Firm Iron

Fiction
Lou Gaglia


2011 Belmont Stakes - Khan of Khans in the Paddock
Photo Credit: Daniel Huggard

On the first day of ninth grade, after a sweaty recess, I wanted to tell the kids sitting around me in social studies that I still had a bump on my head from being kicked by a thoroughbred in July. But instead I quietly gazed out the window while Mr. LaFalce talked on and on. I wrote in my notebook, not the jumble of words about the Huns that he’d written on the board, but instead about that girl Cindy who worked at the barns, wondering if she’d ever gotten my note, or if I’d ever see her again. The answer I kept writing was no and no and no.

I wrote my nos very tiny, because Barbara Kelly kept looking over; then, because everyone was so serious, because Mr. LaFalce touched his mustache whenever he made a point, because Barbara Kelly shifted to get a better look, and because stupid Kerry Kern was sitting all serious and studious in the very front row, I burst out laughing, and when Mr. LaFalce stopped, drawing out the word “Huns-sss”, and stared at me, my laugh turned into a cackle.

From her front desk Kerry gave me a look, like I was an idiot, but I smirked at her, hating her guts now, a stranger after one summer, and remembered sitting on my curb crying after she broke up with me in June.

Mr. LaFalce was about to say something to me but I held up my hand.

“I’m all right,” I said. “All right now. Sorry.”

But as soon as he started teaching again, as soon as his voice started up, as soon as he touched his mustache, I cackled all over again and hid my face in my hands, hee-heeing, my body shaking, until he asked me if I’d like to take a walk through the hallway to laugh it all out, whatever it was. I went, letting some compressed laughter escape before reaching the door.

The second I was in the hallway alone, though, nothing was funny. I just stood there, my face like stone, looking at the tiles across from me and waiting for the bell to ring.

*

My father’s back had gone out on him again that summer, so I had to wake up with him at four a.m. for the trip to Belmont Park to help with any lifting. He needed help filling and carrying the water buckets and walking the horses after they’d had their runs. He tapped on my door the first morning, and I lay there looking at the ceiling and smelling coffee before slowly rolling off the bed, and by the time I staggered to the kitchen he was there, having already finished his shower. We ate breakfast silently, and then I got ready and we were out the door before five.

He started to nod off while driving along the parkway and then on the Long Island Expressway, so I kept an eye on him and said, “Dad!” whenever his eyes drooped. I watched the shoulder of the road, making sure he didn’t veer over too far.

Before reaching the barns, though, he stopped at a bakery and picked up coffee and donuts for both of us, and the Daily News for me so I could see how the Mets did.

I was kicked on that first day, walking my first horse, a two-year-old named Firm Iron, just up from Florida. My father told me to yank on the halter shank if he got fidgety or didn’t want to move, that I had to show who was boss. But on our first turn around the inside of the large oval barn a barrel scraped outside, and Firm Iron pulled back and shuffled his feet, so I yanked on the shank. He settled a little but the barrel scraped again, and Firm Iron stepped backward and pulled his head up away from me, his eyes wild. I yanked harder, and then up he reared and down he came, his front left shoe crunching into my head and me going down hard. I rolled away, seeing his feet scramble by me, and then I crawled behind a partition stacked with hay. Soon my father was there, lifting me upright and gripping my shoulders. He looked intently into my eyes before pushing me aside and running off to catch the horse.

A girl who worked for another owner on the same side of the barn sat me in a room and cleaned the cuts on the top side of my head and on my forehead. She was pretty and maybe a little older than me, and I heard someone call her Cindy.

“I’m all right,” I said, and pulled away a couple of times because the alcohol stung, but she showed me the bloody gauze she had pressed into my sore head. While she reached back for another strip, I felt at the bump already forming and glanced at her. Then she wordlessly wiped down the cuts on my forehead, and I watched her walk away with her ammonia and bandages.

My father appeared in front of me with the halter.

“What’s that?”

“Finish walking the horse.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“No. Now.”

“I thought that stuff was just for falling off horses.”

“Let’s go.”

So I walked Firm Iron around the barn for thirty minutes, and every time he moved his head, even a little, my heart flipped. When another barrel scraped somewhere, I whispered, “It’s okay, it’s okay”—shakily, to him and to myself—and kept it up the whole thirty minutes, except for when I passed my father.

Later I was tired, so I went into the car’s back seat to take a nap, but my father was suddenly banging at the window and woke me up.

“Are you crazy? You can’t go to sleep after getting kicked.” As I climbed out of the car he wanted to know whether I was stupid or what.

*

The same songs kept creeping into my head the whole summer. In the morning, instead of letting my father scare me awake with his knocking, I set the music alarm clock, and what jolted me at four a.m. was often enough either “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen or “Afternoon Delight” by some ridiculous tra-la-la band I’d never heard of.

I liked “Suzanne,” but it was the kind of song that didn’t stay in my mind long. Leonard Cohen didn’t sing, just kind of muttered, and muttering didn’t rate reruns. But “Afternoon Delight,” one of the stupidest songs I’d ever heard, ran through my head for entire days.

My father didn’t let me near Firm Iron any more after that first day. He was too hard to handle, he said. But I still walked Fearless Queen and Winter Tide. Fearless Queen walked funny and kept stepping on my foot, maybe on purpose because she liked to play, often trying to bite men’s hats off when they passed her stall. Winter Tide was more manageable, except for one time when there was a loud argument outside the barn and he tried to run. I held on, pulling back on the halter, and for a second I was off the ground, holding him, until he finally stopped and walked again. That was the only time he ever got jittery.

During my breaks, after I finished walking the two horses, I went up a long set of concrete steps to the cafeteria, and I remember that on that first trip up, or maybe it was after a month, or maybe it was each time I climbed them, I thought of what my future was going to be. I wondered at everything ahead and had no idea what was coming. It was just a little thought, or maybe it was a long deep one—I don’t remember—but it was like a promise in the air and it made me stop on those steps.

At the cafeteria the men stood out front with coffees and rolls and racing forms. Cigarettes dangled from many mouths. I smelled the smoke and the coffee and the eggs—and the manure smell was still there. I got my own coffee and roll and stood outside away from them, but watched their hard worn faces. They were all barn workers or hot walkers or exercise boys. The trainers like my father weren’t there. And the owners, wearing suits, only came around the barn area once in a while.

From a short distance I watched and listened to the men, who often talked about which horses would win which races that day. And judging by the looks on their faces, they didn’t allow themselves much hope that their horses had a chance.

*

Carlos was my father’s barn worker. He was a nice guy and very funny, always making jokes in very broken English without smiling. One day he held a swatter and killed over three or four hundred flies on the barn walls and the horse stalls. “Kill the fly, kill the fly,” he said, methodically tapping them dead.

My father liked Carlos but frowned whenever he was late. He must have drunk his dinner, my father muttered. So a couple of times my father had to clean the stalls himself, and I helped him—although I was slow because the manure made me tip-toe too much.

One morning they said that Carlos threw up in his sleep and would have died if his girlfriend hadn’t been there. My father looked over at me with huge pained eyes.

I often sneaked glances at Cindy, my heart fluttering whenever I passed her or even saw her from far away. She walked with very sloping shoulders and had pretty blue eyes, and she was so relaxed and matter-of-fact about everything. I wished I had paid more attention when she’d taken care of my cuts and head bump, and I ran several—this time smooth—talks with her in my mind that never happened, leading all the way up to marriage proposals. “Afternoon Delight” played on the radio somewhere in the barn at least once a day, and I shook my head, because both she and the song were driving me crazy.

*

Near the end of August, I sat in my father’s car while he talked to his horses’ owners, and instead of reading the Daily News, I wrote to her—something about wishing I knew her, and wishing her into my future. But I didn’t say what my name was, or even that I was the guy whose head she cleaned up, just that I liked her and thought of her all the time, and that I wished I knew her one way or another for life somehow, even as a friend. I wasn’t particular, I wrote.

I went around the outside of the most isolated part of the barn, a turn where I knew she’d soon pass with one of her horses, and I threw the tightly folded note over the wall where it would fall into the walking path. But there were three other walkers in the barn besides her, and I tried not to think of how bad the odds were that she’d be the one to pick it up. I was sick of lousy odds by that time, late August, having listened so often to those guys outside the cafeteria.

*

During my last few days at the barn I kept my head down or turned away whenever I passed her with Fearless Queen or Winter Tide, but I watched her from a distance when I was near our stalls. On the last day, I forced myself to look into her eyes when she passed with a spotted white horse, but she only glanced over briefly, stone-faced. My father told me it was almost time to go, and I nodded and watched her walk away, taking a picture of her in my mind—her sloping shoulders and her pretty eyes and her easy casual walk and her calmness. I frowned to myself and looked into Firm Iron’s stall. He was staring at me from the back of the stall with his wild eyes, and I called him a jerk.

Before we left, the owner and some other guys in suits came around to talk to my father. I hung up brushes and combs in the tack room and when I came out, one of them asked me if I liked working there.

“I like the horses,” I said, “but I don’t like the people.”

They kind of laughed to each other with red faces, but my father turned to give me a dark stare that only I saw.

*

“Afternoon Delight” popped into my mind during my stay in the hallway on that first day of ninth grade. I stared at the tiled wall and missed everything about the barns, not just Cindy but Carlos, too, who never came back. I missed driving in the early morning with my father, and the bakery’s donuts, and the sports section, and even those guys near the cafeteria with their rolls and coffee and racing forms and shared defeat.

Never in my future would I miss that crazy Firm Iron, though, or that snob Kerry Kern, or Mr. LaFalce’s stupid droning voice. I knew that.

In my mind I stood on those long steps to the cafeteria again, wondering about my future, but I was sure I wouldn’t do any more wondering in LaFalce’s class, or ever laugh again and let any of them know that I felt anything at all. I would just do what I was doing right there in the hallway—stare blankly—and then maybe I’d get to stay in class.

pencil

Lou Gaglia’s short stories have appeared recently in Rose & Thorn Journal, Spilling Ink Review, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others, and one is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review. His first short story collection is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner who still feels like a beginner. Email: lougaglia[at]yahoo.com

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