I was on my way to the race secretary's office when I was waylaid by the sight of crotchety Reno hosing down a high-hocked chestnut mare. He shouldn't have been there. Alice Piersall's barn had always been down the hill, closer to the track kitchen. I'd been sweating blood about running into some people, the wrong people, before I got my story straight, so I hadn't bet on having my first sparring match of the morning with that sour old man. I could've turned around, eased the corner at the next shed row, and mazed my way up the hill to where the hustlers were eking out their deals. They wouldn't care why I was back from New York without a husband or a horse to my name. But I'd had a bad moment when I parked my car, knowing I was going to endure a lot of hot eyes and tattling before I had my legs under me again. I'd pulled into Jack McClellan's reserved spot because I knew he wouldn't be up here until after the big race at Gulfstream. The hand-lettered Reserved signs hanging on the whitewashed fences didn't mean squat until the meet was open and there were races to be lost and won.
A long, bad moment. I'd stepped out of the Chevy only to feel my ribs go squish against one another like the gristle in a picked-over turkey carcass. I'd pounded them pretty good when I took the fall from our mare Sunny during her workout three days before, a stunt my husband, Eric, had planned as a gift for the creeps who'd bankrolled him into trouble. The odds on Sunny were supposed to go way up when word got out about her panicking in the gate and dumping her rider; that had been jerk Eric's plan. After being laid up with an injury, Sunny was due to run her first race in months at the end of the week. If I had any guts left by then, any meat shred of pride, I wouldn't pay attention to that race, no matter how much I loved that perfect horse. I'd forget about it. Flip right past the tout in the Racing Form and everything.
So my ribs were hurting, and my neck and thigh where Eric had punched me in some kind of speed-freak gangster desperation, and the foot which always went dead when I drove any kind of distance, a problem that went back to being stomped on by a bird-shy colt when I was still dumb enough to hotwalk horses in sneakers. I was hungry, but not the sort of hungry that waters your mouth with any idea of what to eat. I was tired too. None of these complaints was new -- except maybe the punches from Eric, which pissed me off even as they brought into my head a kind of cold, shrunk-up worry I hadn't felt before. What was new was the whittled sadness I had to swallow when I set foot on that swept pavement and took in a long, dewy breath of racecourse air. Cherry trees, budded dogwood, the low purr of a truck hauling fresh straw to the sheds. I thought it should cleanse me right then and there. Sweep away New York. Broom away Eric Ballard and the good love that was still French-braided with the bad. But it didn't. The foam bedroll stashed in the back of my car still looked like my ten-year-old bedroll. My two saddles, one uncracked helmet, cooler, duffel, lockbox, bridles, dress boots, and parka still looked like exactly what they were: hard-worn leftovers of a leftover life. I was a gypsy. Which made me no different than two-thirds of the folks working the backside of the track right that minute. It made me very different from the gal who'd left Kentucky two years before, though. The assistant trainer with a string of hotblood horses. The gleaming wife. The optimist who thought she could beat the game that beats everybody, every day, amen. I was back from the tough, year-round tracks of New York, the land of milk and big money, with nothing but lousy stories to tell and a box of stolen cash I couldn't bear to think about, much less touch.
It was a low-rent, prodigal return. No lookouts at the fancy stone gateposts. No messenger cries. I was just another saddle-sore working girl boomeranging back to where she came from.
And I run into Reno.
He was Alice Piersall's foreman and had been for a long time. I'd heard he was head man at one of the top barns in Florida when he was younger, but there'd been some kind of trouble there. He'd done piecework on the fairground circuit for a while before he fell in with Alice. He was too good for her grade of horses, and her operation was too small, but for all the years I'd known him, or known of him, it was clear that Reno was exactly where he wanted to be. There were bushels of stories about the man. How he'd been a famous child preacher in the Everglades, soloing in purple velvet and gold lame. How he'd worked in the boiling cane fields with his brothers after his voice changed and the dove-spirit of the Lord left him for the tender throat of some other dark and shining boy. How he nicked a white boss man with a knife. How he ran a big-time trainer out of his own barn, following him right into the private dining room of the clubhouse and shouting the whole way because the man was messing with a horse's stone bruise and pretending that horse was ready to run. He'd lost his job over that one. I'd ridden for Alice off and on before I left with Eric for up north. I had a few Reno stories of my own. Most of them revolved around the legend of his temper and the fact that I was the kind of person most likely to set that temper off.
Now, this minute, there was no getting past the man. He had the mare half on the grass and half on the soaked gravel of the road, his tapered back to me while he doused her joints with cold water. I took a couple of dragging steps forward.
"Watch the rogue horse," he said as the mare shook her head, then lowered it to look at me. I almost laughed. The mare was no more rogue than a puppy was, but a man like Reno -- bossy and gruff -- couldn't resist the play. He probably hoped I was a high-heeled tourist.
"She won't hurt me, will she?" I downshifted into a spoiled belle accent. "I just want to feed her some sugar like Daddy lets me do the ones back home."
He froze for maybe two ticks before his oval, close-shaved head rotated in my direction. He was careful to keep one hand under the mare's ticklish chin and the other on the red industrial hose, cooling the horse, always doing his job. His eyes didn't show anything once they focused on me -- not surprise or dislike or even one unswept grain of pleasure. I expect I looked the same to him I always had: tallish, half dirty, my hair in a muzzy yellow braid down my back. He certainly hadn't changed. He was wearing navy blue work clothes, long in the leg, short at the sleeve, mildly faded at the pressed creases. No watch. Thick-soled army surplus boots he kept polished. And that same thin rawhide strip of a belt that featured no buckle to speak of and which always failed to cover the copper tab of his fly. His face was the deep, burnished brown of fine walnut furniture, the kind my mama coveted. He had high cheekbones and a long jaw, a wide clamped mouth. I could see the whites of his eyes were bloodshot, which was not a good sign. It meant his mood was simmering.
"Found you a daddy up north, have you? Ain't that always the way." He spoke to a point off to my right, then rotated back to his business, unconcerned, like a rattler surveying the desert from his rock.
I had to hand it to him. He knew how to wrist-snap his punches. My smart-aleck talk hadn't slipped past him. Hoping we were even, I headed uphill, where I trusted Joanie, the race secretary's assistant, would pour me some free coffee. I gave Reno a half wave as I went by, a movement akin to brushing sawdust from my jeans, but I didn't look at him again.
"She want to see you."
I stopped. Waited for him to go on.
"I know you looking for work, like everybody else."
I heard him drop the hose and swing the mare around for the walk back to her stall. Her hooves chittered on the wet gravel.
"I didn't ask. Okay?" My fingers, still throbbing from the long drive, began to dig into my belt.
"Yeah, you did. She scream us both red if you don't come on."
He led the mare forward, her flanks whirling orange in the morning light, his shoulders square and head high as though he alone transmitted the grace and power of her breed. His deep ease with horses was a thing I envied.
I coiled the hose beneath the rust-collared faucet, then fell into step behind them. The sun had cleared the manicured fields of Calumet Farms and was flashing off the barracks rows of barns, glinting on drainpipes and halter buckles and toppled pails. I caught the chuckle of radios turned low, the clang of a trailer dropping its ramp. Reno talked to his mare as they slipped through a gate, tilting his head gently to the right while he cadenced a language I wouldn't have understood even if I could have heard it. Reno had his secrets?his whispered sermons to his horses was just one of them. He was also goddamned proud as hell. I thought about the uncoiled hazard of the hose, how he'd left it for me to tidy up. Catching on to what he'd done made me laugh -- my first true laugh in days -- and I considered that being bullied and enjoying it might be exactly the treatment I needed to start my life over again.
Alice Piersall was a fat woman without excuses. She'd been around horses most of her life and had gotten her trainer's license when I was still exercising hunters for rich girls busy with country club tennis and their hairless boyfriends. As far as I knew, Alice had never apologized to anybody about anything that mattered to her. She'd been born near Versailles, where her father had the gall to own a tag horse or two that he ran at Churchill Downs when he felt like it. I'd heard Alice call him a gentleman farmer, then laugh like the devil about it. He apparently operated a bunch of service stations in the central part of the state, swapped some real estate, had the expected taste for barrel-aged bourbon. In any case, she caught the bug from him. When he died, so I'd been told, he left his only daughter a small farm and enough money to breed and raise a few thoroughbreds. She'd gone hell-for-leather on her own from there.
She had a reputation on her hometown track which was well deserved. She wasn't the only woman in the state who ran a middling string of horses -- there were a few of those -- and she wasn't the only one who'd been known to vise-grip a man's balls. She just did it with lather. She loved to claim horses off trainers she considered number one assholes, and she'd put in a claim for no reason other than sheer spite. She was also known for being patient with young horses. The touts had learned to watch her. When she sent a colt out to break its maiden, it would be ready to win. And so would the shrewd money.
It was hard not to admire Alice Piersall.
After lifting two gates and sidling around a muddy corner, I saw Reno lead the mare into an empty stall in a partially occupied barn. Six horses, it looked like, with room for a half dozen more. Reno clipped some white webbing across the mare's stall, then slipped a monogrammed sheet from the rack. He'd hang a hay net, recheck the mare's stifles and cannons for heat, maybe mix up one of his foul Everglades poultices for a compress. Or he'd move on to one of the other lean and restless animals in his care. I wasn't his concern. Most people weren't.
Alice ran an organized barn. She was good to her animals, and Reno was probably better than that. But Alice wasn't super slick, so her operation didn't catch a person's eye. No brass plates on the tack room door, no matching blankets, no team windbreakers for the grooms to wear. Each owner outfitted his or her animals however they liked. If an owner wanted pink pom-poms on the mane for race day, that was fine, but Alice's own stock was usually wrapped in mismatched bandages and whatever gear she could trade for or repair. I figured the raggedy approach was Alice's way of regulating expectations -- the owners' and the competition's -- but she never admitted as much. She just insisted that decoration was foolish, even though everybody knew the racing business was more than half decoration, whether you were comparing tack rooms or bloodlines or the estimated price of the designer clothes worn by your wealthy clients.
The woman herself was sitting in a canvas-backed director's chair in the shade of the freshly raked aisle. She looked like she was asleep. In fact, with her olive green coveralls, pink goose-down vest, men's work boots, and large, lolling head she looked like she was trying to discourage attention, even as she attracted it. Vintage Alice, I thought. Always issuing a challenge.
She began talking at me before she opened her eyes. I wondered if I was giving off a smell -- some sort of Empire State stink -- the way folks were onto me before I had a chance to open my mouth.
"Have a sit down," she said, slinging a stubby arm at a bale of straw that lay near her chair.
I sat, fighting the dizziness of fatigue. Alice opened her hazel eyes as though she needed to be absolutely sure it was me, then closed them again. It was like being blinked at by a hungry owl.
"Where's that tea? You like some tea?" She took in my face once more, then my clothes, then my face again. "Bet you haven't had breakfast."
"I haven't. Tea's good."
"I bet you just pulled off the highway, driving like a bat out of hell. I bet you don't have a good penny in your pocket."
Alice had a peculiar way of injecting exactly the right kind of static into a person's blood to make it buzz. She knew how to get under your skin. "I got money. Don't think I broke any speed records getting here."
"But you're back." She shifted her weight from one drumstick thigh to the other. "The tea's herbal mint, by the way. All I got."
"Don't have that fella -- that what's-his-name, Ballard's kid -- with you, do you?"
I pulled my tongue back from my teeth, thinking I should fuss with her assumptions about my marriage. But I stopped myself. There wasn't much reason to quarrel about what was true.
"I heard y'all had one tolerable year up there. Good and bad horses. Good and bad runs. You must be back here because it didn't work out. Which I might have predicted." She huffed a little under her breath, her way of laughing, then put her hands on her wide knees as though she had good cards to lay on the table.
"Meet opens in three days. I can give you a few horses now, with another three or four in a week when I decide to yank them off the farm. I'd give you the whole string to ride, but I promised Red Flora I'd let this bug boy of his have a try. It's not much. And I got nowhere for you to sleep." She pushed her long, free-hanging brown hair behind her shoulder and leaned over her folded gut as well as she could. "You could do worse."
"You get right to it." I thought of the poker games I could slip into or the rides I could catch at other barns. If I decided to stay here and join the game again, I was going to need money, clean money. "I didn't ask for a job."
"You didn't, did you?" Alice slumped backward and glared into the concrete-block room at the shed's end that usually bunked hotwalkers and grooms. "I could go out there in the road and holler. Five or six Mexican boys would run right at me. But I know you. You'd take the job even if you didn't need it -- I expect you will take it -- because you love to exercise horses, even ones as sorry-assed as mine. You're hooked. Deep. You left one track for another. And I need a good hand."
I shook my head and stood, trying not to gasp at the clawing pain in my ribs. I was taller than Alice even when she was upright, so it steadied me some to look down on her flushed, smooth face, directly into the bronzy eyes that sparked with mockery or laughter, I couldn't tell which. "Hate to think you believe leaving New York has made me pitiful. I came back because things are usually good for me here. Not lucky. Just good."
"Those tracks up there don't make anybody pitiful. They're rat-ass rough, but livable. Bugs me to see you glued to the saddle, is all. I've seen it too much. That man of yours?if he's still your man?is an empty pair of shorts, just like his oil slick of a daddy. You ought to be running your own string by now, or shacked up with somebody who's got real money." She stopped and let her nostrils flare. "I don't like to watch a girl go down."
Her words smacked. I'd left the touchables of my life -- horses, furniture, husband, bills -- up in New York, but not any good part of myself. Or had I? Alice Piersall seemed to think I was missing a few hard white bones in my spine. She sat there like her brand of survival, which was mostly combat and loneliness, was the finger-slick brass ring a Kentucky girl should reach for. Sure, I'd take the horses she had -- I'd take any horses. But I hoped that didn't mean giving up on respect.
"Might be some of us are just born to be muckers." I glanced beyond her at a skitter of brown sparrows pecking in the dust. "I'll ride your horses if you need me."
She huffed again, then tossed a wink down the aisle toward where Reno was silently rolling bandages. "You'll do fine for me, Kerry. Always have. But I want to know a few things. Are you free and clear? Will that little bastard come bother you?"
I imagined Eric Ballard sauntering through these paddocks in one of his crisp seersucker suits, greeting his father's friends with their gold watches and fizzing mimosas, tossing his head in that bursting, coltlike way he had because he knew where he belonged. He'd been at his best here, where racing was as much style as business.
"Don't think so," I lied.
"You owe him money?"
"No, I got nothing of his." Which was the truth.
"All right," she said, levering herself against the arms of her chair. "I was hoping you'd robbed him blind, but we can't have everything. I'm not going to ask if he slapped you around either, because that's an old story. You come here, I'll show you the horses you can have and let you meet somebody. He's the one's supposed to be making that goddamn tea."
Alice shook the matchstick chair free of her hips and headed up the aisle in the quick, close-kneed walk that was the only pace she ever kept. She was a marvel in her way. Nosy, prone to snap judgments, marginally successful. She was also honest, and angry about it, and I could appreciate that. At five bucks a ride, which was all I could expect her to pay me, I'd need the appreciation.
The bunk room wasn't empty, just more sparsely decorated than usual. It held two camp beds -- one of them still folded shut -- a tiny portable fridge, a hot plate, and an ugly square window fan somebody had left unplugged. The unfolded camp bed was made up with a sleeping bag and some kind of yolk-colored, blotchy sheets. Leaning against the far wall near the single slot window was a man reading a book. The coils of the hot plate were a bright smoking orange. A white enamel kettle hissed with steam.
"Damn it, Danny," shouted Alice. "Quality shouldn't take so long."
Danny looked up from his thick paperback and acknowledged Alice with a tilt of his shoulders. He was average in height and build, dressed in a plain white T-shirt and jeans, his wavy, sandy-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail. I pegged him as a groom, one of hundreds who would roll through Kentucky over the next few weeks as the horses left their winter barns in Florida and moved up the coast.
"Haven't forgotten you, boss. Might've got a little caught up in my story is all." His voice was low and plain sounding except around the vowels, which were chipped and nasal enough to prove he wasn't southern. He set his book in the windowsill and lifted the kettle above the refrigerator, where he'd laid out a small black pot and two glossy cups without handles. He filled the pot with water. A thick, leafy smell clouded the air. "I got another cup if your friend wants a taste."
"She can have yours right now." Alice put herself in front of Danny so he'd know what she said wasn't a request.
"Sure." He shrugged slowly from the elbows up. "It needs to steep. I'll bring it out."
"Good. Then you can rewrap that white-foot filly for me and check her temperature. Kerry will be riding her in the morning."
He looked at me for the first time then, sorting my freckled, windburned face from all the other faces he'd seen in the few days he'd been here. He was trying to guess where I stood in the pecking order -- whether I rode horses, shoveled their shit, or wrote them off on my tax return -- though I doubted he was the kind of man who lost much good sleep over such distinctions.
I gave him just enough smile to let him know I hadn't been completely buried by Alice. I also hoped the smile hinted that I knew herbal tea when I smelled it. Whatever he was brewing in his shiny Japanese pot was not what he claimed. Then I followed after Alice, opening my ears to her catalogued knowledge of her horses, letting my usual wonder about new people fade with the sweet, mossy scent of Danny's room.
"He says he's worked Ak-sar-ben and some tracks in California, though he's probably lying about that. Also claims he hasn't been to prison, like they all do. Knows how to handle his three head, however, which is all I care about." Alice stopped at the last occupied stall, which was outfitted with a high half door. "Danny's cute enough, which I'm sure you noticed. It's the other boy I worry about. Skinny black thing that Reno's made his project. You can imagine how that's going to go."
Reno was in earshot, of course, as he always was, and I wondered again at their long-term ability to tolerate each other. Running a barn was harder than marriage, as I knew, but Alice and Reno had pasted together almost ten long years with spit and bile. They were a flint-eyed team. Maybe it was better if you didn't have bed love for the other person. Maybe it worked if you never paused while you were stirring hot mash to lay your hand on top of your partner's. I wished I knew.
"If I don't go bust this time," said Alice, who'd been clucking her tongue into the murkiness of the stall, "this will be the reason why."
I watched as the horse inside pivoted toward daylight in that droopy, awkward way they have, rotating with the care of an elephant on a circus stool. The liver-colored head that finally swung over the gate was strong boned and big eared, with a prominent brow and a nose just long and curved enough to be called Roman. The thin white streak that began between the horse's eyes looked like a badly patched crack in a wall. His withers were narrow and very high, and though I couldn't see his legs or rump, I guessed he was a distance runner, a stayer with English or Irish blood in his scribbled veins.
Alice caught the halter and stroked the animal's muzzle. "Don't know him, do you?" And I didn't. But the brass plate on the halter set me straight. I reached up and touched his warm jaw. Twilight Flare. An older gelding with a knack for the turf. "If you didn't have your miserable head up your butt, you'd know we won a Grade Three at Turfway last week. Beat Niall Riordan's sheik horse and some other classy boys."
I looked at the sleepy-eyed gelding again. Like a lot of good ones, he didn't appear to have enough energy to carry schoolchildren across a hay field, though I knew that would change when he was pointed at the track. "You had him two years ago?"
"For a while. He finished about ninety-fifth in the Derby because Mrs. Stronheim wanted to run him there. Then I convinced her to have him cut and try him on grass. She's old and willing to believe me. We won fifty grand last year, lightly raced. This year, we turn him loose."
It wasn't unusual to see Alice proud of a horse, but it was rare to hear her speculate with any optimism. She'd grown up cagey. Most of us learned not to admit our affection for any one animal. Liking a horse didn't make it faster. Loving one, as I knew, could put a whole lot of things at risk. I shivered, thinking of Sunny, imagining how she was doing without me. Then I slid a hand down Twilight Flare's neck until I felt the slow thump of his pulse. He could run twice in the next three weeks, in top company. If he did well, the praise and offers would come across the yard like rain. I wondered how Alice would handle it.
"Reno won't want me to put you on him. Rogelio, that bug boy I mentioned, worked him at Turfway, and we'll keep it that way for now." Alice tugged at the big gelding's sparse black forelock. "I think it's the damn chicken myself."
"Likes birds, huh?" I hadn't heard any noise from the stall, but it was common for thoroughbreds to latch on to unusual companions. They were as eccentric, maybe even as superstitious, as human athletes.
"I don't know what the hell he likes. Had a damn nanny goat that lived under his feet all last year, and when it died from eating everything that was bad for it I thought I'd shoot myself. The big fellow went right off his feed. Then Reno tossed that dirty rooster in there --" Alice stopped, turned broadside in the aisle, and sputtered into a full guffaw. Her eyes got creased and wet. "This business," she roared. "It breaks me every day."
Copyright © 2000 by Alyson Hagy