Issue 130, Spring 1994
I was standing on the slick concrete floor of the barn hall, smoking a cigarette, waiting for Clement. It was four-thirty in the morning, and the dew on the roadside grass leading to the barn sparkled in the moonlight. Clement said he’d be here at five, but I hoped he would be here sooner and we could get this thing done. It was cool outside, and when the wind eased through the barn, it hardly felt like May.
The Queen of England was coming next week, and I was sorry it wasn’t going to mean much. She was going to visit some of the horses she’d been boarding at Indigo Farm five miles from here. Then she was supposed to go to the races at Lexington Fields the following afternoon. Her itinerary had been listed in the newspaper. Horse farms failing all over Kentucky, and the Queen was coming. I’d lost mine and was about to move to Miami where I had a job selling speedboats.
I dropped the cigarette to the floor and touched the coal out with the toe of my boot. I walked down the brightly lit hall past a series of stalls on either side and opened the door to the tackroom. I turned on the light and just stood there for a minute trying to warm up. Back at the house this morning
I was going to make coffee, had gotten out the tin of grounds, but then stood at the sink and cried.
In the tackroom now, I regretted that scene at the sink even more. It had simply come out of nowhere, and afterward I wiped my face with a tea towel and felt like a fool. And I hadn’t made any coffee, either.
There was a small chocolate-colored refrigerator in the corner of the tackroom where Otis, my former stallion manager, used to keep candy bars and beer. The top of the refrigerator and the floor around it were cloaked in dust, the plug lying next to the outlet, its prongs bent. I went over to the refrigerator, pulled open the door. There were two cans of Coors on the top shelf. I took one, dry and warm, clicked open the top and took a drink. I set about getting a bucket of soapy water ready, finishing the beer as I found the things I needed on the shelf.
In the stall next to the tack room. Silver Patriot rustled his straw, sniffing the floor for stray oats. This was the first time I’d had the horse in the barn since I sold him, and he seemed tense. I’d bred Silver Patriot to seventy-nine mares that spring, about twice the normal amount. Five years ago, if a man had a decent stallion he could screen the mares, only selecting the top ones for mating. But this was when the yearling market was ablaze with foreign money and horses were more valuable than the land they grazed on. Then the yearling market collapsed, and the money all dried up. If a man owned a stallion, he compensated for the tough times by breeding it to anything with a mane and a tail.
Silver Patriot now belonged to a man named Francis Skiles, an Oklahoman who’d escaped the oil bust. Skiles bought Silver Patriot and the rest of my farm. He was moving in tomorrow, and I was leaving for Miami tonight. Skiles had been all right about giving me time to pack, sell off the furniture and all that. What I had left was a sand-colored Mercedes owned by a dummy corporation I’d set up when I’d seen trouble coming; my clothes, except for the serious winter stuff I’d dropped off to the Salvation Army; some trophies my horses had won. A few of the nicer pieces anyway. I had some money in a hank in Atlanta.
I had this job waiting for me in Miami. A friend of mine, Tim Willis, who used to have Havrewood Place over on Ferrick Pike, had moved to Florida last year and started a speedboat dealership with what he had left over. He said I could start anytime, that I was entirely qualified. Any man who could sell horses could sell anything.
Before Francis Skiles bought my place, he had me agree to stop breeding Silver Patriot for that season. He was indignant about it, actually. I said, fine, fine, he’s your horse now, do what you think is best. Skiles liked to look me in the eye all the time, a cowboy thing I guessed, and I smiled at him and thought, wait till it gets tight for you, Oklahoma. You’ll have the lights burning in the breeding shed twenty-four hours a day.
I’d used the Queen’s visit as a selling tool. When Skiles first came to inspect my place, he’d looked over the high grass and falling fences disapprovingly. His eyes grew wide though, when I started telling him about the Queen. She’ll be right over there, I said. And you’ll be right here. You’ll be able to tell your friends what the top of the world feels like.
The week before the deal was completed, Skiles sent over a vet to make sure Silver Patriot was in good condition. It turned out to be Doc Kirkland, who’d been out to my place a couple times before. He was young, mid-twenties, a big broad kid from Auburn, bald as an onion from a chemical he’d made himself and had tried out on a mangy parakeet.
The first time I met Kirkland was on Christmas day a year and a half ago. I usually used Doc Gillen, but he was vacationing in the Bahamas, so the vet clinic sent this kid over. Kirkland stitched up a yearling of mine that’d torn his legs all to hell while running through a fence. The kid talked the whole time he worked the stitching needle, telling me about his education, how he was the youngest vet ever to graduate Auburn. After he’d tied off the last stitch, he stood up straight, stretched his arms and smiled. “Man, the famous Kentucky horse business,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be pan of this.”
I thought he’d tired in the cold and doing all that stitching had muddled his mind, so I took him up to the house, and we sat in the kitchen and drank some whiskey, while my second wife. Donna, leaned against the stove and watched. Kirkland was all splattered with blood, and Donna seemed a little horrified, probably imagining him to be a time-warped member of the Gestapo. Donna was like that anyway, halfway disgusted with anything that had to do with the horse business. At one time, she’d been a Miss Harrisburg or Hand Creme Queen or something, and I’d sat next to her at the Derby a few years ago. We started there. When the banks started getting edgy about me, so did she. Donna was living in Ohio now and had remarried: a relief to my alimony.
The second time Doc Kirkland came to my farm was last summer. I was getting some two-year-olds cleaned up for a couple of retired surgeons from New Hampshire who were visiting the farm that afternoon. I’d brushed the three colts off, considered the asking price for each as I shined the name plates on their halters. When I checked over their papers, I discovered all three needed vaccinations. Doc Gillen was away on another call and since it was a routine deal, I just told the woman at the switchboard to send over anyone available.
It was Doc Kirkland. He pulled up in his new Blazer. He shook my hand. “Glad you asked for me,” he said. “Glad my name’s getting around.”
We walked to the first stall. The colt in there began tensing up as soon as he saw us. Once we were in the stall with him, I took the chain end of my leather shank, ran it through one ring of the halter, under his upper lip and hooked the clip to the ring on the other side of the halter. I tightened down on the shank so the horse could feel the chain across its gums and the animal stood still.
When Kirkland raised the syringe needle, the horse struck at him. Kirkland reached for the shank, yanked it out of my hands and pulled down on it hard. “Son of a bitch!” he said. “How’s that now!” The sound of the chain against the horse’s teeth made me wince, though it was something I’d heard before.
Kirkland released the shank and the two-year-old stood there, its whole body trembling. The animal tried chewing the chain, blood dripping from its lips. I took a step towards the horse, holding my hands in front of me. I eased my grip around the shank and with my other hand, reached up and lifted its upper lip. Three big front teeth were missing, the sockets bloody and deep. I took the chain out of its mouth. “Get some peroxide,” I said without looking at Kirkland. “And a tranquilizer.”
After we’d cleaned the horse up reasonably well and Kirkland had put a few stitches in the torn gums, he and I stood outside the stall. Kirkland kept shaking his head. “Man, I’m sorry,” he said. He kicked at the floor. “What am I gonna have to do to make this up?”
“I have buyers coming here today,” I said. “What can you do?”
“I’ll stay here and tell them what happened,” he said. “I’ll tell them you had a vet here with a bad temper.” He blinked and spit on the floor. “Maybe we could make fake teeth out of plaster,,” he said. “You can tell your buyers to come back next week.”
“Forget it,” I said. I thought I might be able to sell the horse anyway and was already running through my sales lines to see if any covered a horse missing its front teeth.
“Well, I know I owe you,” he said, not looking up. “I mean I know how all this works. The business. We all do things for one another. I want to be part of that anyway.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Just get out of here. Sign the papers and leave me the shots. I’ll take care of it.”
When it was time for Francis Skiles to send over a vet, I waited down by the barn and up pulled Kirkland in his Blazer. He stepped out of it and smiled broadly. He was wearing a tan jumpsuit and his head shone in the afternoon sunlight. He walked over and clasped my hand. “They got a call from a guy this morning about a health check and when I heard it was your place, man, I volunteered right away.”
“It’s just a health check,” I said. I headed for Silver Patriot’s stall.
Kirkland followed. “I kept asking the office if you called in anymore,” he said.
“I don’t have any horses left,” I said. I stopped in front of the stall.
“Look,” Kirkland said, “This horse looks good to me, right? I mean if you don’t want me looking him over too close, I won’t.”
“There’s nothing wrong with this horse,” I said.
Kirkland shook his head and glanced at the opening of the barn entrance. ’I’ll just wave my hand here, and you have your health cettificate. Your horse will get sold, and I’ve done something for you.”
“Look,” I said.
Kirkland held his hand up. “You think I don’t know how things work? Come on.”
I pulled the stall door open too quickly, and it spooked Silver Patriot. He propped and went to the back of the stall. “You go in there and check every hair on this bastard,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong here. I don’t want anything from you.”
Kirkland stared at me, and I thought he might take a swing. But what would he think he owed me then? This was the kind of man who made the business bad anyway. You do what you have to do and say what you have to say and all of it evens out when we’re six feet under. Damn fool kid.
Kirkland shrugged after a moment and stepped into the stall. He checked out the horse. Everything was fine. The next day I sold Silver Patriot to Skiles.
I had a friend, though. Clement Parks was his name, and his farm was in trouble, too. He and I had been sitting in a dinky bar in Midway two weeks ago, and he was in a dismal mood. He groaned when I told him about selling Silver Patriot.
He said that was too bad; he wanted to breed a mare to him. Clement had high times when the market was good. We agreed it was a shame everyone was going out of business. Clement said his mare in foal to Silver Patriot would bring enough to let him keep his place going another year. “You know,” he said, “if my place keeps going, in a way yours does, too.” There was a pause, and then he and I laughed together. A good horseman, above all else, didn’t get conned. That’s what Clement was trying to do there. I knew selling speedboats wouldn’t be the same, and I wanted someone to survive, even if it wasn’t going to be me.
At one time, Clement’s operation had been impressive. He owned three dozen mares, a couple stallions, and when things were going just right, he’d bought a French racehorse named Eclair and brought it to Kentucky. He sold shares, even ran an advertisement offering Eclair’s breeding services in The Wall Street journal. Clement got so carried away he had a chandelier installed at the center of the ceiling in his breeding barn.