Another Horse Death at Santa Anita

This man I had been following—we’ll call him Granola—had a house ripe for burglary. He had recently moved to town and so had I. That’s what you want when you’re a part-time thief, a mark without local family or a great history to fight for. And best find a hippie mark like Granola. Hippies tend not to tuck .45s under their pillows. That national fascination with the firearm we have sickens me. Why not confiscate the lot of them? Shit.

Granola lived in a starter home primed for my good work. Built in the 80s, no question. Old enough to be fitted with those brittle aluminum window frames, but new enough not to go creaking every time I took a step. I’d chosen easy spots before and ended up in a state of regret, but, damn, this place felt smooth. Even Ivy, my girl, could feel it, though she didn’t know what she was looking for or feeling good about. In the car, the night we hit the place, we heard “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and saw a vandalized water tower illuminated by a bare-ass moon.

“Play it again,” she said over the fading jangle.

“That’s the radio.”

“Sing it for me.”

Ivy had to stop and get a limeade from one of those 24-hour joints before we could get on the road for real. I said, “If you need to pee, that’ll be the end of it. I don’t care if we aren’t a single penny richer.” She didn’t acknowledge me. She was preoccupied with a run in the navy turtleneck sweater she’d decided to wear, closest she had to black. A short pony fell out the back of a ballcap I’d found in an unopened moving box. We parked within eyesight of Granola’s house. The silhouette of a chimney rose higher than the neighboring trees.

“Should’ve brought some rubbing oil,” Ivy said. “Slid down the chimney like we’re stealing Christmas.”

“They put caffeine in those limeades?” I said.

“Why ask me?” she said. “I just like biting the cherry at the bottom.”

“Listen,” I said, “We can’t be partners if you’re rattling rickety thump all over this house.”

She laughed and I squeezed her thigh and knew we were a team whether this went up or down.

I remember first spotting Granola and those thin leather sandals of his. I felt sympathy and affection for him. They were camel leather, with a little loop his big toe fit through. He carried groceries in two woven bags. “How’s it going, friend?” he said that day. He spotted me under a nearby tree scoping the place out. I engaged and stood in awe as he took my stock comment about the decent weather and wrangled it into a lesson on lunar tides and healing stones, the Sumerians and the Tudor Knights who trained their horses to bite. This Elizabethan detour led to his slip that he was taking his kid out of town to a Renaissance fair that upcoming Thursday. I didn’t even have to fish it out of him. And he never set down his groceries. “Where’d you get those baskets?” I said. “For my wife,” I added. Ivy. Not technically my wife.

She used to not come along with me thieving, but she picked up a taste for it after the last job. It was an old pre-war place earlier this year, and she’d been begging to take more of an active roll in this thing I do. So I taught her how to whistle like a titmouse and told her she could stand out front to watch for movement. This woman looked me down hard and said, “No no.” She pinched my nipple and said she’d learn the whistle anyway. My luck. Any other girlfriend would’ve played ostrich or called the law on me. But Ivy’s heart pumps red, can-do American blood, even for someone who’d only immigrated in the past five years. “No,” she said again, “I waited outside last time. Teaching me to whistle won’t cut it.” I still can’t get over how much I love that woman. So I shut up. The day I got home from finding Granola and his choice house I nearly didn’t tell her. And I would’ve succeeded, too, but she looked at me with those brown-green eyes, eyes like okra, and I said, “Ivy Baby, you ain’t going to believe what I found today.”

“This is it,” Ivy said. She was as fine as any woman this side of Miss America. “This is where we become a team. The hippies only act like they don’t have money. Costs to look that low. I read that. 299 U.S. dollars for a burlap shirt, and a hundred more for the pantalones. He married?” She gave me a look that said everything I’d ever wanted her to say, words about past and future lives, things I was after. The right pony for the last sunset. “I don’t do it for the money,” I said. And I didn’t, but Ivy was already sold.

After parking the car, we snuck our way around hedges and a leaning slat in the fence. I always start in the back. It helps if you can locate the master before choosing a point of entry. I turned to check on Ivy, but this woman had already made her way over to a shed tucked in the back of the property.

We both saw it after slipping through the fence, a sizeable shack glowing a warm red I figured she had the good sense to ignore. Should’ve made that one of the rules: we rob houses, not rakes and ladders. But it was curious. Slices of red peaked through cracks in the wall slats.

Ivy signaled me over. I read her silent lips. “Look.” She squeezed my fingers as I peeked through the gap between two boards.

The horse turned its head toward us. Then it approached, moved as smooth as the moon rises, there before you know it. Its tail swished. There was the red bulb hung from the ceiling and the unformed equine black swishing its tail this way and that.

“Ay, Dios mío,” Ivy said.

“I’ll be damned,” I said. I couldn’t help it.

The horse stood sinister and proud in the bloody glow. It stood prepared to punish, a rogue cut loose from some Mephistophelian dungeon. I am the bane of nations, it said. Ivy reached for the stable latch. I figured all she wanted to do was move inside and rub her hand across the seat of this animal. She didn’t know a mark with a pet isn’t much of a mark. Picking through the treasures of others is rarely satisfying when Fido and Whiskers and the parakeet are barkhisschirping at you. No telling what this old cob would do if that woman started rubbing it.

“Don’t stop me,” Ivy said.

“We need to get on.”

“My father had a horse,” she said. “It starved. We used to thump its ribs and make wishes.”

“What was its name?”

“It died, of course.”

Earlier that morning, over cream cheese bagels, she asked me what she needed to learn besides a whistle.

“Seems to me,” I said, “like I should take stock. What do you already know? No time to rehash.” She said she knew how to whistle like a titmouse. She couldn’t sleep after the night before. And I knew I wasn’t getting any shuteye till I gave her something. “There’s just two things you need to know,” I said. “And they don’t change for anything. Not your pouts nor the Holy Virgin’s panty line.” She nodded along. Her bangs swayed over her eyebrows. “Love you,” I said. She moved her bare foot under the table and tickled my toes with hers. I drunk that woman all up and grabbed her another can of tomato juice. She hadn’t even finished the first.

Most days she’d open up three or four sodas and drink about as many sips before abandoning them. They sit on countertops and coffee tables. “That crack,” she says. “It sounds like getting kissed for the first time every time.” Sometimes I snarl and tell her I’m going to throw her out on the side of the road if she doesn’t start picking up these damn cans. “I buy my own sodas out of my own paycheck,” she says. And she did. Nothing beats a woman in the workforce. Ivy Santana works at a drug store, at the counter behind a sheet of glass. She makes minimum wage and says it’s the best job she’s ever had. I’m at the sporting goods store next door and I get by just fine. Robbing is a hobby. I’m a thief because I like thieving. Mostly I’m a shift manager. She’s a cashier. I’m a robber and I reckon she’s going to be a robber too.

“Two things you better remember about thieving with me,” I said.

“One,” she said in the accent of a gruff, American male. “No guns. I don’t fool with no goddamn guns.”

“One,” I said. “I don’t fool with no goddamn guns. And we scout and we observe and we choose marks least likely to own a firearm.” Agents of death all of them. Made for one purpose: kill. Cut meat. Drop.

“And two. Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. This isn’t a greedy operation. This is hobby work. You want to carry out two duffels’ worth of the royal jewels? You find you a new man. Best course is to go in expecting dusty pockets.”

“Me and you,” she said. “Twice the pockets.”

“Never go to bed unsatisfied. Or wish you’d have looked in one more room. That room is where you’ll have made a slip,” I said. “You don’t know shit about Granola or how much he pays for his pants.” Ivy pops the tab of her juice and sets it down. I pick it up and take the first sip. I said, “If you can’t carry out what you want under your arm without waking the pantry bugs, then you don’t need it.”

“Yes, this is a new morning for us,” Ivy said into her can of juice.

I said, “He’s out of town tonight. Told me so himself.”

“We’ll never be poor.”

I said, “Just follow the rules, Ivy girl.”

Ivy told me a story once about being poor, something I had never been. We were sitting in the bathtub, facing each other, our legs tangled underneath the water, when she gathered a handful of bubbles and placed them on my shaven face. “We used to have nothing at all,” she said. She wiped away everything but a suds mustache. “I used to know a man with a white mustache. He was old my entire life. When my sister and I were girls, we called him Señior Chancho, Old Man Piggy. He brought my father a ham every year. Bacon, sometimes.”

“Your sister, what’s her name?”

“When Señior Chancho came, it was better than Christmas. Every day, we ate stale tortilla and beans, or whatever the padres had managed to store. Tortillas and beans, tortillas and beans, and once a year: ham.

“Eventually, we began to look like women, at least we couldn’t hide it anymore—the clothes Papa bought us got looser and looser. My sister was beautiful. More than me. One year, Señior Chancho and my father talked all afternoon. I see them still today, under the trees. When they were done, Señior brought in a ham and took with him my sister.”

“Baby girl.”

“We got hams once a month after that.”

I twisted her around in the tub, pulled her closer and squeezed.

At last, we went inside the house. I had guessed, correctly, the location of the master on the other end of the house. I thought we’d be coming in the kitchen, but the coat rack suggested otherwise. My eyes turned to Ivy, then gave the living room a scan. It held the tidiness of a room just unboxed and assembled, destined to never be so immaculate again. Ivy was a silent-movie star in the moonlight. Shadows blushed her cheeks and her eyes told stories.

Not that, I said with a shake of my head. This woman had pulled a chunky old tome right off a bookshelf that stood against the living room wall. She flipped through the pages like she had forgotten her spot from last time. It didn’t make a sound, but she was towing that line.

This, I said with a gesture towards a belt buckle on the next shelf down. “CS?” said Ivy, reading the raised letters on the brass. “Confederate States,” I said into her ear. “Filthy business. We’ll get rid of it. Destroy it.”

“We’ll sell it,” Ivy said, pushing that whisper just as far as she could.

“No, we won’t.”

“Then I’ll sell it.” The book’s leather binding moaned under her grip. The look on Ivy’s face was one all men avoid because they are ultimately powerless to it, all eyes and raging breath.

I said, “Here. Pocket it. I can melt it down. Make you a bangle.”

“I don’t want this damn bangle.” Her curse flew past my face and shot through the room and down the hall, a burst of air that couldn’t be explained away. Before it had faded my palm shut her mouth. I rested my forehead against hers and tried to absorb all of her hate and pain and memories of making wishes on a dying horse’s rib. Her muscles eased and I pulled away. The coast appeared to be clear.

Ivy slid the book back in the empty gap. She tucked the buckle into her pants, nudged my side like I’d forgotten my manners. I motioned two fingers forward. Proceed.

Not only was this house a smooth find, it was flooded with good shit. Interesting shit. Fire hydrants repurposed as lamps, acoustic guitars with finishes rubbed dull, jade eggs. Lights—white from the moon, red from the stable—poured in through the window we had crawled through and revealed more than we could ever hope to carry. Under two crossed, double-edged swords perched an inanimate lynx stuffed and rigged into a striking pose. There was an unnatural, stupid look on its face, different from the usual bared teeth of attack, like it waited in infinite anticipation to hear another one of man’s off-color jokes. The whole room was a fresh can of fizzy drink with an uncracked tab. Ivy already had her hands around another treasure: an emerald mineral shimmering in the dim dark.

“Beautiful,” he said from a corner in the dark. “Can you think of a better word?”

I didn’t gasp or jump. My heart didn’t stop and neither did Ivy’s. With the gem in her hands, we had already been discovered, the dumb of our plan stripped to skin.

He stepped out of what seemed to be the only unlit stretch of wall in the room, repeated, “Can you?” His eyes approached us, though his feet stood firm in place. Sublime,” she said to Granola. He stood skinny, shirtless and taunt, his muscles clinging tightly to his bones.

Granola pulled a handgun—a goddamn handgun—from the brim of his pajama bottoms. “Soo-blee-may,” he said, stretching out each of Ivy’s Spanish syllables. “You from around here?” He twitched his nose at me. “You ever buy her those woven baskets? Surely you didn’t break onto my property just to get your lady some grocery bags.” He sniffed the air in two quick spurts like a bloodhound taking catalog of our detergent. He rapped the barrel of that damn gun on a lamp and said, “You two have got to be the dumbest criminals to ever do the thing. You’re going to have to teach her to whisper if y’all are going to fuss on the job.” By now he had found a steady rhythm on the lamp. “Like some kind of doltish Bonnie and Clyde.” I remember thinking, Doltish. That’s a fine word. He said, “Please replace the mineral. Replace it and follow me out back to the stable. I assume you saw it on your way in. Yes, you did. There’s something I want to show you before I call the police.”

Granola kept tapping that lamp. He breathed in and out and seemed to be finished talking. He was a fine portrait of a man, rooted from healthy soil and ultimately ruined by his inability to withstand the magnetic pull of the gun.

Ivy said, “We’ve already seen the horse.”

“That’s what’s wrong with the twenty-first century,” Granola said. “No more surprises.”

And he could have been a great man, Granola. His make and his model, the obvious scent of moisturizing beard oil, all screamed American Real. Even his incessant ting-tinging of that hate machine on the lamp displayed the kind of honor smelt on committed men.

“What is it,” Granola said to Ivy, “you came here wanting?”

“Came wanting to suck all your Christmas presents back up the chimney,” Ivy said. She pulled the Civil War belt buckle from her pcket and she held them on scolding display, added, “Filthy business.”

Once or twice we meet a person like Granola in our lives. People look for people like him, turning over rocks and ripping through clubs and blind dates. He’s someone I could have found comfort with, had I not fallen deep for Ivy Santana first, had he not discovered the dark room in his brain set aside for slave-owning generals and Saturday-night specials.

“Okay,” I said. “Show us what there is to see.”

Ivy said, “Let’s go see this damn horse. Some of us need to get some sleep tonight.”

Back in the stable, Ivy and I stood shaking in shit-stained hay. Granola had ushered us to the far corner; he stood sentry at the room’s only door. The horse, looming over us all, divided captor and captives. The beast rested its gaze on Ivy, stared her down like only one of them would make it out of this alive, like between the two of them lay too many of the earth’s secrets. It stomped its shodden hoof, and the sound was like the last fall of John Henry’s hammer.

Granola fed it a carrot with his unarmed hand. He did this nice and slow, as if he was the one held at gunpoint.

“At least point that miserable thing at me,” I said. He had trained the weapon on Ivy since we’d left the house. Her, that mouthy, five-foot-three woman who didn’t understand the shit into which we’d sunk, who wanted so badly to be my teammate and yet had ruined any chance of that ever happening by simply being there. That’s why we had wound up in a mark’s stable on the business end of a roscoe, captured and under threat: we were here because she was here.

Granola notched the safety off with his thumb.

I reached my hand toward the horse. But Granola didn’t move, flinch, bat either one of his eyes. I wasn’t fooling him that I posed any real threat to this shimmering monster.

Ivy was locked in a stare with the animal. She said, “When I first met this man, my man, he took out his guitar and played me a song about a train. About how he didn’t have nickels for a ticket. He just wanted to get me in bed. It made me cry.”

“Thieving bitch,” Granola said. “I don’t give a--”

“You wanted us to see something,” I said. The aim of his gun didn’t change, but his eyes gave me a moment. But only a moment. He laughed a little laugh.

He said, “He still sing for you?”

“Every day,” Ivy said. “His voice in every room.”

“Sing, then.”

“Show us what you got to show us,” I said.

“Sing your girl a song and I’ll let her go. Police’ll go easier on you than her.”

By this time, the horse was growing restless and had resorted to tossing its head. Our reflections stood meaningless in its cabernet eyes. Its mane, a short tuft of black moss, stood on end.

I said, “Okay.”

Granola grinned.

I turned my head and locked pupils with Ivy, that woman.

We are unbelievers / And we—

My voice cracked.

walk through this dead city /

The animal stilled.

It’s so humid, we’re so sticky /

Ivy cried.

My, oh, my

I wrote that one. One of the things we create to one day pin on the shirt sleeves of someone like Ivy Santana. Someone like Granola. And in doing so, maybe they’ll think, So what if he’s a thief. He’s my thief. And he’s also a shift manager. One day he’ll be another thing at another place, tiptoeing through someone else’s moonlit foyer looking for a loose memento to rub his sticky fingers over. On a good night, he nets a few bucks from the cigar box under the sink, but he’d be fine without it. Maybe they’ll think something like that.

My song ended. I lunged for Granola’s neck, playing a weak hand hoping he wouldn’t fire on Ivy for fear of hitting the horse. I wrestled his shooting arm to the ceiling. I swear the gun metal burnt my skin in its evil.

The mare reared and the gun exploded and fragments of that red bulb showered in our hair.

I struggled with my adversary in the new dark and said, “Get out of here, Baby Girl.” Ivy screamed and I said, “Get on out of here!”

The gun, after firing at the ceiling, was flung to the other side of the stable.

Granola’s chest hair was smeared with blood, as was his nose, as were my knuckles. His coughing body lay flat in front of me.

“Show me. Whatever it is,” I said. “Show me.”

Granola whistled, a signal that seemed to soothe the horse in a moment. I could no longer hear it breathing.

Granola and I locked eyes at last. Bloody and beaten and superb, raw and shining. “I’m true to my word,” he said. “Tell your girl to leave. It’s her last chance.”

I said, “Go wait in the car. We’re done here.”

“You don’t speak for me,” said Ivy. “I speak for me.”

“I’ll give you this. She is a beauty.” And with that, Granola looked at the stone horse and commanded, “Fiht.”

The beast broke its stance, reared.

That was the last thing I recall before the hoof socked me, right there below my ear.

I woke up in a hospital bed, and I was handcuffed to the handrail. I said, “I was at it alone that night. No matter what he told you, I was alone.” When I said that, the nurses in the room looked at me like I was the village idiot, and I could see laughter bubbling under their mint green scrubs.

Later, I was told my speech center was all jumbled by the brain injury. I couldn’t help but laugh, and I told all them mint green nurses they could go ahead and laugh too. I had to write it down. My hands work okay—better than my twisted-up excuse for a tongue, sitting there between my teeth like some fat potato. The police let me keep a dry-erase board, but sometimes my potato tongue will grow wings and fly off about whatever terrorizes me when the lights are off. “Get out of here, Baby girl,” I’ll say, while everyone in the ward is trying to sleep. Just about scream shit like that every night. And nobody understands a word of it.

There’s this one doctor who reminds me of Ivy, my beautiful, midnight storyteller. They share a toothy smile. It’s goofy and better than all the other smiles. Burgos is her name. After checking my chart, she’ll tuck the morning paper under my arm. “The brain’s a muscle,” she’ll say. “Keep flexing it.” I nod. I keep up with the obituary and those released on bail, comforted knowing I’m luckier than some and not as much as others. Most days it’s just something to do until my next meal, but sometimes a headline will catch my eye, like this one last week: bold letters, reporting “Another Horse Death at Santa Anita.” That was a good day for me. Dr. Burgos stopped by when her shift ended. She had just bought a can of Diet Coke, opened it right there in front of me.

The more I think about it, the image of Ivy’s new life becomes clearer to me. I like to imagine her a gust of wind, the sort that blows through small town U.S.A. leaving no trace but the sound of itself as it passes. A song of whistling chimneys. She rubs her capable hands over the loose mementos and says, “You’re mine.” Ivy only steals things that’ll fit in her pockets. Things like rings and Disney pins, precious stones and metals from ugly wars. She’ll sell these things. She wouldn’t be able to see the allure in decorating her walls with someone else’s wares, things she didn’t inherit or purchase or pull from the ground herself. Thieving would be survival just as counting change behind that sheet of glass is survival. Just as being a team would have meant survival. I didn’t understand these things then, back when my brain was whole.

And I’m proud of her, the way she made this unforgiving land her home, the way she loved me then. That’s the Ivy that I like to imagine. A silver wind. A sticky finger. An unfinished can of juice. But an image is nothing but ice cracking and shifting under the sun. What’s real is this titanium holding my skull together. The nurses I gave permission to laugh at me. The handsome man tainted by a gun. The prized Palomino that broke both legs and had to be euthanized by a vet six months ago. That’s real. The black Thoroughbred shot dead on the residential side of Santa Anita just last week. That’s real. Someone killed that horse with a single gunshot to the head according to the paper. They wasted no ink on theories, wrote nothing of hired vets and broken legs.  

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