Luke

She’s here! She needs me. She’s hurt. I wish she could sleep. She moves and makes so much noise.  I want her to be still next to me.  I try to show her how to lay quietly and sleep and heal. But she won’t. I put the warmest part of my side next to her hurt parts.  If she would just be still, I’d keep her warm and safe and I wouldn’t let anyone move her.  We could sleep and rest and she would get better. I look at her and tell her that I’m here but she’s so worried.  I’ve looked outside and there isn’t anyone here to hurt her, but she frets.

 I miss him. He’s gone. It would be good for him to be here.  He knows how to rest.

 I’m so glad she’s here! 

Sigh.

The Faithful Hound – Edwin Henry Landseer c1830

Remembering Pete

Ann rubbed Luke’s thick neck. He  propped his chin on her lap as he snuggled closer. 

Pete’s gone. She knew it would happen of course. Somehow she expected she would play some part – that she would be there and he would know she cared. But she wasn’t and he was alone. She knew that was crap too. Luke was there, just as he was here for Ann now and the comfort Luke offered was excellent.  

The Sofa 1894-96 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

And what of her?  Would she heal? How long would it take? Jude would have to hire someone to take her place and what would that mean? Who would be able to gallop Invictus? Roxy of course. That meant Roxy would go to France if he runs in the Arc? So much for that dream. Ann[ people don’t want perfection – they want connection] would be home and hobbling around while the giant red demon showed the Frogs how fast American horses were. She would be eating TV dinners while Roxy explored the countryside around Chantilly. No Paris for Ann, just cable TV. 

Ann lay her head back and pulled the afghan over her chest. Luke snuggled closer and she found herself drifting off to sleep. It was a heavy sleep with the pain meds running through her body and the exhaustion of the last few days crashing down. She dreamed of walking through the barn, petting noses. Enrique was hard at work and didn’t look up when she went by. She wondered if he was avoiding her or just too busy. Grooms she didn’t recognize were walking her beloved horses, some of whom looked thin. She passed by the stall of Vaya Con Dios – it was dark and empty. She peered inside to find him curled in a filthy corner, dying.  In her absence, he had been forgotten and nobody had brought him food or water.  His eyes looked at her as he struggled to draw breath.  She fell into his stall sobbing and begging forgiveness. 

She must have been crying out loud as she woke to Luke whining and licking her face.  His clumsy feet were dangerously close to the injured parts of her body and she had to think quickly to get him gently off the couch before he stepped on her injured hip. 

She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes and realizing how hungry she was.  Charlie’s stew was in the kitchen and she needed to figure out how to get up and help herself to some. She grabbed the arm of the couch, exhaled hard and stood.  Her crutches were just out of reach. One careful step on her good leg and she could pitch forward and reach the crutch.  As she bent forward to take the step her stomach lurched. A flash of imagination crossed her brain; a misstep, a fall, a crunch of her hips hitting the corner of the coffee table and then the floor. Sweat broke out over her neck and shoulders and her breath came in short gasps. She told herself she would be fine, her fear was irrational. She was angry at herself for making a big deal about one lousy step. But the fear wouldn’t subside, the instinct to protect the sore and broken parts of her body took over. She simply couldn’t do it.  She’d have to settle back down on the couch and wait for someone to help her like a goddamn cripple.  

She eased herself back down on the couch, she winced as she arranged the pillows and blankets so that she was partially upright. Her jaws clenched and she waited. She had nothing to read, nothing to distract her from her anger, her helplessness. She looked around at the cards and the balloons, the teddy bears and the flowers. They were sent to make her feel better, friends that showed their care and affection but she couldn’t shake the notion that all of those people were out living their lives and she was stuck on a couch, waiting for someone to help her to the bathroom. 

She had to stop. She knew this wasn’t helpful. She started thinking about all of the things she could do from home – getting all of the barn’s books absolutely straight. Tax forms would all get filed on time. She would send her mom to the library and she could catch up on all her reading. She would take an advanced French course on line.  She would make Johnny and Mark teach her all about the art they loved that confused her. She would make the best of this. 

Who was she kidding?  Like the thoroughbreds she rode every day, she was a creature of movement. Her body’s strength gave her pleasure and satisfaction. Now it would turn to mush, pain and injury would rule her days and ruin her sleep.  

She thought of the injured  horses at the track with blown suspensory ligaments in their legs and the months of stall confinement and the wild look in their eyes. The way they looked outside their stalls at horses going by, nervous, worried and anxious. That’s all she could think of now – the world passing by as she watched it from this couch waiting for healing, waiting for the pain to stop waiting to see who still needed her when she was ready. In the meantime, she’d have to accept help, at least some help and that notion hurt.  She never thought about the dignity of taking your own shower until this and now it seemed like a far off dream.  

She wanted to call the barn. But the barn hadn’t called her. The last thing she wanted was to be one more useless person that the barn needed to report to. Like some pain in the ass owner who called for training updates from a cushy office. If they needed her, they would call.  But it seemed they didn’t need her – because they weren’t calling.

Luke ran to the door baying at a car driving up the driveway. It didn’t sound like her mother’s truck. 

 “Shit.” She thought.  Now she’d have to make nice conversation with someone while she waited for her mom to return and then figure out how to ask her mom with some shred of dignity left, to help her to the bathroom in front of some random guest. 

“Anybody home?”

“Roxy!”

Roxy pushed her way past Luke and into the front door.  In her hands was a stack of Racing Forms, folders of bills and bank statements and a quart of chocolate and peanut butter ice cream. 

“Brought you some stuff.  I was thinking about bringing Jude’s head on a plate but I decided to let him live another day.” She laid the paperwork on the coffee table, patted Luke on the head and headed for the kitchen.

“That good huh?” 

Roxy fished roughly through the kitchen drawers and brought back two giant spoons.  She handed one to Ann and offered her the first dip into the ice cream. The two women ate greedily while Roxy updated Ann on all of the goings on at the barn. Ann hung on every word. 

“How’s Invictus?” 

Roxy busied herself with scraping the rest of the ice cream from the sides of the carton.  “He worked yesterday and so he’ll walk for a couple of days.  He sure is a bastard.”

“How did he work?”

Roxy continued focus on the ice cream in the paper carton.

“He loves the grass you know. He went the half in 49 and two.”

“Perfect Rox, good job!” Ann was impressed and excited.

“Yeah.” Roxy took the empty carton and the spoons to the kitchen.  She threw away the garbage and washed the spoons.

“While you’re in there, can you get us some of that stew on the stovetop? And Hey, what about Vaya Con Dios?”

“Which one is he?  I don’t remember seeing his name on the chart?”

“He’s done racing.  He’s waiting to go to a retirement home.”

“Couldn’t tell you then. You should ask Enrique. I’ve got my hands full with just getting the gallopers out. I have to tell you Ann, I feel like a criminal riding these horses.  Everyone from the gate crew to the railbirds asks me where you are and how you are doing. How are you doing by the way?  You look like you need some sun.”  Roxy returned from the kitchen with two bowls of soup.  Ann couldn’t believe she was still hungry after the ice cream, but the smell of the carrots and potatoes and onions was divine.

“The real question is how are YOU doing? Are you totally splitsville with Tony?”

“I’d better be. Jude catches me even thinking about talking to Tony and he’d blow a gasket. I caught him looking at my phone this morning to see if I’d called him. Fucking crazy bastard.”

“He’s  possessive, that’s for sure.  I guess you can’t blame him.”Ann said between delicious bites.

“Maybe you can’t blame him, but I sure can.  I guess it’s all for the best.  I need Tony out of my life and getting horses out for you and keeping the vultures away from your barn keeps me busy while I get Tony out of my system.”

Ann put her bowl down on the coffee table and looked Roxy in the eye. “I don’t know how to thank you Rox. You don’t know what it’s like to sit around and just wonder what’s happening to your job, your horses and all you can do is sit.”

“Oh I don’t do I?  Listen Ann, we both know this could have been me laying here and I’d like to think you would do the same for me.  We have to stick together us gals.  We aren’t the young ones any more and we don’t know how to do anything else.”

“You said a mouthful Roxy.”

“Don’t I know it.” 

Both women finished their bowls of stew in silence, both wrapped in thoughts and feelings that didn’t need discussing. 

“Was it awful, finding Pete?” Ann finally said.

“Not too awful. It was like he was asleep you know? He’d been really lonely back there and it was kind of okay I guess. It’s hard for those old riders once they leave the track. They fade away.  My dad never was the same after he quit riding. He got so sad and then he got mean.  I never thought it was the cancer that got him, I think it was the sadness.”

“Man Roxy, I forgot all about that.  That was just a few years ago right?”

“Don’t cry for me on that one. He was a motherfucker all his life and I don’t miss him at all.  My mom has a whole new lease on life now and a new boyfriend – a guy that’s treating her really good for the first time in her life.”

Ann didn’t know what to say.

“I always thought it was cool, you being friends with Pete.  Made me want to go out and so something good.”

“Pete was great, he always made me smile, he was a good friend.” 

“Oh Ann, you are the sunshine girl – you’re the one who makes everyone smile, you’re the one who can gallop anything, you’re the one that can tame that bastard Jude Keenan and run a barn better than anyone and still look killer in a short skirt.”

Ann blushed but added “And now I’m just a grumpy cripple that needs help to get to the toilet. What the hell is going to happen to me this time Roxy?  What if my leg never heals?  What if I would have broken my head too?  What if I lay up and get fat and lazy and never want to get on a racehorse again?  What if Jude hires someone else that is better than me?”

“How the fuck should I know?” Roxy shrugged hard, looked Ann in the eye and laughed.

“It’s a bitch realizing that you don’t have nearly the control you thought you had – right?”

“What are you getting at Rox?”

“You think there isn’t a price to pay for being a girl who does what she wants? Life’s a bitch but we’re the girls who made a run at it, rode the horses, took the chances. You’ve got to pay in some way.”

“I’ve paid my dues thank you!”  

“Of course you have, but they aren’t voluntary payments. Shit’s going to happen no matter what. But just because you earn respect, work harder and are nice to people doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Ann narrowed her eyes at her lanky friend. A shot of pain ran across her hip and landed in her stomach.

“We’re BACK!” Gayle and Charlie pushed through the door with Luke swirling at their knees – he sniffed the grocery bags they carried.

“Mom, this is my friend Roxy.  Roxy this is Gayle.”

“How do dear, do you mind grabbing the last bag out of the truck?”

“Actually, I’m late for afternoon chores.  I’d better run.  Send this lazy ass jockey out for the last bag, looks like he needs to earn his keep somehow.”  Roxy winked at Ann patted the stack of mail and bills she’d left on the coffee table and strode out the door.

Home, and News

Every ounce of reserve Ann possessed focused to refrain from vomiting in the truck on the drive home. She refused help getting in the truck, but it was clear that she was going to need help getting out of the truck and into the house. 

Eadweard Muybridge – early motion pictures @1893

Gayle eased the truck over the curb to the driveway carefully. Her hands gripped the steering wheel hard as she watched Ann’s face grimace trying not to scream. They arrived at Ann’s house silent and gray faced.

“Hullo Lasses! Yer friendly doorman is here ta serve ya!”

“Charlie! What the hell are you doing here?”

“I told ya girl, I hate hospitals, I figure I can do ya more good now that yer out. I’ve got lunch all made. I hope ye ladies are hungry!”  Charlie beamed and he and Gayle waited for Ann’s reply.

“Charlie, can you make yourself helpful and get me out of this goddamn truck?”

Gayle exhaled relief and Charlie bounced over proffering a strong hand.  “Easy lass, we’ll get you in and settled.”  He wrapped her arm around his shoulders, he wrapped his around her waist and carried her fireman-style into her duplex.  Inside, Ann was surprised to see her place freshly cleaned and festooned with get well cards signed by the Jockey’s colony, the trainers and by the starting gate crew. Balloons, flowers and stuffed animals filled the kitchen. “Jeez, this is kinda crazy.” Ann blushed.

 A stew was bubbling on the stovetop and the smell of soda bread baking made her forget the nausea from the ride home. Luke burst out of the back room wagging his white tipped tail and smiling as only a hound can. His familiar smell and silky ears were the icing on the cake. Ann was home and among friends who cared. 

They set Ann down on the couch and found a spot where Luke could curl up without moving Ann’s hips or leg.  It took coaxing to get him to relax, but Charlie grabbed a pocketful of kibble to show Luke exactly where he was welcomed to lay down.  Luke gave a satisfied grunt and contented himself that Ann was home and that part of his body was now touching hers.  Before Gayle had fixed Ann a bowl of Charlie’s lamb stew and a slice of soda bread slathered with butter, Luke was snoring.

Charlie handed Ann the remote control for the television.  “Hey we might be in time to watch the Dodgers lose again.”

Complaining about the Dodgers reminded Ann to ask about Pete.  

“Who picked up Luke?” Both Charlie and Gayle busied themselves and didn’t answer.

“Hey guys, who picked up Luke?  Is Pete going to be lonely? How’s he doing?”

Charlie approached the couch, squatted down to be eye to eye with Ann. “I hate to tell ya, but yer friend the old jockey died two days ago.  Roxy went over to check on him and there he was on the couch. Looks like he went to sleep and just didn’t wake up.  He’d been dead for a few hours when she found him.  Luke was whinin’ at the door when Roxy got there.”  Charlie took Ann’s hand and held it.  Ann pulled her hand away, shocked, angry, guilty and sad all in the same breath.  She instinctively tried to jump up and do something but her cast and the pain stopped her cold. 

 “I know what yer thinkin’.  Yer thinkin’ that if you would have been there, you coulda gotten him some help.  Yer thinkin’ that this is somehow yer fault.  Yer thinkin’ that you need to make plans and arrangements and stuff.  But ya don’t and it’s not.   Yer worried that havin’ him take care of the dog cost him some life.  Well it didn’t, it meant he wasn’t alone when his time had come and that’s a comfort we could all use. We’ve called the Jockey’s Guild and they’re takin’ care of everything.  Roxy spent yesterday goin’ through his papers and seein’ if there is a will.  Ya know, he was a valet for Roxy’s dad when Ben was a jockey? Betcha didn’t know that?”

Ann couldn’t meet Charlie’s earnest eyes. She knew what he said was true but she missed her friend and still felt  somehow she failed him and there was somebody out there botching his memorial who didn’t know him.  

Gayle approached the couch.  I know you’re mad that we didn’t tell you right away.  But pain drugs make you have such crazy dreams, we didn’t want that on your plate too.  

“I know guys.  Thank you honestly.  But do you mind if I ask to be alone for just a bit?”  she handed the untouched stew and bread back to Gayle.

“Tell you what, we’ll go for a walk and get this mangy mutt some exercise.  We’ll be back in an hour is that okay?”  Charlie began looking for a leash by the door.

“Can you leave Luke here with me?  He’s my only connection to Pete right now.”

“Sure dear, we’ll pick up  groceries then.  C’mon Mr. Clean Jeans, let’s go see what’s at the store.”  Charlie kissed Ann on her bowed head and headed toward the door.

Lilith

With cash in hand for the week’s gallops, Lilith walked to the corner store and bought two boxes of cereal for herself, a half gallon of milk, a six pack of off brand soda, a box of cat food and a bag of cat litter.  Trudging back to the track, Lilith thought about what her note to Ann Garrison might say.  

Dark Goddess – William Blake

On her right, traffic whizzed by at a dizzying pace. On on her left was the wall of the Los Angeles arboretum. Lilith had never been brave enough to visit inside but she could see the tops of the trees over the wall. They swayed in the light breeze and Lilith paused to watch and sway with them.

“C’mon, get in.” A crusty voice surprised her.  She looked to see Roxy Ayers parked on Colorado Blvd leaning across the passenger seat and yelling at Lilith. Lilith shrunk, still stung from Roxy’s insults.  

“Get your ass in this car before I cause a wreck.  You can’t just wander around here slugging all those groceries around. Get in and I’ll drive you back to the track.”

Not knowing what else she could do, Lilith pushed her way into the shabby car trying to gingerly nudge the empty cigarette and chewing gum packages from the passenger seat. She couldn’t suppress a gasp of surprise as Roxy gunned the engine as soon as Lilith had closed the door.

“Sorry about yelling at you this morning. I’m working for that fucker Keenan and he’s always got me in a bad mood. You did a nice job of managing that skinny little gray this morning. He’s sore as a wedding poke and wringy too and you galloped him nice and slow. I know you gallop a few for that old man, but we are going to need some help in Keenan’s barn – want to get on a few?”

Lilith stammered. Words would not come, her body twisted and she thought about springing out of the car but she knew she wouldn’t have time to gather the food she’d bought and still run away and mama cat needed to eat. Her thoughts were jumbled and she fought to make what she’d always heard was “small talk.” Something that would take the pressure off of Lilith needing to answer.

“How-how is Ah, Ann doing?” Lilith took a deep breath, relieved to have made a statement.

“Look here. It talks!” Roxy exhaled smoke through the driver’s side window.  “You know, some people think you can’t talk at all.”

“I can talk.” Lilith answered.

“But you don’t and that’s why I like you. Too many people talk all the time. Too much bullshit. Nobody listens and I get the idea that you listen to a lot.

“I like to listen to music.” Lilith exhaled.

“Yeah.” Roxy answered looking sidelong at Lilith who was leaning towards the passenger window, hands wringing the plastic bags holding her groceries. “Listen, I gotta go over to Ann’s house and check on her. She’s supposed to come home from the hospital today. Want to come?

“Right now?” 

“Don’t panic, I’m not kidnapping you. Yes, right now.  We won’t be gone long and then I’ll take you back to the track.  You’re staying above barn 101 right?”

Lilith visibly jumped and pulled the groceries closer. “Don’t be so jumpy, I’m staying above barn 104 and I’ve seen you head upstairs. We gallop girls have to stick together you know.  It’s rough out there by ourselves.”

“I – I thought you were married to a trainer and lived in some big house around here.”  

“Tony?  He was my boyfriend, but he’s an asshole and I’d rather have a tack room all to myself than to live with a know-it-all asshole. You know?”

“Yeah.” Lilith forced a laugh because it seemed like a sound she should make at this point in the conversation. She found herself having the first conversation with another person she could remember having.

“What’s Ann like?” Lilith ventured.

“Ann? Well, she’s one of us. Crazy bitch who just wants to ride horses more than anything and pretends she doesn’t hurt when she does.[ how do i write an autistic character who is smart, strong and her resolution is NOT that she becomes less autistic but that her unique world view actually improves the lives of the neurotypicals around her?  If Ann rejects her, then Roxy school her (love Roxy) and maybe both jude and enrique – who is the key to unlocking who raped her see her for her special gift with horses then she is a special kind of sage.  what else is special about Lilith the Night Owl? ]  

Unconsciously, Lilith rubbed her sore hip. 

“If it’s okay, can you just drop me off at my barn?  There’s something I need to do.”  Lilith felt a surge of energy to write her note to Ann. 

“Suit yourself.  But are you going to gallop a couple for us tomorrow? Be at the barn at 8:45 after you finish for that old man?”

Lilith began to sweat.  Galloping for Jude Keenan meant working in the same barn as Him.

“Hello? C’mon. I’ll put you on a couple of easy ones. Don’t worry.” Roxy’s car pulled up to barn 101. Lilith gathered her groceries and sprang out her mind racing for something to say to end the conversation.

“Sure.” She heard herself say before she rushed up the steps the the safety of her room, mama cat ,and her kittens. 

She closed the door and locked it. She placed the desk chair against the door and threw herself onto the cot with the kittens.

He heart raced but a smile spread across her face. Was it possible she had a friend? Would Ann Garrison be her friend as well? What would Ann be like as a friend? Could she show them the kittens? What would they think?She didn’t know if she would show up to ride horses in Jude Keenan’s barn tomorrow morning. The thought put a giant burning pit in her stomach. But the possibility that she’d be working with Roxy was delicious. 

But.

He would be in the barn. How could she be in the same barn with the man who raped her? She’d seen him around, heard his loud drunken and cruel laugh. He was the one who loaded that brown horse in the trailer the other night. 

Could she tell Roxy? What would Roxy do? What if Roxy laughed at her? Lilith replayed Roxy’s bawdy laugh in her head and it terrified her. 

She needed a plan. She needed to visit Roxy in her room. She said she lived above barn 104 but there were eight rooms above the barn and which one would be hers? 

Tonight she would visit. And maybe she would be able to tell, to smell to discern which room was Roxy’s. Maybe she could find a place to hide and watch Roxy go up the stairs and wait to see which room lighted up. Then she would know. 

Lilith curled on her side around mama cat and the kittens and drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face. 

Accepting Help

“We’d like for you to consider a rehab facility.  There are several excellent ones in the area.”

“I want to go home.”

Getting Up – Berthe Morisot 1885-1886

“Ms. Garrison, your pelvis is cracked, the leg is stabilized but it needs to be monitored. You will have muscle atrophy and”

“Can I go home now or not? Are you making me stay here?”

“As you know, we can’t make you do anything.”

“Then let me go home, I’ve got an orthopedist  I’ll work with and we will take it from there.”

The young doctor looked pleadingly at the woman who was clearly the patient’s mother. The woman mirrored Ann’s direct and stubborn gaze. He was outnumbered. He’d heard stories of  local jockeys coming into the hospital mangled from a wreck and hobble out of their hospital beds to go back to racing. But this was the first time he’d seen it firsthand and he didn’t expect it from a woman.

“I’ll need time to prepare the paperwork.”

“I’d like copies of my x-rays.”

“No problem, just give me the name of your doctor and I’ll send them along for his review.”

“The x-rays are of my body and I want them.”

“Are you a doctor or an X-ray technician?

“I’m the goddamn body that you took them of and I want them.”

The steely gaze pointed his way came from both the woman and her mother and he knew to get out of the room before his demeanor turned less than professional.

“I’ll see what I can do.”  He strode from the room mustering every bit of dignity he could.

“You were pretty hard on him dear.”  

“I hate hospitals and I want out.”

“Okay, lets talk about the elephant in the room.  Where am I taking you?  I don’t suppose you are letting me take you to my house and you haven’t called Dee that I can tell.”

“I told you, I’m going home.”

“And who is there to help you?”

“I don’t need any help.”

“Bologna Ann. Look, I know this is hard for you and unfair and I know  you like everything your way and pretend everything is okay but you have to let somebody help you and it might as well be me. I’m calling your father and telling him to hold down the fort and to send me some of my things.”

“Mom, you have things to do and a life and friends and responsibilities, I’m not going to let you wait on me.”

“I’m your mother Ann and nothing you can do will change that. It’s what mothers are for. I’d do it for your brother and God knows I’ve nursed your father through enough stuff.  So shut up and deal with the fact that we are going to have to learn to put up with each other for a while.”

Ann was beat and she knew it. The thought of her mom judging her house and her life made her squirm, but the comfort of having her there for company and to deal with the pain of healing warmed her.

“Do I have to eat your cooking?”Ann smiled mischievously.

“Every last bite.” 

“You won’t complain that Luke gets to sleep on the furniture?”

“Oh Jesus, do you let that dog get on my old couch?”

“No, he destroyed that couch, I have a new one and he loves it.” Ann smiled again.

Gayle Garrison rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed.    

Roxy and Invictus

“Good morning Roxy.”

“Uh huh.”  Roxy sounded terse and she regretted it. She promised herself she would leave her own bullshit behind and just do the job.  For Ann, for the horses and she would ignore the fact that she was working for an asshole.

“You didn’t post the gallop schedule on the board.  I left you the training charts.”

Roxy was busy pulling the saddle off a sweaty horse.  It gave her an excuse to keep her back to Jude.

Studies of A Horse’s Leg – Leonardo Da Vinci

“I thought Enrique would do that.”

“If I wanted Enrique to do it, I would have given him the training chart.”

Roxy swirled around with a saddle in her arms “Look, I’m not Ann.  Let’s just face facts.  I signed on to exercise your horses and that’s it.  I’m not your assistant, I’m just a fucking gallop girl!”

Both Roxy and Jude turned away from each other and stormed off to their neutral corners.

“Hey slim, what’s got you so pissed off?  How many do you have for me today?”  Charlie Clahain strode into the barn whistling and petting horse noses, his usual cheerful self.

“The prick is in his office and he’s got the training chart.  I’ve got to get that Red MotherFucker to the track, so go ask him yourself.”

“You know sweet darling, I’m always amazed that you can still eat with that mouth.”  Charlie flashed grin and whistled his way to the opposite end of the barn towards the office. 

Roxy steeled herself for her next ride.  Invictus was scheduled to work four furlongs on the grass.  He was in peak running shape. It was critical that she allow him to run just fast enough to stretch his lungs and not fast enough to take anything off of his next race. Just a good strong stretch, not a blow out. But Invictus was breathing fire.  

Invictus was already tacked and waiting in his stall.  Generally, Jude would have a hot walker walking a horse on the work schedule for 10 to 20 minutes before he went out to work, but Invictus was so unruly it was too dangerous for man or beast to have him in the walk ring before a workout.  

Tied in the back of his stall, Invictus pawed the ground and rolled an eye Roxy’s way. She reached to stroke his face and he drew back and bared his teeth with an open mouth.

“Fuck you, you big bastard.” Roxy laughed.  “If meanness equalled run, you could run a hole in the wind, couldn’t you?”

Invictus swished his tail hard and cocked a hind leg and fired out at nothing in particular.    

Roxy checked the tack expertly. Every gallop girl knew that a slipped saddle or a busted stirrup leather could mean tragedy. She checked the tightness of the wraps on the colt’s legs. They were wrapped perfectly, as well they should be for an animal of his caliber. They had an appointment to work on the grass at 8:35 this morning and timing was everything.  She picked up his oversized platter shaped feet and sighed.  The walls of his feet were brittle and shallow, weak and pale. How could these hooves support this giant and powerful body? 

Leading the horse out of his stall was tricky  business, you had to check and make sure that nobody was coming up or down the aisle, you went straight out of the stall and towards the walk ring, once around the walk ring and Enrique would take the reins while giving Roxy a leg up, all the while moving and then straight to the racetrack.  Ann had given her strict instructions and Enrique had echoed the same.  Roxy took a deep breath, unbuckled the colt’s halter and, realizing she had forgotten to look for cross traffic, led the red demon out of the stall on faith alone.  Fate was kind to her – she encountered no traffic. She marched briskly around the walk ring as Enrique joined her.  With no time to waste, he lifted her up on the muscular back and they were off to the track.  The colt shook his head and played while Roxy sat as quietly as she could. Mustering every bit of calm to nonchalantly check her girth for tightness and adjust her stirrups to the correct length while Enrique, whistling all the way, hustled them onto the track. He took one look over his shoulder to make eye contact with Roxy, Enrique winked once, she nodded and he let go of the reins.  The colt bounded onto the track flinging his head and grunting like an enraged gorilla.  Ann’s words played in Roxy’s head – “don’t take a big hold of his reins, it’s what he wants you to do, just let him go forward and he will line out.  If you start a fight with him, he will finish it.”

Roxy placed her experienced hands down upon his withers, stood in her stirrups and let her weight sink through her heels.  Her lower leg pressed into Invictus’s sides and he trotted down the racetrack, head bowed, muscles engaged and as businesslike as any horse on the track. Roxy remembered to breathe. She jogged the horse, letting him stretch his legs and feeling his lungs expel and then rip the air from around him.  She’d never felt such a powerful ribcage flex underneath her.  His neck arched in front of her and the  morning sunlight gleaned off his coat making it look even more like fire.  There was a hint of tentativeness in his step and she remembered his feet.  She looked up and saw the gap some 220 yards ahead of where they would enter the grass course and she could get him off of the synthetic track that caused him pain. The gap got closer and the colt got stronger.  She managed to finesse him to a quick halt and turned him onto the inner course where the smooth green grass was maintained only for a couple of races per day and for the occasional morning guest, such as he was today.  She nodded at the gatekeeper as she passed, when he went to wave, the colt leapt up striking and plunging, perhaps he thought the man was reaching for his bridle intent on denying him his well earned and much needed run.  The man jumped back and Roxy held on for all she was worth praying that this tantrum would end soon. Every nerve in her body told her to take ahold of the reins and pull him into control and every brain cel in her body warned her not to. 

Roxy could feel the eyes of Jude upon her from the grandstands.  His binoculars were pointed at his prized colt and Roxy knew that she absolutely could not let this horse out of her control. Roxy’s pride gave her the extra fortitude she needed to stay focused and ride out the storm.  She breathed as deeply as she could, ignored the beads of sweat forming under the brim of her helmet and kicked on, urging the colt to go forward on a long rein. He shook his head violently, daring her one last time to take up the slack in the reins and then headed down the track covering the spongy grass with bounding strides. Roxy still had half a mile to go to warm him up before she could let him run; with Jude’s binoculars watching her every move. If she could just keep him quiet and focused this would be easy.  She eased the horse to the center of the racetrack and looked ahead for the smoothest path.  The grass at the inside rail was a little bit rough and she glided him just right of the center of the track, each bounding stride getting bigger, each giant breath he took felt like bellows feeding a fire. The flames inside the beast grew with each inhale and Roxy tried to soothe them with the breathing from her tiny lungs.  Invictus glided over the grass, his feet no longer stinging, the embers of his fire building.  400 yards to go until she could release this torpedo, if not at full speed at least enough to quell him. The colt lowered his head, trying to drag Roxy up onto his powerful shoulders, but Roxy was wise, she lengthened the rein even more letting his nose dip towards his knees. 220 yards to go and her thighs began to burn.  She knew one move, one shift and this devil would throw his head in the air and bolt. She dug in and found the strength to keep perfectly still, her knees, ankles and hips all at the exact angle to balance this animal at this speed.  He waited for her to close those angles, to give him an excuse to explode.  The binoculars she knew were watching for what Invictus was waiting to feel and she waited. 50 yards to go – 12 strides, now eight and four and

She crouched just a whisper, the moment Invictus craved, the grip on the binoculars tightened and Roxy let the fire burn.  Invictus took wing.  His feet no longer touched the ground, the jerkiness that most horses achieve at speed didn’t exist here there was just air rushing by and green track unfolding in front. Roxy smiled in their weightlessness and the poles ticked by over her left shoulder.  Roxy’s internal clock was precise and she estimated that each pole, marking a sixteenth of a mile was going by in six seconds plus a heartbeat, a perfect workout.  There were only three poles left to go as she entered the final turn and she counted the seconds. They were flying by in less than five seconds each. Way too fast.  In a panic she stiffened, took ahold of the reins and rocked back.  The surprised colt was caught off balance and he braced and she felt it.  Just one step, one bobble.  Her heart stopped, her gut twisted.  Invictus caught himself and steadied.  No longer flying he galloped uneasily and crookedly across the finish line.  The binoculars lowered.

Roxy never touched the reins after the finish line, she let the colt slow himself, she was too worried that any pressure from her would incur the limping that she was sure must follow.  She never heard a crack and the colt never faltered, he just slowed. He came to a walk of his own accord and even stopped when Roxy sat on the saddle.  He snorted loudly at the horses on the main track, shook his head and headed off the gap.  Neither Roxy nor Invictus acknowledged the worker who opened the gate to let them off the track, both  lost in their thoughts.  Roxy waited for a limp, but it never came.  Maybe she had imagined the bobble, or maybe his shoe had come loose.  Maybe it was something that could easily be fixed and maybe, just maybe Jude didn’t see her pick up the reins.  Roxy knew that it was all just false hope.  She knew that something had gone wrong and it was all her fault.  Enrique was waiting to take them back to the barn.  

“I couldn’t see his work, but the clocker says it was really fast.”

“Too fast Enrique.”

Roxy saw Jude, binoculars in hand, headed back to the barn.  He would beat them there and he’d be waiting.  Waiting to hear how she had destroyed the best horse he’d ever trained.  Waiting to hear her excuse about why she couldn’t listen to a single instruction.  Waiting to tell her what a failure she was and how she couldn’t ride a lick. Roxy thought about jumping off the colt’s back and running for the ladies room. But the track was too small. She had to face the music.

Invictus carried Roxy back to the barn. She hopped off, not looking around while she unbuckled the girth from the giant ribcage.

“You looked pretty good out there. I didn’t think you could get him to the track, let alone to the pole and across the finish line. You went too fast for the first part but you managed to get him to slow down. Good job.”

Roxy froze. Didn’t he see it?  She mumbled something that sounded like “Thanks” and went to put the saddle away, stopping to strip the sweaty saddle cloth and drop it in the laundry pile.  Didn’t he see it?  She peeked at the colt taking a long drink of water before he moved off to a warm bath.  He had his usual mincing step on the hard ground, but nothing unusual. Maybe he was okay? She watched Jude as he watched the horse. She did her best to study the horse as she watched Jude’s face. She saw only admiration of the man for a great horse. Invictus nipped his hot walker hard on the thigh, threw his head in the air and pranced, thrilled with himself in his naughtiness.  Roxy excused herself to the track kitchen, it was time for coffee.

Julie at Home

Julie rarely spent  time in her downtown apartment.  She was often at her parents place in Malibu or with various friends.  Julie loved travel and found her spacious apartment depressing and lonely despite the great views of the hip downtown scene.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Woman Before A Mirror 1897

It was odd that she felt compelled to be alone now.  She couldn’t put her finger on it.  She refused half a dozen invitations to dinners, outings, trips to Catalina island and a tempting all girls trip to a club in Cabo San Lucas.  For some reason, she craved quiet time to think.

Okay, she needed to admit that the accident set her off.  When she heard Lavinia Bleau’s super filly  crashed and died on the track and the great and mighty Ann Garrison was hospitalized – something happened. Julie needed to come to terms with her reaction to the news.  She needed to take a look inward and figure out why she secretly rejoiced that Ann lay broken and probably maimed in a hospital bed in Pasadena. She needed to tease apart in her mind why she hoped that Ann’s sweet little nose would be forever crooked and that maybe she would walk with a limp rather than with that characteristic bounce that should be reserved for 15 year old gymnasts. That her perfect body would be re-shaped into something less solid and round.  That she would have flaccid areas that had been firm and ripe before.

She entertained fantasies of Jude watching Ann not with admiration and gratitude and, should she admit it, something as close to love as she had ever seen cross Jude’s face but with love’s antithesis; pity.  

“Julie” she said out loud to herself “congratulations, you are a bona fide bitch. Yup, eat that you jealous, angry cunt.” Self loathing was not something Julie spent a lot of time on. But there it was. Saying it out loud made her look into a soul mirror and  face her ugly reflection. Now she needed to figure out why.  She hopped up and headed for the liquor cabinet. An extra dry martini or a sweet old fashioned sounded perfect.

 Instead of opening the cabinet though, Julie found her forehead resting on the door that held the liquor and she willed for the tears to come. They wouldn’t. Too many years of being rewarded for being forever peppy, upbeat – covering her anger with cattiness and cruel laughs, but laughs just the same.  Nobody wants to be around a bitch unless she’s wickedly funny and Julie was a wicked funny bitch. She’d given up tears long ago and traded them for high and expensive style, beautiful friends, sleek cars and booze.  

Gin made her wit razor sharp, vodka made her the life of the party, tequila kept her dancing and wine made her sexy.  

She lifted her head from the cabinet and thought about whom she could call. What friend would if not offer succor, at least be a distraction?  Her hand hovered over the phone and morphed into a clenched fist. Sinking into a kitchen chair, she realized she was going to have to go this alone and sober.  She tried to turn on some music but each song that played on her playlist was either too perky, too grungy or simply too young. She considered pacing, but her body was drained. She considered visiting her building’s workout room – at this time of day it was almost certain to be empty.  But the notion of running in place on a treadmill or climbing the Sysyphysian steps to nowhere did nothing to curb the helplessness.

The obvious thing to do would be to go and visit Ann in the hospital.  Bring her a nice gift, something expensive and stylish, give her a big hug and wish her a speedy recovery. It was a hollow platitude and even if Ann didn’t know it, Julie did. 

She had honestly thought that she liked Ann. There was nothing unlikeable about Ann except her courage, her self assuredness, her perfect body, her complete lack of need for attention and adulation, her integrity and her loyalty.  Julie kept her close to watch if and when Ann might realize that Jude would hand her his heart, his business, his everything if she would just ask. But Ann never had.  

Damn her.  The more Julie thought about it, the worse she felt.  This was going nowhere.

Julie mentally listed her own good attributes; she was a great friend – always there to cheer up a broken heart. She gave perfect gifts and even better parties.  She was an excellent daughter. She had never rained down scandal on her powerful father. She had kept out of trouble and she never (knowingly) dated married men. She went to all the good charity events, shopped at the auctions, supported local artists.  

God she wanted a drink, a friend, a distraction right now. Okay, back to the list: She was, contrary to popular belief, not dumb. She had earned her degree in Art and Design and her taste was excellent. She helped numerous friends with remodeling projects.  Maybe she could do something there.  Yeah, as if the local homeless shelter really needs a modernist interior makeover. 

Sigh. 

Maybe she should go on one of those vacations to some awful African country and change diapers at the orphanage for a month. Cooking and cleaning for a bunch of starving kids would surely scrub her soul clean. Julie slumped, she couldn’t even travel to Florida because the bugs creeped her out. The notion of having disease ridden flies going up her nose and into her mouth, not to mention the spiders and the mosquitos and the pinworms.  Ugh.  

Next thought; she could join some protest, find a cause that made her ripping mad and join hands with unwashed college kids and scream all night at the cops. 

No thanks. 

She had friends that served on charity boards, that might be fun. Or she could adopt a couple of shelter kittens? Every idea seemed more empty than the last. Obviously, penance wasn’t her thing. 

Maybe you are just going to have to live with the fact that you are an evil bitch. Maybe that’s all there is for you.  Maybe you don’t have a real friend in the world and your boyfriend is in love with a great gal and thank God the other woman isn’t smart enough to figure it out. You might just have to live with the fact that you are getting older and there is only so much that good work and cosmetics can do. You are getting too old to have kids and you have never liked them anyway. You’re  selfish and you drink too much.

Her phone beeped on the counter.  She had a message.  She pressed the button.  It was from Jude and it said simply “Lunch?”

She replied “No.”

After a minute she entered “How’s Ann?”

“She’s hurt, but she’s brave.”

Tears finally flowed from Julie’s eyes.

Peter Stone at Home

Peter Stone’s disgusted flicking  off the TV set roused the sleeping dog by his side. He was tired of baseball. Rubing the long ears and running his hand over the short coat and the thick body of Luke, he looked at the phone and wished once again that he could call. But the numbers didn’t make sense.  The tall girl, the one who brought Luke over, the one who smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke had written down Ann’s hospital number and left it by the phone, but try as he might, Peter couldn’t make out the numbers through his blurry vision.  The few times he tried to guess were unsuccessful and he was frustrated and feeling helpless.

Sleeping Bloodhound exhibited 1835 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873

“She’s probably just fine – don’tcha think?” He asked of the sleeping hound. Luke responded by shifting his body and looking at Peter.  He let out a long satisfied sigh to let Peter know that he was warm and comfortable and that was good enough.

“Stupid dog, what do you know?  You’ve never been run over by a racehorse. But I have and it’s terrible. You just don’t know how much you can hurt until you’ve laid in a hospital bed with hoofprints up your back.  God DAMN!”  He stomped his slippered feet feeling feeble, old and alone.  He knew he was talking to a sleeping dog and he knew his best friend was in a hospital not five miles away and he couldn’t reach her. There was no one to call and nothing to do and such was the state of his life.

But it hadn’t been a bad life, that much he knew.  His riding days were glory days. Racing after the war was jubilant, people were eager for pomp and celebration. Peter was 18 and smaller than some of the south American boys. He could eat and drink all night and still make weight. Owners and trainers loved him because he’d learned to say something good about each horse. Women were plentiful. He liked the older ones, they were appreciative and kinder than the young ones.  He’d never left the west. Racing in California and Mexico was all he ever needed.  He’d had the chance to dance and dine with Hollywood starlets and mobsters. He loved riding for small trainers and hanging with common working men too.  

There were wrecks but bones mended and the boys supported each other – plus women loved nursing an injured jockey.  Owners were generous and hospital bills managed to get paid. After his racing days were over he’d been welcomed into the Teamster’s union and worked a multitude of jobs at the track, all for decent pay.  The work was easy, like taking bets at the mutual windows or managing entries in the racing office. It kept him in touch with racing and racing people. When he retired, there was enough money to keep a nice car – he’d always driven a Cadillac and to pay off the mobile home in the sunny park with the flowers and the palm trees. 

There were times when he missed his wife. She’d died of cancer some 15 years ago. But when he thought of her mostly he remembered her mean streak. They could both drink hard, but she could get mean. It certainly had something to do with Peter’s penchant for seeing married women. He thought he was so discreet and so clever, but somehow she knew and it came out with a vengeance when she got to drinking gin. 

They’d had one daughter, but she died in the polio epidemic of 1952 just before her 3rd birthday. He rarely thought about her until lately. She would be almost 60 years old now if she would have lived. Old enough to be Ann’s mother, making him Ann’s grandfather. He laughed at the notion, he’d never felt anything paternal toward his friend Ann. But then again he wasn’t the paternal type, or the married type. He was a jockey, and then he was a retired jockey and now he was locked in this tin can in a trailer park with eyes that couldn’t see the numbers on the phone for even his voice to escape. He couldn’t drive, walking hurt and the Dodgers were having the shittiest season he could remember.

The dog got up, stretched, and looked imploringly at the door.  It was time for a potty break.

Mark and Johnny in London

Mark looked out the window of the St. James Place hotel.  Across the street was Spencer House, where the Prince and “the Rottweiler” his second wife took residence. Behind Spencer House was the parade ground that surrounds the grandeur of Buckingham Palace. On Wednesday afternoon crowds gathered for the pomp and circumstance of the daily parade to change the guard. Drums banging and horses clomping in that particular way that only the British Empire could produce.  Mark listened to the parade with one ear and to Johnny’s resting breath with the other.  It had been a wild night and Johnny would likely be asleep for some time. 

Mark was hungry, but he wanted to be there when Johnny roused. Johnny had a special sweetness when he first woke up, maybe especially when he was hungover.  The moments of meanness from the night before were forgotten and what was present was this beautiful and somewhat lost puppy that Mark loved dearly.

Last night started well enough. Friends arranged for them to be on the guest list for an upscale rooftop bar in exquisite gardens overlooking Kensington. But the crowd was too staid for Johnny and they went prowling for a more exciting spot. Johnny was a master at getting through long queues and scored a spot at the front of the line from a few young and very hot Russian guys at a dank and sweaty discotheque near SoHo. From there, the evening got fuzzy. Mark remembered svelte dancers and Johnny’s smiling face as drinks and eXtasy flowed. They stumbled through the door of the hotel at 4am. Mark remembered a scathing argument on the tube with Johnny accusing Mark of everything from dishonesty to gluttony.  The arc was getting consistent.  Johnny; the life of the party, the guy throwing money around, his jokes hilarious and his actions wild, would dance and tease and invariably pick out a young Latino as his target for the evening.  On their way back, away from the crowds Johnny would turn mean and hateful. Steeped in guilt, drugs and alcohol, there was no limit to the hurt Johnny could inflict. 

With luck, Mark could get Johnny to bed where he would sleep heavily  and wake in a childlike haze with a contrite and loving heart.

This was why Mark stayed in the room, hungry and hungover.  He needed to connect with the kind side of Johnny.  He needed the closeness of his waking hours when there were few words, just caressing and nuzzling.  Sometimes, if Mark allowed Johnny get into an apologizing mode, there would be tears, but Mark had learned that these tears were not healing tears, they were the tears of re-hashing what Mark had already worked hard to forget.  

Hopefully, they would be up and about, eating, shopping and if the weather held, a stroll in Green Park and if it turned wet, a visit to the British Museum where Mark could lose himself for many hours. Maybe a quiet dinner near Portobello Road before the darkness came again.

Maybe Mark could talk Johnny into buying late tickets to the theater but he doubted if Johnny would be able to stay seated that long.

Looking at the sleeping Johnny, Mark felt waves of tenderness, worry and violence flow through him.  On some level he knew this wasn’t sustainable, but the thought of life without Johnny was unbearable.  When Johnny loved you, it was powerful despite the obvious pain.  But it wasn’t Mark’s pain that Mark worried about. It was the gaping wounds inside Johnny. Everyone had some, but Johnny’s ran bone-deep. Just when Mark thought that the analyst, the life coach, a new prescription, or Mark’s quiet love were helping, the wounds exposed themselves as having festered and deepened.

Mark watched Johnny’s quiet sleep.  He looked at Johnny’s broad shoulders, at his athletic thighs, at the freckles Johnny was always trying to hide, and Mark sighed.  Johnny was always trying to be beautiful and he wouldn’t accept the fact that he was undeniably handsome. Even in sleep, he seemed to want to jump out of his body and into something lighter and more lithe, like he needed to escape the heavy strength nature forced him to lug around.

Mark had always chosen bad boys.  Men with bad habits and cruel mouths. He loved a bad boy’s ability to say “fuck you” to the world.  He loved curling up in the soft spot of a bad boy’s psyche. 

Johnny picked fights with all his close friends most of the time over nothing.  He’d call a friend out of the blue and with surgical precision, he’d poke at the heart of their deepest insecurities. It was as if he was daring you to love him, always testing, always sure that you would walk away.  Most of their friends did. How could they not?  The abuse was deeply personal and nobody could be expected to take it indefinitely. 

 The only one he never abused was Ann. Johnny loved Ann so fiercely he even made efforts to keep Mark at bay – as if Ann was his special possession. Mark accepted and even revered this. He loved their tiny and amazing Ann too, but there was something about her independence, her pragmatic intelligence, her extreme competence, her complete lack of sophistication that charmed Johnny to the core. Mark often thought that Ann was the sister that Johnny never had or possibly the mother he’d dreamed of having. The daughter? The wife? Mark didn’t worry about the deep psychological need that Ann filled, he was just grateful that she was in their lives and she wondered if Ann would have the temerity to stay when Johnny’s testing ire turned on her.  Leaving Ann in the hospital for this trip was hard for both of them.  So hard they didn’t discuss it other than to agree that she would convalesce at their house. They would hire a nurse if they had to and they would wait on her hand and foot. The notion of healing their Ann together brought them joy.  Now, if they could just make their stubborn tiny Ann see the logic of this.

For now, it looked like they had a rare sunny day in London ahead of them. The darkness was hours away, Johnny was stirring and Mark went to him, kissed him tenderly on the lips and was rewarded with a sleepy smile and open arms.

Lavinia’s Only Friend

It was going to be one of those headaches that woke you up and made you feel like you haven’t slept at all. 

Lavinia rolled over in bed and bumped Jason who snarled.  She patted his head apologizing and tried going back to sleep.  Thoughts swirled and twisted leaving her frustrated, angry and restless. She should just get up, but the doctors warned her she needed at least nine hours of sleep to combat the depression, headaches and joint pain that plagued her.  

Both the psychologist and the internist advised sleep along with a laundry list of supplements and drugs which she took dutifully.  The Pilates coach would be coming soon and she would have to cancel if she didn’t get her rest. She also needed to get in touch with the insurance agent and find out how much she had insured the dead filly for. Her fists clenched when she thought of the stupid accident that caused her to lose a promising young horse. She made a mental note to call her bank of lawyers to see if she may be able to sue the track, the outriders the trainer and owner of the crazed animal that caused the accident. She also needed to call her father and let him know.  Why did everything need to be up to her? 

She reached on the bedside table and re-read the nice note Clive Ullswater  sent.  She read it several times, it was so nice.  She’d take him to lunch to show her appreciation.   

She flopped again in the bed realizing that sleep without some outside help was impossible. If she took a sleeping pill now she would sleep through the Pilates appointment at her house, but the doctors were adamant about her sleep needs and she was very committed to feeling better.  If Jason needed to go out, he could bother the housekeeper. The Pilates teacher was a nice girl who would understand.  

She fished through the pharmacopeia on her bedside table, found the Ambien, washed it down with the bottle of water and welcomed her friend sleep.