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Exclusive Excerpt from Joe Meno’s forthcoming novel, Marvel and a Wonder

August 11, 2015

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On a Saturday morning in the middle of August, just around ten a.m., a big shot named Bill Evens came around the farm to appraise the horse. The grandfather, squatting among the chickens, watched him drive up in a brand-new Ford pickup without an introduction or invitation. Bill Evens was an operator, a former state congressman, and construction contractor who owned nine or ten racehorses, which he kept on an immense spread of land about forty minutes south of town. He pulled up to the farmhouse, kicking up dust, and climbed out of the cab of the truck, his wide, bald head covered with a dented straw cowboy hat, dark prescription glasses obscuring his face. He walked right over to the small pasture the grandfather had set up and leaned against the snake-rail fence, staring at the mare. Then he let out a high, piercing whistle.

“Look at them hinds,” he said, squatting down, grinning through the fence.

Jim came out of the coop, a Delaware rooster in hand. “Howdy.”

Evens turned and smiled. “She looks like a racer,” he announced, grinning wider. He stood and extended a wide hand for Jim to shake. “Don’t believe we’ve met. Name’s Evens. I own the Triple A, near Bellwood.”

Jim nodded and shook the stranger’s hand. It was the practiced grip of a politician or businessman. Jim set the rooster down near his feet.

“You looking to sell?” Evens asked.

Jim shook his head, turning to look at the mare.

“You race her?”

“We let her run.”

“Against other horses?”

Jim shook his head. “I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of your profession.”

“Profession? Hell, you talk about it like it’s a legitimate business. All it is is a disease. My wife got me to enroll in Gamblers Anonymous. I go to the meetings then right off to the track.”

Jim frowned.

“Jim Northfield told me you got her as an inheritance. Is that right?”

Jim nodded again.

“Some inheritance. Well, I’d like to see her run. I’d like to see if she’s as game as she looks.”

Jim called for Rodrigo, the farmhand, who set down the peeps’ medicine and walked over, tipping his hat.

“Mister Jim?”

“Rodrigo, Mr. Evens here wants to see the horse run. Do you mind taking her for a ride?”

Rodrigo glanced from Evens back to Jim and winked. “Sure, sure, no problem.” He dashed off and then grabbed the saddle from inside the dog-hanged stable.

Ten minutes later they were off, Rodrigo riding close like a jockey, the mare tearing across the field with a headlong ferocity, coming up to the turn at the end of the oblong meadow, hooves colliding against the dirt with their daring rhythm. Then they bolted back around, Evens turning to watch the gray-white blur; he let out another wet-sounding whistle and pushed back his hat. “You need to get her on a track. See what time she draws.”

Jim nodded, unsure how to respond. Evens took note of the other man’s suspicion and grinned. “Here’s what I tell you I’m going to do. I’d like to set up a race, your horse against one of mine. I’ll give you three-to-one odds. To be honest, I’d just like to see what she can do.”

Jim gave the man an uneasy stare. There was $112 in his checking account until the first of the month. He itched his nose and considered the bet. Evens offered another big-operator smile. “So what do you say?”

“I’ll take your bet,” Jim muttered. “I’ll put up two hundred. But I want five-to-one.” They shook on it, deciding the race would be the following afternoon.

“My wife goes to church all day,” Bill said.

Jim nodded softly and then they both turned back to stare at the animal, their eyes wincing in the sunlight.

 

As soon as it was dawn that Sunday morning, Jim went out alone to feed the horse and watch it run, not bothering to tack up, letting the animal hurl itself this way and that without a rider, loose, momentary, its eyes gleaming as it tore along the fence. The grandfather snuck a Fuji apple from his coat pocket and, pulling out his utility knife, split it into a pair of uneven halves. A bleary wetness filled the air, from the metallic tang of the blade and the sweetness of the fruit. The grandfather held one half of the apple in his hand while placing the other half along the irregular plane of the fence rail to be gobbled up as the animal fled past. Sometime later the boy, his grandson, joined him at the fence line. The horse jetted before them. The grandfather again had a feeling that their lives were about to change.

 

Rodrigo soon arrived from town, having hitchhiked the few miles over. They were not used to seeing him on a Sunday and noticed his black hair had been slicked back with soap, his vaquero shirt buttoned all the way up. Together the three of them led the horse into the trailer. The boy kept the animal calm by talking quietly to it. What he was whispering neither the grandfather nor Rodrigo was sure. But it was placid clomping inside the trailer, and even when the door was locked shut, it still didn’t utter a neigh. Then they drove over to Evens’s spread, on the back forty of which he had built a racetrack, complete with aluminum stands. Evens, in his straw hat, waved the blue pickup over, then helped lead the mare out himself.

“If you want a jockey, I’d be happy to loan you one of mine,” he grinned. “Free of charge, of course. Your fella, he looks a little long is all.”

Jim glanced over at Rodrigo, who quietly nodded.

The race took place on Evens’s racetrack with Evens’s horse and two of his jockeys. Jim thought that he had made a mistake somewhere. The other horse was a black, long-necked gelding, which took careful, high, prancing steps. It was ridden by a jockey in blue. Jim’s mare was being ridden by a stubby man in an orange helmet. Evens patted the orange-helmed jockey on his rear and pretended to whisper, “Just because I’m your boss doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your all,” smacking the flanks of the mare with the same easy motion. The white horse whinnied, charging at Evens until the jockey reined her in. Then another farmhand fitted the mare with purple blinders. The horse kicked a little so the grandfather gently touched its nose, placing the palm of his hand against its muzzle. Then he and the boy and Rodrigo followed Evens to the aluminum stands and stood behind the metal railing. There were eight or nine onlookers—some neighbors, retired layabouts, all friends of Evens. He greeted each cordially and offered the grandfather a cigar, which Jim accepted but did not light. The two horses came down the track, their jockeys piloting them into their stalls. One of Evens’s farmhands closed the gates and backed away from the course. Then there was a loud ringing bell and the green gates flung open.

Jim watched the animal and the jockey take off, a bolt of white horseflesh followed by a cloud of dust, a spray of dirt. The horse bounded across the track in a phantasmagoric blur, all steady whiteness and steam, its coat shiny, hurling itself like a muscled locomotive. The report of the mare’s hooves against the dry earth rang out like thunder, whoom, whoom, whoom, the hooves hitting the dirt with their specific, tremendous explosivity, the sound of horses running unlike any other sound in the world, a sound suggesting tireless movement, joy, an escape from the past, from the present, from the uncertainty of the future. Seeing the mare go, the grandfather imagined the sound of its hooves against the clotted dirt was his own heart racing to meet its end. He felt something well up inside his chest and forgot what it was, the word for it. Then he turned and glanced at the boy and saw the same expression on his rounded gray face. What if? the grandfather began to think again, turning to watch his animal pull three lengths ahead, then four. The horse and rider flew past the finish line, coming in at twenty-one seconds on the nose. Evens looked at Jim, bug-eyed, wet cigar sloping from his mouth. Jim refused to give him the satisfaction of being surprised. As the dust settled, Evens opened his wallet and snorted. They collected on five-to-one odds, returning to the blue pickup with a billfold padded roundly with cash.

 

On the ride home, they dropped Rodrigo in town and then stopped in at an Arby’s and sat quietly across the table as they ate. It was going on seven p.m. Finally the boy spoke, mouth full of food.

“Sir?”

“Hm.”

“Did you like the army? When you were in it?”

The grandfather smiled tightly. “I don’t know. When I was in it, no one ever bothered to ask me.”

“Do you think I should join? When I’m old enough?”

“Well, I don’t know if you’d like it but I think you should do something. Be good to get out of town. No place for young folks anymore.”

“They’ve got computer specialists now. Doing radar and missiles and things. And they pay for college.”

“Well sure.”

“I was going to join last year. When I ran away.”

“What?” The grandfather stared at the boy sitting before him.

“When was this?”

“Last year. I ran away. I was going to go join the hunt for Sasquatch. Or enlist in the army. Either one, I guess.”

“When did you run off?”

“When all those chickens had blackhead.”

“Last October?”

“I left you a note but nobody saw it.”

“Where’d you go?” the grandfather asked.

“At first, I was going to head up to Canada. Remember? We saw that show about the Sasquatch up there. So I just took some things and left. I borrowed one of your knives. The fishing one. The silver one. In case I had to stab something. I ended up just staying in the Kellers’ barn.”

“Whose barn?”

“The Kellers. Across the way.”

“Well, that’s not running off. They’re right down the road there.”

“But I didn’t tell anyone where I was.”

“Did they know you were there? The Kellers, I mean.”

“After the first day, I guess. Mrs. Keller brought me some food and told me I oughta call you.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“Hm. Did you thank her when you got back?”

“No.”

“Well, I’ll tell you—we didn’t have running away when I sixteen. We called it becoming a man. You should think about it sometime.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s the truth. I was your age, I couldn’t wait to buck free.”

“When I get back, I’m gonna see about the army.”

“Well, you do what you think is best for you. There’s plenty of other things besides the army. The army ain’t for everyone.”

“I’d like to see the world.”

“Oh, you would?”

“I’d like to see different sorts of girls. British ones. And German ones. I’d like to go to Germany. See famous things. I’m not gonna live here the rest of my life.”

“Where? Mount Holly?”

“No. America.”

“Hm.”

It suddenly saddened Jim to think that the boy would one day be somewhere he was not, somewhere he could not call or shout and expect to see the boy’s face appearing in the near distance. He flicked at the larded ends of his potato cakes and said, “We can go talk to the fella together. From the army, I mean, if that’s what you decide. All right?”

The boy nodded, slurping on his soda, and in seeing him do so, it was hard not to imagine he was still just a kid. The grandfather glanced at the other customers in the restaurant, resuming his solemnity. A little boy dressed as an Indian chief—with freckled skin, eyes a fair shade of green, wearing a feathered headdress and fringed buckskin—entered the restaurant, holding his mother’s hand. Together they walked right past the booth where Jim and his grandson were sitting, Quentin fiddling with the remains of his fast food. The child—the Indian chief—seemed to study Quentin’s face for a moment; the little boy tugged on his mother’s wrist—the mother leaning over, the boy asking a rude question out loud before they ambled on toward the front of the establishment. In that moment, Jim had no reason to feel anger or shame, as he had asked that same question often enough—daily, sometimes in front of his own grandchild—and yet now he felt both. The boy did not even seem to notice he had been insulted, and if he had, he looked like he was accustomed to it—the vague finger-pointing, the dropped, muffled voice—as there was nothing in his face that betrayed any kind of resentment. This willingness to silently suffer—the boy’s calm, gray-toned complexion in the light of ignorance—caused, in the grandfather’s heart, an inexorable anger. He turned to his grandson and said, louder than he expected: “Quentin.”

“Hm?”

“You need to learn to say something.”

“Huh?”

“You need to learn to speak up for yourself.”

The grandson looked down, guilt-faced.

Jim shook his head and snatched his hat from the adjoining tabletop, wincing a little as he got to his feet. He strode across the tile floor to where the woman and her young boy were now sharing a meal. Hovering there, hamstrung by a feeling of unpronounceable rage, the grandfather swept the feathered headdress off the child’s head with the back of his hand, then muttered something indecipherable before he headed out the door in an angry blur. The mother put an arm around the child, who soon began to cry out. Quentin, still at the table, watched it all in shock, pausing in his mastication of a curly fry, setting it back down on the plastic tray before him, then started to his feet, still stunned, eyes open wide.

Excerpted from the novel Marvel and a Wonder, by Joe Meno, available on September 1, 2015 from Akashic Books.