The Key to the Quarter Pole by Robin Traywick Williams of Crozier is the winner of the sixth Best Unpublished Novel contest sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond magazine. The manuscript was chosen from 75 entries read by a panel of volunteer judges led by former JRW chairwoman and board member Maya Smart.
“The Key to the Quarter Pole is an excellent read,” Smart says. “The author showed strong command of character and setting throughout, mapping the terrain of Central Virginia and the motivations of the characters with equal aplomb.”
As our winner, Williams will receive a $500 prize. The two finalists are Gail Giewont of Chesterfield (Unguided) and Vivian Lawry of Richmond (Nettie’s Books). Below, find an excerpt of Williams' novel.
Illustration by Christian Kyle Harrell
As Louisa peered between the shoulders of men crowding the paddock rail at Calder Racecourse, she felt a little itch under her third rib. It always started this way, she reflected, that itch to find the next thing, whether she was looking for it or not. Stuffing a long strand of gray hair into her loose bun, she smiled and looked around the paddock, hoping to see the next thing, perhaps wearing yellow ribbons or leaning on a leather shooting stick. She craned her neck, and a drop of perspiration slid down her spine. She might dress it up in her imagination, but the next thing was usually a horse. Or a man holding a horse.
She had a good view of the horses parading around the oval in anticipation of the ninth race — not that any of them merited much inspection. They looked like the junk you find in the last race of the day at most tracks: a few young horses destined to retire as maidens, a few old campaigners patched together with molasses and steroids.
I could train these horses, she thought. I could fix them up and win with them.
Louisa Ferncliff was a fixer. She fixed horses so they could run and win, horses with bad ankles or scrambled eggs between their ears. She fixed people, too, or tried to, juicing up jellyfish to take hold of their lives and get out of that bad place. She even worked sporadically at fixing her own life, which, given the impulsiveness with which she lived it, called for a lot of fixing.
Whenever the itch came, smelling all mauve and magical, she was powerless, although now in her later years, she tried to fight back a little bit. Once upon a time, she had closed her eyes and let it pull her into the arms of attractive men without regard for their extreme unsuitability. Then later of course she would have to fix that.
Sometimes it pulled her to the stables, where she usually found heartbreak in an irresistible shade of bay. The only fix for that was to go away, far far away, some place where they played football instead of racing horses.
Jockey-sized, Louisa held her place at the paddock rail by laying her gnarled hands on the metal rim and leaning in. As she looked at the horses, she heard a replay of the phone call from Mike Lucci. “Come to Virginia for the summer,” Mike had wheedled. “All that beautiful turf racing at Colonial Downs. Just one more season. I need your help with Alice.”
Alice’s Restaurant, she thought fondly. A chunky bay gelding with a big knee and an even bigger heart. It was probably a measure of Louisa’s attachment to the horse that she gave Mike so much pushback: She had quit the track and she wasn’t going back, no matter how much Mike Lucci begged. That part of her life was over. No more fixing horses with problems. No more helping racetrackers with problems. No more sending out horses that didn’t come back. If Alice was going to be one of those, she didn’t want to be there. She’d stay here in Florida with her sister and go watch the Miami Dolphins.
Defiantly, she slapped her folded program on the paddock railing. The landscaped oval was nearly empty. The derby hats and fuchsia ties had left the paddock with the big horses a week ago. Louisa looked at the connections for these pitiful leftover horses — the jockey smacking his boot with his whip and the trainer giving too many instructions. Owners didn’t bother to show up for horses running in the ninth race.
Surely the next thing would be more enticing than going back to the track, she thought. She was ready for a new adventure. Like the time she enlisted in the Navy. That was the sort of extreme change of fortune that Louisa expected when the itch pulled her out of her rut.
Louisa opened her program and compared the hieroglyphics below each number to the horses before her. The Four, she saw, was a hard-knocking racehorse, a horse who showed up for every race and brought home a piece of the check month in, month out, puffy ankles and sore hocks notwithstanding. Her kind of horse.
The trainer of the Four horse looked across the paddock just as Louisa ran her eye over him. Their eyes met and held as he gave a slow smile of recognition. Then, almost imperceptibly, he cut his eyes to the horse and back to her again. Louisa laughed, a sound like tinkling bells.
The trainer, she knew, wasn’t above disguising a horse’s ability in order to load up on him at the mutuel window and make a big score. There were worse things a trainer could do, she thought.
The trainer gave the blue-and-green jockey a leg up and the Four horse fell in line with the others, striding off to the track as the jock knotted his reins and tested his irons. As the horse reached the track, Louisa saw him jerk the reins and try to bolt. The rider on the lead pony beside him laughed and kept a tight hold. “Uno momento, old man.”
Louisa smiled to herself. How many times had Alice’s Restaurant tried to bolt on the way to the starting gate? Dead quiet, those horses with fifty-sixty starts, until they went to the paddock. They knew where they were going. She pictured Alice trying to jerk the lead shank out of the groom’s hand, ready to get past this paddock foolishness and get to the starting gate, put his hooves on the loamy racetrack. He did it because he loved his job. No whip was needed for horses like that, who would run on three legs if you’d let them and retire to the farm with sore ankles and a broken heart.
To Louisa’s annoyance, Mike Lucci’s voice on the phone kept coming back to her. “We had to put Alice back in training,” Mike had told her. “He was nothing but skin and bones. Being away from the track made him miserable. He wouldn’t eat. Walked the fence.” Louisa could easily imagine the horse pacing back and forth, galloping along the fence when the horse van went out the driveway. “I’ve got a new boy here and he’s been jogging Alice for a month. The horse has put on two hundred pounds. You wouldn’t believe how good he looks.” Yes she would, thought Louisa. Louisa knew what was coming next. “We’re going to take him to Colonial for the summer meet but I need you to come take care of him.”
She shook her head at the memory of the conversation. Long hanks of gray hair brushed across her face and she angrily swept them up and pinned them together in a knot. Mike had not responded to her protest that last year’s retirement was permanent, unlike the previous ones. He just kept talking about Alice’s Restaurant until finally she said, “How’s his knee?” Louisa could have kicked herself. She could almost hear Mike smile over the phone.
“Good. It’s cold. We’re swimming him in the pool at the training center three times a week. Cool as an iceberg.”
“Yeah, I bet,” said Louisa. “You never could feel heat in a horse’s leg anyway.”
“I know, Louisa, you’re the best. You have to come see for yourself. Tell me if we’re doing the right thing.”
“Well I’ll come take a look because I don’t want you breaking down my favorite horse, like you did the last one.”
“Now Louisa, that’s not fair. That mare passed the vet. We had no way of knowing.”
Louisa didn’t answer. Always lurking in the corner of her eye was the sickening image of that rangy black mare stumbling in the stretch and hobbling to the wire on three legs, reins loose, saddle empty, hoof dangling. Mike was right. She couldn’t blame him for that. It was the hazards of racing.
It was why she needed to stay in Florida, the itch be damned.
“You know I do everything I can for these horses,” Mike went on. “That’s why I want you to come look at Alice. I’m trying to do right by the horse. He’s miserable at the farm. But I don’t want to run him if his knee isn’t going to hold up. You come look at him. You’re the best. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“I don’t know how you ever got to be such a good trainer,” she said, adding softly, “I might have to come see for myself.”
“Can you be there by Friday? We’re shipping in tomorrow.”
On impulse, she hurried to the line of mutuel tellers. Louisa seldom bet. Fooling with horses made for a hard enough life without pushing all your money through the mutuel windows. As she waited in line, she made a deal with herself. If the Four horse won, she’d go to Colonial Downs and take care of Alice. If the horse lost…
Hell, if the horse lost, she’d go to Colonial anyway.
Prize-winning authors and highly regarded editors and agents from around the country share their wisdom about writing and publishing at the 13th annual James River Writers Conference, Oct. 16-18 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center (403 N. Third St.). Tickets range from $75 to $305; visit jamesriverwriters.org for details and to register.