by Trey Nosrac
I might have a touch of dyslexia when it comes to remembering names. I think my daughter’s name is Kate, but when she was burrowing in and out of our bedcovers as a baby, I began to call her Worm. The weird thing is, while names like Joe, Jim, and Sarah slip away from me, nicknames stick like horse manure sticks to the bottom of a new Nike trainer.
Sometimes I give people more than one nickname. One Eared Max is also Maximum Effort since the groom is always hustling around the stables. Max does not have one ear ala Vincent van Gogh, but he does his barn work wearing a single earbud that looks like a hearing aid.
To me, the guy with the bushy beard is Grizzly Adams, the girl with the pigtails is Heidi, and the older guy who always jogs horses wearing blue striped overalls is Choo-Choo or Casey Jones. Sometimes I say their nicknames out loud. Other times I file them away.
I wonder if those people at the training center peg me with nicknames such as shades, stretch, or motormouth.
One Eared Max is in his mid-twenties, a quiet guy, stocky, and wears one of those black balaclavas over his face in the winter that makes him look like he’s on the way to a bank heist. He rolls up the sides into a ski cap and looks like a stevedore in warm weather. Until last Friday, we never really got past conversations along the lines of, “How’s it going? Good morning, or, it looks like rain.”
Last week, my filly, Blank Book, was supposed to arrive at the training center around noon from a month at the turnout farm. The staff was running late, so when I arrived, Max was in the process of hooking up the trailer to fetch her. Rambling Acres turnout farm is only a half-hour drive. The owner Jeffery Marley, or, of course, Da Rastaman, is a pal.
“Mind if I tag along?” I asked.
Max shrugged, “Sure, hop in.”
He dropped the truck into drive, and we rolled out of the driveway. The first few seconds were a touch strained, so I opened with, “Where’s your ear thingy?”
He smiled. The kid’s smile flashed a nice set of white choppers, “The earbud? That’s a sometimes thing, a compromise.”
“Yeah, the boss has a rule about no headphones at work. He’s worried about us not hearing him, or not hearing a horse, or the cords getting tangled in something. After a few months, I asked him if ONE small earbud, flesh-colored, low volume, no wires, tucked under my cap would be okay.”
“He said yes?”
“On a trial basis. I use the earbud very judiciously. We worked it out.”
I bobbed my head. “The world could use a little more of that these days.”
“My boss has people skills. Horse trainers, yowzah, need to be in charge but not tyrants. A few owners can be royal pains, and trainers interact with racetrack staff, vets, grooms, and drivers.”
“How did he handle the covid stuff?”
“Followed the rules and asked us to follow them.” The kid chuckled, “My boss hates the masks. For some reason, maybe the shape of his head, his mask slides down near his chin when he talks. He’s an intense guy and doesn’t realize it, so anybody talking to him, including us grooms, spend much of the day tapping out morse code on our chins to remind him to pull his mask up.”
“What about the jabs?”
“He said if we didn’t follow the guidelines, he understood and would not hold it against anyone who wanted to move on.”
“Just one guy, William Devers.”
“High Boots? The older guy who wears those leather boots that almost go up to his knees, like a world War I soldier.”
“Yeah, William is sorta macho and got all huffy. I wasn’t there, but I heard the boss tried to be reasonable, find him some stuff to do off-site, but William puffed out his chest and stomped off into the welcoming arms of his favorite radio talk show.”
Max was proving easy to talk to, but I sensed he regretted his “radio show” wisecrack. I tried to put him at ease, “Dude, Trey ain’t in no tribe. I’m a freelancer with flowers in my hair.” I shifted and asked, “What brought you to the horse racing game?”
I tilted my head.
“COVID struck right after I graduated from college, so going on three years, I’m waiting to launch my career. I worked mucking stalls during college summers, so I had some experience. Working as a groom pays well, and in a covid world, it is relatively safe. So here I am, and when things clear up, working in the barns will still be a great side job because my future career is, well, unstable.”
“ACTOR? For real, you went to college for acting?”
“Technically, my major is referred to as theater arts.”
“That’s crazy. Why didn’t you go for something useful, like poetry or archeology?”
He flashed those white teeth again and pointed at my nose, “Asks the man who invests in yearling trotting horses and probably spent more on the horse we are about to pick up than I spent on my senior year.”
He gave a theatrical sigh and said, “There isn’t a job more devasted by the pandemic. I don’t have a single friend who kept a theatrical job or got a new gig in two years.”
“Have you been on stage?”
“Sure, I love it.”
“Anything I would have seen?”
“Did you buy a ticket for the Wooster High School production of Oklahoma, or the Baldwin Wallace College production of Waiting for Godot, or The Sheffield Community Theater production of The Merchant of Venice?”
I shook my head, “Nah, my last ticket was for one of the Avengers movies. My ears are still ringing.” I turned to him and blurted out, “Act something, right now, in this truck. Prove to me you are not blowing smoke.”
“Like what? Something happy? Something sad? A monologue? A show tune?”
I thought for a second, “Horses, do a horse scene.”
Now it was Max’s turn to think. He took a good 30 seconds and then said, “This is from Henry the Fifth, Act three. A soldier is going into battle the following morning.” Max took a deep breath, exhaled, slipped into character, and growled,
“What a long night this is!
I will not change my horse with any that treads on four pasterns.
Hah, he bounds from the earth as if his entrails were hairs.
When I bestride him, I SOAR, I am a hawk, he trots on air,
the earth sings when he touches it.
The basest horn of his hoof is more musical
than all the pipes of Pan or Hermes.”
I just gawked at Max, a full ten-second dumbfounded gawk. Finally, I mumbled, “Holy shit, and I can’t even remember