The Thoroughbred

Kelly Hammond

     
   

Shane taught me that you can rub a penny smooth. Get it like you’ve laid it on the train tracks, only better. You can mold it to your own hand so it fits your thumb and forefingers perfectly in a shiny, coppery cursive W. Only it takes time. Years, in fact. A little each day, for years.

I didn’t believe him at first. I’d seen a penny squished flat on the train tracks, and I figured it worked because of the pressure from all the weight and speed of the train. I remembered something about metal and heat in physics back in high school. Seemed sort of impossible to do the same just with a human hand, but he showed me his penny, and now I’ve got mine, so it’s true whether physics says so or not. I guess it’s like the stairs at the library in town. Generations of people have gone up and down and down and up, and now there are little dips in each stone step, just from all those feet and all those years.

My penny still looks like a penny. The memorial’s finally worn off though. When I first started, the length of building and its little columns offered a good thumb grip and an easy reminder of where I’d started. Shane said you can’t let up if you want it to fit like his did—it’s got to be the same direction each time. So now the memorial’s gone. I’ve thumbed it away. But you can still read “states of” and the “ne ce” of “one cent” pretty well. And the lip’s still strong nearly all around. The other side, the finger side, it’s a little more intact. Lincoln’s beard still juts out stubborn. And the date. You can still see that. 1989—the year I’m sure something happened, but I don’t know what, since I was just a little kid then and pretty into myself those days.

But Shane’s wasn’t a penny any more. When he first showed it to me, I said it was artsy, and he chuckled a bit and looked at it with his chin and brows all scrunched up, tilting his head first this way, then that. I thought it looked like this metal sculpture called “Bird” I saw during my big city years in Denver. But I didn’t say that to Shane. He wouldn’t know what to do with that. But he did know what to do with a penny. And time. And in some ways, that’s close to all he had when I met him.

You can wear down a penny, he told me. Really fit it to yourself. Fit it so it fits just you and perfectly. You have to keep at it though, keep it in your pocket all the time. Rub it all the time. And you have to have faith. Glacial faith. The kind that carved the valleys out here eons ago.

So I’ve kept at it, like Shane said.

I suppose that’s what she did to him. Kept at it. A little each day over all those years. I wondered if he was like the front of the penny or its back. Whether his edges went first or his center. But by the time he came to us, I knew his details were gone, his distinguishing marks. The stories I heard about him when he was younger, they were about a life in sharp relief. Everything was grooves and substance, hills and dales. Rough, like the bucking broncs on his bolo ties and belt buckles. Like the deep stitching in his cowboy boots. Back then, he was a local barrel-racing hero at the Lone Bluff Rodeo, long and lean. In pictures my father had of him, you could see that relief on his body too—a ropy scar on his right cheek, the switchback line of his twice-broken nose, thick veins coursing in the deep valleys between each mountain of knuckle.

When I met him, the summer I returned to my family’s land, I could still see the traces, but they were faint. So I asked around about him. Asked my father, asked my aunt. I asked the preacher on his visits and the librarian in town. And I think what happened was she wore him down like a penny.

She’d come from the city. The accounts all agreed on that. She was a writer for a newspaper, working on a story about small-town life. She’d come because of the rodeo, because there was still a local rodeo alive and well. And my father’s old clippings said the same thing everyone else did; that when it came to rodeos, Shane had been a sight to see. Now, a local rodeo’s not like the ones you’ve seen on T.V. It’s not hotshots with stats and careers and new trucks and Tim McGraw on the radio. It’s mostly just regular folk—the owner of the electronics store and the cashier at the Stop & Shop and the music director at the church—all those who grew up riding and just want to keep at it.

Shane was probably the closest to the land of all of them. Back then he ran his horse farm, making money on mountain rides with the tourists and keeping the locals in stock. He even sold to the Cheyenne. Maybe that was why he was so good, keeping close to the animals and the land like that, and keeping close to those that kept close to the animals and the land.

She was beautiful, to hear tell of it. Thick wavy brown hair, worn long and loose, and eyes that some say were blue and others green. Those eyes were memorable, they all say, but how they were remembered seemed to depend on the teller. Joan down at the bank says they were hard and glinty like diamonds. Mrs. Anderson down at Sully’s Seeds says they were blue-gray like switch grass. My father, he says that in his mind, they changed like weather—clear blue one minute and the slate gray of gathering storms the next. Everyone says she was fit, trim, and petite. I heard some men at the bar and grill call her “a real thoroughbred and worth the ride.” They shoved each other and chuckled, until they saw me, then changed the topic quick.

Jim Stark down at the TSC was actually with Shane when he met her. They’d been baling, the two men, smelling like a barn loft and covered from head to toe in bits of hay. It was in their hair, on their Carhartts, even inside their noses and ears. Her rental car had broken down on the side of the highway just sitting on the hood waiting to be rescued which Mr. Stark said was a ballsy bet for that stretch of road. The way old Stark tells it, he makes it seem fated. He says Shane would have ordinarily taken Route 26, like he had a million other times. But this one day, for some reason, he said that Shane said, “Say, Jim. This time, let’s take the scenic route,” and they both chuckled (If you lived out here you’d know why that was funny). Mr. Stark likes to dwell on that point. That on that one day, and only that day, they took a different route. But from what I gather, they’d have met anyway. She had come looking for the rodeo, and that’s where Shane was back then. Mr. Stark said she talked about it on the ride into town. Talked faster than Shane was driving about the romance of tradition. Mr. Stark said she found romance all right, just not how she thought she would. After a week or two watching Shane at the rodeo, she’d sworn off city life for a while and spent more time at the ranch than at her pay-by-the-day motel.

Folks say they married fast, just months later, during some weekend in the city when she’d asked him to drive her to get some of her things. At least that’s what the town gathered, because mail started coming in for her at his place with his last name.

No one could tell me how it happened beyond that, how she got him from the way they described him then, to how he was when I met him. I imagine, like the penny, it was something soothing at first. Maybe after a day out on the ranch. Maybe he’d taken off his hat, and there was a line dug in his forehead. Maybe he sat down and leaned his head back just a bit, and she smoothed the line a little with her thumbs. Maybe he moaned deep and low and started to let go a little.

And who’d have blamed him? A man living a hard life like that, out there on his own without a family. He deserved a gentle touch, the woman’s touch he’d lacked since the moment he was born.

She may have meant well. I imagine that when she heard his story, if he ever told it to her, she wanted to take care of him. But a man like that can’t take too much gentleness. It takes the steel out of him. He gets too soft.

Mr. Johnson, who runs the grill in town, now he said with a smirk that there wasn’t anything motherly about it. That she wanted the land and wanted to tame the buck she had to get it. People sometimes misthink that there’s money to be had in horses, and Mr. Johnson thinks she might have got the bug. But I imagine it wasn’t quite that. He’d have fought that.

No, I think it was just a little at a time.

Now, I’ve spent some time in the city—in college and just after, during those first few years I thought I could make a go of it. And from that experience, I imagine his belly would have gone soft first. She would have worked in some of her city food and had him eating rich at night, instead of first thing in the morning like he’d grown up to. My friend Josie’s mom does that—she’s from the city—so maybe she made batches of fancy stuff like scones and iced breads, in portions better fit for giving than keeping. And those evenings probably felt good to Shane too—a couple of beers and a whisky after. Then a slice or two of pie, apple with cheese on top or pecan. A little milk after to settle it all, and maybe another whisky to settle all that.

My father remembers the first winter she was with Shane. That had been just when I was entering high school, I guess. He said Shane and the horses used to be the only things you’d see up against the snow, but that first winter with her, it was just the horses in their shaggy coats.

Maybe she got lonely on those short days and asked him to come in sooner. Maybe he got lonely on those short days and came in sooner on his own. Those first few years, according to Janice the librarian, he’d been in town more and more, picking up things for her or, less often, picking up things with her. Packages from all over held at the post and books from The Lone Wolf. After a few years, when the rural routes finally got covered by the mail trucks, people hardly saw him at all. Just rodeo times when, instead of riding himself, he’d just bring down some horses and help calm the chute fighters.

Eventually, she and Shane hired a man. My father said it was hard to imagine someone else working Shane’s farm. They say the hired man took care of most of the work—the post-hole digging and the fence mending, the haying and the grooming. I met him once, the hired man. One summer when I was back from college. Connie was his name. Short for Conrad. He couldn’t answer my questions much, except about the extent of the land and what he himself had done on it. He said he hardly saw her, but there was this one time. There was a two-man job, the stump of a huge tree that had been upturned in a storm. He’d chopped the trunk and branches to firewood himself, and was proud of it too. But the stump, still half-clinging to the earth, needed the tractor and chains and another set of hands. Connie said Shane looked happy to be at it—a real glint in his eye— he said Shane was talking to himself as he suited up, philosophizing on stump pulling, maybe more just to remind himself about how to do it than to give Connie any particular direction. When they’d gotten to it, Shane was all a-jitter as he surveyed for the greatest purchase of the chains and the best angle for leverage.

She wanted Shane to drive the tractor and let Connie do the labor, but Shane, to hear Connie tell it, was like a kid in the snow, all grins and energy to be out and active. Shane had these new gloves, Connie said, super soft lambskin, and he fussed and fidgeted trying to grip the wood. At one point, he threw them down and took a pair from his pocket that looked like they had hands in them already—canvas maybe, but really mostly formed of dirt and sweat. It took a long time to get that root system to let go of its tight grip on the earth, but after an hour or so and a lot of teasing, he said you could hear the ripping, the roots giving and snapping until dirt clods rained down from the tilting underside. Shane strained under the weight of the now loose stump, grinning what Connie said truly looked like a shit-eating grin, all that dark dirt showering down on Shane’s face. But Connie said she went crazy, seeing that dirt land on what must have been new boots or those new gloves on the ground. Shane said something like “What’s the point of boots if not to get dirty,” but Connie guessed she didn’t agree, because she stormed off all huffy.

Once they holed up together, with Connie tending the ranch and the post office doing the delivering, the stories thinned out like the air up on the mountains. A few remember the rodeo days when he’d show up with Connie to deliver horses, or work the back paddock. They say he’d slowed a lot, and some thought the horses were a danger to him. Others remember a couple of rough snows when they swore they’d seen his truck dragging a plow through twenty-six and on into town, creating a lifeline for all of us. Connie didn’t seem the heroic type, so maybe Shane was driving. At least they all liked to think it was Shane.

Felicia’s married to the postman, so she knows a lot. She says you can tell a person’s whole life story by their mail. She says that come the second winter they started receiving packages from baby places—Babies ‘R Us, which was pretty new back then, and Carter’s and such. She said her husband had spread the word as he drove his route that winter. There isn’t much else to do in the winter but talk anyway, and he just didn’t know how not to. He didn’t know that you don’t say anything until a certain point.

Some of those packages got returned, he said. He wasn’t sure why some didn’t.

Sarah, the daughter of the filling station owner, and about the only other one my age around here anymore, she says her father reckons he remembers the night or thereabouts when things went south. Sarah says he thinks she and Shane must’ve gone into the city and come back with the bad news. Her dad says that Shane had only been to a hospital twice before, to his knowledge. Once on the day he was born, of course, when two went in and only two came out. And again just two decades later when his father passed. Along with his broad shoulders and fast rope hands, he’d inherited his father’s hatred of hospitals. The few times Shane had needed medical attention, he preferred Dr. Samuelson, the large-animal vet in town. Shane knew Samuelson’s work well, of course, and he trusted him. He appreciated the doctor’s no-nonsense judgments. Doc Sam was a clear thinker. They both knew when a hurt was worth fixing and when it was just time—when an animal’s living pain was worse than its dying.

Felicia says she remembers when the documents came. She says she thinks it was late May, because the bitterroot was already in bloom. Said her husband said he knew when he delivered the big envelope that it was something legal, on account of the receipt he had to wait for Shane to sign. And the return address too, a firm called something, something, something, and something, with an address in the city. Definitely legal. Connie remembers driving her all the way to the city a few weeks later. Said she paid him way more than the trip was worth. Pretty matched luggage, five pieces.

It was that summer the bull dozers came.

Now, small-town folks are big on privacy, mind you, except when they know something, but especially when they don’t. And according to accounts, when the bull dozers came, the rumors flew. Some say he destroyed his own place, unable to be there without her. Mr. Stark swears she had it destroyed—that the legal papers demanded it. But when the bull dozers stood still for weeks, others guessed the papers were there to stop the razing, that maybe she felt guilty, or entitled, or just wanted to exercise her control one last time. I like to think that he was recreating it for her, trying to get her back, and maybe he just ran out of money. Or will. A man’s got a limit on both.

Felicia’s son Timmy, he knows a kid on the reservation who said Shane let the horses loose. Just let them loose, saying it wasn’t right to keep them penned up. But I don’t think he could have. Most horses can’t survive with that kind of freedom, even broncs. Not after years of being ridden, knowing the rein and the bit and the gentle hand of the grooming brush.

Soon after whatever it was that happened, Shane moved to town and started doing odd jobs. That’s how I met him in the first place. I’d come out to join my father who’d come back out decades before to join his. I found out my father had been living pretty low the last few years, maybe because of my college bills or maybe just because there wasn’t anyone to keep things up for. So I asked around town who could help me fix up the place, and Shane’s name come up once or twice. My father said he was a good man and was pleased to have him around. They’d known each other well back in the day, when both of them rodeoed. I wish I’d had the sense to get to know him when I had the chance, but again, I was pretty into myself those days. Everyone I talked to agreed that it was hard seeing him hire himself out like that. Many contracted with him out of pity. Some out of necessity as the town aged, its youth wooed by the city. Most were glad when he got the steady work of our place. Of course, I wanted to ask him about her myself, but it didn’t seem right to.

Shane only lasted that year. He got kicked in the chest by a horse unloading it from a trailer. Not even a local fighting bronc, like I’d have imagined. That would have been okay—some bucking half-wild thing out of the barriers taking down a hero like Shane. No, it was some rich lady’s thoroughbred she’d shipped out ahead of herself to ride the mountains. Kicked him right in the chest.

He didn’t die right away. He just didn’t get up again. He only let Doc Sam see him, and Doc Sam told me to let him be. For a little while there, I think our house did him good. I think he liked that I wanted to learn what he knew, even though I was a girl.

He seemed to like me, and I liked him. He taught me a lot, that’s for sure. How to work a miter saw and a drill, which took a steady hand and an even steadier mind. How to skin a squirrel in one tug, which was both horrible and elegant—like a skinny naked woman stripping off a fur coat. And of course, he taught me you can rub a penny smooth. He said it wouldn’t be worth anything when you did, but it wasn’t worth much to begin with, was it? Maybe, for how little it’s worth he said, it’s better being something comforting, something just yours instead of just another ordinary cent.

     
   
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Kelly Hammond writes and teaches and sometimes even exercises outdoors in Brooklyn, New York. Her fiction has most recently appeared in the Chautauqua Journal, earning her an editor’s prize and Pushcart nomination.