Of which place should I dream? Of the empty place of now, or of the past, that twinkling vision that bursts into a million drops of memory, like a drop falling from a twig.
Sometimes I think back to that Summer, the tumble-down backstretch, the peeling paint of the racetrack grandstand, the dusty afternoons when the sun fell and fell, holding onto the day, not wanting to let it go. There was some magic that gave those days their resonance, though I didn't know it at the time.
Years later, the phantoms of that season, rising like slow birds, begin to take flight. I see the trainers, transfixed in familiar poses, horses which dealt us crushing defeats and soul-lifting wins, the barn that we willed from a jumble of mossy planks. The racetrack kitchen spins into view, dream-like, the grainy photographs of vanished horses, the bare bulb that tinkled late at night, when the moths arrived and the world flowed away, leaving silence in it's place. Those moments seeped into me, growing, becoming so clear that past and present lost their meaning.
That Summer came and went, paling everything that came before, becoming what I measured later by. I try to taste it, to play its light and shadow on my soul and no matter how far back I reach, or how deep I mine my mind for it, they are gone, like a mirage that shimmers in the distance and then disappears without a trace.
Boise lies on the bedrock of racing. The sagging barns thicken with plywood repairs. Tin roofs crumple like rusted sieves. Daggers of blue skylight knife into dark stalls, shivering dust into bright columns.
At the end of the racing season, the Indians scar the track like a hailstorm. Their herd has thinned to nothing. Predators. Rustlers. Sinkholes. Some horses disappeared into the wild country. Fells Adlai--solid and straight as a granite pillar. Melvin Iron, stuck to the hides of runaways and hard buckers. Blueriddler. Their names scrape like the wind across rough land.
The once-pallid trainer, face aflame, leads out the horse with a hump in his back. Melvin tightens his horsehair belt, spits out the stalk of grass, and crouches for a vault. The horse freezes and Melvin stills in mid-air.
- The saddle. Take it off. Donedit. Donuseone.
- Gerrit off. Melvin urges.
The horse explodes into a bucking fit, breaking semicircles in the parched earth, firing clods like rocks. Melvin picks his moment, grabs a handful of mane and springs aboard the twisting wreck.
- Ready? The trainer quavers.
-Lets gerrit over with.
The trainer releases the reins and jumps clear. The rogue coils his haunches. Melvin gallops the horse flat out; then he slows him to a stop. With unearthly poise, he makes the horse stand still. The trainer is tongue-tied as Melvin hands him back the horse. Melvin turns to Blueriddler.
- Im gonna telya somthin.
-This ones the best I sat on.
-You mean today?
-I mean ever. The best one ever. Never threw a leg over a better one in my life.
The cheek of the flamefaced trainer bulges with tobacco. He leans forward spits and wipes the brown string off with the back of his wrist. He hooks his thumb on the bib of his overalls scratches the back of his sweatblackened neck and looks at Blueriddler from under his hatbrim.
Blueriddler turns to Melvin.
The Indians had never paid that much for a horse. The horse was still a bargain at that.
When Melvin dismounts from his last horse word has spread. Trainers leave their work, line the rail, and push back their hats to watch.
Blueriddler gets her money from the rusty Ford pickup. She parts her shirt at the cleavage stuffs in the fat brick of banknotes and turns to the flamefaced trainer. She slaps her thigh twice, jingling silvery music from her bracelets.
Her father had taught her the old trick.
- He aint sound.
-Whadya mean? They dont come no sounder than him. Never wore a wrap his whole life.
I said he aint sound.
Her lustrous black braid, thick as a ships rope, swings round her hips as she turns to walk away. The trainer summons her back with a crook of his finger.
She slinks over, sable eyes like dark pools, body curved like an S. She peels the skin-warm banknotes from the moneybrick, one at a time, standing close as folded paper. The unpaid banknote--she folds into her shirt. That peep of cleavage raises a long wave of lust, convulsing his body to re-shudder in the undertow.
The world drains away, leaving only her scent of wood and grass. The women of his life start to flicker out, one by one, like pale flames, until they are all extinguished. Then the darkness starts to fall around him.
- A lame un aint worth no extra hunnerd.
He ransacks her shirt for his money, seizing her colossal breasts. Her buttons burst and he touches bare flesh. The banknotes descend in green wavelets. The trainers encircle the ruckus. Melvin pins the flamefaced trainers arms and he tries to wriggle free.
Blueriddler leads out the horse.
- Put him back! Dont you be rustlin no horses.
He stuffs the money into his wallet.
They shove the four horses into the creaking vault of the horse trailer. As they drive away, the long red glow of their taillight flickers through the backstretch. That afternoon, clear as a sheet of glass, fades into memory.
I walk back to the barn. The empty place still speaks of horses. The sounds filter in. They are the sounds of evening, of the day ending, of work being over. The rain of oats, the nicker of velvet noses, the hiss of water filling a bucket, the distant caw of a bird, the trucks that leave, one after another, almost in unison. Tired bodies sag to the sounds, like dancers cleaving to a rhythm.
I remember the place in the early Spring, when we just arrived at the track. Didn't know what was where. We threw ourselves at the work for days, our hands numb from the snow, waiting for the horses. We fixed everything: the holey walls, the splayed tin of the roof, the stallfloors. One day, the roofingtin sailed off and sliced our hands. Deep red splotches seeped through our bandages. Whenever the wind was right, the roofingtin boomed like the early thunder of a coming storm.
The work got harder as we went along. We dug holes for the wash
rack, stood up railroad ties, poured the concrete. Next came the
drain. We split the earth into a bottomless canyon. Our spades
cracked the hard ground like iron. Our backs stiffened and
blisters rose out of our skin like pearls.
It fell in slanting silver strands, raising cones of brown earth. Then the sheets tumbled out of the sky. Thick dark ropes cracked our skulls like hammers.
We locked together our slippery arms streaked with mud, grunted each other up, past each strata, into the pool of the upper world.
The first chill of winter scuds off the mountains. The racetrack
starts to empty. The horses leave. Equipment is stored. Trainers
say reluctant goodbyes. Whole stables are stuffed into horse
We always left in the dark. The pre-dawn gloom, the lamplight ordeal, fumbling for the keys, warming up the truck. We fought the thick night like snails. The ritual was like a sacrament.
The racetrack is empty as sky. We load the monstrous rubber mats. The largest, thick as a railroad tie, wrings the sweat from us, cords our arms like cables. The water heater is next, clay on its feet, pipes growing out of its head. The golf cart, long dead, drops in like a corpse. We sweat, swear, re-slam the door.
-The digging bar! It appears in a flash.
The heavy grey bar, battle-scarred, near-impossible to lift. We wedge it against the door and lean into it. -Come on, boys! The bar leaves a notch, blistering off the paint.
Slowly, the door moves, the load shifts. Then it closes like a safe.
We slam the ramp, secure the greasy latches, collapse in steaming heaps. The green trailer bulges. I walk behind it. The concrete slab thrusts out of the ground. We poured it in the shiver of early spring. Wrote in our names with a twig. The spidery letters stand out: MBM FGO AJ. The twig is still up in the corner.
The dying light drains the colour from the sky. Indigo plumes darken in the sky. The ground, still damp from the rain, exhales a thin mist. A thick mat of cloud shuts the sky like a door. Thin silent drops, untroubled by the wind, hang in the air like ghosts.