dansby Derby was the race that mattered the most, and Blue Lady—race name Leave Me Lucille—was the horse that could win it for them. The purse was well over ten thousand dollars for the 1st place overall winner, and the winner of each individual race was guaranteed at least two thousand dollars and a spot in the finals.
Unlike other horse races of the season that started on Thursday and ended Saturday afternoon, the Dansby Derby started on Thursday and ended Sunday. To Barb, racing, and therefore working, on Sunday proved blasphemous, and the fact that Willie had even considered skipping the Sunday morning sermon to race horses almost two hours away in Yellowbrooke was what had probably caused her to speak in the first place.
“Your mother just asked you a question, William. I suspect you better answer her.” Steve didn’t look up when he spoke, but the fervor in his voice verified his seriousness.
Willie stabbed another bean and put it to his mouth, but he didn’t eat it. Instead, he let it hang there on the fork, like a temptation he was still unsure of indulging in. “She didn’t ask me a question. She made a statement.” He put the green bean in his mouth and began to chew, hoping that the volume of the single bean would multiply in his mouth and inhibit him from speaking again until he could get it all down.
“Don’t you be smart with me,” Steve said. He was looking directly at Willie, and though he didn’t look up, Willie could feel Steve’s eyes upon him.
Barb put her fork down and leaned back in her chair. Though she appeared sorrowful for what she knew was about to happen, Willie knew that behind her reluctant grimace lay a pleased smirk. She had a way about her—an instigator’s way of starting conflict and an instigator’s way of backing off to let others finish what she’d started. To Willie, Barb and Steve were a team, high-fiving each other in the ring and alternating blows.
“It’s just a race,” Willie said, unable to feign the mouthful of food any longer.
Barb crossed her legs and placed her hands in her lap, one on top of the other, as if interviewing for a job.
“It’s not just a race,” Steve said, leaning so far across the table that his chest hovered over his plate. “It’s a dirty race. They’re all dirty races. There’s nothing just about your Uncle J or anything he does, and you’re starting to turn out just like him—a pair of dirty boots and no sense.”
Willie knew what his father meant. The races were dirty. The policy was You Pay, You Play—translation: you give us an entry fee, we won’t test your horse for drugs.
Willie thought about staying silent, but he’d been in the ring by himself long enough. It was time to fight back or lose. “No, it’s just a race,” he said.
The vein on Steve’s forehead popped out like a pencil and just as quickly retreated. “Well then, if it’s just a race, there’s no reason that you can’t miss it. You’re not going.”
Barb leaned in towards the table and picked up her plate. The hidden smirk had become faintly visible now, and when she got up to put the dish in the sink, Steve picked up his plate and followed right behind her. They might as well have high-fived right there, out in the open.
“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
The voice was coming from behind Willie, and because there were what seemed to be hundreds of people gathered around the stalls, Willie didn’t take notice.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,’ there Willie Garrison. Though I guess you’ve got enough uncles to worry about with this race here today.”
Willie craned his neck backwards to see Slim Pickens hobbling towards him on a pair of old wooden crutches, his right leg in a full cast. Despite the fact that his name was the most comical of anyone Willie knew, Slim Pickens, whose birth name was Jim Winston Pickens, was the best underground jockey in the state of Louisiana, except for maybe Tim Pickens, Slim’s identical twin brother. Both of the Pickens boys held the record for the most races won for the past two years, each year alternating between first and second place.
When he got close enough, Slim reached out and slapped Willie on the back. “Good to see you here, Willie boy. Rumor around the stalls was you weren’t gonna make it at all on account of your folks.”
Willie tugged on Blue Lady’s bridle, and she slowed her step before halting completely.
“Yeah, well, I’m here anyways,” Willie said, reaching up and petting Blue Lady on the nose.
“You missed that beaut there win her her first Dansby Derby race on Friday. Ain’t that right?” Slim said, propping himself haphazardly on his crutches and looking in Blue Lady’s direction. “She beat those other sonsabitches by four lengths. Blew em’ outta the damn water.”
Although Willie had missed the first two and a half days of the weekend long Dansby Derby because of his parents, Saturday morning Willie decided that he was grown enough to do what he wanted to do, and without saying a word to either Barb or Steve, who were both sitting at the dining room table reading the morning paper and sipping coffee, Willie walked right past them with an overnight bag slung across his shoulders, got in his truck, and left.
“That’s what I heard,” Willie said, referring to Blue Lady’s Friday win. He gave Slim a good look over, paying special attention to the cast covering Slim’s entire right leg.
“Oh that,” Slim said, realizing that no one had caught Willie up on the events of the weekend thus far. “It don’t even hurt no more. It happened Thursday afternoon. First damn race of the weekend. They had me riding that dumb old filly, Tinkerbell—what a stupid race name, don’t you think? Anyway, the dirt ain’t packed so well on the track this time around and when she came outta the gate, she kinda hesitated, see, pulled back on her own, and it threw her off course. When we came around that first turn—I don’t really remember it being that sharp of a turn, but by god, it’s a sharp turn—well, she just couldn’t get inside good enough. She started headin for the outside fence, and I tried to turn her, then I tried to bale, but it was too late. She already had me pinned up against the fence. Broke my leg—bone came straight out through the skin. Snapped like a piece of kindling.”
“Jesus,” Willie said, taking hold of Blue Lady’s lead rope and guiding her back towards the stall. “What did you do?”
Slim opened the stall door, and Willie led Blue Lady inside and turned her around so her head could look out and above the gate. Slim closed the door behind them and talked to Willie over the fence.
“I let go is what I did. And Tinkerbell just kept on runnin. She ran with the rest of ‘em, got way ahead of ‘em too, for a while. Then she lost momentum at the end. At least that’s what Tim said. He was racing in that race too. Saw the whole thing go down—me, and the fence, and the horse trying to run the race all by her lonesome.”
Willie nodded. He could tell Slim had told the story dozens of times already by the way the words seemed to flow together, like they’d been rehearsed.
“Hell,” Slim went on, “as soon as it happened, people and hands were all over me, asking me how many fingers they was holdin up and shielding me for when the horses came back around to that side of the track. Granted, when it first happened, I couldn’t feel a thing, but when all those people started gatherin around me like hogs to slop, I started thinking that I might ought to feel something, but I didn’t. Somebody asked me if I was alright while we were waitin for the ambulance to show up and get me off the track. And you know what I said?”
Willie’s nerves had become worse. He had tied Blue Lady to the dividing wall between the stalls and had released hold of her altogether for fear that Hogg was right, for fear that Blue Lady really could sense his anxiety. If she was feeling what he was feeling, she might not even be able to make it to the starting gates, much less run the race.
“Well, since you ain’t gonna ask, I’ll just tell you. I told that man that asked me if I was alright, I told him, ‘I’m just fine. Just give me a Marlboro and a beer and don’t put me in that ambulance. I’ll be back on a horse tomorrow.’ Ain’t that something? I didn’t know how bad it was till I looked down though, saw the bone sticking out of my leg. That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be back on a horse for a while. Least not this weekend anyways. I still wanted the smoke and the beer though. That’s a right funny story, don’t you think?”
Willie had known Slim since the race at Meadow Lake, which had been at least a year ago. They met at the stalls where it seemed that everyone met everyone else. The stalls were the kind of place where people met people, people talked about people, and where all the rumors started. And while Willie never tired of hearing Slim talk, and he talked quite a bit, in an over-exaggerated and over-accented way, Willie’s nerves were so shot he couldn’t even hear what it was Slim was saying. He heard noise and he saw Slim’s mouth moving, but he couldn’t understand anything—like Slim was trying to convey a message under water—a bunch of mumbling and gargling noises.
“You look like shit, Willie. Like you might pass out or something. You’re all white, like a haint.” Slim pulled out a water bottle from his back jean pocket and some kind of pill from the pocket in his shirt. “Here, eat this. They gave me some good stuff for my leg. It’ll calm you down.”
What Slim didn’t know, or what he knew and had forgotten, was that it was Willie’s first time tending to a racehorse by himself on race day. Although Willie had been at every race for the past year, Uncle J refused to give him any responsibility or any control. He said he didn’t want anybody that was unsure of what they were doing anywhere near his horses on race day. He had meant unsure of what they were doing in life, not unsure of what they were doing with horses, and Willie knew and understood this the first time Uncle J had said it.
The tensions between Willie and his father Steve had been a running joke at the farm for Uncle J and Hogg, who every now and then would make comments like, “It’s getting dark out, Willie. You best get home before your old man comes looking for you and gets us all in trouble. We don’t want you to get a spanking on account of us.” Then Uncle J and Hogg would laugh and carry on in their usual way, ignoring Willie until he finally had no choice but to leave.
When Willie showed up, unexpectedly, to the track at Yellowbrooke on Saturday afternoon, something between Willie and Uncle J changed. Willie was standing next to the fence by the barns watching the horses come out to the track for Second Call when he saw Uncle J walking towards him. He appeared to Willie a clear vision amongst the crowd, almost as if he had the ability to part the sea of people around him without their consent, like Moses or Jesus. Because Uncle J was a stolid man, Willie always found it difficult to decipher his mood. His stoic face and leathery skin, often hidden under a blanket of long-sleeve button down shirts and jeans, even in the thick heat of summer, made his disposition all the more mysterious. Even his name, J, an initial sans a period, proved enigmatic. Though Willie had heard that J was the first letter of his uncle’s birth name, and that his birth name was fit more for a daughter than for a son, he had no idea what his uncle’s name really was.
When Uncle J finally reached the spot where Willy was standing, he didn’t speak. Instead, he stood next to Willie and propped his elbows on the fence. Together, they watched the horses walk the track, both of them fixated on the sorrel thoroughbred, whose conformation made the other thoroughbreds look like toys.
“Looks like you decided something for yourself,” Uncle J said as the horses neared the starting gates. Uncle J never looked over towards Willie. He kept his elbows on the fence and his eyes on the track. “So here’s what I’m gonna do. Blue Lady is yours tomorrow. You’ll get up early. You’ll feed her, and walk her, and mud her, and wrap her, and wash her, and walk her again. You’ll race her. Got it?”
Willie nodded, attempting to contain his excitement through a look of indifference.
All the horses were in the gate now, and without any further instruction, Uncle J pushed off the fence with his hands and turned his back to Willie. The gate stalls slammed open, and the announcer’s voice stagnated in the humid air—And heeere theyyy come.
“Hogg will be there if you need him,” Uncle J shouted over the announcer’s voice. And, with that, he walked back to the barn stalls without ever looking back to Willie or the racetrack.
“Don’t know,” Slim said, readjusting himself on his crutches. “Last race just got over a minute ago. I’d say you got about fifteen minutes till First Call. You got something in your eye?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Willie said. He assumed his eye twitching was from his nerves. First Call was coming up, which meant the race was approaching sooner than later. Between races there was about a fifteen-minute break until First Call, in which all of the horses for the race would be led out of the stalls to walk around a bit. It was also the time that the jockeys started finding the horses they would ride so they could saddle them up. Second Call came about fifteen minutes after First Call and was when the horses started heading towards the track and over to the starting gates.
Willie closed his eyes again tightly to try to stop the twitching. When he opened them, he saw the sorrel that he’d seen race the day before walking in front of the stall. An older man, probably in his early fifties—tall, tan, and thick—had hold of the lead rope. The man glanced over at Willie and nodded. Blue Lady saw the man and the sorrel too and rared back with a heavy snort. “Woooo, there,” Willie said, grabbing hold of the tied rope and pulling Blue Lady’s nose down towards the ground.
“Looks like she’s ready, man,” Slim said. He was talking about Blue Lady. “She don’t seem to like that horse at all, and rightly so. That horse is mean. And a damn good runner.”
Willie still had hold of the rope, but was rubbing Blue Lady’s back to try to calm her down. “Who is that guy?” he asked.
“That there is Rusty McClellan and Almost Illegal, the baddest horse you ever seen,” Slim said, watching the man and the horse walk further down the path in front of the stalls. “Hasn’t been beat in thirteen races. Won the overall purse in every race for the past month.”
Willie had heard the name Rusty McClellan before, often in conversation around the barn stalls. From what he gathered, Rusty McClellan was part owner of the track at Yellowbrooke. Something about the original owner dying a few months back and a group of five or so men, Rusty included, getting together and buying the land, laying down a better track, and adding new stadium seating so horses could race there more often. He had also heard that Rusty was all business and that he raced horses simply because it made him a lot of money, which seemed to intimidate all the other racehorse owners.
“Yeah,” Slim said, backing away from the stall gate. “I gotta get outta here. Takes me a while to hobble around on these things, and I don’t wanna miss you and your girl there. Find me later. I think me and Tim are going to the titty bar when this shit is over. We got room for you if you wanna ride.”
Willie waved and again felt a rush of anxiety, but this time the anxiety was numbing. His eye was still twitching, but now it felt tingly, like it tickled, and Willie kind of liked it.
He heard the announcer shout out First Call from over the loud speakers. “Well, you ready?” he asked Blue Lady, as he untied the rope from the stall’s divider. She jostled her head backwards and kicked her front leg, her hoof making contact with Willie’s right shin. “Shit,” Willie yelled. His shin felt warm, and at that moment he knew she’d broken the skin. He pulled down on Blue Lady’s bridle with his right hand and tried to regain his balance. “I mean, Jeez,” Willie said, bending down and grabbing hold of his shin with his free hand. “What’d you go and do that for? I can’t even walk.” Willie could feel the stream of hot blood going into his sock. When he looked up, Hogg was standing there with his arms folded across his sweaty t-shirt, trying to contain his laughter.
“You gotta be careful, Willie boy. When she’s on go-juice, she’s unpredictable.”
Willie opened the stall door and tried to lead Blue Lady out of the stall. His leg felt like lead, and he walked as if his whole leg was asleep.
“Give her here,” Hogg said, taking the lead rope from Willie. He didn’t quite snatch the rope out of Willie’s hand, but he did give it a good tug. Willie looked over at Hogg in apology. His eyes were enormous—pupils dilated to such an extent that his brown irises merely looked like a thin colored-pencil outline.
“What the hell did you take, Willie? You look like you done dropped some acid. Jesus.” Hogg was frustrated now, but his voice still came out friendly.
“Slim gave me a pill to calm my nerves. I’m fine.” Willie pulled up his pants leg to see a flap of skin hanging from his shin. Blood ran down his leg.
“Well, you can’t walk to the starting gates all bloody and hobbly like that. And if your uncle sees you with your eyes bulging out of your head…hell, we’ll all be in trouble.” Hogg pulled on the lead rope, and Blue Lady readjusted her footing. “Look in the tackle box and wrap your leg up with some tape. That should stop the bleeding. You’ll just have to watch from the sidelines. I’ll take care of Blue. And don’t run into your uncle. I’ll come up with something to tell him.” Hogg patted Blue Lady on the nose and led her about ten yards to where her jockey was standing with a jockey pad. “Just find us when the race is over.”
The dirt track was a half-mile oval, and people gathered in groups all around it. Some sat in lawn chairs with beers in the cup holders, some stood, leaning against the white fence railing, and others, mostly older people and women with children, sat in the bleachers in front of the finish line, eating corndogs and drinking fountain cokes through straws.
Willie could see Hogg and Uncle J on the other side of the track walking Blue Lady towards the starting gate beside the other horses and their owners. It was a six-horse race, and each horse looked fit and lean. Satisfaction was the one horse, an Appaloosa from Pheba, Mississippi, who had won his spot in the finals through sheer luck. The horse that was supposed to win that race had scratched at the gate when he wouldn’t go into the stall. The two horse was a buckskin that went by Not Much, Just Chillin’, Willie’s favorite name of all the horses on the track. Blue Lady, race name Leave me Lucille, was in the three spot, followed by Almost Illegal in four. Jumping to Conclusions and Little Bit of Luck were both blood bays and held the five and six spots.
As the horses made their way to the starting gates, Willie’s eye started twitching again, and with each pounding heartbeat in his chest, he could feel that his shin was warm and bleeding.
“The horses are making their way to the starting gates, ladies and gentlemen, for the final race of the Dansby Derby. This is the best of the best here for this three-quarter mile race, and the winner will receive a blanket from Yellowbrooke Building Supply along with twelve thousand dollars.” The announcer’s voice came out muffled through the loudspeakers. Because the race was a kind of underground race, not even coming close to races held at either Delta or Louisiana Downs, the announcer didn’t make his announcements from some kind of announcer’s box. Instead, he sat behind a folding card table, scattered with sheets of paper, and talked into a stand up microphone that leaned in close to his mouth.
“Satisfaction is making his way into gate number one,” the announcer said as the horse got close to the starting gate stall. “He’ll be ridden by Tim Pickens of Slidell.”
Slim leaned over to Willie and said in a hush-hush voice, as if someone might be listening, “He was supposed to ride Almost Illegal, but the guys from Pheba slipped him an extra two hundred bucks to ride that horse there. I’d a taken it too, though that horse ain’t gotta chance in hell of winnin, even if Tim is ridin him.” The announcer’s voice rattled through the speakers as Slim talked.
Willie nodded. There was still a whole world of racing that he knew nothing about. The two horse went in the stalls easy, as did Blue Lady, who followed close behind. Almost Illegal gave a good jerk, but made it in the stall safely nonetheless. The five horse took some time getting in the stall, and it made Willie nervous. “Hurry up,” he said quietly under his breath. He knew once the go-juice kicked in for good, Blue Lady wouldn’t have the patience to wait it out and that she’d use up all her energy before the gates even opened up. The five horse finally went into the stall, and then the six horse took his place.
The moment that all of the horses were in the gate seemed the most nerve-racking to Willie because in a matter of seconds everything would be over. The announcer came over the speakers again. “Looks like they’re all in the gates,” he said. As soon as he said it, the five horse stood up on his hind legs, throwing the jockey off to the side gate where the owners stood between stalls, steadying the horses. “Looks like we got a little trouble in the gates, folks. Just be patient for a bit while they get him settled down.” The announcer’s voice had become annoying to Willie, and he imagined himself grabbing the announcer by the collar, both hands tight around his throat, shaking and jostling him, telling him to shut up.
The five horse settled back down and the jockey mounted him again. “Come on girl,” Willie said, looking at the horses lined up neatly down the straightaway in front of him. “Come on. You can do this.”
With a loud bang, the stall gates slammed open, and the horses began charging towards the first turn. Blue Lady had gotten out of the gates just ahead of Almost Illegal and was starting to make her way to the inside of the track. The other horses followed close behind. “Come on. Come on,” Willie said. Each time his voice was a little louder.
Almost Illegal was only a head’s length behind Blue Lady as they reached the middle of the first stretch. They were getting nearer and nearer to the first turn. Almost Illegal sided up right beside Blue Lady, head to head, nose to nose. Willie couldn’t look away, and he felt as if he were falling into some deep abyss, like he was diving into the black of the horse’s eyes. The eyes were fiery and big, and Willie still couldn’t look away. As the horses approached the turn, Almost Illegal’s eyes went blank, and Willie jumped back, as if someone had pushed him. Everything appeared to happen in slow motion. Maybe it was the pill he’d taken. He could now see the whole horse—his front legs crashing, one right after the other on the dirt track, his chest and nose following close behind. The jockey was thrown slingshot into the air as the horse’s head met the red dirt and bounced, its back legs still trying to run until they too gave out and seemed to melt into the track.
The other horses jerked, trying to make their way around the fallen horse and the unconscious jockey. One of the horses, the six horse, tried to jump Almost Illegal altogether, but his back legs missed and came down on the fallen horse’s shoulders, and Willie heard something crack. Somehow the jockey was able to hold on.
The race was still going on, but no one was watching it. The jockeys stood up on the horses and pulled back on the reigns, and a group of men who had been leaning against the fence jumped the railing and ran out on to the track, their arms waving in wide motions over their heads, trying to make all the other horses on the track stop. It was then that Willie could hear the crowd’s gasps, and as he looked around he saw people in shock—mothers bent down, pushing their children’s faces into their breasts, shielding their eyes and consoling them as they rocked back and forth on the balls of their feet, grown men standing with their hands over their mouths, teenage girls crying. It reminded Willie of the tent revivals that his mother had taken him to when he was a child, but here no one was being saved, no one was feeling the goodness of God. Here, everyone was in panic. Willie felt like he should pray, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to pray for.
The announcer came on the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could just remain calm and begin to exit the track. Medics need room to get through. Again, if you could please begin to exit the track. Under the circumstances, the race has been postponed indefinitely. Please, ladies and gentlemen….”
Willie stood there looking at the fallen horse. He couldn’t look away. The ambulance had pulled up in the infield, and the medics were attending to the jockey, who had by this point regained consciousness and was sitting up on the track with his hands over his eyes.
“That’s some crazy shit,” Slim said, touching Willie on the arm. “Damn horse’s heart just blew the hell up. Let’s get outta here.”
Willie stood there for a moment, unable to move. “What are they gonna do with him?” Willie asked, talking about the horse. His stomach felt queasy.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, you don’t want to see it. Let’s go. We’ll just walk back up to the barns.” Slim grabbed Willie’s arm and began pulling him away from the fence. “Come on now, Willie. Let’s go.”
The walk up to the barns was silent, and Willie couldn’t quit replaying the scene in his head. The horse just kept falling. One leg, then the other leg. One leg, then the other leg. The crash and bounce of the head. One leg, then the other leg.
As they made their way to the barn stalls, Willie saw Rusty McClellan standing in a huddle with two other men. His arms were folded across his chest, but he didn’t seem upset or even surprised that his horse was dead. “We got a trackhoe still sittin around here somewhere from when we redid the track. We’ll just get it in here and bury him right there in the infield,” Rusty said. “I’m sure as hell not loading him up and taking him home.” The two men standing next to Rusty chuckled, the way people chuckle when someone tells a joke that isn’t really funny.
As Willie walked past Rusty and the other two men, he looked up, only to see Rusty staring right at him. Willie almost spoke, but Slim shook his head and grabbed Willie by the arm before he had time to get the words out.
“Not a good idea,” Slim whispered. “Just keep on walkin.”
“I knew it was gone happen, J. I just knew it. I told you they done pumped that horse full of so much stuff its heart was gonna explode, and look what happened.” Hogg’s voice was angry, and the wrapping got faster with each word out of his mouth.
Uncle J kept his eyes fixed on Blue Lady. “Well, we can’t fix what’s already happened. It could’ve been any one of us.”
Hogg didn’t say anything. He just kept wrapping.
“I heard him say he was gonna bury the horse in the infield,” Willie said, leaning over the stall gate and looking down at Hogg.
“Who said that? Rusty?” Hogg asked.
Willie nodded. He knew horses died. He’d seen them die before. His first horse, Buck, had to be put down when Willie was sixteen, and Willie was there to witness the whole thing. He saw the vet give the horse the shot, and he watched the horse fall. Thud. Like a sack of feed. This time, though, he felt different.
“Willie, are you watching Hogg?” Uncle J asked, changing the subject. “You watch how he wraps her. You’ll be wrapping her up next time around.”
Again, Willie nodded.
“I’m going to talk to the guys from Pheba and see what’s going on with the horse on the track. You stand there and keep watching, Willie. Understand?” Willie moved out of the way of the gate to let Uncle J through.
“ The go-juice. That’s the same stuff we give Blue Lady, isn’t it?” Willie asked Hogg once Uncle J was out of sight.
Slim, who had been standing next to Willie the whole time, knew it was his cue to leave. “Just find me and Tim later on,” he said. “You know where we’ll be.” Smiling, he put his hands in front his chest as if he were cupping two large pieces of fruit and pretended to squeeze them. Then he readjusted himself on his crutches and hobbled off.
Hogg, still wrapping Blue Lady’s legs in Saran wrap, looked up at Willie. “We don’t give her that much though,” he said. “Just enough.”
Willie half expected Hogg to sound ashamed or, at the least, concerned, but what had come out of Hogg’s mouth was the same angry tone that he had when Willie first walked up to the stall.
The pill Slim had given Willie had left Willie with the feeling that he was floating, high above things, a little like he was in a dream, and the intensity of the medicine didn’t seem to let off. One minute his shin was throbbing and he was talking to Hogg, the next he was above the top pines, looking down at the red dirt track in its perfect oval, birds chirping as if they were singing an anthem. Tweet, tweet, they were singing, each sound in perfect rhythm with the one before. It all seemed so real that Willie thought he might actually be flying. “Do you hear that?” Willie asked Hogg, hoping the sound of Hogg’s voice would bring him back down to the ground.
“Hear what?” Hogg asked, as he finished wrapping Blue Lady’s last leg.
“That sound. That chirping sound,” Willie said. He turned his head to one side and then the other, trying to find where the noise was coming from. “Listen. There it is. There it is again. And again.”
“That ain’t no chirping noise I hear. That’s a beep,” Hogg said, tossing the empty box of Saran wrap on the ground next to the tackle box.
In an instant Willie came crashing down from the treetops. He now knew what the sound was, and Hogg was right. It wasn’t chirping.
Rusty McClellan and his friends were standing beside the corpse. Every now and then they would point to the horse or make wide motions with their hands as if they were explaining to each other what they had seen happen during the race. It didn’t take long before they noticed Willie standing next to the fence a few yards away.
“You’re June Garrison’s boy, ain’t ya?” Rusty said, pointing to Willie.
June? That’s his name? Willie thought. June Garrison. The name didn’t seem to fit Uncle J at all. He was too chiseled to have such a girlie name. Without thinking, Willie answered. “Yeah, I’m his boy.”
“Come on over here,” Rusty said, waving at Willie. “I gotta a favor to ask.”
Though he didn’t remember jumping the fence or walking to the middle of the infield, Willie found himself, in a matter of seconds, standing next to Rusty McClellan and the dead horse.
“I saw you with your horse today,” Rusty said, as if his horse wasn’t lying there dead at his feet. “She’s a keeper. A good looking thing. Pretty fast out there today too.”
For a moment Willie wondered if any of this was even happening or if he was imagining it all, like he had imagined flying and the birds. Then he felt his shin begin to throb again and he knew it was real.
“Yeah, she was pretty,” Rusty said, looking Willie in the eyes. “You run and ask your old man how much he wants for her.”
“She’s not for sale,” Willie snapped.
“Ho there, Garrison. You’re gettin a little upset, aren’t you?”
“No. She’s just not for sale.” Willie looked over at the dead horse.
“Well, I think she is,” Rusty said, turning to his friends. They each gave a nod and a wave. “You probably don’t know this, but your old man’s in some pretty big money troubles. He owes a lot of people a lot of money, including me. So here’s what you tell him. You tell him I said I’ll give him $12,000 for the horse and we’ll call it even.”
Willie had no idea what Rusty was talking about, but as he stood there thinking of something clever to say, things started becoming clearer: all the horse races, the loan his dad wouldn’t give Uncle J, the pressure to win the biggest purse of the season. He started to look around, as if someone somewhere would magically appear and explain everything to him. Give him some answers. That’s when he saw Uncle J, standing a few yards behind him, propped up next to a post with his arms folded across his chest.
“Well, you gonna go tell him what I said or what?” Rusty asked.
Willie felt dizzy, like he was about to lift off again. “Ask him yourself,” he said, turning around and pointing to where Uncle J was standing.
“We’ll just let it wait a bit,” Rusty said. “I got a horse to bury.” Rusty put his arm around Willie’s shoulders and waved at the trackhoe driver. Willie cringed, but didn’t move. “Come on with it,” Rusty said, motioning the trackhoe towards the hole.
The trackhoe inched its way forward, made contact with the horse’s body, and slowly began pushing it towards the hole. The black tarp covering the corpse moved as the horse moved, and Willie could just make out the shape of the horse’s head before its whole body flopped uneasily into the ground.
Willie wanted to yell. He wanted to scream at the top of lungs so loud that the blackbirds would fly out of the trees and people would come running to see what had happened. He wanted to hide. He wanted to disappear. He wanted to cry. But he couldn’t seem to do anything—not even talk.
“Well, Garrison,” Rusty said, his arm still wrapped around Willie’s shoulders. “I guess that’s that. Now you run off and tell your old man what I said.”
Willie, visibly angry now, squirmed out of Rusty’s hold. He walked a few feet to the heap of dirt piled next to the grave and gave it a good kick. Red clay and grass fell into the hole and splattered in clumps on the horse’s dead body. “I said you could go and ask him yourself.”
Before Rusty could respond, the trackhoe began beeping again. The rhythm reminded Willie of passing bells, but he knew it was too late for bells. The burying of the dead had already begun.