2022 Great American Fiction Contest Winner: Dust

They rode to the track late one night for a final farewell.

Horse

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You sure this is legal?” Jody wants to know. “How come we have to do it in the dark?”

“It’s legal if you’ve got the paperwork,” I say. “You need a permit, that’s the thing.”

“You got a permit?”

“No.”

“Jeez, Carla. Why’d I let you talk me into this?”

“Come on. He hated rules. He would be proud of us right now.”

“Well, I suppose.” She’s trying not to smile. “He was kind of an outlaw, wasn’t he?”

Somewhere an owl is calling. How I wish the track was always like this, at 3 a.m.: No hard-luck gamblers and no race announcers in fake turquoise bolo ties. No hot dog vendors with pierced eyebrows at this hour, no shy drug dealers and no exercise boys anywhere, no tattooed grooms. Look, not a single sweaty, squinting bookie offering condolences. No stars above us, this close to the city. Nearby, the 18-wheelers shake the overpass; they never stop. The air is rancid with the smell of burning trash, but there are frogs and crickets and that owl. The stamps and snorts of horses, dozing in their stalls. If I close my eyes, I’m a small child again back in Kentucky, back before we lost the farm.

I check the harness straps on Sunday, tighten up her girth. “Poor girl,” I stroke her dappled flank. “We’ve both been losing weight since Harlan died.”

“Huh. Wish I had that problem.” Jody bites her lip. And truth be told, she is a little heavier than when I saw her last. Much heavier, certainly, than 20 years ago, when I first met her at the honky-tonk where Harlan used to take me on his lucky days, the days the harness horses made good on his prophecies. That day had been ­particularly lucky. Rare. Harlan was glowing, cracking jokes, and waving cash around like he didn’t remember what it took to win that money, stars and planets all aligned. They had a sign over the bar: We Don’t Serve Women. Bring Yer Own! But a newcomer might not have known it from the looks of Jody, our young waitress, snakeskin skirt and sequined cowboy boots. The way she tossed her yellow hair when Harlan teased her. “Say, miss. Let me ask you something. You ever been to Sunova Beach?”

Oh, Harlan had a million of them. Some were even worse.

But Jody gazed at him, dead serious, like she hadn’t heard that dumb one-liner from God knows how many other drunks. “Sunova Beach?” she blinked. “No, sir. I only been out of Missouri once, and that was Arkansas.” Well, Harlan roared and bought another round and I could smell it brewing. Trouble. I can always tell.

Now Jody says, “Your horse is pretty. Can I pet him?”

“Sunday is a mare. She likes her withers scratched. Like this.” I demonstrate and Jody reaches forward, tickles Sunday with her fingertips.

“Don’t worry, Jody. She won’t bite.”

“You sure?” Her voice is like a frightened 10-year-old’s. God, what did Harlan ever see in this dull, nervous woman? What did they find to talk about? I suppose conversation was beside the point.

“Is it a young horse?” Jody wants to know.

“Nope. April Sunday’s 12. Still racing. Standardbreds have long careers, not like those Thoroughbreds. Sunday might just keep on racing until she’s 15.” Just one more reason I adore this sport. If Jody seemed remotely interested, maybe I would talk about how harness racers keep on getting faster, shattering world records every year. I could tell her Thoroughbred speed reached its peak with Secretariat, half a century ago. I could, but then again, why bother? Not like she would care that in this industry, the trainers get to drive in races and we drive in our own colors, colors we’ve selected, not those chosen by some wealthy asshole stable owner. Mine are red and gold.

“This horse. You’ve had him since he was a baby?” Jody asks.

“Sunday?” I laugh. “I’m only a trainer. You think I can afford an animal like this?”

“Wait, what?” she says. “This horse does not belong to you? God, Carla. I can’t go to jail. I got a kid.”

“Yeah, where’s your daughter? I forgot to ask.”

“She’s home asleep. This is a school night, if you weren’t aware.”

“Right. Well, hey, it’s better like this, anyhow. This cart only seats two.”

“Oh, no. No. You’re not expecting me to …”

“Put this on.” I toss her an extra helmet, red and gold.

“You can’t be …”

“Hop aboard. You put your left foot there, then pull. Like this.” I demonstrate by hoisting myself up onto the leather bench. April Sunday flicks her silver tail and snorts as I move over to the driver’s side. The gray mare knows this isn’t right. We shouldn’t be out here before dawn.

“Carla, I can’t. I’ll just watch, okay? I’m not a horsewoman, you know.”

Ha. Understatement of the year. Jody is wearing high-heeled sandals and a thin white cardigan, too flimsy for this chilly night. She’s shivering. Lord, what was Harlan thinking with this one? Was the sex actually that good?

“Jody.” I’m trying to stay calm. “Jody, you have to ride along. Who else is gonna hold the urn?”

“Oh. I see. That’s why you invited me tonight?”

I sigh. “I’m supposed to scatter Harlan’s ashes while I drive? It takes both hands to steer a pacing horse, you know.”

“All right. Jeez. You don’t have to get all mad.” It takes a couple tries, but Jody manages to get herself into the jog cart. The bench creaks and tilts beneath the extra weight while my passenger fumbles with her helmet.

“No seatbelts in this contraption?”

“Hang onto that metal bar there, Jody. That’s it. Here.” The urn is in a plastic bag. It isn’t heavy, which surprised me the first time I lifted it. Whatever else he may have been, our Harlan wasn’t a small man.

I pull my gloves on. Sunday prances, nervous with anticipation, but I keep her reined in tight. The urn is in its ugly bag on Jody’s lap and she is rummaging around in her giant purse. God help us all. She probably wants to reapply her lipstick. “Jody, please. Grab hold of something and hang on.”

“Oh, here it is.” It’s not a lipstick; it’s her phone. She’s showing me a picture of her little girl, who’s not so little anymore.

“Her name’s Mikayla,” Jody tells me, like I didn’t know.

“She’s cute.”

“She don’t really have an underbite. She only does that when she’s mad.”

But honestly, I hadn’t noticed the child’s jaw. I’m staring at her deep-set eyes, so much like Harlan’s I can hardly breathe.

“Does she get mad a lot?” I ask, at last. Because what else is there to say?

“Oh, sure. Like, all the time. Mikayla’s 13, you know how it goes.”

“Uh-huh.” Except I don’t. Not really. Horses aren’t like kids.

“I wish she could have knowed her daddy,” Jody says. “He always …”

“Hush!” I interrupt her. “Quiet. Someone’s coming. Shh.” Too late. A flashlight beam snakes toward us on the ground.

“Hey, hey. What’s going on here? What you think you’re doing … who is … Carla? Is that you?” The security guard stops, confused.

“Fritz. Good to see ya.” I adjust my goggles. “How’s the grandkids, Fritz?”

“Carla, what the hell you doing here? It’s 3 a.m.”

“Is it?” I feign a yawn. “We were just taking April Sunday for a spin.”

“At this hour? Why? The track’s closed, Carla. You know that.” He shines his flashlight up into the cart and Jody squints and turns her head away. “You brought a friend?”

“We’ll make this quick, I promise. We’re not hurting anyone.”

“I can’t allow it, Carla. Rules is rules. Insurance. Liability. You understand.”

“I know, Fritz. This won’t take long. Just one lap is all we need. Just once around.”

“Now Carla. Come on. I could lose my job.”

“We won’t tell anybody, Fritz. Who needs to know?”

“Hey now, what’s that you’ve got?” says Fritz. His light reflects off the enameled surface of the urn in Jody’s lap and I exhale. Christ on a crutch. She had to take that thing out of the bag?

“Oh, that?” I pretend that I’m just noticing the urn. “That’s Harlan, Fritz. What’s left of him, which isn’t much.” The poor old man looks horrified and I know now’s the time to shut my mouth. Like I said, I am well acquainted with the scent of trouble. Once you’re in a hole, stop digging is about the only useful thing my father ever taught me. So I just sit there. No one says another word, until Jody chimes in.

“This is what he wanted, Fritz. To be all mixed up with the dirt here at his favorite place. He wanted to be close to his beloved horses, Fritz. You understand. You get it. This,” she spreads her arms wide to encompass all the empty grandstands, the dark, pulsing track, “this, this was Harlan’s last and final wish.”

“Oh.” Fritz’s voice drops. “Golly, girls. I didn’t realize …”

“Dust unto dust,” says Jody and I gawk at her, astonished. Harlan’s floozy can quote scripture? Poor old Fritz takes his cap off, crosses himself twice and now I’m trying not to laugh. Harlan was not religious, understatement of the year. Fritz knows that. Everybody at the track knew Harlan or had heard the stories. He inspired strong feelings, let’s say that. You either loved the guy or you had daydreams about killing him. And sometimes both.

“Godspeed, good buddy,” Fritz says. “I’ll keep putting fivers on the long shots, just for you.” He crosses himself once again. “Ladies, I never saw you. You be careful now.” And just like that, he walks away. Sunova Beach.

Did Fritz know Harlan ran around with Jody on the side? I suppose everybody knew. How many people saw that Russian driver chasing Harlan with a whip or heard the rumors about Harlan and the Russian’s wife? My late beau’s misadventures were no secret at the track. You had to hand it to my dear departed, though, the man knew everybody’s name, including the sad teenage refugee who swept the grandstands every night, the legless Vietnam vet who panhandled in the parking lot. Harlan knew everybody. He was good with people, not at all like me. Of course, a salesman has to be that kind of guy. When he wasn’t at the track, playing the horses, Harlan sold used farm equipment. Tractors and combines, skid steers, post-hole diggers.

“Whew. That was a close one,” Jody says.

“Yes, that was something. All that stuff you said? Dust unto dust? Hell, that was good.”

“Really? You mean it?” Jody blushes, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and I feel a little bad about the names I’ve called her these past 20 years. I cluck to Sunday, move her into a brisk walk.

“Your girl, Mikayla. She likes horses?”

“Duh, of course. She got that from her daddy. You know, before he got sick, Harlan always used to ­promise …”

“Harlan.” I give the mare a little rein. “Harlan and promises.”

“I know, I know.”

“What was it about him? It’s not like he was rich. Or handsome, even.”

“Nope.” Jody inspects her fingernails, painted a sparkly mauve. “He wasn’t the best-looking man, but that’s all right. He made me laugh.”

“How, Jody? How’s that possible? You never even got his jokes.” She turns her head. All I can see is her gold pony­tail, now streaked with gray, sticking out from underneath my helmet. “Sorry, Jody. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“No, it’s true. I didn’t always get his jokes. It’s true. I guess, you know, my mama died when I was small, and papa … well, a person can get used to being needed, you know what I mean?”

Huh, do I? “Let me guess …” I’m speaking slowly. “Papa was a drunk?”

“I never cared for that word, Carla.”

“Well, I guess you never met my daddy, then.”

“He wasn’t all bad.” Wait, are we talking about Harlan or her papa? Or my daddy? Does it make a difference anymore? One thing, I know exactly where her daughter got that underbite. That stubborn jaw. “He wasn’t all bad. I turned out okay.”

“Sure, sure.” Why did I ever think poor Jody had it easy? “You did, Jody. You turned out just fine. I bet you’re a great mama, too.” Nobody gets off easy in this world

“How come you never left him, Carla? You don’t have a kid.”

Ouch. “I don’t know.” The love of horses, we had that in common. Would it help to tell her that this mare here, April Sunday, was his favorite, that he brought her carrots from his garden every week? “Did you know Harlan kept a vegetable patch out behind his farm equipment lot? A man will never starve long as he tends the soil. He said his grandpa taught him that.”

“No.” Jody shakes her head. “I never knew.”

“The thing is, Harlan had his flaws, as we both know, but still, when I was with him, I felt less afraid.”

“Afraid?” Jody looks incredulous. “You? What’re you afraid of?”

I can’t answer. I can’t even look at her.

“But Carla,” Jody says. “You’re probably the bravest person I have ever met.”

I don’t respond. Oh, Jody, Jody. If you only knew.

“Well, anyway, you’re right.” She pats my elbow. “Harlan may have been a drunk, a cheater, too, but he loved people. I mean genuinely.”

“Horses, too. And dogs. Also, he told great stories.”

She snorts. “Half of them was lies.”

“Well, that’s what made them good, right? When Mikayla asks about her daddy, don’t forget to tell her that he told amazing stories.”

“Huh. Amazing bullshit. That two-timing sneak.”

I can’t argue with that. I shake the traces, nudge the mare into a jog, while Jody pries the lid off the bronze urn and sets him free. “Sunova Beach!” I shout in darkness as our old bullshitter Harlan billows forth.

“Hey,” Jody says, “he always talked about that place. You ever been there?”

“Where? Sunova Beach?” I grin at my companion. Attagirl. She made a joke. An actual joke.

“Yeah.” Jody isn’t smiling. “Where’s that, anyhow? Like, down in Florida somewheres? You ever been?”

So. Not a joke, then. I hunch forward in my seat. The mare accelerates, the moonlit ashes swirling in our wake.

Oh, Jody, I have been there many times. And so have you. I want to tell her that I’d like to meet Mikayla someday soon. If she would let me, I could teach the child to pick out hooves and muck a stall and other useful skills, like how to harness half a ton of pure, fire-breathing energy and fly in her own colors, colors that belong to her and no one else. But I can’t say this now because the cart is shuddering, the wind roars in our ears, and Sunday’s hooves are whirring, blurring, spraying us with earth.

The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, and to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents: Peter Bloch, Michael Knight, Holly Miller, Estelle Slon, Jesika St Clair, and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, Celeste McMaster, N. West Moss, and Lynn Sheridan.

This article is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. This story makes me feel uncomfortable. I think it’s very peculiar and don’t think Dr. Cory would approve of it either. The magazine needs to go back her wonderful format of the 1980s and 90’s again. Please do so with the start of this new year. I’m looking forward to that return in these times of Covid and all of the new variants.

  2. Tales tall and short attached to this horse’s tail, Dana. Sunova Beach indeed. Touching, shocking, embarrassing? Good grief, what more could you ask for in a story? You can’t because it’s all here in YOUR excellent story!

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