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Authors: Maggie Estep

Gargantuan

BOOK: Gargantuan
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OTHER BOOKS BY MAGGIE ESTEP

Love Dance of the Mechanical Animals

Diary of an Emotional Idiot

Hex

Soft Maniacs

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

THANKS TO
Elizabeth Tisdale and Georgeann for companionship on all those bone cold afternoons at the Big A.

Joe Andoe for instigating the birth of Ben Nester.

Charlie Moran for the “sheets” as well as endless and fascinating Horse Talk.

Doug Koch and Tom Bush for letting me hang out with Sherpa Guide, a prince among horses.

Thanks also to Jane Smiley for her blessings in borrowing one of the greatest equine characters ever written, Justa Bob.

Many thanks to my mother, Nancy Murray, and my stepfather, Neil Christner, for a place to hole up finishing the book—as well as their equine expertise and access to Oat Bran Blues, Jack Valentine, and Darwin’s Hiccup (who have been fictionalized slightly but hopefully will not mind since they are, after all, horses).

The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Byrdcliffe Artists Colony for peaceful places to work.

Meredith Maran, Patricia McCormick, and Meredith Trede, friends par excellence.

As ever, deep appreciation to my family, biological and non, Stew and Shahram, Princess Soraya, Beckett, Lion, and Ellen—and Jon and Chris and Jenny in particular for vital editorial input. Also, many thanks to my indefatigable friends and helpers, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Annie Yohe, Jennifer Dallas, and Thorpe the Gnome.

And of course, I’d be in deep trouble without the advice, support, and constancy of my agent, Rosalie Siegel, my editor, Shaye Areheart, and publicist Tim Roethgen.

Robert Small for all sorts of things, most notably his distress at being left out of previous acknowledgments.

Lastly, kudos to Almuhathir for going off at 95-1 on June 6, 2003, rallying to win, and enabling me to pay off debts accrued traveling to racetracks far and wide.

RUBY MURPHY

1.
The Jockey

I
open my eyes and am startled to find a body next to mine in bed. I sit up and protectively pull the blankets all the way to my chin before realizing that the body is Attila Johnson’s and that I’ve invited it to be here. My heart rate returns to normal as I glance down at Attila’s form. His pale hair is glowing in the darkness and he seems painfully innocent in sleep even though, when awake, there is too much life in his face. I look over at the clock. It’s four in the morning. I get up as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb his sleep. Before meeting me three weeks ago, I don’t think the man ever slept. Or ate. Right now he weighs a hundred and fourteen pounds, one pound less than I do. To him, of course, this is overweight. He’s supposed to keep his weight under one-ten. This alone is an act of heroism, never mind the rest of his life that is devoted to rendering his body a light and muscular instrument meant to steer a thousand pounds of thoroughbred around a racetrack at thirty-five miles per hour. Which is a thing Attila does purely out of love. He got into riding too late to ever hope to be in the big leagues or do much more than work his tail off just to pay the rent. But the man loves and understands horses. This is part of why he’s so compelling to me and why he’s here, sleeping next to me when I still have unfinished business with another man, Ed, who up and left town just when I’d gotten to really liking the fact that he was around.

I put my robe on and walk into the living room, pulling the bedroom door shut behind me. Stinky, my large Buddha-like cat,
looks at me from his post on the couch and, when I tell him aloud I’m not going to give him a snack, puts his head back down on his paws and sighs deeply. Lulu, Stinky’s calico companion, is nowhere to be found and is presumably holed up in a shoe box somewhere, dreaming of murdering birds.

I go stand at the window. The snow has stopped for a breathing spell but the wind is howling its song along Stillwell Avenue, echoing through the snow-covered rides of Coney Island, the place I call home.

Lulu suddenly materializes and jumps up on top of the piano, forcing me to look at the instrument that I haven’t touched in days. Above the piano hangs a small Bach portrait. Johann Sebastian appears to be scowling disapprovingly at me and my wanton musical ways. I didn’t take up piano until age thirty-one and I have to work very hard for even slight improvement. My goal is to be able to play at least some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations before hitting forty. I have a little more than six years to go but it’s not looking promising right now. Between my newfangled
thing
with Attila Johnson and the blizzard that hit town five days ago, my whole life has been suspended. I haven’t practiced the pianoor returned friends’ phone calls. The Coney Island Museum has been closed so I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t done much of anything other than lie around naked with Attila and I’m starting to get restless. I find myself seized with a need to talk to someone other than Attila or myself. I open the front door and look across the hall to see if Ramirez is home and awake.

My neighbor’s door is open and he is in his customary position at the kitchen table, staring ahead, apparently doing nothing at all. He is wearing his outfit of choice: soiled white undershirt and faded pants. His arms are big but middle age is starting to slacken the muscle tone. His broad face is heavily lined, giving him a gruff look that’s offset by large, kind eyes.

“Ruby,” he states.

“Ramirez, what’s up?”

“You want some tea?” he asks, as if visiting each other at four o’clock in the morning is the most natural thing in the world.

“Sure,” I say, still standing in my doorway, suddenly hesitant about imposing on my neighbor.

“You can keep standing there if you want but maybe it’s easier if you come in and have a seat.” Ramirez indicates a chair.

I pull my door closed behind me and do as he suggests.

“Where’s the jockey?” he asks sarcastically. Ramirez, like all my friends, seems to have his doubts about this liaison. I suppose it came on a little suddenly. For two months I was heartbroken over Ed’s leaving for a job assignment in Florida—and our never having discussed exactly what was or is going on between us—then, suddenly, I was shacking up with Attila.

“He’s sleeping,” I tell Ramirez, tilting my chin up defensively.

“I don’t want to know,” Ramirez counters, putting up a hand as if warding off lurid sexual details that might involuntarily spout out of my mouth. Not that I’ve ever dreamed of telling my neighbor about my sex life—with Attila or anyone else—but there’s something about Attila—or me
with
Attila—that seems to make people think I’m going to carelessly relay graphic details of our sex life. I think it’s because he’s small. Sometimes small people seem perverse to large people. As if a raging libido lives inside of them, making up for their diminutive stature.

“Elsie’s still in Puerto Rico?” I ask, even though I know she is.

My neighbor nods his head and then, as if in homage to his absent girlfriend, gets up to start brewing tea. Ramirez was never a tea kind of guy as far as I could tell but Elsie knows about and uses herbal teas and medicines and, before heading down to Puerto Rico to visit a sick aunt, left Ramirez elaborate instructions on brewing certain teas for certain occasions. I don’t know what she told him to brew should I visit before the crack of dawn, but I’m sure it’ll be interesting.

“You hear from Ed?” Ramirez asks with his back to me.

“Not this week,” I say through clenched teeth. Ramirez never
seemed to approve of Ed while we were actually seeing each other, and it wasn’t until Ed left for Florida that my neighbor took any interest in him at all. When I started this thing with Attila, Ramirez suddenly became Ed’s strongest advocate.

“I told you we left things up in the air,” I continue addressing Ramirez’s back.

“I know what you told me,” he says, finally turning around.

Ramirez is no idiot. He knew exactly how strongly I felt about Ed without my telling him.

“Why don’t you like Attila?” I ask him.

“I like that jockey fine,” Ramirez frowns.

BOOK: Gargantuan
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