Jerry stuffed a tray of dirty dishes onto an overcrowded utility cart then rounded the corner to Mildred’s room.
“Hi, gorgeous,” he sang cheerfully. “How’s my girl today?”
Millie lifted her head a fraction as guttural sounds erupted from her throat.
Jerry turned abruptly. She was making an attempt to reply. “Millie, you’ve finally decided to speak to me.”
The old woman’s body jerked toward him causing her hand to flail over the side of the wheelchair. Jerry looked down at a green-shaded Abraham Lincoln peaking through gnarled fingers.
“What’s this?” he asked. “We’re not allowed tips, Mill. But thanks just the same.”
Agitation took over as Millie’s head began to shake. With great effort, she opened her mouth to have “Santa” escape from her lips.
“Santa! You’ve got the wrong holiday, Mill. Christmas is past. We’re coming on Easter.”
Millie waved her hand in frustration. “Santa,” she repeated again. “Five, five ’n fifth.”
“I can’t take your money, Mill. I’d be fired tomorrow. I think you’re a little confused. The nurse will be in shortly. You need a good night’s sleep.”
The television was rolling but Jerry never looked up. Televisions played continuously in every room of the nursing home. His shift was almost over and he was anxious to get to the locker room. He’d been at the Evergreen Nursing Home so long that the odors were second nature to him, but his buddies would puke if he showed up at Zingers before showering. Cleaning vomit from the patients came with the job; dealing with their crap was another issue entirely.
At 7 o’clock, he stepped through the door of Wing Zingers. His friends had their Buds in hand and were sucking them up. He grabbed a Saranac at the bar, then slid into a booth beside Mike.
“So my good men, tell me what’s happening.”
Canyon lifted an eyebrow. “Same ole, same ole.”
The “same ole” was just as boring with the beer bottles emptied. Jerry stretched to catch a glance at the television anchored on a wall high above them. A sports commentator caught his attention. He turned to his buddies with eyes popping.
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what,” Mike asked dryly.
“Santa Anita! The fifth horse in the fifth race had the biggest payout in the track’s history.”
“Didn’t know you were playing the horses,” Canyon remarked with mild surprise.
“I don’t. It’s just that an old woman at the home tried to give me a fin today. She said Santa, five in the fifth.”
The other men roared in laughter.
Canyon wiped tears from his face. “You’re telling us some old bat at the nursing home knew that horse was gonna win. You gotta be kidding.”
“I don’t know.” Jerry was clearly puzzled. “She had the five in her hand.” He lifted a shoulder expressing doubt. “She said five in the fifth.”
Mike gave him a patronizing look. “Listen to yourself, man. You say she had a five in her hand. Five, fifth, it’s all the same. She was getting mixed up, probably wanted change. You’ve been at that place too long, Jer. I think you’re losing it.”
Canyon shook his head. “I never knew why you took that job in the first place.”
“My unemployment was running out. So many of us were out of work when the dealership shut down, I didn’t have a whole lot of choices. You know what they say, plenty of jobs in the service industry.”
Mike gave him a wiry smile. “I’d flip burgers before I’d wipe butts.”
“It’s not so bad when you get used to it. The poor souls need someone to help them out. And Evergreen has a good benefits plan.”
“Benefits! You thinking of getting married or somethin’?”
Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest
- “The Magic Circle”
by Ruth Knafo Setton
- “A Ring, Some Pearls, Perhaps a Watch”
by Marlene Olin
- “Welcoming Death”
by Jake Teeny
- “Five in the Fifth”
by Eileen M. Hopsicker
- “A Short Ride to Mercy”
by Jim Gray
Jerry didn’t respond. Mike and Canyon knew very well he hadn’t had a girlfriend since the breakup over a year ago. In fact, he had little to say through the rest of the evening. His mind was on Mildred Johnson.
The following morning, he was annoyed to find a reassignment had put him in a wing far removed from the patient he wanted to see. When the hands of a clock pointed to lunch, he zigzagged through corridors to the old lady’s room.
“Hey Millie, how’s my girl today?”
The woman jerked in her chair but was unable to turn around. Experience at the nursing home had taught him there was no affliction worse than the destruction of a stroke. He positioned himself in front of her chair, then squatted.
“Millie, I’ve got to ask you something. Yesterday, when you tried to press that five on me, were you asking me to bet on a horse?”
The woman’s mouth spread to a crooked smile. She nodded her head ever so slightly as her eyes began to sparkle.
“The five horse in the fifth race at Santa Anita?”
Millie nodded again.
Jerry’s eyes veered toward the television. It was tuned to HRTV. The implications were startling.
“Millie, in your earlier life, were you involved with horses?”
“Mill, we’ve got to come up with some means of communication here. Can you say yes?”
Though slightly garbled, she did produce a yes.
“How about no?”
Millie’s “no” rang clear as a bell.
“Okay.” Jerry took a deep breath, his merry gray eyes suddenly intense. “Did you work with horses?”
Jerry’s questions would be stabs in the dark. “Did you work with thoroughbred race horses?”
“Did you work for yourself or someone else? Let me rephrase that; did you work for someone?”
Jerry scratched his head. “Professional or family?”
Consternation grabbed him as Millie grunted both. Did she mean she had worked with professionals and family or that someone in her family was a professional? She seemed amused at his befuddlement. He took another shot.
“Was someone in your family a professional?”
Millie glowed as she answered in the affirmative.
“Your husband, father? Was one of them a trainer or something?”
Millie was nodding her head with that lopsided smile.
“Was he good? Big-time race horses?”
As Millie nodded, Jerry leaned back on his haunches. With a wide grin, he skipped the questions to make a statement. “I bet you rode some of those broncos.”
“Yes,” Millie gushed and her tale was nearly complete.
Jerry turned his head to find one of the nurses standing in the doorway.
Astonishment held Amy Rush’s tongue. Mildred Johnson had been a resident at Evergreen for over a year. Therapy had failed. It was generally thought that her cerebral capability had been ravaged beyond stimulation. Yet, here she sat animatedly answering each of Jerry’s questions. She couldn’t believe it. Jeremy Keller was a charmer. But even so …
Amy’s reaction had Jerry unnerved. “Is there a problem with my visiting Millie? I’m on lunch break.”
Amy shook her head. “Of course not. I’m just surprised at Millie’s ability to communicate.”
Jerry stood to leave, but not before making a promise. “I’ll be back, Mill. We have a date for 12, noon, tomorrow.”
True to his word, he appeared the next day with coffee and a sandwich in hand. If they were going to lunch together, he had to eat. Skipping the subject of horses, he took a more personal line of questioning.
“You don’t have to answer, but I wondered. Were you ever married?”
Millie nodded then mustered the effort of a short reply. “Died young.”
“Your husband?” Jerry inquired trying to keep the picture straight. At Millie’s nod he ruminated. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did you have children?”
“Boy,” she answered. The blue eyes drifted as her thoughts ran back to another place in time. With words separated by the strain of remembering, she continued her explanation. “Boy-died-in-crash-with-his-Dad.”
Jerry swallowed hard. “You’ve had quite a life haven’t you?”
She looked at him pointedly. “Ery-one-does.” Her hand rose slightly with the index finger pointing toward him.
“Me? You want to know about me?”
“There isn’t much to tell. My mom took off when I was 2. I have no memory of her at all. My father liked to drink.”
Millie nodded encouragingly.
“He went into the hospital two weeks before my high school graduation. He died two weeks after I received my diploma. I used to work at a car dealership. I wasn’t a mechanic; I did odd jobs like washing cars. I live alone. Once thought about getting a dog, but my landlord wouldn’t like it.
“You know, Mill, I can’t take your money even to place a bet. But if you give me a tip, I can wager my own. We win; we split.”
The visits continued on a daily basis. Once or twice a week, Millie would handicap a horse. If they won, and most often they did, Jerry would place half of the earnings in Millie’s nightstand.
He arrived one day to find Amy Rush puttering about the room. She looked up upon his arrival giving the distinct impression that she had been waiting for him.
“I’ve noticed,” Amy said slowly, “that money has been accumulating in Millie’s drawer.”
“Is there anything wrong in that?” Jerry inquired.
“Not directly, but you know residents are discouraged from having money in their rooms. It encourages theft.”
Disappointment clouded Millie’s expression. It wasn’t that she had any place or any need to spend her money, but it had become a symbol of Jerry’s friendship and a reminder of things past.
Amy looked down at the tissue box sitting in the drawer. If the money were placed in the box with a tissue on top, no one would know of its existence. On the other hand, if something happened to Mildred, the tissue box would be tossed with the money still inside.
Millie and Jerry were stock still and watching. Amy let out a sigh. Far be it from her to interrupt this relationship.
“Why don’t you hide the money in the tissue box?”
The two smiled; the issue was settled, and Amy made her departure.
Jerry stuffed money beneath the tissues then turned to Millie with a question. “Why is it that all of our bets are made on West Coast tracks?”
“Time,” she answered.
It took a moment before the facts dawned on him. “I get it. By the time I’m through work it’s too late for East Coast races.”
Millie twisted her mouth in a smile.
“There’s nothing dumb about you, ma’mam.”
Jerry did a bit of research and found that Red Gorman, Millie’s father, had been a highly successful trainer in the ’30s and ’40s racking up over 1,000 wins. As the window of the old lady’s life expanded, Jerry’s affection for her grew. He surprised her with a visit on a Sunday morning. The delight it brought was evident as he wheeled her to the elevator then out to the pavilion where she could get a breath of fresh air.
“Figgie Lakes,” she remarked as they sat in the garden. “Four in eighth.”
For a minute or two, Jerry’s face remained blank. “Oh, that’s right, Finger Lakes runs on Sunday. You got a good one Mill?”
“Oh, yes.” she said with quiet sincerity.
On leaving Evergreen, Jerry made a snap decision winding his way over to Route 96 heading southeast toward Farmington. To understand a sport, one had to witness it live. He entered the Finger Lakes parking lot without a fee. Surprises never cease. Then he entered the building free of charge. As he looked around, reality hit him. The bulk of the patrons at Finger Lakes were racino fans gambling at the slots. Well, he thought, they can have their machines. I’m here to watch horses.
He walked to the fence, soaking in every aspect of this new environment. The melodic sound of a bugle call brought the soft thud of hooves out onto the track. Sleek and beautiful, the horses were as different from each other as one human to another. Some appeared nervous, snorting and dancing. Others walked quietly with no affectations.
Six horses had been loaded in the gate when a rambunctious colt reared on his powerful legs striking the air six feet above ground. The horse fought viciously forcing his jockey to dismount. Gate workers in flak jackets maneuvered this bad boy back to the gate. The jockey climbed into the gate to mount from inside like a bronc rider.
The bell rang, the gate flew open, and “bad boy” took the lead. Well, thought Jerry, it seems that fellow was anxious to run. The colt led the pack until the final turn when challengers passed him as if he were standing still. Bad boy finished last.
How does Millie do it? he wondered. How does she know which horse to pick? He went back to the mezzanine to buy a program. For an hour and a half, he studied what looked like hieroglyphics, then went to the window to place Millie’s bet. A few minutes later, he cashed his ticket.
Monday noon he placed Millie’s earning in the tissue box. “You know, Mill, I really enjoyed my trip to the track. In fact, I loved it. I’m thinking about working there.”
Millie jerked. “No!” She was nearly shouting.
“Millie, Millie, don’t worry. I’m not going to give up my day job. A security guard introduced me to a trainer, Rio Smith. I can work as a hot walker from 5 till 7, six mornings a week.” He smiled ruefully. “You don’t see a career for me in racing?”
Millie shook her head. “Doctor,” was her reply.
“Doctor! You think I should be a doctor! Whatever gave you such an idea?“
“Com-pas-sion,” she answered with a halt between syllables.
“Compassion? It takes more than compassion to become a doctor. I’ve never taken a college course. I barely got out of high school.”
Millie made an effort to tap her skull.
“You think I’m smart?” Jerry asked incredulously.
“Well, you’re the first. No one ever thought I was smart.”
Throughout the summer Jerry walked horses. He met Millie at noon each day, and went to bed early every night. Mike and Canyon were of the opinion that he’d totally lost his mind. But Jerry loved every aspect of racing: rubbing the horse’s soft coat after a morning workout, the rippling of muscles as they galloped the track, and the welcome nickers he received when walking the shed row. Hope followed every post parade, and he learned to read the program.
When fall rolled around, he made another surprise decision.
“Mill, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ve enrolled in an evening class at the University of Rochester. I’ll probably flunk out, but I’m going to give it a try.”
Millie smiled her crooked smile. She seemed tired of late. While her speech had been improving, the progress had stopped. As Jerry knelt close, she put a hand to his face, her expression both sweet and sad. “I proud Jer-lie.”
The track closing in November came just in time, as finals were right around the corner. An A in English encouraged him to double his course load for the spring semester.
He spent every noon sitting with an old woman discussing horses and his progress at the college.
Who would have believed it? When the grades for his second semester came back he had a 3.7 average, and he couldn’t wait for morning to report the news. Thoughts tumbled through his head as he drove toward the home. If he took just one summer course, he’d have a whole semester of college under his belt. If he started full time in the fall and continued with a single course every summer, he could finish a degree in three years. He’d give up his day job and keep the hot walks. They didn’t teach anything at 5 in the morning.
Visiting hours were over when he arrived at Evergreen. With the flash of his badge, security passed him through. The bright lights of day hours had dimmed. It was funny; in all the time he’d worked at Evergreen he’d never been there at night. As he neared Millie’s room, he broke out in a sweat. Lights were bright where they should have been dark. He rushed to the door to find the room empty.
His throat constricted as he ran to the nurse’s station. “Mildred Johnson,” he blurted.
“Are you a relative?” the nurse inquired.
“Yeah, yeah I am. Where is she?”
“I’m sorry. If we’d known she had relatives, we would have been in contact. Mildred passed away several hours ago.”
Jerry stepped back shaking his head. “No! I don’t understand. I was with her this noon.”
“Mildred had been failing. Her heart couldn’t keep pace with her spirit. If it’s any comfort, she passed away peacefully. I don’t know if you had plans for any arrangements, but her written request was to be cremated.”
“Arrangements!” Jerry wanted to puke. “What the hell? Make arrangements!” His voice was rising with frustration and anger. He wadded his transcript into a ball and fired it across the hall. Hurt and helpless, he retreated from the catacombs of Evergreen as fast as his legs would take him.
The following morning, he called in sick. Thoughts of the nursing home turned his stomach. The phone rang midmorning, forcing him out of bed.
He recognized the voice, but couldn’t place it.
“This is Amy Rush. I’m a nurse at Evergreen.”
“Oh, yes. I remember. How are you?”
“I’m fine, but I began to worry about you when they said you were sick. I worked extra hours yesterday. I was with Mildred when she died.”
A lump formed in Jerry’s throat forcing a sob he couldn’t control. “I loved that old lady.”
“I know you did. I don’t think she had anyone else.”
Nor did I, thought Jerry.
“I’m not quite sure how to put this, but I can give you the name of the funeral service that took her remains … if you wanted to take the ashes. I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have called about this.”
“No, it’s all right.”
“Why don’t you stop by the home tomorrow? No one will fault you. One of the benefits of working here is grievance time. I’ll give you the information and a couple of other things I think you might want.”
Jerry slammed the door of his Jeep and looked toward the nursing home as he crossed the parking lot the following morning. His view of things had changed. He found Amy Rush at her station.
“Jerry, I’m so sorry. She suffered for such a long time. Her passing was expected.”
“Not by me.”
“I know.” She pulled an envelope from the drawer. “Information on the funeral home is in here along with Millie’s small cache of mementos. Alan Rice, director of patient services, signed a statement referencing you as the only person of contact. You might need that to get her ashes.”
Jerry looked more closely at Nurse Rush. She was a pretty woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes.
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” he said. Then with nothing to add, he nodded and left.
Amy sighed, wondering if he’d bothered to notice the third finger of her left hand. She wore no rings and had no ties.
Jerry held the sealed envelope until he reached the Jeep then dumped its contents onto the seat. The first thing he saw was the money. Four hundred and fifty dollars. Amy had emptied the tissue box. He set the money aside.
The photographs were old. One of the images was of a man in a fedora holding the reins of a rangy thoroughbred. The suit placed him somewhere around the 1930s. Probably Millie’s father. A threesome gazed from the second photo: a smiling woman and a handsome young man holding a child in his arms. There was a tattered card dated 1941, Red Gorman’s trainer’s license. All that remained of the life Millie loved had been horse racing, and she’d given that to him.
He owed the old lady. On reaching his apartment, he dialed Finger Lakes and asked for the track manager. A brief discussion left him satisfied. He had three more calls to make: Rio Smith, the trainer; an exercise girl who did morning workouts; and the last unfortunate call rang through to Nigel’s Funeral Service.
The ashes were in a pretty container. Jerry was pleased at that. Millie deserved better, but this was the best he could do. Rio and Pattie were waiting at the track. Rio eyed him carefully.
“You okay, kid?”
Jerry nodded. “Are we ready?”
“Guess so,” Pattie replied climbing onto Rio’s pony.
Jerry handed her the pink container. Holding it carefully, she walked the horse out onto the track with Jerry and Rio following. Along the way heads turned. Nothing was secret at a race track. A security guard opened the gate to the infield and Pattie rode quietly forward.
“I want you to gallop, Pattie. I want those ashes to fly with the wind.”
Pattie guided Rio’s horse to the far end of the oval, then turned and picked up a trot. In a matter of seconds, she was at a full gallop, one arm extended out to her side was trailed by a plume of gray.
“God speed, dear Millie. God speed.”
Though Jerry murmured the wish under his breath, it wasn’t lost on Rio.
“You really loved the old dame, didn’t you?”
“She changed my life.”
Pattie returned with the empty container. “Never done anything like that before, yet somehow it felt right.”
They were returning the pony to his stall when a groom passed by. The big bay colt on the end of his shank gave Jerry a start. The animal moved with a sort of majesty as if waiting for bystanders to bow.
“Who’s that?” Jerry asked.
Rio laughed. “He’s a stand-out colt. Had some issues in his first few starts. They brought him here to work things out. You know, away from the eyes of the big guys. If he runs well today, I expect they’ll ship him to Saratoga.”
“What’s his name?”
Rio laughed again, his paunch bouncing rhythmically at what he saw to be a joke. “Compassion. His name is Compassion.”
“See you later,” Jerry called.
“Where you going?”
“I’ve got $450 and a tip on a horse. Where do you think I’m going? It takes a lot of money to get through med school.”
“You coming back?” the trainer yelled.
Jerry had rounded the corner of the shed row to disappear from sight, but his answer floated back. “Always, Rio. Always.”
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