Finding A Safe Space

Roxy knocked softly on Lilith’s door.

“Lilith, I can hear you in there.  Can I come in?”

Nothing.

“Lilith, I brought some fancy cat food for momma cat.  Can I come in?”

Roxy heard movement and some scribbling and looked down to see a hastily written note sliding under the door.  It read: “Can you leave it and come back later? I’m sorry.”

Roxy sighed.  This was going to be more trouble than she’d hoped.

“Sure Lilith.  I’m leaving the food here.  But I know you know that there aren’t any horses for our barn galloping tomorrow and I want to make sure you have some money for food for yourself so I want to give you $20 and I don’t want to leave it out here in the hallway for somebody to steal.  Can I give it to you?”

Roxy heard a sigh and a shuffling of feet across the floor, the door opened a crack.

“Lilith, can I come in and pet the kittens? I’ve had a hard day and it seems like that would be helpful – you know?”

Roxy waited trying hard not to seem impatient or frustrated. As with a shy horse, Roxy knew that rushing would make things worse.

After what seemed like forever, the door opened enough for Roxy to squeeze in.

The room smelled like warm bodies and sweaty socks.  Cereal boxes were neatly arranged in the windowsill on one side with cat food boxes arranged on the other like books.  Everything else was a mess of laundry, comic books, a litter box and cat toys. Momma cat laid on the couch nursing three mewling kittens.

Roxy sat down gingerly and focused her eyes on the kittens.  She petted momma on the head.

“They are really growing up!”

Lilith sat down on the other side of momma cat and picked up the gray tabby kitten and picked crusty bits from the corners of the kittens eyes.  The kitten squirmed.

“So Lilith.  As you know, some bad things have happened in Jude’s barn in the last few days and we think we both know who the bad guy is.

Lilith froze.

“Lilith, that groom, the big guy, the guys call him Tito. 

Lilith shrank, pulling the kitten toward her belly. 

Roxy busied herself with comforting momma cat.  Right now that kitten had the important job of keeping Lilith from bolting out of the room. Roxy pressed on gently.

“If Tito hurt you – we can make him go away.”

Lilith had not expected support for herself.  She was only thinking of what Roxy and others might need from her. Confused, she asked “What would happen to him?”

“Well, he’s done some bad things and we can get him to lose his license so he can’t come on the racetrack anymore.  But you are the only one who has seen him do some things and we need to go to the authorities.”

“I just. I just… I just can’t talk to someone with a gun.  I’m sorry.  I get scared and words get mixed up and if he knows.  That Tito guy, he might. Well he might.” Lilith’s eyes rolled to the ceiling and she started rocking back and forth holding the kitten too tightly. Momma cat stirred at the cries of her baby in distress. Lilith began to bang her head repeatedly on the wall. 

“Hey. Hey.” Roxy was in over her head.  This goofy chick was going to freak out and then everything would go to shit.  She tried to think of Lilith as a terrified horse. What would she do if a horse was so scared it was willing to bolt and hurt itself to get away?

“Sh…… Sh…….” Roxy crooned.  She averted her gaze but kept Lilith in her peripheral vision. She checked to see if her hands were balled into fists and relaxed those too.  She remembered an old groom who once told her how to deal with a particularly flighty horse.  This groom would pause before going into the stall and let out a giant and drawn out yawn.  More times than not, the horse would pause and relax.  Roxy had nothing to lose so she stretched her arms out and let out a giant head rolling yawn.

Then. She waited. And waited. After way too long, Lilith put the kitten back next to her siblings and sighed. 

“Maybe we can talk to someone other than a policeman or security guard.  Ann has this friend who is a lawyer, or a friend of a lawyer or something.  He’s really nice, even if he recites poetry and shit.”

“Ann?  Ann Garrison? Maybe I could talk to Ann.”

“I think Ann would like that. But Lilith. We need to talk about something else. We need to make sure that you are safe. Is there anywhere else you can stay? I don’t want to worry that you are afraid of Tito.

Lilith instinctively began to pace the small room. Roxy had gone too far. 

“I. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t”

“Hey Lilith.  Here’s the thing.  I’m here to help you. Ann wants to help you. We aren’t going to let anything happen to you or to the cats. But you have to let us help you OK? Do you have any family you can stay with?”

“No. No. No. NO!”  Lilith’s agitation and pacing increased.

Having no other thoughts, Roxy yawned again. Lilith froze and regarded Roxy warily. “You’re weird.” Lilith said.

“Totally weird my friend.  But we gallop girls are a weird bunch.  Let’s see if you can stay at Ann’s little place. You and the cats.  Ok?”

“Ok.”

Do You Know Lilith?

“Do you know Lilith? The really quiet little gallop girl that used to gallop those skinny horses for the old man?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Wait, the one that wears the old style helmet and never talks to anyone?  I didn’t even know she spoke English.”

“Well, she barely talks at all.  But we needed help and so I hired her to get on some of the easier ones and I made her talk to me. She’s got these kittens up in her room and once you get her talking about the cats, she kind of opens up.  Strange chick, but aren’t we all?

“Anyway, it turns out, she’s a total night owl and she is up most of the night and she hates that new groom Enrique hired – she’s terrified of him.”

“Enrique doesn’t like the guy either.”

“So this spooky little Lilith saw him load that crippled old campaigner you liked so much into a rusty trailer last week in the middle of the night.”

“And it took her this long to say anything about it?  What the hell?”

“Hang on Ann, she’s terrified of this guy.  But then she was dumping her cat box into the dumpster behind the kitchen and she sees the same guy talking to that goofy bitch Lavinia and she sees her slip him something into his hand.  The same day, that filly Mercy Street that he grooms for us runs like a raped ape and tests dirty for Dermorphin.”

“So we’ve got them!”

“Not so fast.  This poor Lilith kid will never testify.  She’s spooky as hell and I can barely get her to talk to me – when I told her that we needed to make a report she looked like I’d just held her a gunpoint.  She won’t talk and  she’s crazy terrified of that shifty groom.”

“So we just let Lavina ruin Jude’s business and all our lives and we make like it’s okay that this groom stole Vaya Con Dios in the middle of the night and Jude Keenan’s barn takes the heat for it because some shy gallop girl doesn’t like to talk to strangers?”

Mark exhaled in the corner and Ann realized she’d forgotten her dear friend in his worst hours in exchange for racetrack gossip.

“Jesus Mark, I’m sorry.  It’s a terrible day.  What can we do for you?”

“Ann, Johnny was a lawyer.  Because he loved justice.  And frankly, he loved you.  We are going to figure out how to make this right and I’m willing to throw some resources into it to make it right. It feels like what Johnny would want.”

“Are you sure Mark?”

“I’m positive.”

“Well, where do we start?”

“So walk me through this.  As I understand it, we’ve got a few things going on.  First your barn loses it’s big owner and she sounds like a nut.  What is her story?” asked Mark.

Roxy chimed in “Team Bleau is run by that crazy bitch Lavinia Bleau.  Her mom owned a company that tested people for drugs.  Parents could spend $100 and see if their kid was taking drugs.  They made a fortune in the 90’s.”

“So she’s got access to drug labs?”

“How would I know? I guess.”

“Hmmmm.”

“What is happening with the drug sample of the horse, I can’t remember the name…”

“Mercy Street?”

“Yeah, what is the process if they decide she was drugged?”

“Well, Jude is the trainer and so he will have to go in front of the State Racing Board and he could be liable for criminal charges I guess.”

“But didn’t I hear that Jude is dating Julie Ullswater and her dad owns the track or something?”

“Her dad is the general manager but the new owners of the track are going to replace him or something. About time too.”

“How does Julie feel about that?”

“How the fuck should I know what that bitch does or cares about?” Roxy said.

“Look, I feel like I need to go.  My life is super crazy right now – but helping you Ann and getting this art produced is the only thing keeping me from melting into a puddle of desperation – so work with me?”

Ann turned to Roxy and explained “Mark lost his partner, my friend Johnny, to” she swallowed and looked at Mark who nodded “to suicide.”

“Fuck! I’m really sorry and here I am with my stupid hunk of clay and a bunch of racetrack gossip.  I’ll go. I’m really sorry!”  Roxy stammered.

“Hang on, you weren’t listening.  I said that helping you guys is the only thing keeping me together right now.  Let’s figure this out. Now, we are going to bring Julie into this to help you with your art but will she want to help Jude if her dad doesn’t want to be associated with anyone coming up on charges of drugging horses? And tell me more about this Lilith person.”

“Yeah” chimed in Ann “how do we get her to talk?”

“Seriously guys, she’s not going to be much help.  She clams up when you even look at her head on.  The only time she talks to me is when I ask her to take me up to her room to pet the kittens.”

“Weirdo then.” Said Ann.

“Not weird. Just doing her thing.  She likes animals and I think people have been mean to her.  She’s really scared of that asshole groom. Makes me think he hurt her or something.”

“Okay, so Roxy – leave the sculpture here and go and find this Lilith person. Do whatever you need to do to get her to open up.” Said Mark.

Roxy hadn’t expected them to remember her piece and moved toward it protectively.  

“Rox, seriously, Mark is an art collector and an art critic.  There is no safer place for your stuff than with him.  I promise.” Said Ann.

“Okay, so here’s the thing, I’m worried about this Lilith kid.  She could bolt and we would never know where she went.  She’s scared and spooky and she’s now out of a job with everything going on at the barn.  I think we need to bring her here Ann and let her crash on your couch.”

“Seriously?” said Ann. “I have to share my space with this weirdo?”

“Look, she’s just a scared little gallop girl and I don’t think she has any family or any friends and she worships you Ann.  I’m not kidding, if I even say your name around her she acts like it’s a sacred word or something.  She’s cool Ann, she’s not going to steal your stuff or talk your ear off or bug you in any way.  You need to make friends with her and get her comfortable enough to talk. It’s not like you are going anywhere and you could use the company and the help.  So don’t argue – this is how we are going to untangle this mess. Oh, and one last thing.  I went to the racing office to find the papers for that horse Vaya Con Dios.  It looks like the owners sold him to someone named Juan Alberto Sanchez Aguilar for $1. But they were smart enough to put a ‘no racing’ clause on the papers.”

Ann laid her head back on the couch and closed her eyes.  Both Ann and Roxy knew what the $1 bill of sale and the cryptic name meant.  She choked back tears.

“I don’t understand” said Mark. This is the horse that you figured couldn’t race anymore and it sounds like the owners did the right thing to make sure he wouldn’t race anymore.  Am I missing something?”

“That horse is worth $250 cash for meat.”  

“But slaughtering horses is illegal in the US now.  Johnny and I both donated to the Humane Society years ago to make that a law.

“You are correct, it is illegal to slaughter horses in the US.  So now they pack them into cattle trailers and over the boarder and slaughter them there where there is no FDA and no regulations on how it’s done. Which means Vaya Con Dios is either match racing out in the desert or hanging on a meathook in some border-town.”

“So the law means nothing?” Mark was aghast.

“In some ways, worse than nothing.  When horses were slaughtered in the US, there was oversight from the FDA and transport laws that had to be obeyed but now they get hauled to Mexico and sometimes Canada in trailers not built for horses with sick horses together with big strong broodmares and backyard stallions. I can’t even think about it.” Ann sighed.

“But you have to think about it!  Americans didn’t pass this law just to have horses in worse conditions!”

“Americans passed the law to make themselves feel better – that’s it.”

“So now, on top of everything, we have to find this horse – don’t the horses have some microchip or something?”

“The horses that race have an identifying tattoo on their upper lip. But if he’s out in the desert or already killed in Mexico, we have no shot.”

“Captain of my Soul”

Mark slumped in the chair and stared at his toes. His heels tapped the floor.

“I know you are trying to figure out what to say and there isn’t anything you can say. You know he’d tried before and this time, he got it right.”

“Yeah.” Ann breathed.  No other words would come. She managed to swallow but only after Luke nudged her hand. Absentmindedly, she massaged his leathery ears. Luke sighed in contentment. She looked up to see gentle Mark, feet bouncing on the floor, eyes unfocused. He’d made the effort to come to her home to tell her the news.  She realized how alone he must feel. She wanted to hug him, but even that seemed trite.

“I guess I should ask when and how and all those details that your mind grasps at – but none of it will change anything and I don’t want to put you through telling it again.”

“This is why we love our Ann.”  Mark smiled an exhausted smile.  “He really adored you.  You know that right?”

“I never could figure out why.  Why would he, a sophisticated, educated gay guy be so kind to a gallop girl. But I loved it. And now he’s gone.” 

“Yeah. He sure is gone.  I’m really sorry Ann.”

“I didn’t lose my partner Mark. You did.”

“We both lost someone who loved us.  He was fucked up for sure and I knew it couldn’t last but damn, he did love us.”

Ann took a deep breath.  “I should have known something was up.”

“Something’s been ‘up’ Ann for years.”

“Yeah, but he showed up here yesterday.  I figured he wanted to visit and we were talking and making fun of someone on television and he got talking kind of crazy about not being around to take care of me and things and how I needed to make peace with Mateo and stuff. He never even met Mateo. And I guess I was giving him a lot of shit about every day stuff and he stopped and said the weirdest thing.”

“What did he say?”

“He said; ‘Couldn’t you just say that you would miss me?’ I had no idea what he was talking about and I brushed it off and now I think he wanted me to talk him into staying.”

Mark crossed the room, knelt to the couch and took Ann into his arms. 

Roxy Ayers let herself into the house and was surprised to find a stylish man hugging Ann from the floor.  She stuttered and tried to excuse herself back out onto the porch.

Ann straightened and wiped her running nose.  

“Roxy, get in here.  This is my friend Mark.”

Mark rose to his feet, petting Luke along the way and offered to shake Roxy’s hand.

“Any man that hound likes is okay with me.  He’s a better judge of people than I will ever be. I’m Roxy.” Roxy placed the bag she was carrying down on the kitchen table.  

“What’s in the bag? It sounds heavy?”

“Nothing.” Roxy stammered.

“You bring your crippled friend something and put it on the table where I can’t reach it and say it’s nothing.” Ann sat up, finding cheer in teasing her friend.

“It’s just something I was going to show you, but your friend is here and I’ll show it to you later.”

“My friend here is in need of something interesting to look at. Can we please see it?”

Roxy pulled up a kitchen chair and sat heavily.  “You’ve had nothing but bad news lately and I have more that I needed to tell you but I wanted to show you something that might make it easier.”

Ann looked at Mark who shuffled uneasily.  She didn’t want him to leave in his fragile state but she also didn’t want to make him sit around and hear gallop girl gossip in his grief. 

“Is it about Jude? Is it about Invictus?” Ann asked.

“Invictus?” Mark interrupted.

“Yeah, he was, well is, a racehorse.” Ann said

“His name is really Invictus?” Mark asked

“Well, yeah.” Roxy said.

“Wow.” Mark exhaled and melted into his chair.  He blew air out of his cheeks and stared at the ceiling lost in thought.

Ann watched her friend and tried to figure out why the name of a racehorse affected him.

Mark leaned forward abruptly, elbows on his knees.  He shook his head several times and with his head down he began to recite from memory.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me, 

      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how straight the gate, 

      How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate, 

      I am the captain of my soul. “


Mark finished his recital and stared again at the floor. His body still.

“What the fuck is that about?” Roxy asked.

“Invictus is a poem.  A war poem. Written during WW1 by a guy in his 20’s. Nelson Mandela, when he was a prisoner in South Africa, carved the poem into the wall of his cell where he lived for over 20 years. Johnny kept a copy of this poem in his wallet. 

“Yeah. Invictus.  It’s a hell of a name to hang on a horse.”

Roxy unwrapped the package and placed the moulding gently on the table.

There he was.

Invictus.

In full stride, nostrils flared, giant frame extended. Fierce. His soul – unconquerable. 

All three humans and one old dog sat in complete silence. The words of the poem lingered in the air around the clay form on the coffee table. 

“It’s beautiful.” Breathed Mark.

“It really is Invictus Roxy. Wow.”

“May I?” Mark asked as he reached toward the figure.

“Yeah.” Said Roxy.

“How long have you been sculpting?” He asked.

“Since forever. I guess.”

“Do you have a foundry you work with?”

“I never got past the clay part.  I just do it because I have to.  Casting these things takes forever and it costs a lot.”

“I have some friends.  I’m going to help you with this.”

“Hey, I just came over to show this to Ann. It is the best thing I’ve ever turned out but I’m just a hack that likes to play with clay. It’s nothing serious. Ok?”

“It’s totally serious. I work with artists for a living. I have to look at what they turn out and this is special. I know nothing about horses but just looking at this makes me feel the power and the determination. Art is about making people feel things and you’ve done just that.”

Instinctively, Roxy reached out to pull the figure back to herself.  She felt exposed and nervous. Ann caught her hand gently. “Mark knows what he’s talking about Rox. Sit down and listen for once. I don’t know anything about art, but I know you captured everything about this horse.  

“You know who else can help?” 

“Who?”

“Julie Ullswater.  You know her – right?”

“Julie Fucking Ullswater? Bitch knows how to get to the bottom of a pitcher of margaritas.  But that’s about it.” Quipped Roxy

“Actually, Julie is amazing. Her taste is impeccable and she knows every good gallery owner  in LA.  

“Julie won’t break a fingernail to help anyone.” Snorted Roxy.

“Don’t underestimate Julie. When she gets her teeth into something, she gets results.  And you want someone who is a bitchy hard-ass in the art world. And they all owe her favors.” Mark continued to inspect the figure from all angles. “This is really special.  Who did you study under?”

“Did I go to art school? Is that what you mean? I didn’t even fucking finish high school.  I’m just a gallop girl.”

“A sculptor is what you are my dear.  Get used to the title.”

“Look, I just wanted to cheer up Ann. I didn’t ask for any of this and frankly, you are making me nervous.”

“You said you needed to tell me something Rox.  What is it?” Ann asked. 

Crumbling

Ann was grateful for a night alone.  She’d insisted Gayle go to a movie so that she might have  time to clear her head. In just ten days since her wreck, life had dissolved into chaos.

She made a mental list. 

Pete was dead. 

La Commune de Paris. “Théâtre lyrique. Le foyer, vu du nord. Place du Châtelet, Paris (Ier arr.)”. Photographie de Pierre Emonts (1831-1912). Tirage sur papier albuminé. Juin 1871. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Jude had been accused of doping Mercy Street and he’d been called into a hearing. If  guilty, he’d be be suspended or lose his trainer’s license completely.  

The crazy bitch Bleau took all her horses away including Invictus.

Vaya Con Dios was missing.  Did the owner’s give him away? Should she call them? What will she say?  Asking Jude about Vaya Con Dios would be mean.  He had a lot on his plate.

Charlie Clahain left the scene as so many riders do. Just when she was starting to believe she might be interested in a relationship with someone – he skipped town. She’d miss him more than she should.  His kindness since the accident, his sweetness in telling her about Pete’s death, his help around the barn, his smile and upbeat outlook on life had affected her more than she let herself realize. 

And what about Jude? Her heart hurt just thinking about the pain he’d be going through watching his business dissolve. She thought of Enrique working hard and keeping the crew employed and the remaining horses cared for. 

To top it all off, her oldest friend Dee may never talk to her again. Ann was groggy and in pain when Dee called. She started to tell her a sob story from some dusty rescue ranch and Ann just didn’t have the stomach to hear about all the poor racehorses that nobody cares about. She’d been dismissive and rude to Dee and found she couldn’t stop. She wanted to hurt someone and there was Dee on the other end of the phone. Ann winced as she replayed part of the conversation in her head.

“Hey Ann, I’m driving up with a horse from San Diego and boy do I have some stuff to tell you.”

“Oh Jesus Dee – if this is some rescue story about a horse nobody cared about and how only you and that sanctimonious old geezer Hamer can save him – I’m just not in the mood.  Ok?”

“Ann, what is your deal?”

“I’m fucking tired of how you think nobody cares but you and how you have to be a hero all the time.”

“Ann. Are you okay?  Your mom said that everything is crazy for you.”

“Yeah, you and my mom.  What would I do with out my special do-gooders in my life? Tell me something Dee – do you ever take that thorny crown off your head? How heavy is that goddamn cross you drag around all day?”

“I don’t need this shit.”

“You might need to find someone else to save Dee.”

“Fuck you Ann.” Dee rang off.

Ann placed her phone on the bedside table.  She knew she’d been cruel but the cruelty of her world had caused it.  She knew she should call back but the exhaustion had set in and all she wanted was some pain free rest.  

Luke trotted to the door whining, someone had driven up. A soft rapping followed.

Exasperated, Ann growled “Come in!” She was surprised to see Mark.

“Hey.” Mark’s eyes couldn’t meet hers. “Are you feeling better?”

“Mark.  What’s up?

“I’m really sorry to come over uninvited but I needed to talk to you face to face. Ann, I need to tell you that Johnny killed himself early yesterday morning.”

Squeeze.

Johnny fingered the smooth mechanism of the pistol.  The weight in his hand of the finely machined steel was good – solid and heavy.  He turned it around, looked down it’s small barrel, spun it on his desk.  He found the hard scraping sounds reassuring.  

He’d bought it quietly at a shop in Burbank. The owner of the shop lovingly showing him pistol after pistol and enjoyed the fact that Johnny wanted a beautiful, brand new, and expensive gun. Johnny paid cash and patiently waited the requisite 10 days before picking it up. Johnny thought of it each day.  

This was the tool to relieve the pressure. A machine designed to end the pain and pulsing ugliness that continued to grow.  His release was in his hand. No more waking up in a puddle of vomit, his ribs bruised from the stomach pumping, his body dehydrated from the medicines, the concerned looks of the professionals, the tears of Mark and others.  Soon he’d be free and they would be free – the ugliness purged and spilling out into daylight. 

He’d done his best to say his goodbyes.  There would be pain of course.  But he’d already caused so much pain – this, at least, would be final. 

He was not surprised to find his hand wasn’t shaking as he raised the pistol.  He heard the waves softly washing the sands of the Pacific outside his window, gulls crying and people laughing. 

He opened his mouth and pointed at the ugliness. His eyes sought and found light. 

He squeezed.

Zero Tolerance

Dee stopped the truck in Oceanside at a coffee shop.  She peeked in the trailer at Metta and found her contently munching hay.  Dee offered the mare a drink of water from a bucket. The mare sniffed it and sipped twice.  She’d travelled well and for that, Dee was grateful. 

Dee stretched her stiff legs and purchased a cup of coffee and a homemade cookie from the kids at the coffee shop wearing wool beanies and tank tops. She dialed Nate’s number and reached his voicemail.

Vincent van Gogh – Olive Trees 1889

“Hey Nate.  It’s Dee from up in San Gregorio.  I’m about 40 minutes out and will see you soon.  I’m so grateful that you are willing to take this mare.  She’s special.”

Dee ordered another half a dozen of the fresh cookies to bring along as a peace offering. Nate’s penchant for sweets was legendary.  She picked an array of gooey ginger cookies, crunchy peanut butter and buttery chocolate chip. 

With one more peek at Metta before she fired up the old diesel truck, she set out on the last leg of her southward journey.

The truck swung  off of the Pacific Coast highway and east on Hwy 76.  The hills were covered with the deep green of avocado groves and the lovely polka dots of citrus orchards.  She passed the fancy farms of the famous Vessel’s Ranch and mansion after mansion built in Mediterranean style with orange tile roofs and stuccoed arches. Turning right down Little Gopher Canyon Road, things got sparse and drier.  The fences no longer manicured and painted wood but bent and twisted wire.  She passed a school yard that was trampled by thousands of tiny thumping and mostly brown feet.  Two more turns and she pulled into Nate’s dusty yard, scattering chickens and approached by stiff legged dogs. 

“I  TOLD you the wife HATES hopheads!”

She’d never heard Nate’s voice raised.

“You were pretty good help son but you gotta be out of here today. I made the rules clear and you just couldn’t listen! I gave you a chance.”

“Sir, it’s only marijuana. It’s practically legal.”

Dee turned to watch Nate’s wife, the strength and backbone of the ranch place a stuffed backpack on the front porch and firmly shut the door.

“Well son, that may be true but that woman over there is not one to be crossed.  She’s had her fill of druggies taking advantage of us and she won’t stand for it. I’m too wise a man to argue with a reasonable woman. You have got to go and that’s final. Sorry to see it, but that’s how it is.”

Dee busied herself with opening the trailer and getting mare out. 

“Is that you Dee?”

“Yessir.  I come bearing gifts.” Reaching in the truck for the cookies Dee was surprised that the small man, presumably the guy that Nate had just fired, reached for Metta’s lead rope. 

She absentmindedly handed it over while delivering the bag of cookies and a hug to Nate Hamer. 

He smelled like Old Spice cologne – something that took her back 30 years and made her feed oddly comforted. Nate’s shirt was pressed, even if his jeans were worn and frayed.  

“Easy sister.” The small man led Metta in circles as she growled and snorted at the swirling dogs and chickens.

“Looks like your girl isn’t a fan of chickens yet.” Nate nodded.

“She’s got plenty of reasons to not like people either.” Dee replied. 

“I’ll never be as forgiving as some of these horses are – that’s for sure.” Nate added.

Something that sounded like a snort came from the man with the lead rope. Nate avoided looking at him and Dee recalled the angry conversation she’d overheard. 

“Let’s get her in a stall or a pen where she can roll and get some water.  Tell me where to go Nate?” Dee reached for the lead rope but the man turned away and started to lead the mare into the barn himself.

“He’s a good guy and I hate to see him go. But I won’t argue with the Missus. You heard me fire him?” Nate mumbled.

“What’s his story?” Dee asked.

“What’s anyone’s story?  He’s a good hand.  He’s hiding from  life but the horses like him and so do I.  But those are the breaks.  So, let’s load you up with a young horse if I’m gonna take this mare from you. What color do you like?”

Dee laughed and slipped her arm around Nate’s waist as they headed towards the main barn. 

Nate’s phone rang in his pocket and he excused himself. It was either an owner desperate to offload a horse or a pre-teen girl eager to acquire one. 

“I’ll be with you in a minute Dee. Go look and find one you like?”

Dee wandered to find Metta.  She was settling into a stall and the man was feeding her. 

Paul finished tossing a flake of hay to the mare and brushed the leaves off his shirt.  He offered his hand to Dee.

“I’m Paul.” 

“I’m Dee. This mare is Metta.  She’s wringy and suspicious but she’s got plenty of reasons to be.

“Hey listen. I’m not one to poke my nose in too much but it looks like you’re pretty handy and maybe could use a job?”

“I guess you heard all that. I can’t blame them you know.”

“And I probably couldn’t get through a week without pot.” 

Both Dee and Paul shared a laugh.

“Seriously though. I’ve got a little place up on the coast in Northern California and I’m kind of tired of doing it all myself and I could use some help. Nate says the horses like you and that’s all I need to know. There’s no money to speak of but you don’t look like you eat much.”

Paul looked at his boots and brushed dirt back and forth with his toe. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets. “I don’t really know. I kind of thought I’d just wander around a bit and see what comes my way. But thanks.”

“Can’t say I didn’t ask.”

“Nate said you were looking for a project horse. There’s one here that’s probably a cripple for life but there’s something special about him I can’t put my finger on. Want to see him?”

“Yeah, I never hang a horse on the Hamer’s without taking one home with me. What do you have?”

Dee and Paul walked across the dusty farm followed by limping cats and scurrying chickens.

“How long have you known Nate?” asked Paul.

“Seems like forever. He’s just always been here for the horses. I worry about him.  He keeps quiet but people just know that he won’t say no and that both of them will go without food and electricity before they let a horse go hungry. And somehow, they are the happiest people I know.  Still in love with each other, grateful for everything. Grateful! Like they keep picking up everyone else’s garbage and they’re grateful.  It’s cool – you know?”

“This is him.” Nate reached into the stall and the brown horse retreated. 

“Not too friendly is he?”

Dee unlatched the wooden door and stepped in. The horse turned away but his feet didn’t move. “What’s his name?”

“We haven’t even looked up his tattoo yet.  He just got here a couple of days ago. He came from Animal Control. Did you hear about that wreck with the semi full of horses headed for a Mexican slaughterhouse?”

“I think I saw something about it.  He looks like he was a heck of a racehorse not too long ago.” Dee stroked his shoulder and the horse tensed, still sore. “Easy son, I’m just going to find out what your name is and maybe some of your story. Paul, I’ll flip up his lip.  I assume you can read a tattoo?”

Dee eased her right hand around the handsome nose and slowly hooked the thumb of her left hand under his lip.  The horse fussed and Dee patted him gently.  Then he sighed and allowed Dee to reveal the tattoo on the inside of his upper lip that every racehorse wears.  A letter to indicate the year he was born and then a five digit number. 

Paul read the tattoo out loud “F2536 and it’s either a 1 or a 7 at the end.” 

Dee released the horse’s lip and scratched him behind the ear. The horse sighed again and slowly turned away. 

“Not that into people is he?” Dee asked.

“You have to see him when Nate is around.  He perks up and looks like a puppy.”

“Yeah, Nate brings out the best in a lot of us.”

Paul looked down. Suddenly finding himself emotional. 

Dee fished for something to say to break the awkward silence.

“I have this thing on my phone from the Jockey Club where we can look this horse up from his tattoo.  Should we solve the mystery?

“Sure.”

Dee fiddled with her phone and put in F25361.  Well, that’s not it, that horse is a mare named Witchgrass.”  She fiddled again entering a 7 as the the last digit. She paused. She pushed the screen. She pressed some more and looked at the horse and back again at her phone screen. She entered the stall and lifted his mane from his neck, studied the space between his eyes and back to her screen. She leaned against the wall, and exhaled hard.  

“Where did this horse come from again?” Dee asked.

“Nate picked him up from Animal Control.  No actually, he was at the hospital. Animal Control sent them there. There was this truck wreck out in the desert. The truck was full of horses headed to slaughter and it wrecked and it was a real mess. He was one of the lucky ones that survived.”

“Holy shit.” Dee sighed. “Paul, meet Vaya Con Dios, a son of Zo’Aster. He raced over 50 times and won almost three quarters of a million dollars. He bred by Team Bleau and owned by some guy named Wells.”

“Who sends a horse like this to the killer after winning almost a million dollars for them. Who trained him?”

“Jude Keenan.”

“No way!” cried Paul.

“What do YOU know about Jude Keenan?” Dee pressed.

“Let’s just say that if the offer for a job still stands, I’ll go anywhere this horse goes. If you will take him, I’ll go with you.”

“Sounds like we have a lot to talk about and 9 hours of driving to do it.”

“I’ll go get my stuff.” Paul patted the horse’s shoulder and trotted out to retrieve his backpack from the Hamer’s porch.  

Festering

Johnny knew when it was coming on bad.   It always started the same.  First thing in the morning before he was awake, he’d swallow and there it was; a taste that wasn’t  a taste, a tickle above his throat, something floating over his soft palate. 

So almost tangible. 

Rodin’s Gates of Hell – Stanford University – photo by Joell Dunlap

Perfectly out of reach. 

Impossible to touch –  not with his tongue, not with his finger.  He’d  shut his eyes and look down and in and try to see it.  The taste wasn’t bitter or cold or warm, it was simply unclean. 

When he was a teenager, he thought it was a tumor.  He convinced everyone he had headaches. The pills they prescribed could numb him until it was almost bearable.  Later, he’d learned to mix the pills with wine, then whisky or dope and for awhile that helped to block it out like one of those bizarre photos where the eyes of the innocent were covered by a band of black tape.

Nothing washed the uncleanness.  He’d scrub his mouth with toothpaste  then rinse and gargle and repeat the whole process over and over again.  His mouth would bleed and tingle but the taste would laugh and linger – dangling just out of reach. Unbeknownst to each other, Johnny regularly saw three dentists and their capable and meticulous hygienists who would pick and pry and blast away with their bevy of sharp sanitized tools.  He’d shift and pray that the serious woman might slip and fall forward gashing into his head with a razor sharp scraper.

Ann told them a story over dinner one night.  Mark had pressed her to tell the most disgusting horse story she knew.  She talked about a horse with a swelling at his throat, it got so bad the horse couldn’t turn his head.  In desperation, Ann lanced the swelling with the corner of a razor blade, and she showed them pictures on her phone of the grey yellow ooze that dripped from the hole.  She described the fetid smell of the ooze, the acrid bite that gagged a groom from 15 feet away. She flashed another photo, this one  showed the eyes of the horse half closed in palpable relief. “Look at him” Ann said “no drugs or anything.  He was so glad that we lanced this, he never even moved.”

Johnny couldn’t shake the image from his head.  He’d been trying for weeks.  That release, that let down, that purging he craved.  He pictured a pustule of sickness swelling and growing deep in his head.  His tongue[ now what?  johnny wants to kill himself – jude’s career is going up in flames (what about the cool vet and the sheathed investigator?), lavinia has a new trainer – nobody knows where Invictus will be – Roxy is coming along as an artist – Dee is on her way to Nates to meet Paul (unknowingly) and bring home VCD (unknowingly) Ann still has a cast on her leg and Julie has walked out on her father.  I need to sketch this all out on paper and be true to each character.  The GOOD news is that it’s all here and it’s what I needed it to be – now just wrap it up.  Seriously – wrap it up – it’s going to bring joy to some horse lovers all over – ] would reach and scrape the hardness of the roof of his mouth to seek the soft spot behind it and he knew that right above that somewhere is where is was festering.  Where it laughed at him, hovering out of reach, out of sight.  He imagined that it was full of the most foul smelling pus and if he could release it, it would no longer live inside him.  It would be out, gone, exorcized. 

It was growing and he hated it.  He hated himself for fostering it all these years.  He pictured it’s angry epithelium stretching to accommodate the the growing, smelly purulence.  

He could feel it flaring and he knew the meanness was not far behind.  He’d find himself desperate to hurt someone to share the pain.  He’d go to the dojo and pick a fight with the master.  He’d insult someone at the grocery store. But most mostly, no matter how hard he tried, his ire leaked out onto Mark. 

It was a mystery how Mark was able to bear it.  He’d try to rein in the meanness, but the harder he tried, the more cruel he became.  Other lovers and countless friends slunk away or stormed off waving their fists in anger and hurt.  Mark bore it.  He’d even stand up and face it telling Johnny “you don’t mean that!” And Johnny would stare hard into Mark’s amber eyes alternately wanting to rip out Mark’s throat and wanting to throw himself at Mark’s feet and beg forgiveness.

 He knew everyone had a breaking point.  A point at which they would no longer take his biting humor, his relentless criticism, his uncanny knack for finding a way to hurt someone the most. He wondered if people knew how easy they were to figure out.  The vain man could be leveled by a point and laugh at a new haircut, a bold female boss by reminders that she was childless.  He wanted to be hated. It was his due punishment for the festering lot inside him. 

There were times of course when he could forget about it.  When things were good.  When his laugh was loud.  When he could enjoy good food, beauty and friendship. He wondered why he was so drawn to Ann. He loved the way her powerful compact body moved, her ferocity and her capability to handle just about anything.  He wanted to be near her, he wanted to protect her.  He wanted to pick her up and carry her away from anything that might hurt her and he also wanted to curl up in her lap, let her run her fingers through his hair and tell him it would all be okay.  There was a time when he worried that what he felt for her was romantic love, but he quelled that by imagining her with a perfect lover and realized there was no jealousy in him, only joy for her. 

She was the mother, the sister and the daughter he never had.  She filled all these roles splendidly. He wanted to shower her with expensive gifts, he needed to hear her voice daily. He’d had scores of women friends over the years.  The “fag hags” that loved him through school were fun. Vapid, but fun.  He admired women friends who were born with style. Their many lesbian friends were warm and funny and easy going.  But none of them were Ann. 

Dear Ann,

Dear Ann,

The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak mid 19th century

Where to start?

I guess I’d better start with my name.  My real name.  Well, the name I was born with. My name is Paul. I was born in Pocatello Idaho to Ben and Wanda Payne on April 4, 1976.

I’ve gone by lots of names since then and travelled to amazing and to some pretty messed up places.  

I started like most riders, riding match races when I was probably 13 or so.  My parents were strict Mormons and to say the least, they didn’t approve of my riding. They needed their oldest son to work with them in their cabinet making business and that was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do.  

At 16, I had the chance to ride Quarter Horses in New Mexico with a trainer who offered to help me fake my age and get my jock’s license. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen Ben or Wanda since.

That was the first time I changed my name. It was easy.  I bought an Arizona driver’s license from a guy in Ruidoso for $20. It said that I was 19 years old and that my name was Tomas Perez.  I dyed my hair dark and nobody questioned me about anything.

I rode the tracks in the Southwest for awhile – mostly Quarter Horses but people were starting to race Appaloosas then and I got got lucky enough to ride the best Appaloosa colt in the country.  I was doing great until a guy hauled in from Idaho and I got scared he’d recognize me and tell my parents where I was.  That was just a month or two before my real 18th birthday and I knew they could send me home where there would be hell to pay.

So I up and ran north and laid low riding colts on lonesome ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. By the next spring, I’d had enough of cow shit and sleepy horses and flat land. I was craving races and green hills. I made it out to Minnesota and tried to make my way into the jocks’ room at Cantebury Downs but they were a tight bunch and asked enough questions to make me fidgety. I travelled up with a couple of hungry riders and we headed to Penn National where the fields were supposed to be bigger and so were the purses. But the fields were shorter than I thought and everyone was still down since Arlington closed in Chicago. I was almost ready to head home with my hat in my hands but  I’d been watching a TV show about an Australian fisherman adventure guy.  He was crazy as hell and all the girls loved him. I worked for a couple of weeks on the accent, bought a dented up leather hat at a thrift store, changed my name to Dylan Anderson and headed for Ohio and raced at Beulah Park. It worked like a charm. Owners, trainers and I have to admit, the girls loved the idea of a young Australian jockey that nobody had ever heard of.  I loved the attention and I was getting on better horses than I’d ever ridden. After about 10 months, I lost my apprentice status and started having to carry regular weight.  My win percentage dropped and the newness of the “Aussie Kid” was wearing thin. Trainers didn’t have the added incentive to ride me now that I carried full weight and pretty soon, I was in a slump.  

I fell in with a nasty bunch of gamblers and sooner than you could imagine, I found myself not riding to win for the first time in my life.  It might sound like a dime store novel, but I started acquiring habits and friends that don’t make me proud of me. I realized that I needed to get out. I was scared and getting desperate.

I was scheduled to ride a heavy favorite one day and my job was to make sure this filly didn’t win. My connections were backing another horse.

I don’t claim to remember all of it but I’ll tell you what I do know. My filly was really good and really game. I was weak as a kitten after another night of partying. Her owners were new and they were excited. She was dragging me to the lead and I was out of strength to hold her. Every dirty trick I played on the filly she found a way through or a way around. She knew she was the best in the race and all she wanted to do was to win and all I knew was that if she did win, then things were going to get really bad for me.  

So I got her outside on the turn for home and I made it look like my foot slipped out of the stirrup and I fell.  Dropped to the ground like a bad habit.  I remember the crunch of my shoulder hitting the ground and I remember the sweet music of the ambulance driving me away from the track to the hospital.

I managed to beg my way out of surgery – I told them some bullshit about me having a bad experience with anesthesia and I managed to sneak out of the hospital during the next shift change.  I hopped the first bus leaving town.

I needed to clean up and I needed to make sure some folks in Cincinnati wouldn’t come looking or me.  Sometimes I still hope they are looking in Australia.

With the help of a Canadian girlfriend, I managed to get to Ottowa and then ended up bouncing around for the next 8 years including racing in South Africa, a stint in the Philippines and some places in Europe. I’ve convinced folks that I’m from Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina and Texas. I was always amazed at what people are willing to believe.

Once again, I went running from entanglements and found myself with a fresh start in the California sunshine.

I guess by now you have figured out that I only know two things; racing and running away.  I can say that I’ve gotten pretty good at both.  I’ve learned that wherever there are horses and people that love to compete, I can make a comfortable living, make some friends, and have some fun – and there has always been somewhere else to go.  Change my name, change my story, my hair and my accent – as long as you are polite and are willing to lay it all down to help their horse win, somebody will believe any story. People, especially horse people, are the same everywhere. 

Until now, nobody cared to know the real story. My story. This story that I’m writing to you.

I know that I have nothing to offer you.  Nothing except this gift of honesty – a gift that means nothing to anyone – but it’s the only thing I’ve never given to anyone, not even myself.

I don’t know what I’ll do now.  It’s easy for me to sneak away and be somewhere and somebody else.  But for the first time ever I want to stand in my own truth and be a partner to someone and that someone is you.

From the first day I saw you bawling out that exercise rider for galloping an old campaigner too fast and then watching you gallop the toughest horse in the barn without breaking a sweat, I knew that I had something to learn from you. Then I saw you slip $20 in the pocket of a drunk groom. I saw you cry after the vet put the old barn goat to sleep – I’ll bet you thought that you were alone.  I wanted to come up and hug you – but I knew you were too proud to be seen being sentimental. I’ve watched you cover for your slick boss and I’ve watched his face as he watches you work. I guess what really got me was how you genuinely cared for that old jockey out at the trailer park.  I wonder if you know how many people admire you for that?

I met your friends Johnny and Mark and you probably don’t have the slightest idea how much they love you. I’ve never had friends like that in my life. Knowing your mom for the little time that I did helps me understand a little bit more about you. I should have guessed that she was a retired trick rider for the rodeos. She pretends she doesn’t miss it but you should know that she watches everything you do and she gets to live a little bit more of her dreams through you. She likes to pretend that she never regretted having a family but there’s a part of her that can’t get enough of the danger of galloping horses – and you give that to her every day. She told me all about the little horse you brought her and how he keeps her together. She’ll tell you that it’s the church, but you and I know it’s that little bay horse that is her salvation. Makes me think about all the horses who have carried my sorry ass and it wasn’t until you that I spent much time thinking about where they might be now.

For the first time in my life, I started thinking about these horses in the way that you do.  In the way that every gallop girl probably does.  For a jockey, we are told to get out there and win. And we try really hard.  We live for the thrill of turning for home and digging in with all we’ve got.  We grow four legs and giant muscles. We get to be tall and powerful if even for just under two minutes.  But after the race, we are thinking about the next one and the one after that. We forget the names of the horses, we forget their fears and their worries. But you gallop girls are different.  You have to think about how that horse might hurt and what scares them. You worry about where they will be tomorrow.  Until now, I never did.  And now it haunts me and the more I learn, the more amazed I am. I didn’t know what I’ll find and while I was looking, I began to find myself. That probably sounds crazy, but I’m trying to be honest.  

 I’ve watched you win and I’ve watched you lose. I had no idea how much I would learn and how inspired I would be to – for once in my life – be an honest man.

I can’t ask you to forgive me for being the lying bastard that I am.  But I hope that you will find it in your giant heart to let yourself get to know the real me – whoever that might be.

Love,

Paul

Doe, a Deer

Driving back to the ranch after a day of running errands Dee fiddled with the radio dial. Public radio had nothing but depressing stories, current music she no longer recognized and oldies were tired and worn out.  She flicked off the radio  and found herself lost in thought as she navigated the winding roads up the canyon to the ranch. The ranch truck was running well, she’d finally relented and brought it into the shop. She couldn’t take a chance driving all the way to the Hamer’s place outside San Diego tomorrow to have a breakdown with Metta in the trailer on the side of a hot highway. Changing the fuel filter made for a much happier truck.  She felt sheepish not knowing  it should have been changed and she didn’t have the skills and the knowledge to do it herself.  

From a ditch on the right side of the road jumped a young deer.  Dee watched it in the surreal slow motion that predicates disaster.  Surely this wasn’t happening, why would an animal bolt directly in front of a 3/4 ton diesel truck?  With both feet stomping the brake pedal, the truck struck the deer hard. The headlights focused on her body first flipping and then skidding across the two lane road.  Dee watched as the animal scrambled to her feet and tried to climb the embankment on the left side of the road.  She knew it was mortally wounded but she held a hope that it would bound away.  It didn’t bound away, it fell twice into the ditch below the embankment, it’s back broken.  

The Watchful Doe – John Babtiste Oudry 1749

Dee jerked the truck off the road, found the emergency flashers and grabbed for her bag.  She kept one eye on the doe, now folded in the ditch, not moving. She could see it panting and Dee began panting as well.  

“Fuck!” She yelled into the dashboard.  With shaking hands she rifled through her bag.  She found everything except what she was looking for – cough drops, her wallet and phone, loose change, an orange, a digital thermometer.  Finally, her hand closed around the handle of the folding buck knife.

Knife in hand she jumped out of the truck,  still praying that the deer would either bound away or give up the ghost before she could cross the street. She stood by the truck, the knife unfolded and pointed at the ground her breath coming in gasps that matched the heaving sides of the animal dying in the ditch.  Two cars passed  navigating carefully around the badly parked truck with flashing lights and the panting woman with a knife standing in the street. She prayed  someone would stop and yell at her and maybe it would be some man with a gun who would do what she would have to do with a knife.  She wondered what passers-by were seeing, this woman clutching a large knife by the side of the road.  But no one stopped. No police or fireman was here to rescue her – no kindly neighbor.  She crossed the road, approaching the deer.  It’s impossibly large obsidian eyes watched her. She looked for fear in it’s face and saw none. There was no blood either, just a body that wouldn’t move and sides that panted. 

You caused this pain and you must end it as quickly as possible. If you leave her, she’ll be torn apart by coyotes or dogs. Slit her throat. That will be fastest. Don’t think girl, just do. If you cut hard enough, you can probably cut through the windpipe and that might make it even faster.  Yeah, across the throat, both sides, that will be fastest.

Dee stood over the deer and tried to plan. What if she struggled, where would be her best hold, what angle did the knife need to be at?  Don’t think, all you need to know is that you must do this.  She’s suffering and it’s your fault. The longer you think, the longer she suffers.  

The deer’s eyes never wavered, her eyelids didn’t flutter, she just looked at Dee and waited.

Summoning up all the fury she could muster, Dee leaned over, grabbed the scruff of the deer’s neck, was surprised at the coarseness of her coat, pulled the head back and slashed across the white throat.

The knife bounced and skidded, leaving no mark.  Again she slashed and again the knife reappeared, clean, unblemished. 

Dee released the head and it flopped into the ditch, the chin resting vertically along the bank. She’d failed.  She was unable to deliver mercy.  The knife dropped from her hand, there was no power in her body.  She knelt and placed a hand across the hips of the doe and waited for her to die. If she couldn’t deliver mercy, at least she could stay with her until the doe died. If a car passed by, she didn’t notice, she didn’t cry and she didn’t move.  In time, the deer inhaled and there was no exhale that followed.  

Dee patted the doe’s back “I’m so sorry little friend.” 

She picked up the knife and closed it. 

Making her way back to the truck, she climbed inside and turned off the emergency flashers.  Her body sagged and her head bent to the steering wheel.  She looked at the knife on the seat beside her.  She threw it on the floor.  She looked at her palm and noticed that the knife had left indents across her hand. She’d held it hard, she’d tried and somehow, there wasn’t enough violence in her body to do what needed to be done.  “A man could do it, but I can’t.” She said out loud. “What kind of an animal person am I if I can’t do what needs to be done?  I’m so brave when it comes to calling the vet and having a horse or a dog or a cat euthanized when the time comes but I don’t have the balls to do it myself?”

She drove home slowly, parked the truck and fed all the animals mechanically.  She couldn’t bear to look any of them in the eye. She took a long hot shower and couldn’t stop looking at her hands. 

She turned off the lights and without dinner, crawled into bed, curled up in a ball and slept.

Oh Johnny

Mark’s call to Ann had been calm and even apologetic.  “Ann, I’m following the ambulance to St. Mary’s hospital.  Johnny tried really hard to kill himself.”

“Jesus Mark, why aren’t you IN the ambulance with him?”

“Only family or a spouse is allowed along on a 5150 – that’s code for ‘attempted suicide’.”  Mark sounded tired and Ann swallowed her indignation in order to honor Mark’s pain.

St.Jerome In The Wilderness – Leonardo Da Vinci 1480

“I’m on my way.”

“You don’t need to come.  I just needed to talk to someone while I drive.  I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts right now. You know?”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“Nothing really.  Maybe that’s the worst part.  I thought things were going  well.  How can you be so close to someone and not see this coming? I mean, London was great. Well, mostly great.” Mark broke into sobs. 

By the time Ann got to the hospital room Mark had recovered most of his signature calmness and greeted Ann with his  world class manners. Johnny lay in the hospital bed. Getting around on crutches wasn’t anything new to Ann, but the added pain in her loins made the journey painful and exhausting. She tried to look pleasant while she parked her crutches and gently let herself down on the hospital room chair. 

They sat side by side quietly watching Johnny. 

Mark broke the silence.  “It’s not the first time.  You know that.”

“I guess I do.  I just didn’t want to think about it.”

“They say everyone thinks about it at some time.”

Ann nodded.   

“Ever thought about it Ann?”

Ann leaned forward elbows resting on her legs and folded her belly onto her thighs, her forehead reaching toward her knees. 

“What stops you?”

Ann snorted, surprised at her answer as it left her lips. “The fucking horses.” Ann exhaled and the tears poured. She didn’t see it coming, hadn’t been prepared to hold them back and now they flowed. Mark reached tentatively and rested his hand on her lower back.  Ann stayed that way, bowed forward sobbing. 

  Ann sniffled and pulled herself together as best she could. They both quietly watched Johnny breathe.

“Mark, don’t argue with me, I’m going to take this shift, you go home, take a nap and a shower and come back in three hours.  Not one word of argument.”

Mark conceded knowing that if there was anyone that Johnny would love to see when he woke up, it would be Ann. And maybe, just maybe, Johnny would tell Ann the dark secrets he couldn’t tell his lover.

Mark kissed Ann on her head and slipped out the door sneaking backwards looks at Johnny.

Ann must have dozed in her chair.  She awoke to a soft voice.

“Tell me more about your friend Reno.”

“Who?”  Ann roused from her stupor, surprised by Johnny’s voice.  It was cracked and wet, but it was his voice.  She looked around the room and wondered if she should call someone. He reached for her hand.

“I know he was sexy and handsome and tall. Tell me about him some more.”  Johnny’s eyes were closed and Ann wondered how he knew she was there, how he knew it was her and how long he might have been conscious. 

Ann’s head spun as she tried to figure out who Johnny was referring to.  Was there a horse named Reno something? But why would Johnny think a horse was sexy?

“C’mon sweetie, tell me about him.  Did you ever sleep with him?” Johnny’s lips pursed into a weak, but unmistakable smirk.  Clearly, he wasn’t referring to a horse.

“Vegas!  You mean Vegas.  Right?”

“That’s him.  Tell me about Mr. Bad Boy.”

“Oh Johnny.  He’s just some two-bit rough handed racetrack hustler.  He’s nobody.”

“So you[ time problem to fix – how long has it been – why is Ann moblie enough to be at johnny’s bedside – how did we get here – what’s happened in between?  charlie vanished , vcd is gone, mercy street is where?  jude?  Julie? when and how did mark and johnny come back from london?] did sleep with him.” Johnny’s smirk was a lopsided smile, the sweetest thing Ann could think to see and she felt guilty that Mark wasn’t there to share it.  He should be here but Ann had sent him home to shower and get some rest. 

“I wish I could make up some sordid story that would make you laugh but there just isn’t one. I didn’t sleep with him because he was just some loser racetracker.”

“Unlike your other boyfriends?”  Hmmmmmm?”

“Ouch Johnny. If you weren’t in a hospital bed, I’d smack you for that.” Ann and Johnny laughed.

 “But we do need to spice up your love life.”

“How come everyone thinks they need to comment on my romantic life? If you say I’m not getting any younger, I seriously will smack you, hospital bed or not.”

“Oh darling, we just want someone to love look after you.  You deserve to come home to open arms and a cooked meal.”

“And a whole lot of bullshit about what I am and what I’m not supposed to be doing with my life, and where I go and when I come back and how much I work or if I go to check on a sick horse at 3am. It’s still a man’s world Johnny.  If a guy in a relationship works all the time – he’s driven and success bound.  But if it’s a woman, she’s selfish and psycho. I have things to do and places I want to see and the last thing I need is someone telling me I’m not giving them enough. And if you tell me I just haven’t met the right person, I will scream. I promise.”

“Oh Ann. I’m going to miss you.”

Ann missed the sentiment.  She was busy composing herself after her diatribe about relationships.  Her heart was beating hard and she was busy managing the pain in her back and hips from her awkward position in the chair leaning on Johnny’s hospital bed.  

“But everyone loves a bad boy like Vegas – right?”  Johnny crooned softly.

“I supposed Johnny.  He was never lonely, that’s for sure.”

“Are you lonely Ann?”

“Not really.  At least I don’t think so.” 

“You really are lucky Ann. Lonely is a funny thing.”

“How can you be lonely Johnny? You have Mark.  The guy who would do anything for you.  You just got back from a trip to London, you guys have tons of friends and a beautiful home?”

“Like I said, lonely is funny.  It gets ahold of you and it won’t let go. You do everything to give it what it wants and it’s like a black hole, it never fills.”

“I wish I knew what you meant Johnny.”

“I don’t think you ever will know what I mean Ann.  And it’s one of the many reasons I adore you.  Now, admit to your oversexed friend Johnny that you slept with this Vegas guy at least once.”

“Oh Johnny!”