On Swift Horses

Shannon Pufahl

November 5, 2019 
The following is excerpted from Shannon Pufahl's novel. Shannon Pufahl grew up in rural Kansas. She teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in fiction. Her essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review and elsewhere, on topics ranging from John Brown and the antebellum Midwest, to personal memoir. She lives in the Bay Area with her wife and their dog.

Muriel loves best those days when there are no races and the horsemen tell stories of fiasco and anomaly. At the lounge one afternoon she hears of a claiming race some years before, when a six‑year‑old broke a Del Mar track record and promptly dropped dead. Another, in which a redhaired boy from Montreal rode with his broken leg taped to the saddle girth. Or the story about the potbellied paint named Gingersnap who made such fast friends with an Angus bull that the two could not be separated and had to travel cheek by jowl in a special trailer widened for them.

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Or, better: The horsemen in their leisure speak of things that cannot happen, that simply won’t. There will never be another Seabiscuit, not because he was built by God, as the papers said, as the trainers claimed, but because the universe allows only so much improbability. Nor another corker like the half‑bred filly Quashed, who beat a Triple Crown winner by a short head over two and a half endless miles. Likewise the storied beasts of another era, National Velvet and Sergeant Reckless, warhorses on the eastern front, creatures from a dream an entire culture had once shared and woken from.

Through March of 1957 Muriel plays the late afternoon races ten dollars at a time. The winnings are limited by the stakes, which are mean and provincial, and though she knows now the names of stables and jockeys and colts gone early to stud still each new detail excites her. Each new detail is a familiar shape in a dark room. The high stakes are coming when the spring season opens, and most days the men drink more and longer and sit with their knees spread wide and out from the tables, taking account of the odds.

“Hoo now, in a couple weeks we’ll have some real money in play,” says the man with the mustache.

“Just think about that Lakes and Flowers race last spring at Hollywood Park,” says another.

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“God that was gorgeous.”

“Like watching a sunset, but faster.”

“You got all the same riders as that race coming to Del Mar, and almost all the ponies, but no Misrule and no Porterhouse, so our field will be smooth as honey.”

“We’ll see where the odds end up. Eight races, I’ll be damned if one of them doesn’t come in double digits over the stilt.”

The old jockey called Rosie, given to water metaphors, says, “Tide’s coming in, bringing glad tidings.”

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“Since when do tides bring that?” says the mustache.

“It’s called a pun, friend,” Rosie says darkly, but all the men laugh because the future is so bright.


At home Muriel is distracted. One night she burns the meat and then the bread and when Lee touches her arm she cries out because she had forgotten him in her speculations. Lee tilts his head but says nothing and together they walk to the diner around the corner. Muriel feels a restful invisibility there, among the other patrons, who eat and talk and worry not at all about horses or progress or the passage of time. Lee orders pie and when the woman brings it he cuts the piece down the middle and slides the smaller half onto his saucer and pushes the rest across the table and Muriel makes a show of eating it and then a show of being full. When he’s finished his half and a third cup of coffee she pushes the plate back, barely touched. He winks at her and calls the waitress for the coffeepot and when she doesn’t acknowledge him he takes the cup and stands at the counter for a long time. The radio behind the counter plays heartache music. He holds his cup out like a pauper and finally the woman fills it. When he sits to eat he says, “Can’t have pie without coffee,” as if he were apologizing for this mere fact, for both the waitress and himself.

After dinner they walk back to their building and as they cross the common foyer they can hear the ringing phone. Lee wings the door open and takes the hallway in three long steps and Muriel listens for his reaction. He waits only a moment before he hangs up and turns to her and threads his fingers behind his head. He says that some husky voice has offered him life everlasting.

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“That’s what she said.” The hands behind his head like a man being marched somewhere terrible. “Over the telephone, no less.”

In a week the season will open, and the undercard and then the Monday stakes are thick with good horses and riders known for putting on a show.

Inside the apartment the smell of burned bread is chalky and unpleasant. Muriel opens the window above the sink.

“How long’s it been?” she asks.

“A month now.”

“Has it ever been this long before?”

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“Not that I recall.”

Through the open window come the sounds of the street below, cars idling at the curb and voices from the sidewalk and between these noises the high call of gulls making a last round before the full darkness. Lee cracks a beer and sits at the table and takes a drink.

“I guess he’s doing fine on his own, wherever he is. Los Angeles or wherever.”

He tips up the can and looks at her over the rim like a man making a point and when she doesn’t answer he rises. He stands with his back to the counter.

“I guess you don’t think so,” he says.

“I don’t know what I think,” she says.

And she doesn’t. She remembers Julius’s voice down the line and what she’d told him about the races. She feels foolish, knowing she was not believed. Julius had not called since then. Lee looks at her as if he hopes she might speak again and explain away his worry or his bitterness but she says nothing more. Instead she goes to him and takes the beer and drinks and hands it back. It pleases him when she does things like this, simple things that suggest their shared lot in life, an easy intimacy. “I told you he was always disappearing, even before our old dad was gone,” he says. He hands the can back to her and she jigs it to judge its fill and drinks all but the last swallow.

“But it turned out all right before,” she says. “But it always happened again.”

He crosses his arms and leans against the counter. Muriel cracks another beer and hands it to Lee and takes one for herself.

“We’ve been here nearly seven months,” Lee says. “I’m not sure what else I can do.”

He closes his eyes and opens them again. Muriel thinks of that Christmas Eve and the men’s plans. How Lee had told her, as they lay together in her mother’s room, that he would always take care of Julius. He’d said this the way any courting man might, as a stay against his own misfortune. She knows that Julius’s absence changes what he’s able to declare about himself.

“It isn’t your fault,” she says to him.

“You tell that to our old dad. Not that you could’ve even when he was alive.”

Muriel nods remotely. She puts her head on his shoulder and sighs pleasantly, though his smell and this contact are at odds with her thoughts.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I caught Julius on Kansas Avenue in a bar the Del Monte guys used for faro?” Lee says.

“I don’t think so.”

The week goes on. The odds begin to calcify, then a horse falls ill and a jockey gets bumped and another disappears.

“Our father was not dead but nearabouts. I guess I was 18 then because it wasn’t long after this that I signed us both up, though Julius was too young. I was out looking for him, down in the factory bars, and in the third or fourth one I tried there he was in a pair of overalls, cleaning the heads. You wouldn’t believe the filth of that place. And it turned out he was working off a debt and he didn’t want to tell me, because he’d stolen from that bar, right from the till, to play into their card game.”

In the hallway the phone rings again but Lee does not move toward it. Soon someone else answers, speaking in a scolding voice.

“I’m not sure I realized it then, but I did soon after—my brother knew things I didn’t, he had passions of his own,” he says. He makes a face. She thinks of the story Julius told of the rabbit man and how he’d held her look for so long across the table. She does not share Lee’s fraternal resentment but she does feel betrayed, and also that she has been the betrayer. She had told Julius her secret and sent him that money and after that he disappeared. She wonders if her confidence was a kind of permission, the way even bluffs could close the distance between people.

Lee finds a cigarette and lights it and blows the smoke hard toward the open window. He says, “You know, after I’d been let off here, in San Diego, I couldn’t find him for two weeks. He’d been back himself already a month. I was sure of his date because I had a friend in the same crew and he told me they’d come back. Two weeks.” Lee holds up two accusing fingers. “Then finally he got my number from somewhere and he called me. He’d spent all the money he had and he asked me to wire more to a motel in Palm Desert. This was before you got here, you was probably on that bus in Arizona or someplace.”

For a moment Muriel looks at him without speaking. He holds out the cigarette for her and she shakes her head and reaches for the pack and lights her own.

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” she says. “I didn’t see why it would matter to you.”

“I thought you all got back at the same time,” she says. She turns away and blows her smoke into the room.

“Well, we didn’t.”

She knows he wants to say more but she doesn’t want him to say it. She doesn’t want to know any more than she already does. She thinks of the time passing and Lee’s worry. She sees him need her more because of all this. She steps forward and kisses him and before he can speak again she presses him toward the bedroom and unbuttons his top button and asks for his haste and his force.


The next day, Muriel stands at the end of the bar with a newspaper crossword folded neatly, jotting notes in the margins. In a week the season will open, and the undercard and then the Monday stakes are thick with good horses and riders known for putting on a show. For now the track is fast and the weather fine and the men speculate openly. Rosie is thinking through the chances of a newcomer named Willie Declan, who by all accounts will mount the favorite.

“You know the line, water everywhere and nothing to drink. That’s how Declan is on that California Star,” Rosie says.

“Hardly matters in that field. In with all those real riders, he’ll be as lost as a girl,” another man says, and drains his glass.

W. D., Muriel writes, lost at sea. But the horsemen are not done with Willie Declan.

“He’s a cement brick,” the mustache says. “Sure you can fit him in your hand, but you can hardly lift him.” He gives the table a look.

“But the hunnerd‑granner,” says Rosie, who always stands up for the jocks.

“In the hundred‑grander he ran on Whittleman’s Bitty King, and that was a gift of a fine match. Bitty could’ve carried a Mark 7 and won on slop.”

“But you can’t say Declan isn’t ready for a big race like this.”

Rosie again, and at this a few of the men make kissing faces at him. “Maybe not. But I can say that he’s been a little light after that flu he had, and with Roustabout kicking up the way he is these last weeks no one will beat him who won’t ride the rail for a halfie.”

“I’ll wait for positions. At six Declan could take two from the rail, especially if Sayonara gets anywhere under five, and Declan could squeeze in that way. That’s how I’d run it, I’d sail the inner harbor,” says Rosie, but his voice is lowering now. He is 50 years old and still fit but he carries some sorrow the other men find disquieting.

“I’m sure you would but that don’t mean you can,” the mustache says, and leans across the table and flicks Rosie on the chin.

The talk goes on this way. At this first stage the odds are fluctuating, and a late El Niño rain would bring a scratch or two, from the finer runners whose trainers won’t race them on mud. Anyone glancing at Muriel’s notes would see a set of names and numbers and track slang coded into her own shorthand: ’Nara if under five see W. D. Whittle on the wire if cuppy. Too Young 4–8. Roust at center post breaks ’Nara.

The week goes on. The odds begin to calcify, then a horse falls ill and a jockey gets bumped and another disappears for two days downtown. The men grumble and reset their charts. The hot clear weather brings a strange nothingness: no moths against the screens, no hum of insects, neap tides quiet all night. Instead there is a permeating blueness like the inside of an eye. The heat brings people out of the houses and shops and back rooms. Along the narrow streets of Muriel’s neighborhood, workmen cart flowers and crates and white heaps of ice. In the tiny front yards women dump wash water into short stemmy stands of geraniums. The children spill from stoops and curbs in overalls and short sleeves, the coastal sun catching them and turning them divine, in that instant freed by the sun from work and peril. Their mothers in dresses the color of unready peaches, sweating over the wash.

Downtown the dice players and cigarette men and men in tight pants, shirts unbuttoned to their navels. Walking from home to work is like passing between two worlds. Muriel finds herself one afternoon standing a long time in front of a shop window, thinking about the races. Behind her a newspaper vendor and two men in denim jackets are reflected in the window. The men are young and she can smell their cigarettes and their cologne. She looks up at the store window and draws herself away from their attention. She remembers her mother in the summer cooking chops and onions in her underwear while a man sat fully dressed at the table, watching her. The way this distinction between them, between nakedness and not, seemed to confirm something her mother believed about love: that vulnerability existed only in asymmetry, that two people could not be vulnerable together. Her mother believed if she gave men this small advantage she would not be harmed.

In the shop window a large television plays a game show. A man in a glass booth on a soundstage gazes outward in concentration while a clock ticks away in the corner. Muriel thinks of Julius and where he might be and why he hasn’t come. The show gives way to an ad for Convair, a woman standing with a suitcase in her hand watching an airplane take off. Though she can’t hear the TV Muriel realizes she is hearing an airplane and she looks up and sees a real airplane in the sky, reflected in the store window. She turns and tracks it as it flies over the city headed east. This confluence seems like luck or validation or something mystic. When she turns back to the television the plane is gone, but the other plane is still reflected in the window, as if it had flown off the screen and into the actual sky. She imagines the airplane flying past the rough buildings of this city, over the vendor and the smoking men and the mothers in their collared dresses. Out past the central mountains, then further east across the desert and into the scrub, rich and minty and full enough to hide a child, then over the irrigation circles and tired motels of her youth and down into the endless prairie and over her mother’s house. The plane disappears in this direction and the sound goes and then it is just the men and the contrail, reflected in the glass.

That night, after Lee has fallen asleep, she peels open the envelope and counts the money there and thinks through the odds. She does a bit of math on the envelope flap. She thinks of Lee’s story, of Julius in overalls working off a debt, and then about his discharge. She worries she’s misunderstood them both. She thinks of Lee standing so long at the counter with his coffee cup, waiting for the woman to fill it. She studies the envelope and her arithmetic and she’s not sure what she might need the money for, only that she does, only that winning would prove something vital that she cannot otherwise prove, and that no one else can see.


From On Swift Horses: A Novel by Shannon Pufahl, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Shannon Pufahl. 

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