All Bucky Whalen ever wanted to be was an honest harness-racing driver. When he moves from his farm in Harrington, Delaware, to stable horses at Speedway Racetrack in New York, he has no idea he's about to be pulled into a seedy and dark world by his uncle, Max.
After Bucky finds himself immersed in the middle of a crime syndicate filled with crooked track managers and dangerous gangsters, he soon realizes that the only way out is for him to start fixing races. As Bucky sinks further into despair, he seeks comfort in his first and only love, Anna Miller. Unfortunately, there's one major complicationshe's married to his best friend, Cole Callaghan. When the two finally rekindle their relationship, they are forced to confront not just their betrayal of Cole but also the tragedy that tore them apart so many years before. Now Bucky must decide whether to move forward into the future with Anna by his side or set her free forever.
The Endless Mile is a rollicking tale of love, loss, and the exciting world of high stakes harness racing.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)|
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The sound of a car outside drew Bucky Whalen away from the kitchen table. He looked out the window and saw his uncle, Max, pull into the farmyard in his burgundy Cutlass Supreme. He watched as Max parked next to his father Carl's truck, which was covered in snow, and then trundle his way up the lane in his unzipped boots, baggy trousers, and oversize coat. In the distance Bucky could see their standardbred racehorse, Roundaboutway, trot over to the fence to spy the new visitor to the farm. He was a dark brown colt, and his coat was speckled with the snow that was falling lightly in the air. Bucky watched as the colt pawed the snow and hung his head over the fence to get Max's attention. But Max ignored Roundaboutway. For a moment Bucky thought that the farm looked pristine under the fresh blanket of snow. There were one hundred hectares of rolling knolls that looked like windswept tundra, and the branches of the evergreens along the distant tree line were covered with snow. Bucky thought that in many ways the farm looked prettier in winter, with the horse's breath huffing in the cold air and the outside world only a muffled interference. When he was young, there had been sleigh rides, snow angels, and Christmas parties, but not anymore. Now it was as if he and his dad were in their own little snow globe, their picturesque land in the middle of nothing and nowhere. At least that's how it felt sometimes for Bucky.
"Just Max," Bucky said to Carl, who was engrossed in the Harrington Journal, and then he sat back down at the table. Moments later Max walked in. Bucky watched as he shook himself off, stomped his boots on the mat, and then put his coat on the rack beside the door. At sixty-five, Max bore the stains of time in his pockmarked cheeks and drinker's nose. He had a bushy mustache and a large forehead, with a receding mop of dark curly hair. He carried a lot of extra weight on his six-foot frame, mostly around his stomach. Bucky wondered if at times he wore shirts that were intentionally too small, like today, with his physique marvelously on display beneath his tight wool sweater.
"Nice to see you as always, kid," Max said to Bucky, who didn't acknowledge him. Bucky's birth name was Johnny, but when he was a boy, he fell off a stepladder while changing a light bulb and smashed his front tooth on one of its wooden steps. The result was a crooked dead front tooth that he'd never gotten fixed and a nickname that had all but extinguished his given name. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he had been called Johnny — perhaps by his mother, Delores, on the day she died, killed by an errant golf ball that had flown over the pine trees lining the fairway and over the safety net, splattering into her windshield like a bird flying into a glass pane. The shock had caused her to swerve into oncoming traffic. She died instantly in a head-on collision. It was a violent and unnecessary death, one that Carl and Bucky would never fully accept.
Bucky had thick brown hair that covered his ears and eyebrows, and at five foot six and three-quarters — or five eight, as he told most people — he had what could almost be deemed a slightly stunted stature. When Bucky was a teenager, Carl often told him that his growth spurt would be coming any day. Bucky waited and waited, but now, just past thirty, it was clear to him that it would never come.
"Brother," Max said to Carl, who didn't bother looking up from the paper.
"Glad you're okay, Max. Ever think of calling?"
"My cell phone died, there was a storm, I was out of town, and there was this girl ..."
"Don't worry about it." Carl waved him off. Bucky could tell that his father didn't want to hear it. The mud was just too deep with his adopted brother. It had been three weeks since they'd heard from him, and for all they'd known he was dead or on his way to being dead, most likely facedown in a ditch somewhere.
Without hesitation, Max rifled through the empty cupboards like a rabid animal looking for food. Carl continued to read the paper. After a minute, he finally looked up from the paper and announced that eggs were on sale at Acme Market.
No one said anything.
"Also a great deal on milk," he added, but this still wasn't enough to inspire anyone's excitement.
Bucky watched as Max opened the refrigerator and sighed at the barren shelves. Carl, with his head back in the paper, mumbled, "These savings are tremendous," and licked his finger and turned to the next page.
Max poured himself some coffee and took his place at the table. Even from a distance, Bucky could smell Max. It was that same briny stink he remembered that emanated through Max's pores and trailed him around wherever he went. Max took a deep wheezy breath that turned into a coughing fit. Everything always seemed to be a struggle for Max, even breathing. His presence annoyed Bucky to no end during these quieter moments. Max hadn't shaved for days, and his curly hair was awry. His eyes, like usual, were tired, groggy deceitful-looking things. Bucky was sure that if he were to ask where Max had been, he would get a lie in return.
Max lit a cigarette and slurped his coffee. Bucky could tell he wanted to talk and was doing his best to ignore him.
Noon was the brightest time of day in the farmhouse. The sun shone through the kitchen window over the sink and spread across the table. On the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room was a green telephone with a long cord that nearly touched the floor. There was an outdated horse calendar from 1996, which was three years ago, and a blank to-do list. Outside in the hallway there was a credenza where they kept a couple of lanterns, keys, and loose change. There was a mirror with a wooden frame, and beside that was a small canvas painting of the homestead. Other than that, there was barely any aesthetic. When Delores died, so did any semblance of her woman's touch that had once added color to the farmhouse. For a while, Carl had tried to maintain the place by watering the plants, dusting, and the like, but eventually he gave up. Now, the only thing that might pass as decorative were the empty whisky bottles that lined the top of the green kitchen cabinets.
In the sunlight, each exhalation of Max's cigarette smoke took its own shape, lingering like a summer-morning fog over the farm. He blew rings and thin streams of smoke that eventually broke into little clouds. He watched them rise to the top of the room, squinting his tired eyes against the sunlight.
There was usually an uncomfortable reassimilation period when Max returned after an extended absence. Bucky felt that that's what was happening now. Carl never said much, but Bucky wondered to himself who this guy was who could just show up, eat, drink, sleep, and never have to explain himself. Just when Bucky thought that maybe Max's presence wouldn't be so bad and that it would shake up the monotony on the farm, he'd quickly change his mind after Max showed up and acted like he hadn't been gone a day. Max was probably back this time, Bucky mused, because he was broke and needed a lifeline.
"Bernie put you and Bucky in the same race next week at Speedway," Carl said, folding the paper, and putting it neatly by his side. "You going to be ready? We need you to start winning some races so we can start paying the bills around here. Things are bad."
Max took a moment to relish the question. Bucky knew Max loved the fact that he was actually needed. The Callaghans' farm in Harrington, Delaware, was a small one. To have any chance of digging themselves out ofthe perpetual financial pit, they needed both Bucky and Max to be harness racing, while Carl handled the entries and the business end. When Max didn't show up for weeks at a time, the whole enterprise was threatened, as they lived and died by the purse money. Without knowing if Max would be around — or if he was even alive — made it nearly impossible for Carl to plan.
"Speedway?" Max said. "Next week? Yeah, I'll be ready. How's Voltrain doing, anyway? You settle him down yet? I got no taste for eating shit these days."
"He's really come along," Bucky said. "Clarence thinks he should be able to pay his way this year, and then some."
"Well, that's good news. Carl, you hear that? We're gonna have a winner this season, and thank God for that," Max said. He looked to Bucky. "You get him ready tomorrow. I'll ride him out first thing."
Max's optimism heartened Bucky and Carl, but only a little. They had heard this all before, only to be disappointed. They recognized the familiar tones and promises, and had come to see them as fleeting glints of hope, like a bluebird or sparrow that briefly lands on your windowsill, just to fly away moments later.
* * *
The night before their race at Speedway in New York, Carl, Bucky, and the old black horse trainer, Clarence Holladay, met at a restaurant called Duffy's Buffet. It was a popular spot near the stadium. Many drivers had their regular booths or tables where they would sit with their families and friends. There was a buffet in the middle, so if the juicy rib eye didn't satisfy you, there were chicken wings, onion rings, and a whole smorgasbord of items. The oval booths were spread along the outside of the room, and the seats were covered with orange vinyl upholstery.
When they walked in, they saw that Max was already in a booth. He was saying goodbye to a friend of his whom Bucky recognized from the track. The man gave Carl and Clarence a friendly greeting and threw Bucky a wink as he parted.
"What was that all about, Max?" Clarence asked.
"Oh, nothing," Max said. He got up and started showing Bucky an unusual amount of affection, leading him into the booth to take the seat of his choice.
"How are ya, boy?" Max asked, trying sit closer to him. Bucky shifted away.
"Fine, Max. Doing fine."
"Well, that's good. Just dandy."
Carl got in on the other side, and Clarence sat on the end, the farthest possible distance away from Max.
"Word on the street's that Peter Dexter's the one to beat tomorrow," Carl said to Bucky. "Driving a horse from Hanover, and he's on a hot streak. I don't know, Son. Roundaboutway looks good, but not like Dexter's colt. He's been winning on all the cold-weather tracks this season."
"Don't worry about that, Dad," Bucky said. "His horse races inside, and he spooks if anyone is trailing. I'm gonna follow, and I'm gonna follow, and then I'm going to give him all the line he needs right at the end." Bucky demonstrated with his hands just how it would happen.
"Sure you are, kid, sure you are," Max said, still apparently trying to prove to Bucky that he was with him 100 percent.
"Let's go to the buffet, Bucky," Max said. Then he looked at the others. "We're going to the buffet," he reiterated.
Bucky and Max stood beside each other at the buffet. While scooping mashed potatoes onto his plate, Max leaned over and whispered into Bucky's ear.
"I need you to blow it in the third tomorrow. I made an arrangement."
"Is that a joke, Max?"
"Does it sound like a joke, kid? I racked up some serious debt playing cards, and if I don't pay up, these guys are going to fuck me up good."
"Yeah, well, one thing you can do is actually win for a change. That's one way to make some money — money that can go back into the farm. But you don't care much about that, do you, Max?"
"So I guess I'll take that as a no?" Max said, moving on to the lasagna.
"Take it however you want, Max. You're lucky you still have a stake in the farm. If not for that, we'd have cut you loose a long time ago."
Bucky then turned around and returned quickly to the table, intending to tell Carl and Clarence what had just happened. Carl only nodded. By his dad's rote response, Bucky knew that he wouldn't even bring up the issue with Max. Carl had been bailing Max out his whole life. Bucky knew his father felt obligated to care for Max. It'd been like that since the sunny summer day in 1941 when a black Ford sedan pulled up to the farm and the pretty social worker dragged Max out of the car to introduce him to the family. He was seven years old at the time; Carl had just turned fifteen.
"This is your new brother," Carl's mother said to him as he looked at the dirty scamp before him. "You're to take care of him and treat him like he's your own blood. One day, you'll both own this farm and will have to look out for each other."
Now, many years later, with his own ownership in the farm to protect, as well as his reputation, Bucky needed to keep Max at a safe distance. If it were ever proven that he helped him in any way on the track it could tarnish his reputation and maybe even get him banned from the sport.
Unlike with Carl, Bucky could tell that Clarence resented Max's untoward request. As they sat in the booth and began eating, Clarence's lip quivered ever so slightly and his nostrils flared. He sat with fists clenched on the table. It took a lot to excite Clarence, but when you did, it was best not to stick around to see what would happen next. A former boxer, Clarence had a face that had as many dents as a rusted bumper on an old car. Most noticeable was the straight line across the bridge of his nose, caused in a twelve-round decision that had almost killed him. Beneath his left eye was a black patch of skin, and both of his ears were cauliflowered. His hair was short, thick, and sprinkled with gray. If you couldn't tell he was an ex-boxer by his face, you would almost certainly be able to tell by his hands. They were as large and as coarse as a baseball glove. Given their size and strength, it was a wonder he was so gentle with the horses.
When Max came back to the table, Clarence stood up. He puffed his chest out at Max, but before he could do anything, Carl pulled him down by his brown leather jacket.
"Not worth it, Clarence."
"The hell it's not," he said and yanked his coat back from Carl.
"If he's injured, he can't drive anyway," Bucky said, making it clear that was his only objection.
"What's everybody all in a huff about over here?" Max said, putting his tray down on the table.
"I guess you're even dumber than you look," Clarence said, leaning across the table. "Do you know what we've got riding on this? Do you? Why don't you tell him, Carl?"
"Those horses cost a lot of money," Carl said matter-of-factly. "A lot of money," he repeated, just as calm. By looking at his dad's eyes, Bucky could tell that something had been sacrificed. There was always something sacrificed when you got a good horse. Bucky was aware of Carl's penchant for taking risks and had come to accept it as part of the business. It wasn't like Carl was a degenerate gambler like Max was. Nor was he dishonest. He was a gentleman gambler and wasn't too different from anyone else in the industry who won or lost thousands of dollars at a time.
"Let's just say if these horses don't earn, it's going to be a long, cold winter," Carl said calmly. The other men waited for him to explain what he meant, but he didn't. Was the farm on the brink of collapse? Had Carl thrown the last nugget from the family coffers into Roundaboutway and Voltrain? He had done it and lost before. Bucky recalled the sting of their first bankruptcy when he was a kid; bankers and lawyers had come by, then the auction people and moving people. They even took away his favorite horse. Everyone wanted a piece, but it never happened thanks to a filly named Angela. Carl had picked her up with their last three grand at a sale, and she won her first race at Kent Raceway. The next day, the trucks rolled back with the furniture, and even the horse was brought back. It was a small victory, but it left an impression on Bucky, showing him how easily you could lose it all.
* * *
The next night at Speedway in New York was cold and icy. The racetrack was lit up like a birthday cake, with the lights surrounding the oval planted into the snow like candles in a layer of icing. The city bus pulled up on the road outside the stadium. Gamblers and desperados — who, in some cases, had traveled hours just to try their luck with the ponies — shuffled off expressionless into the harsh glitter of the night.
Post time was 7:10, so Bucky, Carl, and Clarence lingered around the paddock area, going through all their prerace preparations. While they checked the equipment and got their pacer, Roundaboutway, ready to go, they also chatted with some of the other grooms, trainers, and drivers who bustled around in the ammonia-smelling stables. There were some familiar faces from Harrington and Dover, but for the most part, racing at Speedway was a whole other experience. It lacked the hominess of the Delaware tracks. And just as Max was protective of ship-in drivers to Delaware, the New York drivers didn't like seeing outsiders on their home turf.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Endless Mile"
Copyright © 2018 Andrew C. F. Horlick.
Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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