A real winner, this one. —Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
By V. S. Anderson
Copyright 2015 V. S. Anderson
Two days and a night. Bitter roadside coffee, the slimy stars of dead moths on the windshield. Poisonous truck fumes on 1-75. An hour’s fitful sleep in the back seat of the Firebird, an hour in which he dreamed that it was Holyhead that had burned.
He had never been to the trailer, but he knew exactly where it was. Alejo had said, “You know the big tree in Langston’s south pasture that lightning hit? Just down the hill from that, on the corner.” And Ted had answered, “Oh, yeah.”
Alejo spent every spring and fall in the fancy doublewide on the small square of land. “Now I am so rich,” he said, “all America is my home. But Keeneland Racetrack was always good to me. I will always ride there. Even when I am more famous than Willie Shoemaker, I will always go back to Kentucky.”
“Yeah,” Ted had answered. “And maybe one day Lexington will elect you mayor.”
“A statue in the paddock at the racetrack is all I ask.”
Alejandro Asolo had not earned his statue. He had not become more famous than Willie Shoemaker. He had not had time.
Ten years ago, Ted’s thirteenth summer, three broodmares had been killed when lightning struck that tree in Langston’s pasture. He found the trailer easily. Very little had changed.
The cops had stretched a large sheet of black plastic on the trodden grass. On the plastic they were dumping small, charred piles. Ted could not believe the framed win picture had survived. He reached to pick it up. It was scorched, blistered, but the row of familiar faces grinned bravely through the soot: Alejandro’s, Teresa’s, Sunny’s, his own.
One of the policemen turned and saw him. “Hey! Put that down!”
He straightened. The cop waved a buddy over and they both advanced, arms held out from their sides.
“Something we can do for you?” one of them asked. He had round, soft-looking cheeks, and a plump, pursed mouth, but his hard little eyes glinted under his hat brim.
Ted dropped the picture wearily at their feet. “I’m looking for Mrs. Asolo.”
“She’s gone. What’s your name?”
“I was a friend of Asolo’s. I drove up from Miami when I heard.”
“Friends got names,” the cop said.
He could smell it. He had told himself the spring wind and the harsh overlay of charred wood, fused metal, and melted plastic would have carried it off, but he had been wrong. He stepped backward, groping behind him. Maybe the fat-cheeked policeman thought he was bolting; he shoved him back against a tree. But the other policeman, a younger, leaner man, said, “Sit down on the ground a minute, kid. Put your head between your knees. You’ll be okay.”
The inner walls of the trailer had been reduced to gummy filaments; the cops sorting the rubbish brushed them gingerly aside, shaking their hands afterwards, as if freeing themselves from cobwebs.
“So you were a friend,” the lean cop said.
Ted tugged his wallet from his hip pocket, thumbed out his driver’s license, and offered it silently. The cop flipped it back and forth, looking at both sides. “So when did you last talk to your friend?”
“February. End of the Gulfstream meet.”
The cops looked at each other. “Racetrack in Miami,” said the lean one. “You a jockey, too?”
The fat-cheeked one smiled. “And you came running up from Miami to see Asolo’s wife the minute you heard he was dead.”
Ted didn’t let himself answer. The cop handed his license back. He kept himself busy putting it away.
“Whysse,” said the lean cop thoughtfully. He had a quick country grin and he used it, invitingly. “We got a family named Whysse here. Out the Barbury Pike, big fancy stud farm called Holyhead. You any relation?”
“Would I be galloping horses on the racetrack if I was?”
“I don’t know,” the lean cop answered. “Whysse isn’t a name you see a lot.” S. J. Tellich, said the brass plate on his uniform pocket; he wore regulation shoes, blunt, shiny; he went on grinning as he stubbed them in the dirt. “You know any of this guy Asolo’s other friends?”
“Just people he knew around the racetrack.”
“Then maybe you were his closest friend?”
“In Miami I guess I was.”
“You told each other things?”
“Well,” said the young cop, looking as if he were hard put not to start yawning, “like, did he happen to drink a lot?”
“As much as anybody, I guess.”
“You ever see him really drunk?”
“Like, pig-eyed, staggering drunk?” the fat-cheeked cop said.
But it was the young cop, Tellich, Ted answered. “So drunk he couldn’t get out of a burning trailer? No.” He kept his tone quiet. “Wasn’t it the fire that killed him, then?”
But once more, instead of answering, Tellich changed tack. “You planning to stick around, Mr. Whysse?”
“If Teresa—Mrs. Asolo—needs me.”
“You might call in to the sheriff’s department. let us know where you’re staying. If you want to help out, that is.”
“Where is Mrs. Asolo staying?”
“The Dogwood. Her sister’s with her.”
“Maybe I’ll stay there.”
“Yeah, maybe you can translate for them,” the fat-cheeked cop sneered.
Grief like Teresa’s would need no translation. But Ted bit back his answer and let Tellich follow him back to the Firebird. The cop traced a line in the dust on the hood.
“Be thinking who his friends were,” he said quietly. “Friends he might have told things to.”
“Alejo knew a lot of people. He liked company.”
“Enjoy the Dogwood. There’s a truck stop down the street But when you go there don’t order Frieda’s home fries. They suck.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Ted said.
At the Dogwood Motel, Teresa Asolo’s sister answered his knock. The sister had a scarred face like rough-cut cedar; the two sharp wings of her brows stooped down over suspicious eyes. She closed the door quickly behind her. “Teresa is sleeping.”
But suddenly Teresa squirmed past her and grabbed Ted’s arms, dragging him inside. Teresa’s face was round and full, with flat, black, almost Asian eyes. Her bronze cheeks glistened. She pulled him down beside her on the rumpled bed.
“He lied to me, Ted. He said he quit it. He said he don’t see those people no more.” Her accent gave her words a sharp, short tone, like the notes of a porcelain bell. “All lies.”
“They are calling it an accident, aren’t they?”
“But it was! You think those people killed him?”
“Nobody kill him,” the sister said from the doorway. “He kill himself.” Her accent was stronger: not porcelain but clay. “You heard the policemen, Teresa. You heard what they said.”
“Tell me,” Ted asked Teresa. “Tell me what they said.”
“He was drunk.”
“He had cocaine—”
There was a slight spitting noise from the doorway. Teresa turned on her sister, wild-eyed. “You don’t know,” she said. “You never knew him.”
The sister didn’t answer. Her black eyes sparked.
“She’s just jealous,” Teresa hissed, clutching Ted’s hand. “Because not even her own husband loves her like Alejo loved me.”
The sister went to the mirror. She pulled a barrette from her hair and stabbed it back in. “What do you know about my husband? About the three good sons I raised who never touched that stuff in their lives?” She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Teresa closed her eyes. “She’s right. I shouldn’t have said it.” Her tears beaded like oil on that fine-grained honey skin.
‘Teresa . . . they found cocaine? Actually found it?”
“I don’t know. They asked me who he bought it from.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
“I want you to think. I want to know, for myself.”
She made a quiet effort, just as she had the time Alejo strapped her into a hang glider and showed her where to put her hands and calmly asked her to step off a California mountainside. And, as then, she succeeded.
“They asked me what he would use a blowtorch for. And if he had any pipes. Glass pipes. They found pieces. I told them it must have been other people, my husband did not do such things.”
“You told them you knew what they were talking about?”
“Anyone can know that. If you read the magazines in the supermarket line you know about that.” She jerked her head toward the bathroom door. “Even her good sons know, I bet. They go to school, don’t they?”
The tears came faster, a silver sheen. He wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t worry about the cops. Let them think what they want. They can’t hurt you.”
“No,” she agreed. “That was for Alejo to do.”
In the spring the air still remembers snow, and four o’clock in the morning is a cold time anyway. Moisture rising from the ground turns to fog, white on the chill. He slept in his car by the Keeneland Racecourse stable gate, and when he woke around four the misty air outside the rimed windows seemed so solid he might have been wrapped in white tissue inside a box.
He couldn’t drive into the stable area because he didn’t have a Kentucky track license or a sticker on his car. But soon the headlights started coming, boring toward him through the fog.
He didn’t have to wait long. The car was low-slung and dark. It stopped a hundred yards past him, paused, and then backed. It was the Turk. The Turk sat for a minute with his elbow out the window, frowning. Ted turned on the dome light. The Turk got out and climbed in beside him. The jockey had been reducing hard. His face was like something that had been wrung out over a sink.
“Well, I ain’t surprised to see you,” he said. “What a shame, huh? You think somebody snuffed him, Ted?”
“How should I know? God knows what he was into.”
“Nothing we haven’t all had a taste of.”
“Well, maybe you have.”
Ted let it drop. “It sounds like he was freebasing. He never did that shit in Miami.”
“He never did it where you could see him, son.”
“Did you see him?”
“I wasn’t that good a friend of his.”
“Then who the hell was?”
“What’s the matter?” The Turk propped a cowboy boot or the dashboard and scratched the inside of his thigh. “Grow up, Teddy. So the car’s yours now, huh?’’
“I could have done without it.”
“And the colt?”
“I thought you weren’t that good a friend of his.”
“But I know people who were.” The Turk patted the car door absently. “Who’d you come out here to see? Not me. McKinnon? He’s probably not even here yet. It’s just poor jocks like me who have to hit this place before they get the coffee warm. Say, Teddy, you been home?”
“Nobody’s died there.”
“You don’t know what a hell of a joke you just made.”
Ted looked at him. But there was nothing to be read in that haggard face other than a mild, mocking pleasure. The Turk swung his foot down and opened the door. “Gotta go to work. Tell Mrs. Asolo I’m real sorry. I hope she’s not pregnant or nothing.”
“If I see McKinnon, I’ll tell him to come out and get you.”
The black Camaro shot forward, disappearing into the five o’clock darkness. And Ted settled back to hope that whoever came along next would be someone he could ask who else had died.
Surprisingly, the Turk kept his word. He did send Sunny McKinnon out to get him. Sunny was a licensed trainer, with all the appropriate insignia, and when Ted rode through the stable gate beside him in the littered truck cab, the guard didn’t even look to see who his passenger was.
Sunny was a big man, with a mashed-in, bouncer’s face. He glanced sideways at Ted’s profile as they rattled through the fog. “Why in shit didn’t you phone and tell me you were coming?”
“When was the last time you knew me to do a sensible thing like that?”
“Kid, I been telling you for years, you got to look for a place to land before you jump off the cliff, not after.”
“Man, I just look to see where you’re standing. I know you’ll catch me.”
“Yeah, how long is it, almost five years now I been catching you? You know what I should have done five years ago? I should have run like hell that day at Hialeah, when I saw it was you had me paged to the stable gate.”
“And miss out on getting back your two hundred dollars?”
“If I’d had sense I woulda burned it.”
“The hell you would.”
There was a commotion in the shed row. Half-seen human shapes played dodge and jump with a plunging shadow. “Now what?” groused Sunny, popping the clutch so suddenly Ted bounced off the seat.
“It’s one of Sparks’ babies!” someone shouted. “Ain’t even got a fuckin’ halter on!”
Ted followed Sunny through the fog. The loose filly came barreling down the shedrow. Grooms flung their arms in her face, their shouts of “Whoa! Whoa!” enough to terrify her into faster flight.
Only Sunny stood his ground. A stride short of slamming into him, the filly stopped, eyed him, then wheeled. Before the frantic grooms could grab her, she romped off into the darkness, trailing snorts of excitement behind her like a string of firecrackers tied to her tail.
“That’s right!” Sunny hollered to no one in particular. “Put your brand-new two-year-olds on the walking machines at five in the morning! Boy, I’d like to be in the horse-catching business around here!”
The tack room was lit by a bare bulb, and its glow was so bright and gold Ted knew he must have been homing in on it every inch of the long drive north from Miami. A sticky doughnut breakfast had been laid on a trunk. As Ted settled wearily onto an overturned bucket, Sunny picked up a thermos. “You know that good stuff they call coffee? Well, this ain’t it. But drink some of it anyway.”
Ted sipped the bitter black liquid. “Sunny, I just can’t believe Alejo was doing such a stupid thing.”
“Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was just smoking in bed. The cops tell you for sure he was high?”
“The cops didn’t tell me anything.”
“Well, they are paid to do the job, Ted.”
Ted didn’t answer. Instead he waited long moments for Sunny to look at him again. But when Sunny did, it was with an unmistakable and belligerent impenetrability. “So I guess I came blasting up here just to get another fix of your tack room coffee.”
“What you did was drive two thousand miles instead of sending flowers to the funeral. I know Teresa’s glad you came.”
After a minute Ted said quietly, “This has never . . . I’ve never lost anyone I care about before.”
“You didn’t care a couple of years ago when you heard about your mother?”
Unfortunately, during the five years he and Sunny had worked together, Sunny had gotten in the habit of expecting honest answers. “It’d been six years since the divorce and I doubt if in all that time I exchanged more than a couple of sentences with her.”
“That doesn’t mean you never thought about her. She was your mother.”
Ted finished the cooling coffee. “I thought about all of them,” he said.
They could hear the grooms outside hosing the dirt from the horses’ legs as they brought them in off the walker. A girl with dark braids tapped at the door. “Rider’s here, Mr. McKinnon.” Beyond her, the air had turned flat gray, as if someone had hung up a dirty sheet against the dark.
Sunny looked back at Ted, brows raised. Ted rose stiffly to follow. But Sunny stopped him at the door.
“Then make it worth the trip,” he said. “Go home.”
“What for? It won’t make any difference.”
“They’re bound to find out you’re here.”
Ted chewed his lip, trying to read Sunny’s expression. “All right, Sunny, what is it? Is he dead, too?”
“Not yet. He had a stroke. He don’t have long.”
“Then he wouldn’t even know me.”
“Once and for all, kid. What’s at Holyhead you’re so scared of?”
“You know damn well there’s nothing I’m scared of. I just don’t want anyone thinking I want his frigging money.”
Sunny glowered for a minute, then snorted. “Right, like your sister would let you within a country mile of the money.”
Ted had to hurry to keep up with him as he stalked out into the grim dawn.