Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems from the First Year Without My Father is slated for publication in November. The original title of the book was Dark Horse, but seeing a return of over nineteen-thousand titles with the same or similar names on Amazon, I decided to instead choose the more unique Pirates, a nod to the kindness of my father and to boyhood imagination, which both my parents encouraged.
The almost-title, though, remains significant to me. When I was 12, my father took me to the Arkansas Derby. Watching the pre-race parade, I fell in love with a flashy, hot-pink-saddled thoroughbred named Rockamundo. Though his odds were 99-1, I begged my father to place a bet on him. Humoring me, he agreed, but then he did what good parents do for misguided children from time to time: he vetoed my choice and placed the bet on another horse.
When the race began, Rockamundo’s odds had worsened to 108-1. When the race was over, to my amazement and to my father’s disbelief, Rockamundo galloped through a victory lap. Thinking my father had bet good money on my high-fashioned dark horse, I became rich by 12-year-old standards. I don’t remember how I reacted when my father admitted he hadn’t placed the bet, but that moment cemented a dark-horse centered joke between father and son that would follow us for the better part of the next two decades.
Immediately after my father’s death, dark horses stampeded into my life, beginning when I’d pulled over on the side of the road after receiving the news. In my panic, I demanded a sign from my father. I said aloud, “Dad, if you’re really gone, I’m going to turn on the radio. The song that’s playing is your message to me.”
Cue chorus of a song I’d never heard by the band Nickelback, “Never Gonna Be Alone,” from an album, I’d later learn, called Dark Horse.
Two months after he died, I was on an early-morning flight from Little Rock to New York City. It was a trip of firsts. My first book launch (for My Life as Adam). My first author signing. My first trip to Manhattan. The first time I’d traveled since his death. I was scribbling ideas for this book on a yellow legal pad and at the top of the page, I’d written “Dark Horse Poems.” I became distracted by the sunrise through the clouds and the hold of its golden-orange beauty, feeling both my father’s presence and the magnitude of his loss. Teary-eyed, I returned to my notepad and wrote, “I miss my father more now than ever.”
Raising my eyes and looking a few rows ahead, I saw a man reading a newspaper. I blinked. There was a silhouette of a horse visible from the paper. It was another dark-horse moment, but this one didn’t require any puzzles or leaps of logic. It was in my line of vision.
I wrote, “Yes, dad, I feel you.” But not believing my eyes, I also wrote, “Ask Chris to get paper,” hoping it was the Arkansas Democrat Gazette the passenger was reading and that my husband would save it for me.
When I landed, I called home. Chris searched the day’s paper but didn’t see the photograph of the horse. I asked him to save the paper, and when I returned, I found it in Section B: a photo a young boy riding a carousel. It was titled “Along for the Ride.”
What’s more, the caption revealed the horse to be the only surviving example of an undulating-track carousel made by the Spillman Engineering Company of New York. The photograph was taken at the Little Rock Zoo. Little Rock. New York. A dark horse linking the two. Along for the ride.
Yes, dad, I feel you.
Thanks to the generosity of Benjamin Krain, Frank Fellone, and the folks at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the photograph I saw in the newspaper that morning will appear as the cover of Less Fortunate Pirates, bronzed a bit for warmth. The yellow pad on which I wrote is the backdrop.
Photographic evidence below. Get your copy in November.