“I’m just not fancy like that. Do you wish I was fancy like that?”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Like those women,” Sadie says, nodding toward the bank of televisions on the opposite wall, “with their Derby hats, and party dresses, all frilly and foo-foo, high heels. I’m a jeans and sneakers gal, always have been.” She turns to me, and I can sense something inside of her sinking. “Do you ever regret that? Are you still glad you picked me?”
“I, uh …” I stutter, not because I don’t know the answer — although from my perspective, Sadie picked me — but because I wasn’t expecting the question, not sure where it even came from, other than from somewhere within Sadie’s third Bloody Mary, or is this her fourth? We both have no doubt lost count, sitting at a high-top table in the far corner of the sad bar down the street, idly watching coverage of the Kentucky Derby that has been running non-stop since the early morning news. It’s mid-afternoon, and this place seems sadder than normal, and a tad desperate, with folks hunched over crumpled ticket stubs or glued to their phones, losing slightly more of their souls with each preliminary race when none of their horses finish in the money. “Of course I’m still glad,” I say, trying not to sound defensive but I’m afraid it comes out that way even though my intentions are true — and I’ve had too much to drink too. “Why do you even say that? You know I love you, nothing’s changed.”
“I’ve changed,” Sadie’s quick to note, into her half-empty glass, poking, with a pink plastic swizzle stick, at the onion and olive and hot pepper that have sunk to the bottom, before returning to me, her apologetic blue eyes. “I realize I’m not the same as when we first met.”
“Neither am I,” I’m swift to say back, while pictures of that chaotic first day of college, some thirty-five years prior, awaiting our dorm assignments amid a crush of eighteen-year-olds with boundless energy and boxes and boxes — so many boxes — of their belongings, flickering through my mind like frames of Super 8 film. “We’ve all changed. Have you seen Hank?”
“Yeah but …” Sadie starts, then stops. “Well, anyway,” she says with a subtle exhale, her way to end one topic and move on to the next, or to nothing. I choose the former.
“When I was young,” I tell her, and I can’t help but feel old when I begin a sentence like that but even so, “just a kid, my gramps would sneak me into the Derby through the backside gate, right along with the trainers and jockeys and owners. Just the two of us, a cooler of chicken salad sandwiches my grandma had made, and my gramps’ fifth of bourbon — and no one said a word.”
“Now, they’d shoot you on sight,” Sadie says, downing the rest of her thick red concoction with a hard swallow before gesturing to the barmaid for a refill. “It’s become so regulated. So strict, so structured, so … so corporate. You can’t do anything at the Derby for free, or on the cheap.” She runs a hand through her unruly auburn locks that she just had colored though I’m not supposed to know that, or acknowledge it, even while I’m perfectly content with my gray hair, and Sadie’s as well. “Everyone’s just out to make a buck. Can’t fault them for that, I guess.”
“Yep,” I repeat, “can’t fault them for that.”
We grow silent, and pick at what’s left of our platter of chicken fingers, the wax paper in the straw basket unable to absorb the grease so it remains there in a shiny slick puddle, and continue keeping tabs on what’s happening out at the track that’s not but five miles away but we stopped going a while ago, what with everything that went on with us. A horse race for millionaires seemed trivial in comparison. Now, at least, we have some passing interest in it again, and a good thing because every TV is tuned to the pomp and circumstance leading up to the twelfth race, the only race that the world seems to care about today, a two-minute charge that captivates this town for two weeks. The barmaid brings Sadie another drink, with a fresh skewer of pickled vegetables, and me another beer even though I wasn’t quite done with mine but I suppose she wants to save time. Sadie and I don’t mind to sit here and imbibe, and maybe even to think, about nothing in particular as far as I’m concerned, when Sadie suddenly springs to life.
“I’m gonna buy myself a Derby hat to wear next year,” Sadie says, adamant the way she gets when she’s on to something and no one can talk her out of it, not that I would dare. “On the cheap, mind you. I don’t need to go spending hundreds of dollars on something I’ll only wear once.” She takes a satisfied swallow of her spiked tomato juice, and smiles to herself, pleased, that faraway gaze that tells me she’s gone, that in her head she’s somewhere else, perhaps in a premium box along the rail, the kind that go for ten grand easy, or at one of those extravagant soirees they’ll show on the late news, B-list celebrities and former professional athletes shouting into the reporter’s microphone over the din of a raucous band. “Yep, that’s what I’m gonna do. It’ll be nice to have a Derby hat, even if all we’re doing is watching from a bar.”
“Who knows,” I say, riding Sadie’s wave, “maybe we’ll go out there next year — could be my gramps still has some connections at the backside. And if not, well … I’m sure we can probably spring for it.”
This short story is based on characters from the collection All The Things She Says, available on Amazon, for Kindle Unlimited, or order from your favorite independent bookstore [ISBN: 978–1–7375801–5–7]