For the Roses

Clear sky it was and all kinds under it, cops, railbirds, soldiers. Hotlanta belles in mile-wide hats, and rappers and the sunburned gentry, and half the Saudi royal family, and us. It was five of us girls, at the Derby for Donna’s sixtieth. We’d tied a few on the night before, in the hotel bar, and were regretting it badly.

We lived large, my girls and I. Just because we weren’t thirty didn’t mean we had to dress like in some ad for osteoporosis meds—you know the kind of woman I’m talking about. Peaceably aged, rubbery shoes. Not us. We were in this for the blood still.

At the turnstiles it was hot and slow-going, the seersuckers and Panamas full up with sweat, and that half-friendly, half-mean air of carnival around. Some in the crowd already plenty blitzed from brunch, and Anne-Marie was something bitchy, having not eaten since the previous night. Then the stomach-drop as you came onto the track, that shock of emerald, and you forgot who you were a sec, your name and age, and you were high on sport, and fellowship, and May.

“Now ladies”—we had walkaround passes, VIP, courtesy a male friend of mine, was chummy with one of the owners—“these can get us in basically anywhere, from the press pit to the clubhouse, to the jockey room—”

“Jockey room, huh? You know I like ’em bendy.”

That was our Donna, in the sash we’d gotten her. Sexy ’n’ Sixty it said, with little martini glasses for the Ys.

“It’s not right. Have to starve themselves, like ballerinas. Live off nuts and lettuce.” Anne-Marie was a motivational speaker of no small renown, had her own line of affirmation throw pillows, out through Kohl’s. Bit of a prickly pear, bit negative to all but paying clients, but when you got her going was as good and fun a shit-talker as there ever lived, and my best friend. “Not long for this world, jockeys.”

Kay said, “We got that in common.”

This brought on a round of boos and “Now, now, don’t you say that.” Kay’d had a scare, lump in her breast turned out to be operable, early Stage 2, but it meant the implants had to go, come Tuesday.

Soon enough we were sipping on cool rosé on a veranda in the middle stands. A detour for some salve, as per the birthday girl’s request, and the undercard was well on—that’s the less important races, the ones not on TV, before the big one.

“You wanna be betting on the filly later.” Kay was at the binoculars, like a pro. Fancied herself a real horsewoman, Kay. “They don’t wanna run fillies less they’ve got some big-time power.”

Donna said, “Trifecta’s what I have in mind. Tulip Craze, Retox, Have Some Chips.”

The stories, like the names, some of them were better than others. The one filly was a great-great-granddaughter of Seattle Slew, Tulip Craze, from nearby fields of bluegrass. You could practically see the big red barn, the age-old maple on a hill. A hometown girl raised on buttermilk and good intentions and poised for a championship from a yearling. Brother-sister team behind her, real decent- seeming people, too. Orphaned at a young age, poor lambs, tornado having got their parents.

The front-runner, Justinian, had been bought two weeks prior via long- distance phone call, Moscow to Detroit, by some zillionaire Boris, a last-minute purge by his stateside owner who’d been running afoul of the IRS. Bad feet on the colt, but the vets were at the ready in the paddock, syringes spitting dope. Earl Hyde, that’s my friend, knew all the insider gab.

Brenda said, “I reckon I’ll spread my bets out a little.”

Have I not mentioned Brenda? Oh. I don’t mean to be unkind. Brenda was deep in her Daily Racing Form, best proof I’d seen to date that she could read. In his speech at their vow renewal ceremony, while back, her husband of thirty-five years, Norm, could say no more than to praise her “whole lotta qualities.” But you never had to worry with Bren. Say you wanted a drink, but didn’t much feel like company, Brenda was your girl. Like a noise machine. She was serene. That’s how I’d have put it, serene. Norm, that two-timing drip, might’ve dug a little deeper for the mother of his children.

It was getting on lunchtime. Now we could see straight, courtesy a minor tipple, the place was newly wild, and lousy with humanity. The millionaires were in the grandstand, the college drunks the infield, and here, surrounding us, was hell’s half-acre, or an OTB, out of Boston: the hardcore betting zone.

You could smell the cash and chicken parts. Men in their undershirts, some in wheelchairs, gray-faced, shucking peanuts. Standing in line at the parimutuels trying to squeeze their futures, muscle cars, their sons’ and daughters’ orthodonty, out of nickels and dimes. You had to feel tenderly towards them, those destined for a little bite of glory on this day in May. Some bound for loss and ruin. There was the feel of raw democracy about it.

“Not an eye on us,” Donna said. “Glued to their forms, huh?”

Donna couldn’t for the life of her get over it, not being stared at anymore. She’d been a knockout in her day. Made it, once upon a time, with Emilio Estevez. Now had that stuffed look of one too many nip-and-tucks.

“They’re not looking at the young ones either,” I said.

“And it’s not like, when it used to happen, it was a compliment or anything,” said Anne-Marie. “No matter how you looked you’d get harassed.”

“That’s true,” I said. “A whistle where I come from only means you’ve got two arms, two legs.”

“Matter fact,” this was Kay, “girl in my school had one arm, still got the treatment. At the bus-stop. Full-on.” We all laughed.

“To the clubhouse, ladies?”

“Let’s shall.”

The waiters were in livery, and so damn courteous it was right-creepy. You got the feeling they would kill their families if it would somehow, for whatever reason, improve your comfort. But that’s what these men, the owners, were paying for. It cost fifty thousand dollars just to enter. You had to fall all over yourself in front of them.

The chow looked divine. It was about julep time, too, but you could only be having two or three before your head came off.

“Isn’t that Walt Pembroke?” Donna said, pointing to a white-haired man across the room, and adjusted her cleavage. Dame was on the hunt.

Walt Pembroke was a legend. Fifteen Triple Crown wins under his belt, part stake in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, plus the ear and number of every senator and power-broker in a six-state radius. His entry, Russet Curtains, was four-to-one that day. Got its name, Earl said, as a dig at the pretty girl in high school hadn’t loved Walt back. A steed he couldn’t mount.

“Ain’t he in hot water now?” Kay said.

“Not anymore,” I said. “That case. It was dropped.”

The New York Times had got ahold of footage of his trainers mistreating horses, invoices for a barge’s worth of non-therapeutic drugs. Electrified whips for zapping their haunches across the finish line. Plus a clip of Walt going ballistic on a Guatemalan groom in language wild and violently profane—real rageaholic he was. His people said they’d doctored the audio, taken comments out of context. I believed that. Those PETA folks were ruthless.

I also believed he was a world-class SOB, might’ve been pushing a mop somewhere had he not been born to money, and lucky to get the work.

“You get successful like that, people just wanna tear you down,” Donna said, insightfully. “It’s not fair.”

Now I liked a race as much as any American, and I had come there just like everybody else that day, to drink and bet and have fun, and I’m not one of these gonna paint you red for depriving a skunk its right to a fulfilling life. But there were horses of his, overbred and over-raced, having their hooves patched together fifteen minutes before curtain call with actual glue. You had to wonder if it wasn’t better to hang back, take it down a couple notches, the whole profit-mad parade.

We had a table right near the rails. Good view of the big board, where the winning numbers flashed. We watched them for a while, though we’d only studied the field for the big race, and only Kay and Brenda’d put any money down for the undercard. Brenda’s form was hogwash, frankly, random-ass sums on long- shot horses called things like Diamond Deb and Miss Moonbeam Stunner—she must’ve liked the names. We had club sandwiches with American flag toothpicks and shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, croutons the size of pygmy heads. Life-giving stuff. The drinks kept coming. Still, nobody talked to us, or looked at us.

After a while Kay and Anne-Marie went to the little girls’ room, and when Kay came back alone, kind of pale, I said,

“She fall in?”

“Grayson’s on her case again,” Kay said. “He had some, I don’t know. Some run-in.”

Oh shit. Well, oh damn, was the thought.

Anne-Marie’s son lived with a pet snake and a hunting rifle in a subdivision outside Corpus Christi. She’d had him young, out of wedlock, then met Vince— two pageant-perfect, baton-twirling girls resulting—and Grayson hated all their guts. He’d be sweet sometimes then disappear for weeks on hunting trips, threaten to visit and blow them all up. His was a scourge of mental illness couldn’t be helped, or begged away by any priest or PhD or dollar sign. I remembered when he was small, such a beautiful, sweet kid. The turns life takes.

Now that gun of his must have made mean work of Anne-Marie’s dreams, she who’d hung her great-great-great-granddaddy’s Winchester over the hearth, blood-spangled pride of Fredericksburg, and for what? What was a child like Grayson meant to make of that? Mind you, I’m not saying anything was anybody’s fault.

Anne-Marie returned, red in the face.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“Oh, just off the phone with Charlie Manson. Just shootin’ the breeze with good old Chuck.”

She sat down, took a long toot on her julep.

“He’s sick. He’s sick in the head. He’s deranged. He’s not right for this goddamn world.” Rage in her voice, but she loved that boy something fierce. Man, really, as he was pushing forty.

Donna said, “It’s all right, honey. Everything’s all right. He always gets himself into little scrapes and everything always turns out fine.”

Until the day it’s not fine, and that day, for a mother, lasts forever.

“I don’t want to ruin your birthday, Don.” Anne-Marie gestured toward a waiter, scared little drummer boy. “Hey, another one of these, and strong.”

Donna said, “Oh, don’t be silly, doll. Hey, it’s life. That’s what we’re here celebrating, ain’t it? It’s life. It’s messy. I don’t care if y’all sob and fight and kick the shit out of each other today. Ha! I wanna have us an experience.”

Good old Donna. She was the only one of us didn’t have any kids. I linked this, in part, to her liveliness of spirit, and her ignorance. No offense to anybody, I’m just saying, without kids, your rock bottom is higher.

Anne-Marie said, “He called someone the N-word at a supermarket. Goddamn basket case. White guy.”

“What happened?”

“Rumble in the parking lot. Grayson said he’d—” She had the phone to her ear. “They’re both at Nueces now, cooling their heels. I’m trying to get through to Vince or Janelle to—” She hung up. “You know what? Screw it. Keep him in there. At least I’ll know where the fuck he is for an hour. Goddamnit.”

We were all fairly tense, and quiet, for a while. Brenda chomped her crouton. Not like Anne-Marie to be cussing so much. Poor girl.

I gave her a little pat.

It was not comfortable, the silence.

“Hey, let’s get something happening,” Donna said after a couple minutes. “Kick this gloom away. I wanna get me a date with a sheikh or somethin’,” and did a little wiggle.

Then, through a sea of hats, came our lord and savior, Earl Hyde himself. He wore a poplin suit, seafoam green, bespoke, a pink tie with little whales on it.

“Either I’m more pie-eyed than I realized,” he said, “or that sash says sixty. No way you’re a day over forty-five, you gorgeous thing.”

At that Donna’s eyes practically popped out of her head, so delighted was she.

“Earl,” we all cooed, except for Anne-Marie of course, who was staring hard into the infield, just about chewing a hole through her lip.

Crazy to think we’d been friends for almost fifty years, Earl and I. Rich as Midas, lived with his elderly mother, whom he worshipped, in a crumbling plantation with a view to Galveston Bay. In high school they’d called him Norman Bates, said he wore her jewelry after hours. I saw him more as a Capote type myself, quicksilver brain, warm as the sun. Mind you, he’d rather cut his prick off than admit his sexual preference. I worried on his lonesomeness. Not apt to be handling the loss of Ma too well, which was coming soon enough, and might just end it all some Christmas Eve. Oh, but that’s an ugly, no-use thought.

“So, ladies,” Earl said, “how’s the odds? Are we rolling in it yet?”

“Trying to be.”

“Kay here’s hemorrhaging cash,” I said.

“That’s not all I’m hemorrhaging.” Bad change-of-life, Kay’s. You couldn’t really call it a phase any longer.

“I wouldn’t mind a look-in at that Walt Pembroke,” Donna said. “You know ’im?” Earl was friends with everybody.

“If you wanna see a horse’s ass, how bout the real thing? Tour of the paddock?”

A round of laughs and coos and “Oohs!” but Anne-Marie just said, real grave-like, “Can we drink in there?”

Out there was the land of popcorn, sludge, and vomit, but in the paddock people walked like Englishmen. Real dignified. Respectful. Security was tight, no arms borne to the naked eye but you could feel their presence, and you couldn’t get too close to anything. Then they appeared, paraded in the sun, one golden lap around the yard before showtime, and oh, you’d have to be a stony mother not to reach for your hankie.

They were gods.

A sorrel-colored two-year-old walked past, white star on his brow, and took your heart right with him.

I turn around, Kay’s wiping tears away. Things getting maudlin in our camp, they were. Are you surprised?

“What’s wrong?” said everyone. “What’s wrong. Awwww,” said everyone.

Kay’d had to sell her horse, dumpy Arabian she kept about fifteen miles outside the city, not a month back. Hard times with the lump and all, plus her husband laid off from IBM, and more grandkids than could be comfortably plied with scooters and iPads on their birthdays.

“I just...” Kay said, “I just...I miss damn much.”

Of course we helped her out. We were Christian women after all. Still, she’d have to be pulling herself up, otherwise there’d be no end to it. Thin line between a friend in need and some welfare queen. And her in the DryBar every third day, and betting willy-nilly like it grew on trees.

I guess we all had our troubles.

But the horses, and the odds, didn’t know our pain from boo.

There were just a few races left before the big one now. You could start to feel it building up, the excitement. I felt like a girl of thirteen, World’s Fair, ’68, holding fast my daddy’s hand, the colored swirl of sights. The jockeys, like Portuguese leprechauns, elegant as silk, popping on their horses, gliding up, no effort to it. Donna tried to talk to one. Flat-out ignored her. Nearly clip-clopped right over her head as a matter of fact. The megaphone cawed. They’d be singing the anthem soon. “My Old Kentucky Home.” Charged tune that was, this day and age.

“So, how are you?” Earl said. We linked arms. We walked the grounds, well manicured, astride a grand procession. Felt like a Windsor in my little hat. Felt fabulous, in fact. “Thought I might not get a second alone with you today.”

“How’s your mother?”

You know, Earl was my friend first. I was protective of him, too, against the company of these and other glitzy hags, who might mistake him in his love of fun for some confection. He was a thinker, you know, a scholar of Faulkner.

“Oh, can’t talk about that now. Don’t mean to shut you out it’s just...I’ll upset myself. Too early in the night for that kind of talk. Anyway. You hear about Clark Coleman?”

“No, what about ’im?”

Clark and I, we’d worked together. Far as Earl knew. I was executive secretary, decades back, to his city treasurer, in San Antone. You could always rely on Earl to know the poop on everybody. Smacked my lips I did, for news of that divorce long in the coming.

“He passed.”

I just about lost my legs.

“You’re kidding,” I said, “When?”

“Oh, just about a month ago.”

I hoped it was a lie. “How could I not have heard? I mean, he was a public figure.”

“Not anymore. He went off the map, last few years. After that business in ’96. There was a write-up in the Chronicle, must not’ve caught your eye though.”

“Well, hell. Well...I’ll be damned.... That man...that wonderful man. He was younger than me.”

“I’m real sorry to be the one to tell you, Gladys.”

Hung back from the group I did, gathering my thoughts. I felt crazy. Thought for a second I might have myself a yak into a flowerbed. But I kept it in.

But then I didn’t. Came pouring out of me, lock, stock, and barrel. Shrimp, too. Oh, the ladies descended.

I caught my breath. Oh god. Was historic property I’d chucked up on.

She needs water’s what she needs,” said Anne-Marie.

Get her in the shade,” Earl said.

“Oh no,” Brenda said. “Oh no. Looks like she’s havin’ herself a real bad time there.”

Coleman, it went on a crazy year. Mine had been, still was, a long snooze of a marriage. Fine man my husband, certainly tall enough, but taciturn. Was a dullness to his movements could right-chill your blood. One time watching him eat a sandwich I was moved to question, in my heart of hearts, but only for a second, if in fact we were God’s children, if the light of His love shone truly in us all, or if we weren’t some of us just bags of organs, shuffling to the fridge and back, unto our deaths.

But I was an ordinary woman, too—love and magic not my province. Plain in the face, weird-looking legs, couldn’t kiss worth a dime when I was young. Hated being naked. Made me itch. I didn’t think a thing like that could ever happen to me. I had not planned for it. But I had seen something of the majesty of life in Clark Coleman, and I had lacked the strength, and moral aptitude, to look away. His weight on me, his eyes right through. That was better than church. But he packed his family up, moved to Santa Fe. Left politics, before all hell had occasion to be breaking loose.

I knew we wouldn’t make a go of it as geezers. I knew there wouldn’t be no coda, no saggy-assed reunion. I just thought—

Armed guards approaching now, looking vexed, and Earl scooped me right up.

I just thought I’d see his face again sometime. Some day in spring. And, no. No, Heaven didn’t count. We’d lost Heaven, doing those things we’d done.

Anne-Marie was due to catch the 9:05 to Corpus Christi.

“You sure you don’t want us to come with you?” I said, faceful of pretzel having done me miracles. My stomach, at least. My heart was damp.

Hurt to think of her, alone on a plane that night. Peanuts for dinner, lump in her throat, while we’d all be carrying on at the governor’s ball. Waltzing with oilmen probably, gloves up to our ears. Kirs in the moonlight. The works. It didn’t seem fair.

“I’m sure,” she said. “I’m good.” Tough lady, Anne-Marie. A fighter.

We were in the pit near the Winner’s Circle, right up against it, the action not five minutes off. Just about ready for some bubbly I was, start her up again, but easy. Not sure just what had happened back there, but I wasn’t the kind inclined to dwell on my own self. Didn’t seem right I should be made to feel ashamed by the security over a little act of nature, with those horses dropping deuces left and right, unholy loads, and no one batting an eye.

“Bad omen,” Kay said. Storm was threatening from the east, and one horse balking getting in the gate. “He’s saying he don’t wanna run, you best listen to him. He’s the one that knows.”

It was Pembroke’s horse, Russet Curtains, bucking and walking backwards, some far-off rumble in the sky sending him haywire.

“You know, he’d been fine on the Paxil,” Anne-Marie was saying. “Pretty up, pretty stable. But he went cold turkey, didn’t refill the prescription since April for God knows what reason. Just his way of saying screw you to life, I guess, and now they’ve got him on these sedatives. Social worker said it took four cops, big burly ones, to keep him down, he was so wild.”

“Boy’s lucky to be white,” said Kay, gravely.

“Poor creature,” I said. “Poor, poor baby.”

“You know,” this was Donna, “I saw this thing on the TV, at the beauty parlor the other day, ’bout therapy dogs, you know, for autistics? And it’s just amazing. These kids, who were just beyond hope, been through the wringer with I mean every medicine in the book, every doctor, and now they’ve got these dogs, plus their vitamins, and exercise regimes. And prayer of course. And they’re just, these kids, they’re transformed. It’s kind of amazing, you know, the healing power of nature. Maybe it’s better, sometimes, to let God and nature have their way, sometimes.”

“Tell that to your face,” said Anne-Marie.

“Easy girl,” Kay said.

“Don’t know what horseshit they’re peddling on The View these days, those drugs are that child’s only hope.”

Donna was right-stunned. “Well, Jesus, Anne-Marie. I’m sorry.”

“You run your mouth too much.” She was telling her, boy.

“Well that hurts, Anne-Marie. And the day after my birthday. That hurts bad.”

Not the first time these two had gone at it. Wouldn’t be the last. It wasn’t fragile, what we shared.

Us girls, we were real friends. The real friends know the stain in you, beneath your good hair and your best self, the desperate gypsy, the seasick troll, and you know it in them, too, and you hate them for it, time to time, for being as damn human as you are.

A grand silence in the crowd, and the gates loaded, and about ready to blow.

Then they came blasting through the dirt like hot rods, smoking upwards. You wouldn’t believe how loud it was, like war or something, some ancient crusade, them just pounding past like devils, seeking heat, the flags of many nations on their jockeys’ backs and it was frightening in the way of rare magnificent things. Justinian was leading from the break, and Russet Curtains followed, our filly holding onto third as they rounded the first bend, steady but no show-off in her, and we trusted her, she’d be emptying the tank at just the moment. The sky held.

“Oh baby, this is it!”

Was a weekend, ’95 or so, Coleman and I’d ducked away to Taos. Little getaway. Our kids were grown by then. Would that mine had had him for a daddy, that musky wonder running on in their veins, and not have turned out how they did, pale, fartsome weasels, chained to their cubicles, no quarter for awe, the kind you show a waterfall they’ll tell you it’s too loud. Anyway, in Taos they had mustangs, the last in the state. We saw them from the porch of our motel one morning, out on the mesa, bucking and whinnying in their own society, and then broke in a run. I’d grown up on a farm, you know, what seemed a century and many countries back. But I’d never seen a thing run quite like so much hell. Not ’til now.

They came around the bend and with no touch of the crop Tulip Craze was rocketing into second, running for her life, such joy in her, airborne practically. Oh, little girl was flying.

I’d told her once, Anne-Marie. She’d been going through a hell of a stretch with Grayson. Figured some gossip might distract her. They’d pulled him just in the nick of time from the rafters in the garage. And you know, after a couple toots you want to share. Pour your heart out. We’d cried together, then not talked of that again.

Russet Curtains was pulled up. He went buckling down near the outer rail in the last leg, his jockey jumping off him, his head twisting. The jumbotron kept on the action with still thirty seconds left but we could see him, almost two-stepping, like those stallions in Vienna do their jigs, but no music now, no purpose, only awful stillness there. Justinian and Tulip Craze were neck-and-neck.

“You know,” said Anne-Marie, pulling me close. “No one’s gonna bring you flowers for your loss.” Earl must’ve told her. “But that’s not to say you don’t deserve ’em.”

I nearly cried at that.

Brenda went, “My god!” The colt made a furious charge and powered past the finish line.

Talk about dumb luck. Trifecta for Miss Brenda.

“What you gonna do with all that money, lady?”

Donna was making champagne rain on all of us. Waste of some perfectly drinkable Dom, if you asked me.

Brenda said, “Wal, I was thinking I’d be givin’ it to Miss Kay here.”

“Buy yourself a new pair a titties,” Donna said, elbowing Kay. The payload was eight thousand big ones.

They were bringing out the big garland of roses for Justinian. Beautiful vermilion rug, and people coming from the infield, and stoned-drunk stoopers grazing among plastic cups for thrown-out tickets, any winnings left unmilked, and the pressmen trying to vulture on the injured horse.

“No, I mean, to help,” said Brenda, “with the treatment and all. I know it’s been hard times.”

Well, we were all kind of stunned by that. I mean, nobody even made a face. Anyone else we’d be put off, and call that kind of showy. But Brenda was about as guileful as a pooch. No subtext to her. Might be she was the best of us by far.

Russet Curtains was on his side now, we could see him clearly from the pit, the jockey stroking his mane and two vets come from the paddock, chrome suitcases in hand, the jockey weeping and crossing himself, clutching his crucifix, like a father in grief, cradling the horse’s whole head like a child.

It kept trying to lift its leg up. Puzzled it was, helpless, no clue what all this was about. Not the pain, and not the life he’d had, shepherded from small barred rooms to rolling fields and back. To flashbulbs in his face in the chapels of folly, Saratoga and Dubai, and no clue why, or on whose terms. No words for none of it. What did it mean a thing had lived?

Two of the vets unscrolled a little screen, which meant, Ladies and gentlemen, avert your eyes.

Anne-Marie let out a scream then. Unholy cry. She turned away, and wept. The only time she cried that day. I mean, the only time I saw her.