In Honor of the Kentucky Derby

In honor of the Kentucky Derby today, I have begun writing a short story about a woman whose lifelong dream was to be a racehorse owner. I’ve decided to give you a sneak peek at the story since the Derby is coming up in just a few hours. This story is a heart warming story of a girl with a dream and the support she needs to accomplish her dream. She receives a gift that changes her life forever. Read and enjoy and don’t forget to watch the Derby tonight!

“The Woman In The Zebra Hat”

As the sun rises on the first day of the first weekend in May, the track is abuzz with anxious anticipation of the race. The flowers are freshly planted and teeming with bees flitting in and out. The sound of hooves beating on the track, like the beating of a heart, fills me with pride. It was here, between the twin spires, that I first fell in love. Many, many years ago, when I was just a young girl, Mama got me dressed in my Sunday best and we all headed out for the Derby. I had never been old enough before to go. Mama told me that I must act like a lady and only speak when spoken to. We arrived early and entered through a side gate well away from most of the crowd. Mama told me to wait with her while Papa got us tickets and I watched him slip some money under the window. A man in a pinstriped suit motioned for him to follow through a gate and soon they were both out of sight. I turned my attention to the blooming crowd. People of all shapes and sizes walked in through the main gate and mingled in the courtyard. Men in fancy suits ran around with money in hand shouting names and placing bets. The women wore magnificent dresses accented by gorgeous satin gloves that came up to their elbows, and diamond jewelry that sparkled in the sunlight. The scene was so full of color and joyous chatter that it took me some time to take it all in. That’s when I saw the hats. There were hats with large rims and small rims, lace and straw, woven in a myriad of colors and designs. One lady wore a red hat that had a white feather coming out of a large lace bow that wrapped around the top. Another had a yellow hat with a wide woven rim and flowers made of fancy fabric and lace on one side. Each hat was different, some simple, some more elaborate, but all were unique. I tugged on Mama’s dress and she looked down at me.

“What is it, sweetheart?” she asked in a kind voice.

When I looked up at her head, squinting in the bright sunlight, I realized that she wasn’t wearing a hat like all of the other women. I looked again at the women on the other side of the gate and back up to Mama. She seemed to know what I was going to ask because before I could say another word, she answered.

“Only the women who wear diamonds and pearls wear the hats,” she explained.

I looked at her again and saw that she wasn’t wearing diamonds or pearls like the women in the hats. I looked at her hand and saw the only piece of jewelry she had—a plan gold wedding band that looked worn and old. Mama had always worn that ring and nothing more, but I always thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

“But…” I started, a bit confused.

“Don’t you worry about them,” she interrupted, cutting me off from saying anything more.

As soon as she had said that, Papa returned to us, excitedly holding three tickets in his hand. He gave one to Mama and kissed her on the cheek, and then leaned down and handed one to me with a smile. I held the ticket, my first ticket, and walked behind Mama and Papa towards the gate. When we got up to the gate, a man with a stern face pointed a bony finger in the direction of another gate on the far side of the track. Papa grunted and grabbed Mama’s hand and led us all to the other gate. There were no colorful hats and diamond necklaces at this gate. Men and women in drab attire walked through the mud into the track in a single file line. I got in line behind Papa and in front of Mama and we shuffled along through a dark corridor to the place where we would be watching the race. My black patent leather shoes got muddy and my white stockings got wet and stained brown. We emerged from the darkness into the bright sunlight and were ushered to stand in a crowd behind a gate. Papa grabbed my hand, leaned down, and whispered in my ear.

“Do you want to get on my shoulders?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he was hoisting me up effortlessly above his head. I took my spot on his shoulders and Mama tucked my dress around my legs. I looked out over the crowd and was sad to see bare heads. In the distance I could see the sparkling diamonds and the flashy hats of the women sitting in the grandstand. I kept my gaze on the grandstand and marveled at the beautiful people.

“You see those people sitting up on that platform in the middle, Sue?” Papa asked me.

“Yes, Papa,” I replied, politely.

“Those are the rich people,” he explained. “Most of them own the race horses and they have lots of money.”

“Is that why they wear the hats?” I asked, remembering what Mama said earlier.

“Yes, baby,” he answered.

I looked at the grandstand again and saw the people on the platform. The men were wearing expensive looking, double breasted suits, with silk handkerchiefs in the pockets, and cigars in their mouths. The women were fanning themselves with silk fans adorned with lace and satin ribbons. I scanned the platform and drank in the beauty of the scene. I looked from person to person, hat to dazzling hat, until my eyes came to rest upon one woman. She wasn’t particularly spectacular on her own. She wore a black Givenchy style dress that came down just past her knees and was quite fitted. Her hands were covered with black lace gloves and she had on a single diamond pendant necklace. What made her so appealing to me was her hat. On her head was a wide rimmed, feathered, jeweled, flowered, and laced zebra print woven hat. It was the most intriguing and intricate hat I had seen yet. I studied it with care, noticing each groove and curve of the rim, and ruffle and flourish of the flowers and lace. It had a feather plume that rose up high above her head and the rim was lined with sparkling jewels and beads that hung down like tiny tassels. It was simply perfect in every way and it was at that moment that I fell in love with the Derby.

I made up my mind that I was going to have a hat like the zebra print hat I saw that first Derby day. Mama never did wear a hat, or diamonds or pearls, and she never seemed unhappy. I asked her each year why she didn’t want to dress like the women in the grandstand, and she would simply sigh and smile down at me.

“I don’t need to dress like them or act like them to be just as happy as them,” she would say.

There wasn’t much more to say after her response so I would continue daydreaming of the lady in the zebra hat. I would imagine that I was sitting on the platform, with my hand holding the arm of a handsome man. We would be rich and richly dressed from head to toe. He would wear a fresh flower boutonnière on his lapel and I would have a matching corsage around my wrist. My fan would be fancy and display intricate patterns in the silk imported from a foreign land. My manicured hands would be delicately covered by white lace gloves with ruffles at the wrists. Around my neck there would hang a necklace made of diamonds as big as my toes, shining brilliantly in the sun. My eyes and face would be shaded from the harsh sunlight by the best feature of all—my zebra hat. My hat would have diamonds and pearls and rubies intertwined in the lace flowers and bows. Its rim would extend past my shoulders and a feather plume would come down like a tail to the middle of my back. A deep red satin ribbon would be tied around the crown of the hat and filter through the floral display to accent the rubies. My hat would be the talk of the track and the envy of the other women. As we would walk past, even the horses would turn their heads in awe and wonder. Men would swoon and women would whisper to one another about my beauty.

“There goes the woman in the zebra hat,” they would say in hushed voices.

I designed my zebra hat to be slightly different each year—sometimes adding precious gemstones and sometimes taking away a bit of lace. I would draw pictures of my hat and keep them so I would be able to tweak the design for next year’s race. I looked forward to the Derby year after year, always looking for the woman in the zebra hat. Each year there was a different woman in a zebra hat, but none as magnificent as mine.

I grew older and so did Mama and Papa. When Papa passed, Mama stopped going to the Derby with me. She said it wasn’t the same without him, and I understood. I started going alone and standing in the same spot Papa stood each year. I missed him terribly but I missed Mama, too. She didn’t get out much anymore and had lost her spark for life. Each year, I would come to her with two tickets to the Derby and each year I would leave with my two tickets alone. I would return to her side and tell her about all of the new fashions and hats that I saw that year. She would smile and listen intently, like she did when I was young. She encouraged me to marry so I wouldn’t have to go alone, but I had no interest in ordinary men. I wanted a man who sat in the grandstand, if I wanted to marry at all…

This is only a peek into the story so if you like it, let me know! I hope to be finished with it very soon and will be putting it in a collection of short stories that I want to get published by the fall of this year. Check back next week for another excerpt from The Last Navigator as we get ready for the big debut by the end of this month.

Until next time…

J. G. McNease

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