Dusty was devastated. He’d never honestly expected Sprockets to be claimed. But Sprocky, as he called him, needed a race, and the $25,000 claiming tag was more than anyone was likely to pay for a horse that hadn’t finished better than fourth in his entire career. Or so Dusty had believed when he entered him in the one mile optional claimer at Hollywood Park.
But now Sprockets was gone, taken straight from the track to the barn of Doug O’Neill, who had put in the claim to buy him. Tears started running down Dusty’s cheeks as he lowered the sun visor of his Jeep and with his forefinger stroked the photo of Sprocky he’d taped to it while tragic opera music poured from the stereo system.
Before leaving the track to drive home, he’d stopped by Doug’s barn to take a final farewell of the bay gelding that had been like an 1100-pound child to him. He’d explained the situation to his former charge as best he could, but Sprockets had eyed him in what Dusty felt certain was a reproachful manner. ‘How can you abandon me this way?’ he seemed to be saying. It broke Dusty’s loving heart, but what could he do? The rules were the rules. He’d taken a gamble – and lost.
I’m sorry, Sprocky, he thought, and a sob escaped him. It was difficult to see the road in front of him with tears blurring his vision.
Later, at home, Dusty nuked a frozen TV dinner and ate it alone at the kitchen table, trying not to recall happier times when a laughing, blue-eyed young man had sat across the table from him. Like Sprocky, Elijah was gone, and that, too, was Dusty’s fault.
“You won’t take me to your high school reunion because you’re ashamed of me,” the young jockey had accused, the hurt in his voice almost palpable. “You’re embarrassed to be seen with your gay boyfriend.” And he’d packed up his things and stormed out.
All Dusty’s attempts to explain had only made matters worse. He was so bad at explaining things, even to his horses. No wonder he hadn’t had a winner in over a year.
“I’m not ashamed of you,” Dusty said now to the empty seat opposite him. “I’m proud to be seen with you.” More tears welled up. “But what do you have to be proud of? A boyfriend who is a failure at the only job he knows how to do? There will be guys at my reunion who are tall, handsome and successful, and what will I look like by contrast?” Tears dripped into his fried chicken and mashed potatoes. “A short fat loser, that’s what.”
He forked up some potatoes salted by his tears. They tasted of sorrow and loss.
Dusty shoved the food away, rejecting its message of failure. He was by nature an optimist, as were all those who made their living on the backstretch of a racetrack. You had to believe that every horse was a potential champion, that every race brought a chance to stand in the winner's circle, that every early morning sunrise over the grandstand was the dawn of a new day ripe with promise.
You had to remember that, in the words of Dusty's mantra, there was always tomorrow, the day after today.
But he couldn’t help wishing that he still had Elijah to share those sunrises with. He was the best thing that had ever happened to Dusty, by a long shot. No matter how poorly his horses ran, Elijah had total faith in his boyfriend. “We’ll win next time, you’ll see. Sprockets is improving with every race.”
Dispiritedly, Dusty trailed into the den, but before he could sink into his easy chair, the same easy chair that he and Elijah had so loved to cuddle in, he heard the front door open. He froze, like Sprockets outside the starting gate – he’d always been reluctant to load - and his heart leaped into his throat. Only one other person had the key to his front door.
Flying footsteps sounded through the house like hooves pounding down the stretch, and the next instant Elijah appeared. His arms were outstretched as he ran straight at Dusty, saying passionately, “Oh Dusty, I just found out about Sprocky! My poor baby - you must be so upset!” And he flung himself at Dusty and wrapped his arms around his neck in a stranglehold of love.
As they embraced, Dusty began to cry again, this time tears of joy. Elijah had come back!
“Don’t cry,” Elijah said, planting little kisses all over Dusty’s face. “We’ll find you another horse even better than Sprockets, I promise.” Then his lips fell squarely on Dusty’s and nothing was said for a long, long time.
Eventually they broke apart, breathing as heavily as if they’d blown out five furlongs in 58 and change. Dusty took Elijah’s hands in his and held them tightly.
“Elijah,” he said, no longer caring about his no doubt tall, handsome and successful former classmates, because he knew he was luckier than any of them, “I’d be honored if you’d go to my high school reunion with me.”