Dekko Cahill is a bull of a man. His head has the girth and heft of a field stone. There are places where his skin even looks like pink granite, a dull tongue color flecked with gray patches underneath his eyes. Dekko grips the edges of the examination table with both hands. His shirt is off and his braces dangle down to his boot tops. The great silver shag of his chest rises and falls as he watches the doctor pace back and forth. Dekko looks down at the man’s tiny feet. He doesn’t want to be here nor hear what the doctor has to say.
The doctor opens the medical folder theatrically.
“You were supposed to come back and see me 18 months ago,” the Doctor says.
Dekko kneads his scalp with thick fingers, knuckles raw from rough work. “When I feel poorly my wife gives me a pill,” Dekko says.
The Doctor glances over. “She’s a pharmacist?”
“A vet,” Dekko says.
The Doctor sighs wearily. “Mr. Cahill, your liver is shot. If you don’t quit drinking, you’re going to die.” He prods Dekko’s stomach with the tip of his pen.
“ You’ve a dead organ lying right there in the middle of your gut.”
Dekko comes down off the table, thinking it’s over. He is a head taller than the Doctor. He cracks his back with a boxer’s twist. “Beer then.”
“I don’t feel badly.”
“You people never do. That’s liquor’s way of killing you, telling you nothing’s wrong. Alcohol is one hundred per cent fatal. “
“Jaysus, Doctor, I was weaned on the stuff. My father died drinking his pint.”
“You’re surprised by that?” asks the Doctor.
Later that day Dekko climbs the hill to the barn behind the house. Will, the stable boy, watches Dekko come toward him, a stalk of grass in his mouth. The boy has worked for Dekko for three years. Without knowing why, Dekko tells the boy he’s finished. He has a whole list of complaints: The mare’s stall wasn’t mucked out properly. Tools have gone missing. There’s no cap to the lineament. The boy can’t believe what he’s hearing. It’s for your own good, Dekko tells him. They are standing in the middle of the barn with stalls on either side of them. The boy, glancing around at the horses he has cared for, is near tears. Dekko goes over to a spigot and washes his hands up to his forearms.
“Racing ponies is a sickness,” Dekko tells him. He flicks water on the sawdust. “Look what it’s done to me. You don’t want this life. I’m doing you a favor. You’re seventeen. Go find what you’re supposed to be doing. Go on,” Dekko roars, “I’ll send along your wages.” The boy winces, thinking the bigger man is about to hit him.
After dinner his wife says, “It’s your business. I’ve stayed clear.” They’re under the yellow light in the kitchen.
“I’m not changing my mind,” Dekko tells her.
“No,” she says. “I know that. You did this to that other boy, Sean.” This catches Dekko by surprise. Then he remembers.
“Do you know what this is about? “ she asks.
He hasn’t told her about the Doctor. He’s left the whiskey in the pantry cupboard. His hands grip a water glass. Her hair is gathered back and pinned up like a dancer’s. She’s small and wiry. The only thing moving is her eyes.
“I’ll take good care of him,” Dekko offers.
“What are you going to do now?” she asks.
All morning Dekko works in the office he has built off the porch. There are papers everywhere. They spill out of cubbyholes and cover every available surface. Dekko is a handicapper, one of the best. Distributed among the piles of paper is a record of every thoroughbred race from Saratoga to Hialeah going back fifty years. With a carpenter’s pencil behind his ear, he’s looking up the sire lines of the horses put down to race in the season. His gift is the way he weaves a story from the numbers and cryptic comments written in the racing form. It’s here in the bloodline where she gets the shoulders that make her champion, or the knees that came down from the Dam’s side, or the Granddam who gave him that little burst of speed at the end, the extra lung capacity. He hears the telephone ring in the kitchen. His wife knocks on the door.
“It’s Cleveland,” she says.
“I’ve got a yearling, Dekko,” Cleveland says, “causing me no end of trouble. His head keeps rising. Can I get you over here to take a look?” Cleveland Beard operates Tamarack Farms, a few hills east. It’s a large operation. Big even for this racing state.
“How’s your mare healing up?” Cleveland asks.
Dekko owns a few horses, with nothing but change in the bottom of his pockets.
“The wife doesn’t think she’ll be ready in time.”
“Shame that. The money you put in.”
“She’s four—if I don’t race her this season, I don’t know how I’ll get my money out.”
“What about breeding her, Dekko? I could sell you a cover with my horse Impertinence.”
“Jaysus, Cleveland, Impertinence? He’s all I hear about. I don’t have the coin for the stud fee.”
“Dekko, with all you done. Tight as you are with a dollar, I think we could figure something out. We’re both old fools.”
“Now you’re embarrassing me. I’m a small dirt farmer, barely able to buy feed. You’ve got four barns, a staff, and even a garage for your tractors. I play in the margins.”
When Dekko hangs up the phone, he wonders if, once again, he isn’t lifting himself up with false hope.
After supper Dekko walks out to the barns where he finds Parker, the Negro he has hired part-time, mucking out one of the stalls. The overhead light casts a theatrical pall over the apron in front of the barn.
The two men nod at each other. Parker leans against the shovel. “You shouldn’t a fired young Will, Mr. Cahill. He was good boy.”
“Aye. Mind your business, Parker,” Dekkos says before asking, “How is she?”
“Only jes got here, but she’s mad about something.”
Inside the barn Dekko rests a gumboot on the low rail, peering into the paddock. He shakes his head.
“Ay, she’s pissed all right. Showing me her rear end.”
Parker joins him. “She misses Will.”
“Probably right.” Dekko whistles. He reaches into his reefer jacket for sugar. The filly looks back over her shoulder, then flicks her tail.
When Parker finishes, he says good-bye, leaving Dekko staring in at Nobody’s Listening. She a sorrel mare of a good line. Her coat has been brushed until it has the burl of fine chestnut. Her mane is braided. She has a rump that rises slightly higher than her shoulders, so she has the power of her Granddam—Nobody’s Counting. Dekko named the mare for a thing his son used to say before he was lost in Korea.
The bats have come out and they jitter and keel, swooping farther and farther out over the meadow. A stillness settles over the fields and the moon appears behind dark branches. Dekko begins talking to the horse, his voice as low as the wind, saying things he would never say to a person. Before leaving he flicks on the light over the stall. It will shine all night, lengthening the days and hastening the mating season.
A black Buick stops in front of the filling station just long enough for Dekko to jump out. The boy pumping gas watches as Dekko crosses to a row of vehicles parked along the edge of the lot. When he comes to a pale blue Ford truck, Dekko lays both hands, one on top of the other on the right front fender just forward of the wheel. He presses down as hard as he can, then stands back to watch the truck bounce. He plucks the flashlight off the fender and rolls sideways to the ground beneath the truck When he disappears under the chassis, the boy runs into the repair bay.
“What the hell you doing down there, Dekko?” Bobby Stemson wants to know. He has propped the hood on the support rod and stares down past the engine block at Dekko lying on the ground. Each man looks at the other for a moment as they always do, remembering that Bobby’s daughter went out with Dekko’s son, though it won’t be mentioned.
Finally Dekko says, “I’m checkin’ the work on my wife’s truck,” flicking the flashlight beam over the wheel base.
Bobby lets his eyes stray over the filling station, the two bay garage, the island with the cherry red pumps, the sign with the flying horse. He’s wearing coveralls and his hair is greased back.
“These new shocks, you put in, Bobby?”
“Fer Chrissakes, the wrapping’s are still on them. Don’t start that again.” Bobby stands on tiptoes so he can see what Dekko is doing.
“I think you’ve got a cracked bushing here, Bobby.” Dekko announces.
“That’s the seam, Dekko.”
“I don’t think so. Not from here.” Bobby listens to the old man scraping along the gravel on his back.
Bobby balls the rag up in the fist of his hand and when it’s small enough tucks it neatly into his coverall pocket. “I’m not doing this again, Dekko. Last time you raked me over the coals for five dollars.”
“I’ll only pay for the work done right,” Dekko says.
“Then take it elsewhere, Dekko. I don’t want your cars or your trucks, I don’t have the time.” Bobby shuffles away, shaking his head.
When the time comes the harrow, tiller, and baler line the drive. The man from the bank steps around the puddles followed by a girl with a clipboard. “Dekko, there’s a lot of harrows on the market these days,” the bank man says before turning to find that Dekko is already disappearing into the house.
By January Nobody’s Listening is healed. Parker leads her out of the stall and into the open air. He ties her to a ring bolt by the entrance to the barn. Dekko’s wife comes out of the kitchen, swabbing her arm with Vet lube. She stands, without ceremony, on a milking stool and plunges her arm into the mare to the shoulder, pronouncing the ovaries as big as crab apples.
Dekko calls Cleveland Beard and a price is hammered out. Seven hundred fifty dollars, more than twice what Dekko has ever paid.
At Tamarack Farms men stand around the breeding shed as Nobody’s Listening is prepared. A length of fence separates the viewing area from the larger part of the barn. At twelve hundred pounds, the mating frenzy of the animals can be violent and dangerous. Nobody’s Listening is lashed to the wall and one of Cleveland’s local grooms wraps her tail in a surgical bandage. She’s got a high wide rear, an older trainer observes. Another mentions this is a good height for Impertinence who is 17 hands. Dekko is nervous, shifting his weight from foot to foot. All the while he’s watching the open door for Impertience’s arrival. The stallion manager who controls the breeding session comes over and has the young groom tie rubber pads to the mare’s rear hooves so she doesn’t hurt Impertinence if she kicks. It’s cold in the breeding barn and the men stamp their feet. Cleveland Beard, wearing a big raccoon coat and with a jaunty tea cup bowler atop his head, offers Dekko his flask, but Dekko declines.
“Ah, poor thing,” Dekko says as they lead in the teaser stallion. He’s a Straightbred with a heavy leather apron hung round his middle to prevent penetration. Nobody’s Listening glances back once then lets out a long low sigh. The stallion is brought closer sniffing at the mares behind. The men lean forward. The stallion manager lifts the mare’s tail. “She’s winking,” he says and Impertinence is fetched and the teaser led away.
The banter ceases the moment Impertinence appears trotting down the hill. Being familiar with what happens, Impertinence prances a bit, angling sideways off the lead shank. Steam is streaming off his body, even his legs.
Dekko doesn’t think him a handsome horse. He has a dull fawn coat and there’s a smudge like paint on his Roman nose. But it’s his legs that make him a champion. When Dekko glances back towards Nobody’s Listening, the groom is slipping the twitch over her ear in case he needs to control her. At the entrance to the barn, Impertinence balks. The men are all watching him. Center of attention, he’ll make them wait. He extends his nose into the barn and sniffs.
“C’mon lad,” someone says, “don’t keep the lady waiting.” And the men laugh, vapor trailing from their lips.
Impertinence takes a few tentative steps in, but he’s paying more attention to the men in the viewing area. He’s indifferent to the mare.
But Nobody’s Listening is not without resources. She rises on her hooves, spreads her legs and pisses delicately. Her urine, filled with hormones, has an immediate effect. Aroused, Impertinence dances forward so quickly that Dekko expects him to get right to it. But he doesn’t. He takes a moment and comes forward half a step until he can pass his nose across the area right behind the mare. He runs the tip of his nose down along her flank almost tenderly and nuzzles her haunch, sliding and coming awkwardly along her side until he can nibble at her shoulder. By this time Dekko is squeezing his hat.
Then it’s all business with the stallion stepping back and rearing up, hopping forward on his hind legs while his forelegs lash the air.
He’s roaring and his eyes are rolling back in his head. His lips peel back, revealing a great row of teeth. From where Dekko is standing the stallion seems to fill the rafters.
He hears the horse roar again as he thrusts, but then there’s a horrible bellowing noise as he slides off to the side, flailing in thin air.
The men have seen this before, but not Dekko. In a flash he’s under the rail, scuttling across the floor toward the horses, the groom nearby too slow to grab him. With his hand Dekko guides Impertinence so that the stallion launches forward, forelegs half way up the mare’s back, lips flaring.
By now Dekko is behind the stallion, men are reaching for him but he’s fighting them off as he plants himself, extending both arms like Atlas and lifting the stallion, pinning him in place until the long anguished trembling subsides.