Thomas Scott McKenzie: Spook In the Night

It was all foggy that night and Bud had other things on his mind when I showed up all glowing. He thought he’d found somewhere quiet to take his date.

“Somewhere away from all her damn squalling kids,” I heard him tell Ronnie earlier that day.

I was just making my rounds with the spotlight. The battery in it was almost dead so it just kinda glowed, didn’t really spotlight at all. When Bud saw a glowing figure in the fog, he come up outta that Chevy Nova backseat and started running down the drive, just left that girl there with her red T-shirt up around her neck, until he heard me laughing. So from that night on, they called me Spook.

They used to call me Jasper before that. Ronnie’d seen a butler named Jasper in some Avengers comic book. Thought it was funny. Bad thing was everybody else thought so too. I never liked Jasper. They thought it was hilarious, they kept calling me a butler for a horse.

They couldn’t see what an honor it was. If you gotta clean up shit, you might as well clean up the shit of a Triple-Crown winner. It was great, working for just one horse. You really got to know the thing, have a relationship with it. I called him Champ, horses have names too damn weird. Try to sound all high-powered and shit. Junk like Devil’s Bag or Thunder in the Sky. I just called him what he was, the Champ.

Horses got personalities just like everybody else. Champ for instance, he’s mean as hell for one thing. Bite you just to let you know he could. He’s also got a big ego, but that’s to be expected, something as successful as he is. You don’t get to be a champion anything if you don’t believe in yourself.

I always tried to be good to him. Got to work real early, my old brown boots would be the first marks in the morning dew as I walked out into his field. I used to get there early, just to watch him run through the pasture. Blasting across the field. Champ has the biggest pasture on the farm. A whole ocean of bluegrass for him to fly over like a seagull. In one corner of pasture is a clump of big oak trees. Champ stays in that clump, like it’s his house. When he gets ready to run, he blasts out of that clump of trees like the Batmobile firing out of the Batcave.

The entire pasture is surrounded by a big wall. People used to stop and look at Champ all the time. You’d be running late for work, hauling ass on the curvy roads, beer cans slinging all over the truck and you’d pop over the hill and there’d be some big Cadillac in the middle of the road. An old guy in purple shorts with a Gilligan hat and tennis shoes would be standing in the grass, camera at his eyes, trying to appease the blue-haired old bag pointing out the window.

The farm manager, Mr. Lowe, figured that since everyone was coming to see Champ, he could make some money. Charge a couple of bucks a head for people to see the only living Triple-Crown winner. So he put up a big fence, solid wood, not two or three planks, but a solid wall. Like what the put up around the country club to keep the high school kids from sneaking on the golf course at night.

Bobby and some of the other guys, they didn’t know how to treat horses, they’d smack them around, whip the shit outta them. |

Hell, one time, a horse made Ronnie chase him all over the pasture.

So, Ronnie threw down his black Rooster-Run Kentucky hat in anger, got in his big F-150 pick up and drove out in the field and chased that horse till he was about to drop. Bobby used to get tired of chasing foals that would walk beside their mommas. So he tied a rope around the mother’s shoulders and latched the other end to the foal’s bridle. He’d lead the mare and the foal would take off running and hit the end of the rope and snap back like the dog in the cartoons when Foghorn Leghorn ties him up. I couldn’t ever do anything like that. I got into enough trouble without beating my horse.

It was fun, working for Champ. But being a nightwatchman like this here ain’t all that bad. It’s quiet and I got a lot of time to myself. Some of the other nightwatchmen goof off all the time. Sit up in the office with the heat cranked up, smoking joints and drinking. They don’t even watch the monitors. I like to get out. The cold keeps you awake, makes the night go by faster. You can check the horses better. You can’t tell if a mare is waxing by looking at a TV. The only bad thing is that I really can’t do anything. I’m just supposed to walk around, smoke coming out of my mouth like a dragon cause it’s so cold and watch the mares. If one of them starts to foal, I gotta call the vet. I’d like to help, but they don’t think I can. Think I’m careless or that I’d hurt the foal.

The night shift kinda changed things with Linda too. We weren’t getting along, so not seeing each other almost made it better. Can’t get on somebody’s nerves who you don’t see. She just seemed to lose interest. Didn’t want to be around me anymore. This all started back when I was working with Champ. She quit calling, acted like I was bugging her if I showed up at her place. Didn’t seem like there was nothing I could do to get her interested in me. I’d fill up the truck and try to get her to go riding uptown, but she never wanted to go. I used to think about it all the time, talking to Champ about it. I mean, he is the best stud in the horse business, after all.

Like this one time, Champ and I walked over to the breeding shed, talking about how Linda wouldn’t kiss me the night before. She kept on me about when I was going to move out of my trailer. She wanted to know when I was going to get some real clothes.

“When I first met you, I thought you said you were going to train horses,” she said. One day, we sat on the blue bench seat from an old Ford pick-up I use for a couch and watched the Breeder’s Cup races. She kept talking about how good looking this one trainer was. He always wore real nice suits and sunglasses. Real classy stuff. I told her I was going to train. Now, a year later, she was ready for me to go to the mall and get a suit. Make reservations for the Derby and all.

“Baby, you got to have a horse before you can train it. What good is a suit going to do me if I ain’t got no horse to run? It’s just like you. You gotta get a promotion, be named manager of the push-mower section at the Southern States before you can wear the red vest instead of the blue like everyone else. I can’t just say, I’m a trainer now.”

It went that way all night. But anyway, I was so wrapped up with Champ, telling him how she wouldn’t even kiss me goodnight, that Bill Robinson asked me, “Who the hell you talking to? Think that horse is going to answer?”

I didn’t bother to talk with Bill much. It was the height of breeding season and he handed me a check to cover the $95,000 stud fee. Told me to be sure the girls in the office got it. The other guys, they’d already teased the mare and gotten her ready. I just whispered to Champ that we’d finish the conversation about my problems with Linda after while. He snorted, nudged me in the ribs–I told you he’s got an ego–and strutted into the ring to produce a Grade I stakes winner.

I called Linda that night, but she was out and didn’t call me back. Bobby said he saw her Grand-Am in the Hardee’s parking lot all night.

“Why you put up with so much shit from her?” he asked me. None of the guys acted like they ever had any problems with women. Too cocky.

Bobby put his arm around me, like he was buddying up to me, and said, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but she ain’t all that good looking to begin with. A woman like that is like a Mo-Ped. You know why?”

I stared at the snuff in Bobby’s teeth, like the tiny pieces of wood that float in the air around a campfire or something, and told him I didn’t know.

“She might be fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends seeing you on her. I mean, shit buddy, she puts together goddamn lawn mowers for a living. You’ve been a horse butler, she’s below your class,” he chuckled.

I just kinda looked at him and walked away, went over and sat on the fence and picked at the peeling white paint. I never was much good talking with people.

Not too many egos to deal with on the night-shift. Not too many anybody really. No Ronnie, no Bud, no Bobby, nobody. Just me and the horses. I guess you could count Shitty. This little brown and black, I swear he’s also got some green in him, kitten showed up one day, looking all raggedy and digging around in the muck buckets. Nothing that cat liked more than a full muck bucket. Somebody started calling him the Itty-Bitty-Shitty-Kitty. That was too long, so Shitty stuck.

He follows me on my rounds. He’s pretty good about helping tell when the mares are getting ready to foal. Normally, he walks right into the stalls with me, rooting down in the yellow straw. But he can tell when they’re antsy. If they’re getting ready to foal, he knows better than to get in there with them stomping around, don’t want to get himself crushed. He tells me a lot that helps me in my job.

I guess Shitty’s my new friend now. Don’t see much of Champ anymore, and after his latest foul-up, I may not see him again. The little cat’ll probably end up replacing Linda too. “I found you a house on Wallace’s tobacco farm that rents for nothing. You could finally move out of that trailer,” she said the other night.

Those other guys are so mean to Shitty, blow smoke in his face and sprinkle lime on him. Say since he seems to like shit, they’ll cover him up with lime like shit. They drugged his water once, and he staggered around for a couple of days. Even fell out of the hay loft. Looked like a dead bird, all crumpled up and falling to the ground with a thud. I gave him some milk and brought some bacon I had left over from breakfast to help him get back on his feet. He’s always glad to see me.

Linda stopped being glad a long time ago.

Every once in a while, she would give me a call or drop by on her way to the Southern States in the morning. I’d be getting in from my night rounds, sitting on the steps pulling off my boots and her headlights would shine through the fog. She’d jump out of her car, trying to avoid all the mud and ask me how the farm was going.

“How long you going to be night-watching? Anything come up at work?” she’d ask.

Then she’d say she had to get to work and stomp through the mud, not giving a shit, and screech out of the driveway, tools clanking around in her floorboard. And then, she’d be all cold. Back to wanting nothing to do with me, asking me when I’m going to get on at the Toyota plant and make some real money if I ain’t going to be a trainer.

Like I said, it all started when I was still working with Champ, but really got worse after I got into all the trouble. She said I couldn’t do anything right.

“You can’t even control some horse, how’re you going to take care of anything else?”

She just didn’t understand. When Champ wants to do something, he’s going to do it. Wasn’t my fault.

There was always a big crowd when I took Champ out. People come to Lexington, they got to see the horses. So they always came here to see the racing legend. Champ knew he was the attraction. He’d hear the cameras and you could just see his ears perk up. Start prancing around, swinging his long brown tail, shaking his mane.

Thought he was all the shit.

And people’d just crowd up around him, taking pictures, wanting to pet him. People just don’t think. This lady let her kid walk right up to him. I was on the other side and couldn’t see. The little boy with red hair–why does it seem like all little kids who act like monsters have red hair?–stuck his grape blow-pop on Champ and pulled it back, ripping out some of the stud’s brown hair. Champ whipped around and bit the fool out of him.

Took a big chunk out of his arm.

The kid started bawling and Mom blew up. I thought the kid was lucky. The way he was standing, Champ could’ve kicked him out in the pasture. That’s what got him in trouble last week. But anyway, back then, the kid was lucky. Champ doesn’t like children anyway, thinks they’re too loud and ill-mannered.

All the damn tourists in their bright colored clothes got real upset and I took Champ in. I was brushing him off, checking to see if he’d been hurt, when Ronnie told me to go to the office.

Mr. Lowe and the mom were in the cool office. Pictures of our horses lined the walls. Right behind Mr. Lowe’s chair, a big painting of Champ took up most of the wall. The air in the office as cool and smelled like iodine. Dr. Morgan was tending to the kid in the corner, his eyes red and his freckled face streaked from the tears, like when water runs down the side of my dirty truck. I guess they figured if the doc could treat million-dollar horses, he could treat some kid.

Mr. Lowe was apologizing for what happened. Offering to pay medical bills, anything. The mom was pissed. She was from Texas, where they think they do everything better than anywhere else, and thought we should be able to handle our horses. She had on some of those fake ostrich skin boots you buy in the mall, not a mark on them.

“That horse is an animal,” she said. I felt like telling her, no shit, but like I said, I never talk with people much. Mr. Lowe tried to calm her down.

“He does get somewhat unruly sometimes. But what we’re most concerned with is the well-being of your child. Landry Way Farm will do all it can to make up for this accident.”

Mom was still cussing, “That damn horse should be used to make dog food. He’s unsafe to let children around him.” She had blonde hair that looked like straw and she pushed it out of her face, but a clump stayed stuck in the make-up on her eyes.

I thought, well shit, Champ can be an ass sometimes, but we all can. He don’t mean anything by it. Besides, she’s the one that let her little kid walk up to a huge animal like he’s in a petting zoo or something. But nobody asked me.

Mr. Lowe lost all the color in his sunburnt face when the woman said she wanted him killed. He didn’t say anything, just looked at the lady.

“I’m serious, I want that damn creature put under,” she kept on. Mr. Lowe started sputtering and playing with the green farm cap in his hands.

“That’s being a little extreme. Now, we’re willing to make amends, but that’s going a little too far.”

“No, it’s not,” she yelled, her face getting red all the way up to the black roots of her blonde hair. She had on so much make-up that it looked like it was caking up and was going to explode into little pieces like when you bust a dirt-dauber’s nest.

“I’ll go to the press and then I’ll take you to court. I demand that horse be taken care of! In Texas, we can handle our horses so they don’t act like animals.”

Lowe was pissed at this point. He always did have a short fuse. Once he got mad, he didn’t ever think of what he was saying. He looked at her and started laughing. Never could figure that man out, laughing when we all knew he was pissed.

“If you think we’re going to put a Triple-Crown winner, the most prolific stud in the business, to sleep, lady, you’re outta your fucking mind.”

That’s when I walked back out into the heat, dust rising up around my boots like little sandstorms as I walked to the barn. Nobody ever said anything to me. Not directly. Some of the guys kinda made fun of me, said I couldn’t do anything. Didn’t know how to act around people with Champ. Then I got moved to the nightwatchman shift.

I used to go by Champ’s field when I got off in the mornings. The sun would be rising over the misty hills of the farm and off in the corner, under his trees, I’d see him. Just watch the big animal for a few minutes before I headed home. Some days he’d get out and run for me. I always wondered what his jockey felt, to really let him go. Wide-open.

But now, I don’t rightly know what to do. I haven’t talked to Linda in a few weeks now. She won’t see me at all. Says I don’t know how to have a relationship. She says my trailer’s bad enough but on top of that I can’t even talk to her. The last night I saw her, she came over and sat down on a green lawn chair that had lost most of its webbing by the TV. I came out of the bathroom and saw her looking in a little paperback.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Just something I got to kill a little time on my lunch breaks.” Then later on, she tells me. “You have to be actively communicating in any successful relationship. Both partners have to make a verbal bridge to reach their common ground.”

I looked at her, glanced down at the paperback crammed into her bag, and wondered where she learned how to talk like that. I know I don’t talk to people that well, but I bet if I lived in some house with brass door handles and was a trainer, she wouldn’t care about any communicating bridges.
So anyway, she says I don’t know how to have a relationship. She’s wrong, I mean look how long I’ve gotten along with Champ.

The problem is, Champ done it again. This time, he kicked the shit out of some lawyer down from New York. Ronnie said that this guy pulled up in this big silver Mercedes and was walking around with a little phone in his hand like he owned the place. Mr. Lowe was giving him the grand tour and all that. Bud brought Champ up from his group of trees in the pasture so the lawyer could see him. Something happened, Ronnie didn’t really know what, but Champ put his foot up this New York snob’s ass. Not really, you understand, even Champ ain’t that good.

But he did knock hell out of the guy. Put him in the hospital. In a bad way. Ronnie said the guy deserved it, dumbass stood on the opposite side from Champ’s head. That’s just asking for it, he can’t resist when you make it easy for him. Everybody’s been real tense. Mr. Lowe hasn’t allowed any visitors on the farm and there were TV crews parked out on the road. They kept trying to climb the wall around Champ’s field so Mr. Lowe had them bring Champ up and put him in the barn.

I went by and saw him this morning after I finished my shift. He was just standing in the stall, staring out the window at his trees. I felt so bad for the boy, ain’t his fault people are just assholes. Ronnie told me that they were shipping him out. Champ done gone too far and they were sending him to a farm in Ireland owned by the same people what own this farm. I don’t know when he’s leaving. But he won’t know what to do over there. I spent all day at home wondering how he would do in a new culture. What color was their grass? In England and Britain, they run on turf and their races go the wrong way around the track. How’s he supposed to get along?

I been sitting in the office all night since I came on duty this evening. Ain’t been out on my rounds yet. Just sitting here thinking about him leaving. I ain’t got nobody but Champ and the cat. Every office on this farm is done up the same. Pictures of race results all over the walls and light green linoleum on the floor.

There’s several copies of the pictures when Champ won the Derby in this office. He won by seven lengths, no one else even near him. On the other wall, a list of all the stakes winners he has sired. And they’re actually shipping him to Ireland, going make him spend all that time on a plane, without his pasture, without his trees.

The pictures of him in the Derby look like he does when he runs in the field, long graceful stride, almost gliding over the ground. Easily eating up the distance like it’s nothing. Now, he’s trapped in that damn stall, the air smelling like moldy straw and old sweet-feed.

I turn off the monitors, none of the mares are even close to foaling tonight, and walk outside the office into the barn. It’s a cool evening, just enough edge to make you feel the breath like icicles in your lungs. Big full-moon out tonight, almost white. Shitty peeks up out of the blue muck bucket, a good size chunk in his mouth, some white lime on his ear.

“Come on, ” I tell him as we walk out into the fog and head towards the exercise barn.
The fog is pretty thick and the exercise barn glows like some sort of spaceship has landed on the farm.

Shitty runs in between my feet as we walk through the wet grass, his fur sticking to his thin legs. Inside the exercise barn, I wonder about any other nightwatchmen on duty tonight. Spence is the only one and he’s over at the Bryan Station Road entrance. So I’m basically it. No one else. I take a shovel and break off the rusted old padlock that’s on the door to the tack room where Fryman, the exercise rider, keeps his stuff.

Shitty’s excited now, he knows something’s up, and he keeps rubbing up against my legs as we walk to Champ’s barn.

“I got too much shit in my arms to see you boy, you best not get stepped on.”

The barn where they keep Champ is the showpiece barn. It’s got green and red stained glass windows and gold plated door handles. His stall is made of shiny oak. I flip on the light in his cell and his ears are drooping and there is straw in his mane. He just stands there as I go into the stall and start getting him ready.

He’s not acting himself. “That’s okay, boy, I’m here. It’ll be better.” He seems to get a little better with me talking to him.

The full-moon is so bright that it makes it almost difficult to see in the fog. Like driving with your brights on in a fog bank. But as Champ, Shitty and I come to his pasture, the fog clears up a little. Just acres and acres of grass with the silver dew and frost on top. It looks like the surface of a cloud or something. The old boy is starting to prance and wake up a bit. Snorting and pawing the ground. At the far end, I can just barely see his little clump of trees by the huge wall.

I let go of Champ’s reign as I look for Shitty. The cat runs up to me and I pick him up and put him in the back-pack I brought from the tack room. He hangs out the top, looking around, excited as shit. Champ stands there, waiting. He snorts impatiently, telling me to hurry up. It takes me a couple of times to get up, but finally I jump on his back and wrap the reigns around my hands as tight as I can get them.

Jockeys tell me it’s like being strapped to a 1,500 pound rocket, that their hands get cut up all to hell and their face feels like it’s going to peel off like the skin of an orange. That’s all right. I can feel Shitty’s claws digging in the back-pack, coming through and catching in my flannel shirt as I nudge Champ forward a bit. It takes a few steps for him to figure it out and I tell him to go and he understands and then it’s a blur.

I don’t know exactly how big this field is. I don’t really know where the wall is. And I sure as shit don’t know how long it will take a Triple-Crown winner to get there.